Written by professional wildlife photographer and OneKind volunteer, Craig Jones.
In a time where there is great pressure on the natural world, we need to step back, see the bigger picture and try not to impact on the subject’s life. For many people, the weapon of choice now is the camera. Use this incorrectly and you impact on the lives of animals that have no voice; that won’t be able to report your actions. It will be down to you on the ground to work in a way that gives the animal peace rather than stress from your presence. I have been practising field craft in my ethical wildlife photography for many years, and want to share some of my expertise with fellow photographers and nature enthusiasts.
Learning the subject
Ethics and field craft are two of the most important things in wildlife photography. Getting to know the subject; respecting them and their space; spending time watching, listening and looking; learning their behaviour, their habits and calls. In turn, all of this will reward you with a far better chance of capturing images that show the subject’s natural behaviour.
Regardless of the level of photographic skill you possess or what make of camera and lens you use, you will need to learn the skills below in order to capture those images you see whilst among nature. However, with this comes great responsibility and integrity to your own work and the footprint you’ll leave behind when you leave the wildlife and go home.
The ethical photographer
Wildlife photography’s power rests on the belief that it represents an event that occurred naturally in the wild – something witnessed and recorded by the photographer with their camera at that given time. Friendly animals, hot spots, bait, digital bird callers and the pre-arranged perches or props alongside digital technology have forced us to re-evaluate and question the validity of images they see now.
This is where your own integrity and transparency should come into play. Being honest about how you got the image and giving more information on its “back story”, as I call it. Take your images as seen and try not to change anything. Stay away from offering the same, tired images in an already saturated market. You will learn nothing about the subject’s behaviour outside of that set up, which ultimately won’t help you or your own wildlife photography. Don’t mislead the general public by avoiding the story behind your image.
Today, people really want to see the process behind wildlife photography. Not only do you have a duty of care to your subject’s welfare, but also to those who buy your work or follow you. Showing and explaining how that image was taken and the skills you employed to achieve the image are paramount, now more than ever.
If you bait, build a set, place food out and get wildlife to perform for paying guests or your own images, be honest and inform those that view your work. Integrity and transparency are vital and will give those that view your work a real sense of how you got your image and how it was on the ground at that time.
I think that all forms of live baiting, like diving Kingfisher images, should be banned. The live baiting of Kingfishers is unfortunately common, and involves a container being filled with live fish such as minnows and baby trout to act as bait so that the kingfisher can be lured in front of the camera. Organisational bodies set up to protect wildlife should take more action on this matter. It is a dubious practice and involves setting up the death of one animal in order to attract another simply for a photograph.
Entering their world
All animals are sentient beings with their own characters. Tap into that and you will see the real and true beauty of wildlife unfold in front of you. Apply your passion and respect on top of field craft and the images will come to you.
Many species of mammals and birds will allow you to approach them closely if you are careful and take your time, avoid fast movements and use the correct techniques. Read the land for yourself and see what is in front and in between you and the subject. Never make the mistake of walking directly towards your subject, as the chances are the animal will flee. All wild animals that have no or very little contact with humans are scared and fear humans.
They see and smell us the moment we enter their world, in which they are designed for and we aren’t. They have a built-in fear of humans and see us as a threat to their lives. For me, it’s how the person deals with that level of fear and stress by using their field craft that’s important.
Animal tracks tell you so much about what’s happening around you. It’s their highway, they know how to navigate their chosen habitat. Look for darkened earth – a clear sign that there is life around. Stand still for several minutes and look to see any natural lines, faltered grasses or earth that’s been moved or piled up. This will give you a bigger picture of the main routes in and out of a forest or farmland track leading to a wood and so forth.
Look towards the sun when studying tracks, you will see the shadows better. Footprints in soft ground will begin to deteriorate around the edges within 2 hours depending on the humidity, sunlight, and breeze, giving you vital clues to what kind of animal passed by that spot, and how long ago it did so. The depth of the tracks and length of the stride can indicate the weight of the subject and the physical strength of the animal that made them.
Find out which way the wind is blowing to improve your approach – most animals have a great sense of smell and it’s the first thing that gives you away. The wind always wants to blow in your face, but this will carry your scent. Remember to forget the aftershave, perfume and fragrant soaps as these will be picked up from great distances away.
It’s also important to recognise and learn the signs of stress within the animal so you know when to stop and leave it well alone. The last thing you ever want is to cause undue stress and disturbance through your actions just to get a “good” shot. Your clothing, the wind direction, covering the ground, your shape, shine, and staying low can all help in capturing the right moment without disturbing an animal.
The most important tip I can give in improving your field craft is to respect your subject and let wildlife live their lives without fear or stress from your presence. Apply all my tips from this article and the animal will benefit first and foremost, able to carry on happily with its life. Applying these tips will also allow you to capture images with a real story.
We will soon enter the months of autumn and winter; a testing time for all living creatures. Always remember that when working with wild animals, they come first – the last thing you want to do is to impose yourself to quickly or scare the animal away.
It’s also very important to know that calories are burned off more quickly during the colder months, so field craft and respect are more important than ever. If the subject has to repeatedly move to avoid you, there’s no way to tell whether the animal will be able to regain calories spent; your actions may result in the premature death of your subject should it struggle to find enough food.
For each action of yours, nature will have a reaction. This is something everyone that enters the natural world should adhere to and understand, long before you press the shutter button.
Remember – we are guests in their world and you should always work with this mindset.
Craig Jones is an ethical wildlife photographer and OneKind supporter based in northern England. His passion for the natural world inspires his photography, and his deep respect for wildlife governs his approach to photography. To find out more about Craig’s work, you can visit his website here.