Dear Ann Paul,
I enjoyed your article Love Hurts in Bay Soundings. I have observed these “those rules do not apply to me” types on our trips to 3 Rooker Bar and at our postings of the Beach Nesting Bird sites in Pinellas County. Nature photographers take wonderful pictures and most are respectful, but some can be really self righteous.
Thanks to you and Mark for a well-written article.
I have been a nature photographer based in the Tampa Bay area for nearly 20 years. While I do not earn a living from my passion, I have made a name for myself locally. My images have been published in Bay Soundings and have appeared in literature and calendars promoting local conservation efforts. When I saw the commentary “Love Hurts” in the April issue of Bay Soundings, I can’t say I was surprised. It had to be written, but I felt ashamed to be associated with people who out of ignorance, or indifference, behave in ways that have a negative impact on wildlife.
Unlike many photographers, I prefer shooting in remote places and don’t follow the crowds. While I’ve never personally visited the waterways around the rookeries of the Alafia River, I have heard the concerns of people appointed to protect those areas. It used to be a few individuals, but now it seems to be a much bigger problem. I feel the day will come when we will have to purchase a nature photography license like we now purchase fishing licenses. People caught breaking the rules will be fined, just as fishermen are now. But before we get to that point, perhaps it’s time to start a major education program.
There is no doubt that digital photography has changed the practice of nature photography. In addition to increasing the sheer numbers of photographers in our parks and preserves, it has also increased the amount of time each person spends photographing a subject. When photographing with a film camera, the average hobbyist could not afford to fire-off a whole role of film on a single subject, so they were more careful with their shots and spent less time in front of their subjects. With digital photography, the expense of developing film is no longer an issue, so I’ve seen groups of nature photographers spend hours taking hundreds of shots of a single nesting bird. I know of one owls’ nest, where one or more photographers are present (about 20-30 feet from the tree) for most of the daylight hours during nesting season.
On the other hand, digital cameras have the potential to minimize the impact on wildlife as well. If you feel you need to get closer to your subject (most of us cannot afford 600 mm lenses), remember that the newest digital cameras have lots of megapixels, so take the shot from further away, then crop and enlarge it later. I know, this rational goes against the way most of us were taught. We were told that we should frame the image in the viewfinder, with minimal cropping later. But, if cropping the image later minimizes the impact to wildlife, perhaps we need to rethink our practices.
As a beginning nature photographer, I had the benefit of being a member of NANPA (North American Nature Photographer’s Association). While no longer a member, I still abide by their “Principles of Ethical Field Practices.” I know I’m too close or have been there too long if the animal changes its natural behavior or seems agitated by my presence. Have I ever disturbed an animal unintentionally? Unfortunately, yes. But, I know when to back off; and most importantly, I do.
NANPA’s guidelines also state “Learn patterns of animal behavior.” While most ethical nature photographers try to learn everything they can about their subject before photographing it, I’m amazed at the number of people photographing animals who don’t know anything about their subject and, worst of all, they don’t care. They just want to get “THE SHOT.” But, how do you know what “THE SHOT” is if you know nothing about your subject? If these photographers made an effort to learn about the behavior of their subjects they would capture better images with minimum impact.
Related to the ethics of nature photography, I also want to mention professional courtesy. As the number of nature photographers has increased in our parks and preserves, not only does it have an impact on wildlife, but it also has an impact on how photographers are perceived by other park visitors. While I prefer photographing in remote places, when I do visit a popular park or preserve, I always respect the walkers, joggers, families and other photographers. I eagerly point out wildlife to children and throw out a little “fun fact” about the animal for them to take away from the experience. I also try to give space to other photographers or birders. Unfortunately, this courtesy is not always returned.. Recently in a very popular park in Polk County, I was followed by a person with a compact camera, who trying to get closer, walked between me and each of my subjects.
In summary, it seems that since the advent of digital photography, nature photography has become more of a competitive sport, rather than a desire to understand, document and share the wonders of the natural world. Personally, nature photography has always been more about being outdoors and connecting with nature, than about the picture. If I see something extraordinary, but I miss the shot, I still cherish the memory.