FIELD ETIQUETTE FOR NATURE PHOTOGRAPHERS
Back in 2006 when I was first getting interested in bird photography,
I received the e-mail below a few days ago:
Hope you don’t think is to dumb of a question J Being a beginner in bird photography, what’s the etiquette for approaching other photographers that are already on location capturing birds? For example…you’re on a beach photographing a pelican. I’m coming up from behind. Do I ask if it’s ok to approach? Stand behind you at a safe distance? Go somewhere else? Do something else? The reason I ask is, the last thing I want to do is lose a chance for the other guy cause I approached incorrectly, or maybe clicked my shutter (or flash) before he did…causing the bird to take off. Thanks, Doug
I realized that this topic is one that I discuss often with my IPT groups but that I had never written specifically about it… So I did. Thanks Doug!
Field Etiquette for Nature Photographers
I was walking along a narrow path next to the lagoon. About 50 yards ahead of me there were two American Oystercatchers foraging. The only problem was that 35 yards ahead of me a photographer lay on his belly photographing the pair. They were catching big worms and the light was lovely… What to do? The guy on the wet sand was facing away and was not aware that I was there. If I called to him (to ask if I could join him) I risked scaring the birds away. So I stood there for 30 minutes and watched enviously. Finally I decided that I would join him by starting my crawl from way back so as not to flush the birds.
I advanced slowly a few yards, remaining well outside of this species usual circle of fear. I slowly and carefully got down on one knee and the birds did not notice me, but as I lowered myself to the prone position, one of the birds (to my dismay) screamed its strident alarm call. Both birds leaned forward and took flight. I felt absolutely terrible and was about to explain that I had waited for half an hour when the photographer turned towards me and exclaimed, “Artie, it’s great to see you!” Then Tim Fitzharris (friend, well-known professional nature photographer, and one of the folks who inspired me early on) reached into an upper pocket, grabbed his walkie-talkie, raised his wife (who was in their small motor home nearby with their son Jesse), and said, “Joy, you would not believe whom I met while crawling in the mud.”
Folks are usually not so glad to see you when you scare their subjects away…
You are walking down a desolate beach when you see a photographer working a beautiful Reddish Egret, a species you have dreamed of photographing. What to do? First off, as we saw in the example above, you need to stay well back. If you opt to leave the photographer and his subject, be sure to give both a wide berth while passing them. Many photographers think, “I will be polite and walk around this situation,” and then they choose a route that flushes the bird (or especially, the flock of birds; it is usually easier to approach a single bird than it is to approach a flock: scare one, scare all…) As a general rule, plan your route by doubling the distance that you think necessary to avoid flushing the subject(s).
You have another option if the photographer is aware of your presence. You can then ask as quietly as possible or gesture by pointing appropriately to indicate “Can I join you?” If they nod or assent, you need to be especially careful as to how you make your approach. First, you must consider your route. Approaching from directly behind the photographer is almost always best. You can actually hide behind the person who was there first as you make your approach. If the photographer is standing, you need to keep the front leg of your tripod low; it is often best to carry your tripod in front of you (rather than on your shoulder). And you need to move slowly, very slowly. I am often amazed at folks who think that “slowly” means to walk as if you were in a supermarket… If you are walking through shallow water or muck or algae, listen to your footsteps. By doing so and placing each foot down carefully you can make your approach much less obtrusive.
If the photographer is kneeling you need to get on your knees while you are well back and then make your approach slowly. If the photographer is down on his belly, you need to get down on your belly, again, while you are well back, and crawl your way in. Walking right up to a photographer who is either kneeling or crawling is unconscionable. In all cases your number one concern must be to avoid flushing the subject or the flock.
If there is only one flock of birds in sight, and there are several photographers already in position, then you have a bit more freedom; you can approach carefully without asking, but again, you need to take great care to avoid flushing the flock. There are many grey areas here… In some situations, as with an obviously tame bird, you can simply approach without much concern. An example might be a fisherman-friendly Great Blue Heron that is used to being in close proximity to humans. As with all aspects of photography, knowing your subject is of tantamount importance. If I came across someone photographing a Horned Lark while lying flat on the grass I would never even consider approaching as this species is notoriously flighty.
If you encounter a tour group that is photographing the only birds on the beach, then joining them would—in my opinion—be appropriate. If, however, they are tossing fish to attract the birds, then it might be inappropriate to join them unless you ask or are invited to do so. An option would be to take a position well behind the group while using a longer lens. And, by the way, if you are a member of a tour group, the restrictions on approaching birds or animals being photographed by another member of the group are greatly relaxed. That said, be sure to move slowly and to get low if need be. And if you are a member of a tour group, it is imperative that you be doubly considerate of other photographers who are not part of your group
(At Homer, Alaska, this past March I spent more than $1,400 on fish for the Bald Eagles; herring is a healthy eagle snack. Many photographers, certainly more than a dozen, followed my group around the Spit as if they were members of the group. They joined right in, often getting in front of the folks in my group. Though I did not say a word—except to those who carelessly stepped in front of others—I firmly believe that their behavior was inappropriate. When folks are paying for a service, it’s rude to intrude.)
In all group situations, it is imperative to be aware of the position of the others in the group. If someone is looking through their viewfinder at a subject, you are not free to walk in front of them as you please. To do so is very inconsiderate. You can either walk behind them or, you can ask them if it would be OK for you to pass. When I want to get by someone quickly, I often stand just outside the field of view and say “Say when…” implying that they should let me know when it is OK to pass.
If you want to walk in front of someone who is changing teleconverters or chatting with a friend then you can do so with impunity. I saw a woman at the Venice Rookery berate another photographer for walking in front of her tripod mounted lens (even though the complaining photographer was more than 10 feet away from her lens! If you are photographing with a group, and you opt to stay well back from the subject or the flock while everyone else is photographing the same subjects from much closer range, it is usually best for you to adjust your position in response to the folks up front changing their positions. I have seen folks photographing from hundreds of yards away chastise other photographers who were working a tame subject from much closer range. If you choose to stay well back, you are the one who needs to move a bit…
If you have worked hard to get close to a great subject or a flock of birds (working the edge of a flock is usually best…), be sure to exit as carefully as you approached so that you do not disturb the birds. And that is true whether you are by yourself or with a large group. I have –countless times in a variety of situations—seen a selfish photographer who is finished working a bird or a group of birds simply stand up when they were done thus flushing the bird(s). That is like saying, “I am done and I do not care at all about you or the birds…”
If you are photographing migrant songbirds in wooded areas or edges (such as The Tip at Point Pelee National Park near Leamington, Ontario or at the Convention Center on Padre Island, TX), the guidelines are quite different. If there are several photographers around, it is pretty much open season as the warblers, tanagers, vireos, and the rest of the cast are usually intent on feeding and are pretty much oblivious to our movements. Be sure, however, to move slowly, to be fairly quiet, and to avoid cutting in front of others. In such situations the birds move to the next bush or fly away pretty much when they are ready to… On the other hand, if there is a single photographer in the woods working a thrush—they are usually quite skittish, it is usually be best to take another path and search for your own bird. Another option would be to stand quietly and hope that the bird moves towards your position.
Here are some guidelines when photographing from your vehicle on a refuge tour route or a shoreline with vehicle access (like East Beach at Fort DeSoto Park in St. Petersburg, FL.) If the car in front of you is close to a skittish subject, it is best to either give them a few minutes with the subject before trying to get into position, or, if possible, to pass them without scaring off the subject. If in doubt, it is best to give them a few minutes with the subject before you attempt to go by them. If you are sure that the bird or animal is tame, you can approach at any time. When you do approach, do so slowly and with extreme care. It is best to approach subjects with your telephoto lens in place on the window; raising the lens and sticking it out the window once you are close to the subject will often frighten it away. Here’s another fine point: if you position your vehicle in front of the car that was on the scene first and the animal moves towards you position, you are not obligated to move your vehicle. If the other driver is savvy, they will simply pull ahead of you and hope—as is often the case—that the subject continues to move in the same direction.
Under no circumstances is it permissible to leave your vehicle and approach a photographer working from their vehicle. At Merritt Island, I had just pulled up to a huge flock of White Pelicans doing their group feeding thing in a pool right next to the road when a car pulled up behind me. The guy got out with an intermediate telephoto lens and the birds all flew away, about two miles away… And a few days ago at DeSoto I had a group of five American Avocets right outside my car. Another photographer left his vehicle, walked several hundred yards towards my position with his big lens on his shoulder, and scared all the birds away. You gotta love it. When the inevitable occurs, it is fine—if you are comfortable doing so—to let the offender know politely that their behavior was inappropriate. No matter how egregious the offense, screaming or cursing will not help the situation at all.
It goes without saying that we all must follow the rules when working in controlled areas. If the signs say “Stay on the Path,” then we must stay on the path. If the sign says “Area Closed,” then we must not enter. To do otherwise gives all photographers a black mark. (At present, because of the actions of a relatively few, many refuge managers consider all photographers criminals.) If you encounter another photographer breaking the rules or you might consider informing them as politely as possible that their behavior is improper. If the other photographer ignores your request, it is best to move on. You might consider jotting down a description or better yet, a license plate number, and letting the authorities know what you observed. When doing so you are—in my opinion—obligated to leave your contact information.
The suggestions above are only guidelines (but they are based on 23 years of field experience). There are surely lots of grey areas and close calls. At all times it is best to obey the posted rules, to be considerate of others and the subjects that they are photographing, and to remember that no image is worth disregarding the welfare of the creature that we are photographing.
Keywords: bird photography etiquette, doug west, doug west bird photography, doug west photography, doug west photography, llc, field etiquette, nature field etiquette
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