How to photograph wildlife

I have been wanting to photograph animals that I have been finding recently, like salamanders, snakes, insects, frogs, maybe even a cool plant or two. But I was unsure how to do this well. Most invertebrates and plants will be relatively easy, but animals that are faster to run and hide will be much more difficult, like snakes, lizards, and salamanders. Obviously I would want to avoid handling them (especially salamanders) but what should I do if the animal hides? Lifers and rarer animals I would especially want to photograph, but I also want it to be natural and ethical. I’m not sure how I feel about posing the animal (it feels unnatural and I’m not sure it’s ethical) but would moving the animal to a clearer spot be considered posing? And also, how could I photograph a venomous snake? I would love to find a venomous snake, especially if I can get a good photograph of it, but obviously I can’t handle it so I can’t do much to keep it from running away, and again I don’t want to stress it. Also, how would I be able to do it from a safe distance?

I will be posting these photographs (especially ones of animals with bad reputation) on iNat and the Nextdoor Neighbor app. My goals with the Nextdoor app is to show my community the beautiful animals that they are too often portrayed as evil, dangerous, and disgusting creepy-crawlies and hopefully change some minds.

I am just wondering how others photograph wildlife and how to ethically do so. Any advice appreciated!

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You may be interested in these threads:
https://forum.inaturalist.org/t/the-ethics-of-herping/50898/2

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What people consider “ethical” when interacting with animals is going to vary from person to person, so this is very difficult to generalize to - you’ll need to make your own decisions there.

A few thoughts:

Any photography of a wild animal in which the animal is aware that there is an observer focusing on them is likely to be stressful to some degree. In fact, the presence of a human walking anywhere likely slightly stresses hundreds of animals that we are totally unaware of as we interact with the world. So stressing an animal isn’t a binary, but a continuum. The more intense the interaction, and the longer it is, the more stressful it is (in general). That said, animals experience stressors all the time - they can deal with some stress relatively well. So you’ll have to decide whether you are comfortable inflicting some stress for the benefit of getting a picture.

If you can take a picture without causing an animal to flee, this is probably preferable, but doesn’t mean that the animal isn’t stressed (the response of some animals to threats is to freeze, meanwhile their heartrates and energy mobilization can spike to prepare for flight if needed).

Some specific suggestions:

For photographing salamanders, you can handle relatively safely with nitrile gloves or a ziploc bag. If you find them under cover, you’ll need to move them before returning the cover object to its original location so they don’t get squashed.

For venomous snakes, your best bet is to use a zoom lens if needed, and stay a full body length away. It is possible to safely handle venomous snakes (with tongs) if you are trained. If you are interested in this, you can google training classes. Handling venomous snakes really isn’t necessary for basic pics though. Vipers (most venomous snakes you’d encounter in the US) usually stay pretty still and are some of the more cooperative photo subjects in that regards.

I personally generally try to photo without moving the animal if the pics will allow for an accurate ID in situ. If handling is needed to show a field mark, I may try to capture (if I can do so without injury) to allow more detailed photos. If I have an animal in hand, I might try to pose it since they are already stressed at that point assuming I think I can get a good pic. I generally try to make my interactions as brief as possible to limit stress.

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Thank you for this advice! I will definitely keep it in mind. I hadn’t really considered that they would be stressed regardless of handling, handling would just heighten it. I will avoid handling when possible when photographing things. I went to a National Park that has a boardwalk so I wasn’t able to get off the trail to handle even if I wanted to, but managed to photograph 7 snakes (including 4 pit vipers!). This was in the morning so they were all basking in the sun by streams. These were the best of the snakes we got, but I also got some of an owl, skink, and a macro of an orbweaver. My favorite is probably the Banded(?) Watersnake. They were all surprisingly close to the boardwalk so I could get decent photos of them.





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For snakes and invertebrates (I do a lot of flying insects, so my nature walks involve a lot of crouching in meadows swearing under my breath the the #$%#ing hoverfly won’t sit still) and other zippy things, I usually just take as many pictures as possible as quickly as possible and hope one comes out clearly. Especially for purposes of iNat identification, take a picture as soon as you get close enough that it’ll be at all in focus – it might not be something you’d want to hang on your wall, but for a lot of things it’ll still be identifiable. (And then other things you can’t identify without a microscope and a doctorate in entomology.) If you have a zoom lens and/or a camera/phone that will let you do burst photography (automatically taking a bunch of shots in a row) that can help a lot. I’ll sometimes pick up chill, slow-moving insects like most hemiptera and bumblebees to get a better picture, but otherwise the animal is just going to be so stressed and squirmy that I’m going to terrify it without actually getting a better picture.

I also recommend getting used to staying very still and waiting for the snake to poke its head out from behind the rock again, walking slowly and quietly, and going looking for reptiles and insects on nice sunny days when they might be out basking. Once something has gotten spooked and vanished under the underbrush, it’s usually just gone. But if you can spot the lizard out on the rock or the wasp all posed beautifully on that flower, you should have a chance of getting a good picture before it notices you’re there.

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Oh, these are beautiful! :-D

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Thank you so much!! I will definitely keep this in mind next time. I tried to get an owl flying away and it was definitely a moment of panic! This will be very helpful when I need to catch something like that again!!

[yoda] When dragonflies, you wish to photograph, patience you must cultivate. Patience, and fast shutter speed. [/yoda]

In other words, I hear ya. Also, it’s nice to see another obvious Tolkien fan on the forum. :grin:

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Look for diurnal insects early in the morning before they become active. Or near dusk when they’ve settled in for the night. I’m in Colorado right now and I’ve learned to look for roosting butterflies on sagebrush at dusk. when I’m here visiting my son. Never see them on other plants here.

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