the ethics of photography

How far do you go to make a picture? Making a good picture is important, but against what costs? There is always a debate about disturbance and photography. Photographers are said to cause a lot of disturbance while taking their pictures. I think it is impossible to take a nature photo without disturbance. Neither is it possible to take a walk in the park without any disturbance. There will always be birds that are scared away or you step on an ant or on a plant. So we shouldn’t be too fuzzy about disturbance, the only way not to disturb nature is to stay home.

On the other hand, I think it’s important to reduce disturbance as much as possible. For two reasons. First of all I think it’s important to reduce our impact on nature, especially in the overly crowded parts of this planet as the Netherlands. In earlier years there were only few nature photographers who went out to take pictures. They most likely caused some disturbance, but as there were only few of them, the total disturbance was small. Nowadays there are hundreds or thousands of nature photographers who all want to take that good picture (especially of that one special bird, butterfly, …). This means that the same places and birds get disturbed over and over again. Another difference between the “old” nature photographers and the new group is that the old group had a lot of knowledge, about their equipment, but also about their subjects. There are of course still enough photographers like that, but there is a growing group that just goes out to take good pictures. This results in a lot more disturbance (often to the same individuals). This is also one of the reasons why I normally don’t visit those mass-twitches anymore. I think I’d be able to come a lot closer as the whole group, but why would I be allowed to do so, while others can’t? Then I prefer to be out on my own doing my thing.



Also take into account that there is more in nature as just your subject. There is an infamous story about people taking pictures of a rare butterfly in the Netherlands. They were really careful not to disturb the butterfly or the flower it was feeding on. But meanwhile they destroyed several equally rare ant-nests of a species that the butterfly needed for its survival. Result: the photographers had nice pictures, the population of that butterfly died out. So also be careful not to destroy the environment of the subject you’re photographing.

The second (more selfish) reason why it’s better to make pictures without disturbing the subjects is that undisturbed animals make for better pictures as ones that are obviously running away or scared in another way. The picture of the Sanderling at the top of this post I could never have made if the bird would be scared of me.

Arjen Drost

Arjen is a Polar ecologist, nature photographer and full time expedition guide on expedition cruise ships in both Polar regions. With his pictures and stories he likes to show the beauty of these very fragile and threatened places.

One comment

  • Is that a worm? That’s a really unique shot. I’ve been lucky in catching a Great Blue Heron with a fish in his beak and then swallowing it whole, but never have I seen one like yours.


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