Ethical wildlife photography

What is ethical wildlife photography?

Putting the well-being of wildlife first should be every photographer’s main goal. This includes not only the animal itself, but the habitat it calls home and all those who live there. Respecting the environment and space should be at the forefront of thoughts, before even setting up.

There are many blogs, articles and social media posts about what makes a good 'ethical' wildlife photographer, but there are some general rules that should be followed, regardless of the type of wildlife photography you want to showcase.

An ethical photographer thinks about how their presence may impact the wildlife and how it goes about its daily life. Here are my top rules I follow when photographing wildlife in the wild.

First - DO NO HARM

This seems like an obvious one! You don't set out to hurt the wildlife, so why state the obvious? However 'harm' may come in many different forms when dealing with wildlife. You want to avoid as much of this as possible to photograph the animal in its natural environment and get the best shots.

Avoid disturbing the wildlife: Be quiet and hidden. Try to avoid loud noises and making too much movement. Remember, you look like a potential threat to an animal and their flight response will send them scattering. A mother bird might abandon her nest, a spooked rabbit might end up exposing itself to a predator. Not nice for them, or for you!

Trying to get the animals attention: Most animals when they sense any potential pressure or threat will run or fly away. Attempting to call the animal, or throwing things to get their attention may results in the animal running away, spending more energy than they would have needed too. This is especially important to remember when it comes to migrating birds. They come in to feed and build up reserves for their travels, they don't want to waste that energy running away from you!

Using flash: This is incredibly important when photographing nocturnal animals. There is a too high risk which may limit their ability to hunt for food or avoid obstacles. Even in the daylight if the animal is quite close it can cause some stress.

Signs of stress

The best wildlife shots come from relaxed animals going about their daily business. Interacting with each other or the environment around them.

A stressed animal is obvious even in a photo. From a frozen, unnatural posture (ready to fight or flight), to hunkered down trying to hide.

Use a telephoto lens or a hide for those more shy animals, if it starts to run away, you are too close!

Wild horse running past a group of photographers after getting a spook behind him, nothing scary, just an unusual sound he didn't recognise so the flight response kicked in. You can even see the 'whale eye' - white part of the eye showing as he is trying to look behind while running away.


This is one of my personal rules when out photographing wildlife. I try to refrain from doing any 'gardening'; i.e. manipulating the environment to suit my photos. As tempting as it is to snap that branch right in view, in doing so might spook the animal, or even disturb something else that calls that area home.

Try to work with your environment, move gently around to avoid clutter and take time observing the animal to see where it might next move to.

This Auckland Green Gecko was busy hunting a fly, it took a lot of patience to wait for it to move out into the open where I could photograph him!

Learn about the wildlife

Learning about the wildlife you want to photograph will also help you massively improve your approach to photographing them. Spend time observing them before lifting the camera. Learn their movements, how they feed. See what time of day they are most active, and try to avoid breeding season where they may be nesting or raising babies. Go for your biggest telephoto lens if you do want to capture this amazing moment in their life.

Volunteer at your local wildlife reserve/ sanctuary to get up close with rare species

Staged Photos

If you have that dream shot and can only achieve it by 'staging' the environment, try volunteering as a photographer at your local or relevant wildlife sanctuary. These animals are more often used to people being around and cameras. Some places offer photography workshops or events which are great to not only get dream shots of hard to see wildlife, but also support the groups dedicated to saving the species.

I often donate my photos (and sometimes my time) photographing the animals for them to use on social media, websites and even as auction/ fundraising pieces. This is so rewarding for me, and it means I can give back to those looking after the species. I was fortunate enough to sell a tui picture for my local wildlife reserve for $800, a donation I would not have been able to make directly out of pocket, so that was very exciting!

LIve in the Moment

I am very fortunate to work with some of New Zealand's unique and rare wildlife. This has taught me so much more respect and patience when it comes to photographing wildlife, and to be in the moment more.

I used to run around, taking a million photos of the animal before dashing off to the next one. Now, I want to make sure the experience is relaxed just as much to them as it is to me. I know now if I can't get that dream shot, observing them anyway teaches me so much more for next time.

Photographing a kiwi chick during a health check

Enjoy this Beautiful Planet

Photography is such a beautiful way to showcase this stunning world around us and all that call it home. Wherever you photograph it is important to follow all local laws around distancing and avoiding areas that may be closed off for breeding season. When sharing photos, be careful to not give away the exact location of the animal, especially rarer and breeding individuals if you believe extra foot traffic may impact their wellbeing.

With each image shared, try to think not only about ethics, but also the appearance of the image. If the image requires too much of an explanation, is it worth posting? Will it encourage people to try and get a similar shot without thinking about how it may impact the animal? If you are taking photos for research or documentation, always be open and honest about it in your captions.

Wildlife photography should be an enjoyable experience, and equally rewarding! Even if that perfect shot takes a number of days, enjoy the moment.

"Take nothing but pictures. Leave nothing but footprints. Kill nothing but time"