Photographing Wild Animals Without Harming Them

Learn the secrets of safely photographing wild animals from expert wildlife photographers, and keep yourself and your subjects safe and happy.
Photographing Wild Animals Without Harming Them — Respecting Wild Habitats

Image by ​Beth Wold

Offset Artist ​Beth Wold​ has spent decades working with wildlife, including the seventeen years she spent in Africa. Ask her about the defining characteristic of great wildlife photographers, and she’ll tell you one thing: they are all concerned about the wellbeing and conservation of animals. “If you’re passionate about wildlife photography, you care about whether your actions will negatively affect the animal in some way,” she tells us.

Every time an anecdote about a photographer endangering an animal ​goes viral​, we’re reminded of a simple fact: in this day and age, we must remain vigilant about protecting vulnerable species. That means following a few basic ethical rules to ensure we don’t interfere with their environments or behavior.

We asked seven wildlife photographers from around the world to tell us about some of the mistakes people make when working with animals, and how to solve them. Keep these simple principles in mind the next time you head out into the wild, whether it’s a local park or a sprawling African nature reserve.

Photographing Wild Animals Without Harming Them — Up Close and Personal

Image by ​Beth Wold

Rule #1: Do your research.

“One of the most important things I think you can do as an aspiring wildlife photographer is research on the animals you plan to photograph,” Wold says. “Learn their body language and habitat; not only will you be able to take better photographs with this knowledge, but you will know when your presence is becoming stressful to the animal.

“Different animals have different tolerances to humans, and that can even change based on the time of year, such as when they have young, etc. Animals that attack humans often have to be euthanized, but in some cases, it’s the human that triggered the attack due to ignorance or simple disregard for body language. It’s a shame the animal might pay with its life due to something that could’ve been avoided.”

Photographing Wild Animals Without Harming Them — Animal Body Language

Image by ​Beth Wold

Rule #2: Choose your location responsibly.

Legitimate sanctuaries and national parks are devoted solely to the welfare of the animals. Other “destinations” cater to tourists who want to get close to and pose with wildlife. Stick to the former and stay away from the latter.

“It might be tempting to go to a place that offers up-close exposure to ‘cubs,’” Wold continues. “But you should ask, where do these cubs go when they are too big to handle? They are probably not keeping them all, so what happens to them? Is this something you want to be involved with? Is it something you want to support with your money?”

Photographing Wild Animals Without Harming Them — Animal Welfare

Image by ​Lance van de Vyver

Rule #3: Be quiet.

“Making noises, clicking, banging, whistling, etc. to get the animal’s attention is not okay,” conservation photographer ​Lance van de Vyver​ explains. “It is one of my biggest pet peeves and an absolute no-no on my safaris. If you came into my house and whistled at me, you wouldn’t last very long. I believe a lot of negative animal encounters are because of similar reasons.”

Photographing Wild Animals Without Harming Them — Staying Quiet

Image by ​Lance van de Vyver

Rule #4: Keep a distance.

“Every species, and even individuals within each species, have very different comfort zones,” van de Vyver continues. “It’s important to know their comfort zones and keep a safe distance. Images of animals attacking and threatening the photographer are not good because the photographer has gone out of his way to annoy or anger that animal. The animal no longer feels safe. These images might get a lot of attention, but they do more harm than good.”

Photographing Wild Animals Without Harming Them — Respect for Tiny Lives

Image by ​Bruce Campbell

Rule #5: Don’t touch.

According to ​Bruce Campbell​, who runs the blog ​My Dive Travels​, this rule holds especially true if you’re working underwater. “Some of the creatures that live in the ocean are really small,” he explains. “It would be very easy to put a fin down on a creature without even seeing them. Consider the plight of the nudibranch, commonly referred to as Pikachu. It is not uncommon for a Pikachu to live on the sand, and his coloring is designed to make it hard to see him crawling along. If you lay down on the sand, and you fail to see a Pikachu—squish​ and no more Pikachu.”

Photographing Wild Animals Without Harming Them — Don't Touch

Image by ​Monika Wieland Shields

Rule #6: Stay on the trails.

“It’s important that photographers respect the habitat they are in,” photographer and whale researcher ​Monika Wieland Shields​ says. “All too often, I see photographers heading off trails to get closer to wildlife, which can damage the plants and micro-habitats underfoot. It’s important to follow the rules of the park or preserve you are in and to always respect private property boundaries.”

Photographing Wild Animals Without Harming Them — Respect the Habitats

Image by ​Monika Wieland Shields

Rule #7: ​Step away from nests and dens.

While common mistakes include making noises and using bait, some missteps are more subtle. A number of the photographers we spoke to stress the importance of watching out for nests and dens, as staying in these areas for too long can keep animals from tending to their babies.

“I would never stick around near an active bird’s nest in hopes of catching a certain behavior,” Wieland Shields adds. “I always want to be mindful of what the animals are doing, and if they’re engaged in a sensitive behavior like raising young, I make sure I don’t overstay my welcome and potentially influence their short-term behavior and overall success.”

Photographing Wild Animals Without Harming Them — No Interference

Image by ​Chase Dekker

Rule #8: Go slow.

“One mistake I used to make earlier on is moving too quickly,” ​Chase Dekker​, a wildlife photographer from California, admits. “Sometimes it seems super exciting, and you feel you have to get the shot off right away, but I was always told to slow down to go fast. With a little patience and keeping calm, even in a thrilling encounter, I find I can get better results than if I dash in and ruin the situation.”

Photographing Wild Animals Without Harming Them — Go Slow

Image by ​Chase Dekker

Rule #9: Don’t bait the animals.

This is one principle echoed time and time again. “Wildlife photographers should never bait or call in the animals, especially with human food,” Dekker explains. “Trying to get an animal to do what you want can easily cross the line into unethical shooting. Remember that wild animals play by their own rules. Sometimes things work out, and sometimes they don’t. You are not always going to get a winning shot every encounter, so just take what you can get and be happy with what you have.”

Photographing Wild Animals Without Harming Them — Keeping Some Distance

Image by ​Milan Zygmunt

Rule #10: Hire a responsible local guide.

“One of the best things you can do is to hire an experienced guide who knows the area and the animals,” ​Milan Zygmunt​, a Czech wildlife photographer who specializes in birds, tells us. “In the case of safaris, for example, the drivers usually know what distance they must keep in order to avoid disturbing the animals. Find reliable, credible guides, and follow their instructions.”

Photographing Wild Animals Without Harming Them — Use Local Guides

Image by ​Petr Salinger

Rule #11: Know when to call it a day and come back later.

“I use a long lens (500mm, at least) plus camouflage to ensure that the animals won’t notice me,” Petr Salinger​, a wildlife photographer from the Czech Republic, explains. ​“If an animal does notice you, it is better to stop shooting for the day. Learn your lesson and come back another time. If you are just starting, don’t hurry or rush it. Spend time observing nature, researching behavior, and learning from more experienced colleagues. It’s not the camera that makes the photographer. You become one when you start respecting nature.”

Top Image by ​Lance van de Vyver.

Looking for more info about shooting ecologically-sound photography? Check these out.

Artist Series: Finding Wildlife with Photographer Daniel Nevares
Behind-the-Scenes of the Most Breathtaking Earth Day Stock Images
17 Tips for Safely Camping with Your Camera Gear
5 Tips for Capturing Incredible Photos of Baby Animals in the Wild
Photos and Stories from Threatened Landscapes Around the World

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