Guest article by Tim J. Hopwood
I’ve loved birds and wildlife ever since I can remember. As an 8 year-old, my bedroom walls were adorned with ID posters of my local birds, my book shelves held all sorts of bird guides and picture books and my prized possession was a pair of birding binoculars I’d gotten as a birthday gift from my parents. Whilst this passion subsided somewhat in my adolescence, it never went away and some 20 years later my first in-person view of hummingbird buzzing about a flowering bush re-ignited the fascination. The timing also happened to coincide with the purchase of my first DSLR camera, and from there it was a slippery slope as I fell in love with bird photography and all the fun and travails that this hobby brings!
Bird photography is being embraced at an exponential rate and is apparently the fastest growing hobby in North America. I’m heartened that many wildlife organisations have provided excellent ‘ethical guidelines’ to help ensure that the birds are around for everyone to enjoy well into the future. Rather than repeat those, I’d like to share some wisdom for those beginning their journey as bird photographers. I’ve made my fair share of mistakes, and done things I realise in hindsight were not ethically mindful, so hopefully these tips and thoughts will help you avoid my missteps.
Most consumer cameras produced in the last 5 years have high megapixels and a resolution we could have only dreamed about 10 years ago. As such, images taken from distance can be readily cropped and still produce a high-quality image. Likewise, affordable high quality telephoto zooms lenses have been available for the last 5-10 years, again letting you get close-up images without being physically closer. And finally, given that most photographers’ images only ever end up on social media (if anywhere) these pics will only get viewed on tiny cellphone screens, so even the need for high resolution images has decreased significantly.
Personally, I am not a fan of song playback…it clearly provokes a reaction/response (i.e. agitates) the birds & I have never truly felt ‘ethically comfortable’ about its use. Studying & getting to know the birds beforehand will give you a great chance to find & photograph a bird naturally, and you’ll get pics of a calm/content bird rather than one looks obviously agitated, not to mention being personally far more comfortable about how the image was obtained. Note: I have many professional bird guides as friends and I don’t have a problem with the use of playback by such people who know the birds intimately and know when & how to use playback in a judicious and sparing way.
I feel these have no place at all in hobbyist wildlife photography. Just about all the footage I see is showing clearly disturbed birds. For example, a drone flying over wetlands scattering fleeing shorebirds and ducks in all directions, or birds attacking drones which they see as some sort of predator or threat. Also, sadly, many inaccessible areas like islands and deep valleys that used to be havens from people are no longer so. That, and there is nothing more annoying than hearing that horrible mosquito-like buzzing flying around, feeling like you’re being watched, whilst disturbing everyone else’s moment of peace in nature.
Inevitably, you will end up disagreeing with some peole on certain points above and, typically, when they can’t defend the ethics of what they’re doing their final resort is to say “Well, it’s not illegal”. And that’s where ethics come into play—just because you can legally do something, does that mean it’s the right thing to do?
How to practise ethical photography and create something extraordinary…
Don’t chase the birds – let them come to you. When you see ducks or shorebirds, observe which way they are heading, then find a spot some distance away to sit/lie down that is in the birds’ general path. Many ducks and shorebirds will realise you are not a threat and will gradually work their way towards & past you. On too many occasions to remember, this technique has led to me being surrounded by feeding sandpipers within touching distance and it’s wonderful just to put the camera down & enjoy the experience.
Try your local pond or park—typically the birds here are used to people & less sensitive to disturbance. Ducks especially will often come very close as they paddle around the pond.
‘Make the ordinary look extraordinary’—rather than going after rare or uncommon birds (that can probably benefit with as little additional attention from humans as possible), I much prefer the challenge of getting unique/unusual/interesting pictures of common birds. The sense of satisfaction and ‘ethical feel good factor’ of getting such an image is far greater, for me, than getting an average/boring picture of a rare bird that I potentially adversely disturbed whilst obtaining it.
I think it’s pretty easy to be an ethical bird photographer, and feeling good and guilt-free about how you got your images is something you simply can’t measure!Tom Hopwood
The mysteries of nature reveal themselves to those who become part of it—respecting the earth and its creatures as one. Tim’s captivating photos show the rewards of treading this ethical path, being #mindful and deliberate in preserving nature for our children to inherit.
You can help elevate ethical photography by supporting the work of photographers like Tim!