Wildlife Photography: Part 1 – Code of Ethics

“Whether you’re out hiking in the backcountry or sightseeing from your car, having a chance encounter with wildlife is a magnificent and treasured moment. Watching little elk calves speed running zigzag among the herd or glimpsing a bear munching on glacier lilies are sights that captivate and inspire us all.”   – Deb

For many however, the experience is so overpowering they lose sight of the fact that the subject of their admiration is a wild creature. Yes, sadly, I’ve seen some foolish human behavior over the years which resulted in tragic consequences to wildlife and humans. Therefore, it’s imperative that you know how to view and photograph wildlife sensitively and responsibly in a low impact manner. You will be rewarded with the most amazing experiences and others will learn from your fine example!

We natural history photographers adhere to a certain code of ethics. These guidelines are designed to ensure no harm is done to wildlife or their natural habitats. This is accomplished by following the points given below and by inquiring into and abiding by the rules and regulations of the area (national park, wilderness area, etc.) you are visiting. Be aware that the ecosystem you visit may be fragile, so tread gently and practice “leave no trace” principles (

  • First and foremost, view wildlife from a safe distance for both you and them. Respect their spatial needs. 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. I’ve seen tiny bear cubs distressed, treed then separated from their mother by a throng of tourists eager for a closer look. This is unacceptable behavior.
  • Never crowd, pursue, prevent escape, make deliberate noises to distract, startle or harass wildlife. This is stressful and wastes valuable energy in needless flight. The impact is cumulative. Consider that you may be the 65th person to yell “hey moose” at that animal that day while it’s attempting to tend to its young.
  • Never feed or leave food (bait) 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 NOT tame no matter how docile or cuddly they appear. No one would argue that you should not try to pet a bull yet there have been numerous instances where a tourist attempted to have his/her photo taken next to a bison with disastrous consequences.
  • Do not damage or remove any plant, lifeform or natural object.
  • Do pack out any trash.
  • Acquaint yourself with and respect the behaviors and ecosystems of the wildlife you may encounter. By doing so, you will enrich your experience tremendously.
  • Finally, and most significant, remember that the welfare of the subject and habitat are irrefutably more important than the photograph.

May you enjoy the beauty the wild lands have to offer!

Photo title: Moose Cow Feeding in a Pond (view 2) – (Yellowstone NP)
Photograph and text: Copyright 2004-2019 Deborah Siminski Tappan. All rights reserved.

Wildlife Photography: Part 3 – The Issue of Baiting Wildlife

The idea of using attractants, known as baiting, to photograph wildlife is a controversial one. Baiting wild animals is dangerous for both the photographer and animal. There are those who choose to bait but with that approach comes great responsibility.

At the very least, you are training wild animals to disregard their natural protective instincts when you bait. At the very worst, you are causing them to become dependent on a food source that you alone are providing them and this can be catastrophic.

The impacts are cumulative as well as sloping. For instance, if the bait isn’t getting you the results you are after, do you try a “food” which is not naturally a part of that species diet? Are you knowledgeable enough about their physiology to know what food products are safe? For some species, something as seemingly innocuous as potato chips can result in their death. What about using other forms of attractants. Do you now add calls or scents? What about a blind?* If you’re on US national parkland, all of these things are strictly prohibited (eg. Professional Photography Program).

If you bait, you run the chance of habituating the animal to humans. The animals may no longer think that humans are to be feared and that humans equate to the appearance of food. In the case of bears, that’s NOT a good idea at all for obvious reasons. If habituated, the results can be disastrous to both the individual (mauling at the least, death at the worst) and to the bear (relocation at the least, death at the worst). For example, the black bears of one of the US’s premier national parks have a reputation for being quite naughty. They are so habituated to humans that they are notorious for approaching backpackers for the food in their packs and breaking into cars in the parking lots, etc. This habituation is due in part to food access and improper food storage by visitors. (The US National Park Service has been actively engaged in educating visitors as to safe and proper food storage and animal watching behavior. Their efforts in this regard seem to be helping.)

Is getting a photograph worth the risk to yourself or the animal? Another thought to consider, is an animal trained to bait still truly “wild”? Along other lines, if you are a photographer that depends on such tactics, how successful will you be where you are prohibited from their use?

The very essence of wildlife photography is to photograph the animal as it exists in its natural surroundings. This is why we study and learn their patterns and behavior. It is why we back off and/or use longer lenses if the animal does begin to show any signs of stress. It’s also why we take pains not to destroy their habitat. It is why we tread softly.

(*A blind is a camouflaged structure from which a photographer shoots. It may be a permanent structure that is part of the parkland/protected land or a portable structure that an individual carries with them out into the field.)

Photo Title: Dall Sheep Ram – (Alaska)
Photograph and text: Copyright 2004-2019 Deborah Siminski Tappan. All rights reserved.

Leave No Trace Outdoor Ethics

We’d like to thank the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics for allowing us to post their Leave No Trace Principles here. To learn more about how you can minimize your impact when visiting wilderness areas, go to: Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics. – Cheers, DST

Plan Ahead and Prepare:

  • Know the regulations and special concerns for the area you’ll visit.
  • Prepare for extreme weather, hazards, and emergencies.
  • Schedule your trip to avoid times of high use.
  • Visit in small groups. Split larger parties into groups of 4-6.
  • Repackage food to minimize waste.
  • Use a map and compass to eliminate the use of marking paint, rock cairns or flagging.

Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces:

  • Durable surfaces include established trails and campsites, rock, gravel, dry grasses or snow.
  • Protect riparian areas by camping at least 200 feet from lakes and streams.
  • Good campsites are found, not made. Altering a site is not necessary.

In popular areas:

  • Concentrate use on existing trails and campsites.
  • Walk single file in the middle of the trail, even when wet or muddy.
  • Keep campsites small. Focus activities in areas where vegetation is absent.

In pristine areas:

  • Disperse use to prevent the creation of campsites and trails.
  • Avoid places where impacts are just beginning.

Dispose of Waste Properly:

  • Pack it in, pack it out. Inspect your campsite and rest areas for trash or spilled foods. Pack out all trash, leftover food, and litter.
  • Deposit solid human waste in catholes dug 6 to 8 inches deep at least 200 feet from water, camp, and trails. Cover and disguise the cathole when finished.
  • Pack out toilet paper and hygiene products.
  • To wash yourself or your dishes, carry water 200 feet away from streams or lakes and use small amounts of biodegradable soap. Scatter strained dishwater.

Leave What You Find:

  • Preserve the past: examine, but do not touch, cultural or historic structures and artifacts.
  • Leave rocks, plants and other natural objects as you find them.
  • Avoid introducing or transporting non-native species.
  • Do not build structures, furniture, or dig trenches.

Minimize Campfire Impacts:

  • Campfires can cause lasting impacts to the backcountry. Use a lightweight stove for cooking and enjoy a candle lantern for light.
  • Where fires are permitted, use established fire rings, fire pans, or mound fires.
  • Keep fires small. Only use sticks from the ground that can be broken by hand.
  • Burn all wood and coals to ash, put out campfires completely, then scatter cool ashes.

Respect Wildlife:

  • Observe wildlife from a distance. Do not follow or approach them.
  • Never feed animals. Feeding wildlife damages their health, alters natural behaviors, and exposes them to predators and other dangers.
  • Protect wildlife and your food by storing rations and trash securely.
  • Control pets at all times, or leave them at home.
  • Avoid wildlife during sensitive times: mating, nesting, raising young, or winter.

Be Considerate of Other Visitors:

  • Respect other visitors and protect the quality of their experience.
  • Be courteous. Yield to other users on the trail.
  • Step to the downhill side of the trail when encountering pack stock.
  • Take breaks and camp away from trails and other visitors.
  • Let nature\’s sounds prevail. Avoid loud voices and noises.

Printed with permission from the ‘Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics‘.