Ethics From Empathy

How to increase your chances of capturing beautiful wildlife photographs without compromising your subject’s welfare

A short-eared owl lifts off from a cornstalk in pursuit of prey at sunset. Aurora, New York.

In my inaugural column for this magazine a year and a half ago, I wrote about the need for a consideration of ethics in the field of wildlife photography. Since then, I’ve worked with a number of organizations and publications to help craft some basic principles, so I have spent considerable time wrestling with ideas about ethics in photography. It’s become clear that, increasingly, people crave specific ethical guidelines. Principles and practices that can be held up as absolutes, that we can all look to, citing as needed.

However, the more I learn about ethics, the more I see how many shades of gray there are. And how, when we are out in the field, each situation can be utterly unique. Yes, there are some absolutes for sure, clearly unethical practices, such as sacrificing the life of another animal for the sake of a photo (e.g. baiting owls with live rodents), or cutting branches and foliage away from around nests so we can get a better shot. But often, there are no hard-and-fast rules to apply, and we must make decisions on the fly.

What can help guide our decisions in such a way that we are ethical, responsible stewards of nature and wildlife? I suggest that ethical wildlife photography springs from empathy. First let me describe what I mean by those two terms:

Ethical Wildlife Photography

Whenever we are out in nature to pursue our hobby or profession of photography, we are in a relationship with, and have an impact on, wild animals. Ethical wildlife photography strives to minimize impact and disturbance on those animals; in short, do no harm to any living creature or its habitat.

Empathy for your subjects is critical.

The experience of understanding another being’s feelings from their perspective. If we can put ourselves in the place of an animal, we can imagine how it is feeling, given our approach, our distance, our smell, sound and stance. We can sense when it might be feeling comfortable and calm, or cornered and ready to flee. It’s essentially a method of data gathering about what is going on with the other creature and seeking an understanding of that experience.

If we can learn to be empathic photographers, our photos will benefit greatly. Our thoughtful approach will increase the chance our subject will not flee. We will be able to capture natural behavior by modulating our own actions. We will be able to predict behavior and thus be ready for the shot, because we’ll be sensitive to clues. These are just some of the ways in which our photography will be affected.

An American kestrel hovers while hunting near my parked car. Candor, New York.

So how do we enhance our sense of empathy? Several strategies can help to cultivate this quality and naturally instill it in our field craft. They are as fundamental as knowing the right settings on our camera.

Research and learn about your subjects and what they are facing in terms of life challenges.

I cannot recommend this strongly enough. What are the threats to their existence? What is the status of their species in the state they live in? Short-eared owls may be plentiful in states like Utah or Montana, but in the state of New York, where I live, they are an endangered species, due to a drastic loss of habitat. It is incumbent on us as photographers to realize what the animals we are photographing are up against and to be especially sensitive to those that are truly struggling to survive.

Study the behavior and natural history of your subject.

This will inform you how to “be around it”—how shy it is, what signs it gives that it’s anxious or flight-ready, as well as simply educating you about what kind of habitat to find it in, what it likes to eat, interesting behaviors to photograph, and the sensitivity of its nesting or denning cycle. As an example, I have wanted to photograph cedar waxwings and robins in fruit trees this summer. I learned about the location and the fruiting status of a mulberry tree in town and parked nearby one morning. I watched the birds’ behavior carefully in connection to where I parked my car. Could I get pretty close yet still be far enough away so that they weren’t disturbed by my presence and the clicking of my camera? Finding this tree, as well as determining an appropriate distance by reading the birds’ responses, made for some stellar shots of natural behavior. But it meant doing my research beforehand.

Focus more on what you share with your subject than what separates you.

Is your presence at a den causing a fox to behave fearfully? Have you ever felt fearful for the safety of your own children, or can you imagine how you would feel in that fox father’s place? I once was excited to discover a remote kingfisher nest along a stream bank and, choosing a moment when the kingfisher was out of sight, I quickly set up on the opposite bank, certain that I was cleverly disguised by my camouflage body blind. I wasn’t fooling that kingfisher, though. It knew I was there. It chattered at me from a perch just out of my sight. Thirty minutes passed, then 40, 45. Suddenly, it appeared, flying toward the cavity, a fish in its beak. At the very last second, before entering the cavity, it swerved away, its eye on me, and flew out of sight again. I realized I had to leave and never return. I imagined that the bird was afraid to reveal its nest site to me, in order to protect his mate or nestlings. I’ll never know if I was right, but when in doubt, a good question to ask oneself is, “Is there a possibly substantial risk to the health of this bird or the success of its nest?” As I mentioned in a previous article, never forget that these moments out in nature are just about photos to us, but to wild animals, every single moment is about survival. Sometimes ethical photography simply means you have to walk away.

Realize that individual animals have unique characters and traits.

For me, knowing this has taught me to individualize my approach to a subject. There’s no denying, even if the only experience you’ve had observing animals is watching birds at your backyard feeder, that individuals can vary greatly within species: this ratty-looking chickadee always likes to eat its seed on that particular branch; that nuthatch there always flares its wings in a dramatic, aggressive way when others approach the feeder. This matters because it means that each animal will react differently to you. Some individuals will tolerate your presence much more than others. For example, kestrels. They’re one of my nemesis birds and have long proven difficult for me to get close to. One day I found one that didn’t seem to mind me parking nearby and photographing it hunting, hovering over a field while it looked for voles. I was able to return on subsequent days and photograph it more, because I had learned it would tolerate me and go about the urgent business of its life, seemingly undisturbed. Once you come to understand individuals and their behaviors, you can learn to plan and predict.

We all bring different sensibilities to this craft. As Ansel Adams famously said, “You don’t make a photograph just with a camera. You bring to the act of photography all the pictures you have seen, the books you have read, the music you have heard, the people you have loved.” Our experiences, from early childhood on up, inform how we look at the world, with or without a lens.

When it comes to wildlife photography, we also bring our knowledge or beliefs about animals to the field. We may have no experience with wild animals or a lot. We may have learned that animals have emotions—even just by watching our pets—or we may adhere to an idea that they are far inferior to us in intelligence and complexity. Our motivations may differ greatly. But no matter what your experience or views, if you can approach wildlife photography with an empathic sensibility, I assure you it will pay huge dividends. Most importantly for the animal, perhaps, but also for the power, uniqueness and lasting value of your images.

Melissa Groo is a wildlife photographer, writer and conservationist. She believes that photography can be both fine art and a powerful vehicle for storytelling and education, and considers herself a “wildlife biographer” as much as a wildlife photographer. Passionate about ethics in nature photography, Groo is represented by Nat Geo Creative, a contributing editor to Audubon magazine and an Associate Fellow with the International League of Conservation Photographers. She advises the National Audubon Society on ethical photography, and has also counseled National Wildlife magazine and NANPA (North American Nature Photography) on guidelines for ethical wildlife photography. She also serves as a member of NANPA’s Ethics Committee. In 2017, Melissa received the Katie O'Brien Lifetime Achievement Award from Audubon Connecticut, for demonstrating exceptional leadership and commitment to the conservation of birds, other wildlife and their habitats. She also received the NANPA 2017 Vision Award, given to a photographer every two years in recognition of early career excellence, vision and inspiration to others in nature photography, conservation and education.