As a wildlife, among other things, photographer, the primary rule I live by is “do no harm.” Now let me start by saying, I came into photography from my love of hunting, so this isn’t going to be a touchy-feely-hug-the-animals type of post. I gave up the gun, and picked up the camera, solely because I received the same satisfaction from bringing home a great photograph, as I did from bringing home something to eat. I did not suddenly become an anti-hunter. I still love a good venison steak (Dan, if you’re reading this, that’s a big hint); and the drake black duck, forever flying above my desk, brings back fond memories of many days in the marsh with a shotgun and a good dog. But in my pursuit of wildlife to photograph, where the result won’t be eaten, I will do everything in my power to make sure my presence does not harm, or stress the subject in any way.
When I’m out on the lake photographing loons, I let them dictate how close I can get. I will paddle my kayak in their general direction, but stop paddling quite a ways away and just drift in. I’ve been able to get to within 50-60 feet, sometimes closer, of a pair of feeding birds, and closer still to one that appeared to be sleeping. Not once would I pursue a bird that was moving away. The loons come to “our” lake to nest each Spring, and they have enough to deal with, with the boat and jet-ski traffic, without some nut in a kayak with a camera chasing them down for a lousy photograph.
While photographing beaver last Spring, one was so comfortable with my presence, it actually let me get too close. Because of this, I was unable to get a photograph of the whole beaver in the frame with a 300mm lens. Another beaver on the other hand, popped up from under the ice, saw me and immediately turned tail in a splash of water, and was gone. I think the close-up, frame-filling portraits, made for even better images, but wish I was able to get at least one full body shot.
The bears, the bears. . . now THAT was a little different. I have to admit to being just plain lucky on these. The above image was shot through only a 200mm lens, and is only slightly cropped, to give an idea of how close I was. I would never, and I do mean never, intentionally get this close to a sow with cubs, both for the safety of the bears and myself. We’ve all heard the stories of a mother protecting her young, not good. But they did let me photograph them for almost 45 minutes before they decided to wander off. Most of that time “mama” was asleep. She would occasionally sit up to look around, but then lay back down and go back to sleep. While I was shooting, I was doing my best to send happy thoughts to the cubs. I had a feeling that if they were happy and relaxed with my presence, and they did know I was there, all would be well. But if there was one little cry, whimper, or whine of distress, I was going to get my butt handed to me by one irate mother bear. The worst part for me, assuming I survived such an encounter, would be the knowledge that the bear likely would be shot as a danger to people. All because I got too close and paid a price for it. I’m a firm believer that people should suffer the consequences of their stupidity, and not as in this case, the bear. As it is, the place I photographed them from, a campground in Crawford Notch, brings them in contact with people more often than they should, increasing the odds that there will be human-bear encounters.
It all boils down to this in my opinion: If the animal you are trying to photograph shows any increased level of stress or alarm, you are too close, period. No photograph is worth harming the animals’ well-being, or your own with wildlife that can possibly kill, and even eat you. Personally, I’m only willing to suffer so much for my art, and becoming the end result of the digestive process is not on that list.