The Cost of a Photo

Photographs by David W. Shaw

A PRO’S TAKE ON LOW-IMPACT WILDLIFE PHOTOGRAPHY

[by David W. Shaw]


Late August, early in the morning, and through the rising fog I could just make out the flocks of sandhill cranes, geese, and ducks as they descended in swirls from the gray sky. I stood at the field edge, my camera and oversized lens mounted atop a tripod in front of me. As the birds flew past, I pressed the shutter and my camera quietly purred off shots.

For a wildlife photographer, it was a near-perfect moment—until I decided I needed a new perspective. I stepped from my spot near the trees and walked slowly around a corner. In a rush of heart-stopping sound, a group of birds I’d failed to notice exploded out of the grasses and lifted into the air in an immense blast-off.

The cranes and geese circled, sounding alarm calls for a minute or two, before eventually settling down on a distant corner of the field.

“Damn,” I muttered. It wasn’t the missed photo opportunities I cursed, though that didn’t help my frustration, but rather the fact that with one unintentional misstep, I’d disturbed a few hundred migrating birds. It wasn’t a huge impact as these things go, but migrants need every possible minute to store up reserves for the coming journey. Frankly, they had quite enough going on with the patrolling eagles, falcons, foxes, and coyotes, and they didn’t need me scaring them into flight.

A flock of sandhill cranes and geese flies through the fog at the Creamer’s Field State Water- fowl Refuge in Fairbanks.

Nature and wildlife photography is a quickly growing hobby. Visit any of Alaska’s popular destinations and you are likely to encounter an abundance of camera-toting visitors, clicking off images of bears, caribou, moose, eagles, whales, or landscapes. Photography is an exceptional way to experience Alaska, and our state seems purpose-built for the art form with big landscapes and abundant wildlife. But photography is not without impacts, and photographers can inflict unintended but serious harm on the wildlife and places we shoot.

North American Nature Photographers Association (NANPA), a professional organization, has a simple code of ethics entitled “Principles of Ethical Field Practices,” which sets guidelines for how nature photographers should conduct themselves. The onepage document is broken into three main sections: Knowledge of Subject and Place, Knowledge of Rules and Laws, and Expertise and Responsibilities.

Knowledge is key to minimizing our impacts.

In my first career, I was a wildlife biologist, and that experience has served me well as a photographer. I know how to find, identify, and determine the best time of year and day to make images of many subjects. And when I don’t know all those details, I know how to research the topic and find out. That ability is key not only to photographic success, but also to minimizing my impact on the places and animals I photograph. As an example, consider bears: Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of photographers visit Alaska each summer with the specific purpose of photographing bears. Most of that traffic heads to Katmai and Lake Clark national parks. Independent photographers who do not rely on the expertise of professional guides need to have a good understanding of bear behavior to remain safe, not stress the bears, and to get the best images possible.

Katmai bears are used to seeing humans in specific view- ing areas, but that doesn’t mean
that either species can let down their guard. Bottom: A sow brown bear and her cub take a break from fishing at the Brooks River in Katmai National Park.

A photographer who does not understand the subtle body language of a wild brown bear can easily get themselves in trouble. A turn of the head, or a change in posture, or the bear moving away or toward you, can indicate that the animal is getting stressed by your presence. If a bear is forced off its grazing area, out of its fishing spot, or away from the clam beds, it causes an additional stress on an already challenging existence.

Sure, one incident by one photographer may not be enough to cause harm, but add up hundreds of encounters a year, day after day, and there can be lasting (or even fatal) consequences to the animals. Our impacts as a community are cumulative, and that’s important to remember in the field. When we are alone with our cameras, it’s easy to forget that we are often following, quite literally, in the footsteps of others, and that more will trail behind us. Whether it’s bears on the coast of Katmai that are stressed by crowds of photographers, or the delicate tundra on a ridge top in Denali National Park that gets stomped repeatedly; our actions are just one
of many that can add up to cause lasting harm.

Our behavior as photographers also impacts how the general public perceives us. When we approach wildlife too closely, or step off the trail into a closed area, or stand rudely in front of a crowd of tourists who are trying to observe an animal, it taints all photographers.

Visit any online forum about photography and you’ll find endless discussions on how to make better images, but few if any, on how to make a better world. And yet that’s a discussion we, as photographers, need to have. Images have the power to influence change, the power for good, the power to protect and defend Alaska’s wild places and wild things. But not if we don’t defend the welfare of the subjects we photograph.

With the growth in outdoor and wildlife photography, the impacts, too, are growing. If we do not learn to police ourselves, to be aware of our impacts and to minimize them, I guarantee that someone is going to start policing us. Maybe we’ll deserve it.


David W. Shaw is a professional photographer, writer, and wildlife biologist. He lives in Fairbanks, where he spends his time making images, writing, and leading photo workshops. Learn more at explore. david-w-shaw.com.

One thought on “The Cost of a Photo

  1. Great perspective and something to be well aware of. I had a similar experience when drafting in a boat to get pictures of Loon’s, I inadvertently drifted too close to a Loon’s nest. The mom and dad were very upset. One was circling the boat underwater at an amazing speed, the other was, I’m guessing, guarding the best and giving their distress call. I felt horrible and couldn’t leave those poor parents alone fast enough. I, too, missed what could have been some great pics, but I wouldn’t have been able to enjoy them knowing what I put those parents through to get them.

    Thank you for your efforts to make more of us chasing that one ‘amazing shot’ of a wild creature on their turf. We so easily lose perspective!

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