UAVs AND AERIAL PHOTOGRAPHY: Ethics

Story and photography by Ralph Bendjebar

As the use of UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles) has become more commonplace in aerial photography and videography, the inevitable questions arise about their ethical use: What are the responsibilities of operators to ensure that they comply not only with the legal restrictions concerning commercial use (FAA Certificate of Authority and legal use in the National Airspace), but also the responsibility to adhere to the ethical standards we impose upon ourselves when doing land-based photography/videography.

We as photographers/videographers have a responsibility to tread lightly when photographing nature. If we disturb wildlife in the act of recording images or footage by altering the behavior of the animal or disrupting its environment, we have crossed an ethical boundary that is hard to justify. Most of us have a reasonable sense of when that boundary is crossed. For example, if a safari vehicle intersects a cheetah in the act of stalking prey, forcing it to abandon the hunt, that is unacceptable from an ethical standpoint. But if that same vehicle causes zebras or wildebeest to maneuver out of the way, most of us would consider that acceptable. The line between what is and is not considered ethical can be difficult to determine, but the question that needs to be asked is: Does my act of recording images/footage interfere with the normal behavior of the animal?

The same question should be asked if using UAVs to record images or footage of animal behavior. I’ll give you an example from my own experience. A couple of years ago, I brought my first UAV, a Phantom 2 using a GoPro camera, to Tanzania to record footage on a photo safari. This was before the use of UAVs was recently prohibited by Tanzanian National Parks Authority due to their employment by ivory poachers.

While in Tarangire National Park I launched the UAV to record footage of a small herd of elephants. Even though it remained many hundreds of feet away from the elephants and well above them, I noticed that as soon as I moved it closer, they became agitated and moved away from the sound of the device. Small UAVs typically sound like a swarm of bees from the noise of the propellers. The sound was no louder at altitude than the sound of a safari vehicle, but it nevertheless caused the elephants to react in alarm. Perhaps they associate the sound with African bees, an aggressive insect. I had caused the animals to change their behavior, however unintentionally, but I learned from crossing that ethical line.

Does that mean that wildlife and UAVs are incompatible in all instances? Is the very act of launching them an assault on any form of wildlife? I don’t think so, because many animals are not negatively affected, any more than they are disturbed by motor vehicles or remotely operated cameras or manned aircraft. But we should not intrude into the unique and species-specific “personal space” within which that animal or herd or flock feels secure.

When it comes to recording aerial images/footage of remote landscapes, the issue of wildlife is not a factor (unless it is nearby). But the next question that must be asked is how the use of UAVs disturbs people who by their proximity to the flight would be affected (possibly in a negative way due to noise or an unintended accident). My advice is to ask before launch, if possible, and explain your purpose. Much goodwill can be gained and you can garner a positive image for UAVs and those who use them to present a unique and dramatic vision of our natural world.


Ralph Bendjebar is a resident of Minnesota who retired from Northwest Airlines in 2007 as an Airbus 330 captain. He currently works part-time for Boeing as a B-787 flight instructor. Ralph’s photography career started with an avid interest in landscape photography that morphed into a further interest in wildlife. He loves photographing big cats on photo safaris, and his most recent trip in January 2016 was to his favorite location, the Serengeti.