I was trying to photograph an Inchworm moth caterpillar sitting on a blade of grass. Breeze was blowing the grass blade so much that I was unable to focus correctly. I wanted the breeze to subside so that I could get the caterpillar in good focus. As I got up to explore other photographic opportunity nearby in that area, corner of my eye caught a curious small bird hopping behind my back. What I saw was the Plain Prinia (Prinia inornata). The bird was watching me focusing on the caterpillar. As soon as I got away it jumped on the blade of grass and plucked that caterpillar, flew to a nearest termite ridden bamboo post. Sitting on that post bird started to eat the caterpillar.
I was shocked with the sudden turn of events. My subject was being eaten in front of my very own eyes. But that turn of events by itself was a good photo opportunity. I was on that day using my usual rig for closeup photography consisting of Canon EOS 1D Mark IV fitted with Canon EF 300mm f/2.8L IS USM with Canon EF 1.4x III Extender. This rig had another advantage that it was perfectly suitable for photographing birds too. So my dual purpose setup came very handy as I had only seconds to focus on the bird and take picture before the caterpillar vanished into the beak of the bird. As you can see I didn’t even had time to change my aperture which was at f/10 as everything happened so sudden.
As I clicked away a feeling of guilt came over me as I was feeling that it was me, who is responsible for the death of caterpillar. If I had not stalked that caterpillar, bird would not have found it. Inadvertently I have been responsible for the death of the caterpillar. Many a times consequences of our action will result in harm even if we do not intend to. That lead me to other thoughts of how photographer due to their actions affect their subjects and surroundings.
I want to go through few of the ethical dilemma faced by nature photographers. When we photograph we might influence our surrounding. It should be in such a way that it does not harm the nature. What commonly comes to mind is the nest photography indulged by several bird photographers. I have seen crows watching these photographers, which later attack those very nests which were being photographed. Several photographers denude the nest so that chicks are visible without any obstruction for their photography. This blows away the natural camouflage created by the chick’s parents and exposes them to predators. Handling young chicks will surely jeopardize their life. Using harsh flash very close to young ones will surely cause harm to their eyes.
I have seen many insect photographers who catch their subjects and put them in refrigerators so that their activity slows down and insects become immobile. These are all unethical practices which needs to be condemned. Baiting animals which habituates these animals to artificial human food is another unethical practice. Using sound as bait (done mainly in bird photography) is likely to cause unnecessary stress if done for very long.
Photographing in a zoo takes the ‘wild’ out of ‘wildlife photography’. If you shoot captive animals label your photograph that they are taken in captivity. There is vast difference in the photograph where photographer spent weeks sleeping rough in a mosquito-infested forest to get the shot, or merely an afternoon stroll at the local safari park.
Modern digital photography allows easy manipulation of photograph. Last week someone asked me this question that is relevant to all the modern day photographers. He asked me “when we have such great tools like Adobe Photoshop to manipulate photos as we want, why spend lot of effort get photograph right in the camera?” Photographers have been manipulating their images right the earliest days of their art. The first recorded case of photo manipulation was in the early 1860s, when a photo of Abraham Lincoln was altered using the body from a portrait of John C. Calhoun and the head of Lincoln from a famous seated portrait by Mathew Brady – the same portrait which was the basis for the original Lincoln Five-dollar bill.
People have attempted to pass off heavily manipulated images as genuine. At the very least these photographers could admit that their pictures have been faked by disclosing in the captions that they are digital art and not authentic photographs. But they don’t. The camera itself may never lie but, sadly, some photographers do. Creative computer skills can produce quite beautiful results. And one might also argue that photography is an art, after all, so its aim should be to make pictures as appealing and eye-catching as possible. I do not manipulate any of my photos. My post processing only involves regular raw conversion with brightness, contrast enhancement, sharpness and cropping along with noise removal as these are all necessary steps for any raw file which needs to be processed properly. I try my best to get maximum result out of the camera during shooting itself than achieving it in post production.
These deceitful photographers steal the trust that should be inherent in wildlife images. Once fake photographs have shaken your confidence, you begin to doubt everything you see. Digitally manipulated images raise the bar in wildlife photography to an unnaturally high level. Sooner or later the photographers will get caught manipulating their images. Lincoln’s photograph I mentioned earlier was discovered as fake due to Lincoln’s famous mole. The trickery which was attributed to Thomas Hicks, the President’s famous mole would appear on the wrong side of his face. It was only years later that Stefan Lorant, the art director for the London Picture Post magazine, noticed that the photo was a fake.
I think as nature photographers we should adhere to a certain Code of Ethics. Here is what I practice.
- View wildlife from a safe distance for both you and them. Respect and maintain their space. If the animal interrupts its behavior (resting, feeding, etc.), then you are too close and must distance yourself.
- Never force an action. Be patient! The most beautiful photographs result from natural action.
- Never come between a parent and its offspring.
- Never crowd, pursue, prevent escape, make deliberate noises to distract, startle or harass wildlife.
- Never feed or leave food (baiting) for wildlife. Habituation due to handouts can result in disease or even death of that animal and injury to you.
- Never encroach on nests or dens as certain species will abandon their young.
- Never interfere with animals engaged in breeding, nesting, or caring for young.
- Learn to recognize wildlife alarm signals and never forget that these animals are wild no matter how docile or cuddly they appear.
- Do not damage or remove any plant, life form or natural object. Do not litter and pack your trash for safe disposal elsewhere.
- Acquaint yourself with and respect the behaviors and ecosystems of the wildlife you may encounter.
- Remember that the welfare of the subject and habitat are irrefutably more important than the photograph.
Here is an Ethics Declaration for wildlife photographers which has been formulated by WildPhotos in 2010. Read it and sign up at the WildPhotos Ethics Declaration website as I have done.