Wildlife photography is a growing hobby that is accessible to many. From the largest lenses to the smallest of phones in our pockets, wildlife photography is as complicated or simple as you want to make it. An enjoyable challenge for some, photographing wildlife can be unpredictable, creating a competitive spirit and a love for a hobby or profession that never gets old. Not to mention, animals are fascinating and diverse and can be found almost anywhere, from the highest mountain peaks to the quaintest apartment patio.
It is important to follow ethical practices when photographing wildlife. Photographers can be valuable conservationists and storytellers, sharing their unique experiences with others and engaging new audiences to wildlife and their needs. With that power comes great responsibility! Ethical behaviors while practicing wildlife photography can help protect the wildlife, their habitats, and people.
To ensure an enjoyable, safe, and rewarding experience, it is important to adhere to the following guidelines when photographing wildlife:
Respect the wildlife
- The welfare of the animal you are photographing comes first. Shortcuts to get the perfect shot can cloud judgement in the moment. Never chase an animal, intentionally flush it, or interrupt its natural behaviors.
- Keep a safe distance away from animals. Follow the “rule of thumb:” Hold up your thumb in a hitchhiker fashion. Hold out your arm in front of you and place your thumb in line with your vision over the animal you are watching. If the pad of your thumb covers the animal, you are at a safe viewing distance. If not, back away until you are at a safer distance. If the animal still seems disturbed and is altering its natural behaviors, continue to distance yourself from the animal.
- Use a telephoto lens to give wildlife their space. Viewing blinds make for great safe spaces for you and wildlife to overlap without disturbance.
- If wearing camouflage, be aware of hunting seasons and when you need to wear hunter orange or pink for safety.
- Avoid using a flash that causes an animal to become disturbed. Infrared lighting is best for night or low-light photography.
- Remain quiet and give wildlife a comfortable place to be. When animals feel comfortable, they may engage in behaviors photographers are attempting to capture on camera, such as grooming or preening, singing, hunting, etc. Do not imitate wildlife, and never throw objects to make wildlife move or to gain their attention. Wildlife should be captured in their environments performing their natural behaviors to prevent them from being stressed or forced to move from their habitats.
- If bringing a pet, ensure that the pet is leashed and is not harassing wildlife by barking or chasing. Stressed wildlife may flee, make eye contact, or demonstrate aggression. Remember, pets must be leashed in all WDFW Wildlife Areas unless engaging in hunting activities.
- Keep wildlife safe by avoiding “geotagging” specific sites where you took photographs. General locations are acceptable, but pinning the specific locations of nesting sites, endangered species, or other special sightings may endanger the wildlife. For example, if you spotted and photographed a rare small mammal in Rainier National Park, “tag” the park, but refrain from listing a specific trail or site tag.
- Share your story and share your photos! Continue spreading the hobby of photography and the contribution it has on conservation. Be honest with how you captured a photo and encourage others to also be ethical photographers. Sharing your photos can continue to raise awareness about the magnificence of wildlife and their habitats.
Respect the land
- Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife has lands and water access for public use, providing excellent opportunities for photography. When using these spaces, understand that many user groups may be using the same areas for their own enjoyment. Respect others, their space, and their hobbies.
- Know where you park. Leave lanes of traffic clear and safe for others and yourself. Shut car doors calmly and quietly. Honor “no parking” areas.
- Know where you are. Lands may be private, public, or require access passes or parking fees. Be prepared and remember to be respectful of shared spaces. If property is marked as “private,” do not trespass. Contact the landowner for permission to access.
- If on private lands, thank the landowner when you leave.
- Leave a place as you found it or better. Remember to Leave No Trace;’’ pick up trash, remove pet waste, and stay on trails when possible.
Respect the people and yourself
- Remain respectful of shared spaces and others’ values. People enjoy wildlife in many ways, including hunting, birding, fishing, and others. Understand that some lands and wildlife may have cultural value for others. Honor those values.
- Respectful communication and dialogue can go a long way towards building positive connections between users on our public lands. Many visitors may be unaware of ethical practices or regulations, and a polite conversation can often resolve issues before they become an issue for wildlife or people.
- For your safety, always be prepared. Know where you go and let someone know where you are heading and when you will be home. Consider the following packing list before you leave: clothing and footwear appropriate for all weather, necessary camera gear, first aid kit, bear spray, water, snacks, sunscreen, binoculars, required parking passes, and identification guides.
- Be aware of laws for operating unmanned aircraft systems (UAS/drones) before entering an area. It is illegal to fly drones in designated Wilderness areas, national parks, and many other public lands. Please check rules and regulations before you head out. This includes following regulations set by the Federal Aviation Administration, which regulates all airspace.
- Drone operators should avoid flying drones near wildlife, especially those that are nesting, raising young, or breeding, as this can stress the animals and cause damaging behavior changes.
- Certain animals are protected under special laws and regulations at the state and/or federal level, including those that prohibit the harassment or disturbance of wildlife. Disregarding these restrictions can lead to hefty fines.
- Most drone footage of wildlife is captured with special research permits that outline specific limitations for using the drone to limit negative interactions with wildlife being studied.
- Drones are legal to operate on many public lands, but always be mindful of applicable laws and regulations — even those that aren’t explicitly about using drones (i.e. laws prohibiting wildlife harassment). Always be respectful of wildlife, nature, and other public land users while operating your equipment.
Want to learn more? Many resources about ethical wildlife photography are available from reputable groups. Consider reviewing ethical bird photography ethics on the Audubon Society’s website and information about general ethical wildlife photography on National Geographic’s website. Check out WDFW’s YouTube channel to watch our video on more responsible and ethical wildlife photography practices.
Most importantly, get outside, stay safe, and have fun! Washington is full of incredible wildlife, and we can’t wait to see what images you capture.