With the exception of concern for the environment and obvious intrusive acts such as disturbing nesting birds (most particularly song and hummingbirds), we were completely unaware that a host of other critical issues were burning holes in the bird, wildlife and natural landscape photography community. Even from our limited time in the field and at the computer, it was apparent that the advent of digital was blowing the genre wide open and the vast majority of new participants were pushing the envelope at every opportunity. This encompassed every form of manipulation from capturing images (for example, stressing or baiting subjects) to post-processing files (for example, severe cloning or combining multiple images). Most disturbing were the number of times we encountered large groups where arguments inevitably ruined what could have been a wonderful photographic opportunity. Although we certainly felt uncomfortable at times with the entire process, in our naivety we thought this was all part of simply getting and displaying "the shot". Time has broadened our horizon somewhat and created an awareness of the moral dilemmas facing each of us as we struggle with the do's and don'ts of capturing and displaying images.
So what are the issues? Broadly speaking, they can be summarized as follows: stalking subjects (habitat destruction and subject harassment); attracting subjects (feeding, baiting and the use of sounds); disturbing young; using flash; disclosing locations; and, manipulating image files (cloning, cropping, combining and coloring).
As you can see, the concerns first and foremost relate to issues surrounding treatment of the subject and the immediate environment as part of the image capture process. Downstream the issue is one of image presentation, how realistically it is portrayed and the impact that contrived or obvious "set pieces" have on contests or simply manipulating the viewer into believing that this was nature in its pure and wildest form. No matter how you carve the issues up, the bottom line translates to respect for the subject and honesty in disclosure. Some are easy to dispel and have, for the most part, obvious and satisfactory solutions. Others are harder to deal with. As ethics are a matter of personal conscience, we certainly don't intend on telling you what to do. Nor do groups such as the North American Nature Photographers Association. They suggest guidelines but stop short of enforcement, leaving it up to individual members to make informed choices regarding ethical behavior (refer to their position statements on ethical field practises, access to public lands, truth in captioning and the environment).
No matter how you decide to tackle each issue, it's axiomatic that your decision will not be universally accepted by everyone. In our opinion, field decisions must come first as outdoor enthusiasts, environmentalists, birders and nature photographers share this space. Moreover, all have agendas, whether narrow or extreme. Solutions to some are inevitably unacceptable to others. Arguments will continue but the bottom line is really one of access as intrusive and harmful tactics will simply result in limits being imposed, controls enacted or outright closure. The process is already well underway in many of the major parks that we've visited. This is, if you'll pardon the pun, not a pretty picture!
Our personal attempt to solve some of the key ethical concerns is based on the following rationalizations: first, all nature photography is intrusive; and second, photography is a creative medium. Before we give you our position on the above, we must say from the outset that we don't have all the answers and certainly aren't lily white. We still struggle with field issues such as baiting or computer alterations such as combining multiple image files. Nonetheless, what we do produce can't escape any of the above issues.
Intrusiveness, to us, is a matter of degree. It can be mitigated somewhat with the use of a blind or long lens but essentially remains an encroachment into the space of wherever the subject happens to be. This can be as simple as trampling on surrounding habitat while taking a landscape image to completely stressing a subject through some form of intentional spooking such as throwing a rock to provoke an action. Our approach here is to simply use common sense. We try to follow posted rules, respect private property, watch where we step, generally don't remove habitat and usually stay well back until the subject develops some level of comfort. If a subject is stressed, it will usually show some sign such as pining its ears back, licking its lips, squawking or simply leaving the area. Although understanding behavior takes time and experience, we do try and research each target species before entering the field. As a general rule we take our time and adopt the attitude that if we miss the subject today there will be another tomorrow. There is simply no point in chasing what can quite easily elude your advances.
And now for one of the few rants you'll find on this blog. We are of the view that subject stress, with specific reference to birds, is a relative term. At times we have had a photography session interrupted by "birders" who voice concern that we are creating a stressful situation for the subject at hand. This inevitably occurs while using a long lens and an extender at fifty plus feet and demonstrates a complete lack of appreciation on their part of the magnifying power being employed and the distance involved. Moreover, it is well known that some subjects are simply accustomed to human traffic and pay absolutely no attention to your presence. On the other hand, there is a fair amount of "behind-the-scenes" activity by the birding community that makes photography look like a relatively stressless activity. Consider, for example, the banding nets employed to snare migrant birds, an impaling process that requires capture, disentanglement, banding, recording and release, often to be repeated on the same bird another year for followup purposes. We feel it's inhumane and certainly a stress that birds can do without, especially given the length of time birds may remain impaled awaiting their turn in the process. How can this be considered less stressful than a photographer trying to capture an image at fifty feet? To us, birders who continually interrupt photography sessions complaining about subject stress is simply a case of the pot calling the kettle black! Either that or pure ignorance of just how birds are being treated elsewhere. Just so there is no misunderstanding, we have a similar view regarding the use of radio collars for tracking animals. We have seen countless examples of creatures in the wild whose necks have been rubbed raw through the use of these devices. A little research reveals we are not alone in our concerns regarding the impact of banding on birds. Marlene A. Condon published "Is It Time To Halt Bird Banding?" in the Fall 2011 issue of The Wildlife Professional. Of similar interest is an assessment of the risks involved in the capture process authored by E.N. Spotwood, et al, entitled "How Safe is Mist Netting? Evaluating the Risk of Injury and Mortality to Birds" published in a 2012 issue of Methods of Ecology and Evolution by the British Ecological Society. Although most literature argues the risks are small compared to the benefits provided by the scientific data, it is surprising to us that this conclusion is supported by statistics showing the number of recovered bands is negligible in comparison to those actually placed. Although the statistical significance of the results remain a mystery, we are hardpressed to understand how birds find the entire process to be a stressless event compared to having their picture taken. The real issue here is the number of thoughtless photographers that simply can't seem to employ realistic field sense and constantly try for closer images until the subject is forced to move on. Although this certainly goes a long way to giving all photographers a bad name and is an annoying brush to be tarred with, we say shame on the birding fraternity for citing "stress" in their dauntless and ridiculous harassment of photographers in the field!
Moving on, attracting a subject is another matter. We love controlled perch photography of birds from a blind. It's great fun! Our preferred attraction is water but we do use seed or suet that is conducive to the type of bird we are trying to photograph. Again, common sense prevails. We avoid processed substances such as peanut butter or bread and certainly don't feed animals that imprint such as bears or use sounds that interfere with nesting or mating routines. However, baiting really has us stumped. Our experience to date is confined to raptors where live mice (for Snowy Owl and Northern Hawk Owl) or animal organs (for Harris's Hawk and Crested Caracara) have been used to attract what are essentially very hard subjects to photograph in any other manner. Although observing the majesty of these birds in the chosen setting always leaves us in awe, there is a definite unnatural feeling to the whole process. We are told this type of feeding won't result in imprinting and that the subjects will continue to forage naturally as they are basically opportunists. In both instances, our approach is to disclose the methodology in any posted or printed material (refer to our Disclaimer synopsis for details on how we qualify our images for public viewing). If you want to try controlled or baited photography, we recommend a guided format as there are many well run and safe venues including targeted workshops or photo tours.
Disturbing young can be hazardous to both the subject and yourself. We're not going to waste any space on the ethics of photographing nesting birds and the issue of abandonment. It's unacceptable, move on! Having said this, to say that no nesting bird should be photographed is a bit extreme in our view. Quite often species such as Osprey or Great Blue Heron will locate in public places where the birds become habituated to human traffic. Another example is Burrowing Owls which always seem quite at home being photographed from the cab of a truck. We also photographed a pair of nesting Loons that were so accustomed to small boat and kayak traffic that they often came within a few feet of us with their newly hatched offspring. This was, however, definitely not the norm and one we were privileged to experience. The other side of the coin is approaching young animals. Females are protective and there is nothing more aggressive than a Moose, Elk, Bison or Black Bear with young. Although they make adorable images, beware as you may find that there is little room to retreat!
Flash is another one that stumps us. Many photographers use flash to expose detail hidden in the shadows created by side light, for night photography using an electronic trip mechanism or for stopping motion such as a hummingbirds wings using multiple high speed flash where the objective is to kill all ambient light. It's probably the most diabolical invention ever made, akin to getting that blast of air during the initial part of an eye exam. We use it as a last resort, which isn't often. If the subject is relatively still in a dark location (an owl is a good example), using mirror lock with a longer exposure is a much better solution. Leave it up to Shadows/Highlights in Photoshop to reveal any hidden detail. To us, its part of the stress category and should be minimized. However, we still use it for specific situations such as hummingbird photography in our yard. Your call!
Many photographers do not disclose locations, either for selfish reasons or for some concern related to the well being of the subject matter. Fair enough. We've chosen to reveal our locations as they are all within the public domain, well known and for the most part easily accessible. Our rationale is that our chosen medium, the World Wide Web, is all about sharing. Our objective is to help beginners avoid the mistakes we suffered through and share our output with either interested viewers or those who can put it to some good use.
Finally, how do we handle image alteration? Our rationale is that photography is a creative medium and has been ever since the process was invented. Although they had nowhere near the tools available today, notable photography pioneers such as Carlton Watkins and Ansel Adams both produced some very well known altered images. This was presumably done in the name of translating a particular mood. And isn't that really the answer? It's your image, do whatever you like with it to impart your central message. The crux is really one of disclosure. Our approach is to use a simple disclaimer such as perch setup using a water attraction or image cropped and enhanced for presentation without going into every detail of the image capture and post-processing process. Again, your call! Honesty in publication really won't get resolved until the major bird, wildlife and natural landscape magazines and contests insist on some form of disclosure or create new categories for contrived images.
Although this ethics synopsis is far from comprehensive, we hope it at least gives you a perspective on some of the major issues and prepares you for the field encounters and publishing obstacles that you will inevitably encounter.