Choosing an Ethical Photography Workshop

Grey owls typically punch through the snow to capture the prey moving beneath the surface, as seen in this image. However, we often see images of great grey owls swooping down to pluck mice off the top of the snow. That is indicative of a scene captured using store-bought mice. © Daniel Dietrich
Grey owls typically punch through the snow to capture the prey moving beneath the surface, as seen in this image. However, we often see images of great grey owls swooping down to pluck mice off the top of the snow. That is indicative of a scene captured using store-bought mice. © Daniel Dietrich

By Sarah Killingsworth & Daniel Dietrich

Getting started in wildlife or nature photography can be overwhelming, with gear to select, locations to identify and scout out, and numerous new skills to learn. Many photographers look to photography workshops or guides to help them build skills or capture a “dream shot.” But how do you know if the person you’re hiring for a photo workshop is ethical? Are the shots you see on Instagram truly wild animals, not manipulated in any way? Are they taken at game farms, where animals are bred specifically for photography? Are they lured in with bait? Are they captive animals simply not disclosed as such?

Getting “the shot” or respecting the animal

We live in a culture of instant gratification and endless competition for attention and “likes” on social media. Getting shots of epic natural behavior takes a significant investment of time and patience, as well as a little bit of luck. So, it is perhaps no surprise that some workshop operators take shortcuts to be able to provide participants with consistently amazing shots of predators or owls coming directly towards the photographer. Beginner and amateur photographers who have limited time for photography may well be completely unaware of the unethical practices in some workshops. When I first heard that people used bait, lures or calls to attract wildlife to photograph, I was completely shocked. I couldn’t imagine people manipulating an animal’s natural behaviors just to get a great photograph. For me, the thrill of wildlife photography has always been in observing an animal’s natural behavior; it is a privilege to witness rarely-seen or captured moments.

Sometimes capturing natural behavior comes with imperfections. I would have preferred to not have these man-made objects in my image. But I would much rather capture an animal’s natural behavior than staging something for a more ‘perfect’ image that could potentially harm my subject’s well-being. Photo © Daniel Dietrich
Sometimes capturing natural behavior comes with imperfections. I would have preferred to not have these man-made objects in my image. But I would much rather capture an animal’s natural behavior than staging something for a more ‘perfect’ image that could potentially harm my subject’s well-being. Photo © Daniel Dietrich

When Daniel and I sat down to write this article together he shared a powerful story with me which we wanted to share:

When I was making the blind leap to full time wildlife photography, I was scared. I was leaving a secure, well-paying industry to follow my dream of becoming a wildlife photographer. Some of the most powerful images that I couldn’t get out of my head, which continually drove me to make this decision, were the photos of wild owls, mostly snowy, great grey and northern hawk owls flying directly at the photographer, talons outstretched, snatching prey off the top of the snow in perfect light. I dreamed of that shot often. I pursued that shot repeatedly, never even getting close.

I wondered how others got this shot. A simple google search gave me my answer. I googled “great grey owl hunting” and the page filled with hundreds upon hundreds of images, all frighteningly the same. And with a few simple blog posts I was educated. Owl workshop guides were buying coolers full of mice from pet stores, driving until they found a great grey owl, and then baiting the owl for their workshop participants. The guides dangle the mouse in the air by its tail to stimulate the owl, then toss the helpless creature onto the top of the snow. The owl launches from its perch and performs like a circus animal for the workshop participants. At ten frames per second, with ten workshop participants this generates 1000s of the same images of the same bird grabbing the same store-bought mouse. Heartbroken, I immediately thought, “This is certainly not wildlife photography.”

Eyes opened to these practices, Daniel decided to focus on conservation photography for his career. My own shock about people manipulating animals with bait, lures and calls motivated me to become an advocate for wildlife, and to focus on conservation photography as well. With this article, we hope to help other photographers avoid perpetuating this practice and instead choose workshops that are ethical, especially with regard for the wildlife.

Successfully photographing predators hunting requires patience. After finding this bobcat flattened out in the grass hunting, instead of pushing in to try for a face shot, I chose to sit back and wait. After 20 minutes, the bobcat rose to pursue a gopher. © Sarah Killingsworth
Successfully photographing predators hunting requires patience. After finding this bobcat flattened out in the grass hunting, instead of pushing in to try for a face shot, I chose to sit back and wait. After 20 minutes, the bobcat rose to pursue a gopher. © Sarah Killingsworth

What should you look out for when researching workshops or guides? Daniel’s story brings into question any owl workshop. While there may be truly ethical guides who do workshops without calls or baiting, any dedicated owl workshop leader should be directly asked if they feed the owls with or without workshop participants present. Workshops that guarantee images of elusive predators such as mountain lions and wolves should be questioned prior to any commitments. Mountain lions are shy animals and are rarely seen in the wild. Images of them leaping from perches are most certainly captive animals.

Why do nature photography ethics matter?

Why should we care about the manner in which we take our images? There are a number of issues with baiting, lures and calls. If a workshop leader is using a lure, the animal expends energy for a hunt when there is not actually available prey. With baiting, the pet store mouse alters the predator’s diet (and can carry diseases, or parasites). And baiting leads to the animal becoming accustomed to being fed. As a result, the wildlife may lose the ability or desire to hunt. When wildlife view humans as a source of food, it leads to conflict with humans (and possible euthanization of the animal), as well as increasing the risk of car strikes. For wildlife, every moment is about survival. If we induce the animal to change its behavior for a great photo opportunity, we risk the animal’s life for our image.

What can you do to ensure that the workshop is one based in ethical nature photography?

Not sure what ethical nature photography looks like? Take a look at NANPA’s Principles of Ethical Field Practices, crafted by NANPA’s Ethics Committee.

What to look for and ask about

Some questions to ask the leader of the event – will anything be done to attract wildlife to the area where the photographers will be? Are animals being fed, baited or lured to the location? Are calls used?

After seeing this badger in a field the previous few nights, just before sunset I decided to sit in the field and wait. The badger came out and, instead of trying to get closer, I remained in place, quietly observing. It began exploring and rolling in the grass. Staying back allowed me to photograph this incredible behavior of a normally very skittish animal. © Sarah Killingsworth
After seeing this badger in a field the previous few nights, just before sunset I decided to sit in the field and wait. The badger came out and, instead of trying to get closer, I remained in place, quietly observing. It began exploring and rolling in the grass. Staying back allowed me to photograph this incredible behavior of a normally very skittish animal. © Sarah Killingsworth

When looking online at workshops, what are warning signs to look for? Check reviews online, and see if people talk about baiting or calls being used. Post to your network to see if anyone has used this particular guide in the past. They can share their experience with you to let you know what they saw. You can also look at images from prior workshops. For example, when owls are baited, non-native mice are often used and bait mice are sometimes (but not always) white; in nature, the mice are not typically on top of the snow; owls facing the photographer with talons outstretched to grab prey is an extremely difficult shot to get in the wild and should be questioned. Workshops that use blinds often use dead animals, scents or even dog food to lure in predators. Finland is particularly guilty of this practice for bears and wolves.

Similarly, photography game farms with captive animals, such as big cats and other predators, cater to photographers who want images of elusive or hard to find animals. The animals at these game farms are typically kept in inhumane conditions and paraded out for photographers. Some captive animals are in sanctuaries, injured or cannot be released into the wild. You can check the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries website to confirm if a sanctuary is legitimate. Even then, ask questions. While there is some debate about the ethics of zoos generally, if you want to visit a zoo, AZA accredited facilities meet higher standards for care.

Bottom line: The welfare of the animal is always more important than the shot. If you are considering any workshop for your wildlife photography, ask questions prior to booking. Ensure the highest ethics are being used. If not, move on. No shot is worth getting if it jeopardizes the welfare of the very subjects we claim to love.

Photo of Sarah Killingsworth Sarah Killingsworth is a Northern California based wildlife and conservation photographer. As a California Naturalist and parent, Sarah is passionate about sharing the magic of our wilderness areas with children, both by bringing the wild into classrooms, and in getting our youth outdoors, to learn about their environment. Always mindful of the impact of her presence on the wildlife she photographs, Sarah believes ethics is a critical component of wildlife photography.

Sarah is a member of the Board of the Environmental Action Committee of West Marin and a Wildlife Educator with Project Coyote. A frequent public speaker about coexistence with wildlife, her photography has been published in local and national media, in print and online. By connecting young and old alike to wildlife through her photography, Sarah hopes to inspire people to protect it.

Photo of Daniel DietrichDaniel Dietrich is the owner of Point Reyes Safaris, a wildlife viewing and photographic safari company operating in Point Reyes National Seashore in Northern California. Daniel sits on the Board of Directors for the Environmental Action Committee, an organization dedicated to protecting West Marin County’s wild lands, wildlife, and watersheds. Daniel is also on the ethics committee for NANPA.

Two female members in the field looking at images