Miss the Shot
A Guide to Ethical Wildlife Photography
By Peter Yuen
Also available as full-colour PDF with images.
All rights reserved
©Peter Yuen Photography
About the Author
Chapter 1. Safety First
Chapter 2. Interfering with Nature
Chapter 3. Wilderness and Captivity
Chapter 4. Waiting or Baiting
Chapter 5. Flash and Artificial Light
Chapter 6. Honesty and Storytelling
Epilogue: Missing the Shot
Peter Yuen is Asia’s top wildlife rescue photographer as well as a passionate conservationist, working with over 30 of Asia’s best wildlife charities since 2010.
Born and raised in the UK, Peter fell into the Hong Kong corporate lifestyle after his master’s degree from the University of London. He gave up his career to pursue his passion for wildlife and moved to Cambodia to be closer to nature, until moving back to HK in 2016. With unrivalled experience, Peter has a unique understanding of the special needs that animal welfare and rescues present.
Peter also provides specialised wildlife photography tuition across Asia to tour groups, private clients, and to the charities themselves.
If you enjoy this book, please support Peter’s work by joining his crowd funding site:
Or check out his first photobook Five Rescues, a beautiful 70-page hardback with amazing and uplifting stories from five charities in five different countries across Asia.
I wrote this book to try and help current and future photographers learn how to behave responsibly around wildlife, and to understand why they need to. In the past few years I have worked with, professionals and amateurs, wildlife photographers, press photographers and so on, and many of them simply do not respect the animals.
The title of this book is a bit of a misnomer of course. The point is not really ‘missing’ the shot, but choosing not to take it, knowing when you are causing more harm than good. And that should be a mark of pride to anyone who cares about wildlife.
The most important question to ask yourself is why you are doing this. Do you care more about your portfolio than the nature you are documenting? Hopefully this guide will help you understand why you should care, both to safeguard the animals and to get better photos.
Put simply, if ‘getting the shot’ means interfering with the animal, their habitat, or their health, then put the animal before yourself and miss the shot.
I regularly see photographers who move animals to different places (more on this in Chapter 2), or that use flash on nocturnal animals, which can actually blind them for minutes if not hours (Chapter 5). Some have asked to hold up surgeries because they had the wrong lens on. I’ve even seen someone putting their arm inside a 1 square-metre bear cage to get a better shot.
Now, I have very little sympathy if someone loses their arm by deciding to put it in a bear cage, but if that had happened, the rescue would have been cancelled. In fact the rescue workers pulled him away from the cage, and he was very angry at them for not allowing him to “get the shot”!
That’s not heroic, that’s stupid, and in many cases an organisation or government may even be required to euthanise an animal who harmed a human in such a way. More about this in the first couple of chapters.
Photographers also need to be very responsible in finding the wildlife in the first place, and in Chapter 4 we will look at how baiting animals may cause them harm not only in the short term, but also change their behaviours in the long term.
A photographer is not just a conduit. Like journalists, we also have to have ethical integrity to show the truth, and I don’t just mean no Photoshopping. We have a responsibility to show things as they are, and understand the effects this honesty will have, which we will look at more in Chapter 6.
And finally, if you still aren’t convinced to follow these guidelines, then what about those better shots I mentioned? Throughout the book we look at how showing respect for nature and wildlife will help you get better photos.
Being a good wildlife photographer is about telling stories and helping others to gain a respect for nature, and we can only do that if we respect nature ourselves. Sometimes that means choosing to miss the shot.
First thing’s first: stay safe. The safety of both humans and wildlife is the most important thing. In fact, the whole reason to care about any of this is to avoid any suffering of the animals, no matter how small it might be. Almost every chapter of this book ultimately has one goal, and that is to minimise the effect of your actions on the wildlife.
Even if you make sure the animal is safe and free from injury, irresponsible actions could still cause harm later. The moment an animal sees you or smells you, you have an effect, and the most likely effect is stress. You will be an unknown and probably be seen as a predator or competitor as they get ready for a fight or flight response.
As we will see in later chapters, this stress can change behaviours such as not eating or escaping into another animal’s territory. Who knows what that could lead to.
And of course, we don’t want you getting hurt either. The question I am most often asked is “have you ever been attacked by an animal” or some variation on this theme. Now, you may not care if you get a small injury, or you may even want a great story to tell if you get a ‘battle scar’ from an animal. But consider this: you might not mind getting hurt, but if you care at all about the animals you will take the utmost care.
The fact is that if I ever get hurt on a rescue or a photo shoot, the animals are the ones who will suffer. If you get injured, focus will turn away from providing care to the animals, and on to providing care for you. In circumstances like rescues, the animals will have to wait longer, or not be rescued at all. In some cases and in some countries, animals that have attacked humans may even have to be euthanised.
And if all that isn’t enough to convince you to be cautious: if you get hurt you won’t be able to get any more photos. So be careful out there.
Now that we make sure that the animals and ourselves are safe and sound, we can start to think about the next level of care and consideration: to minimise the stress and interference as much as possible. That doesn’t sound very adventurous does it? So let’s remind ourselves again that our photos are not the most important thing when we are shooting wildlife. The animals are.
Just by observing, you can stress the animals out. Don’t forget that, from their point of view, you are pointing a big eye directly at them (eye contact is rarely a friendly greeting in the animal kingdom). Even a domestic cat or dog may suffer stress from strangers, people who aren’t used to handling animals, and us photographers. They may try to hide or show signs of discomfort or fear.
There’s one simple rule regardless if the animal is wild or a pet. If they show any signs of nervousness or stress, stop and walk away. No excuses, no exceptions.
Just stop and wait. Point the camera away, walk away or even leave the area if you have to. Miss the shot, there will be other moments.
But why do we have to miss the shot? It’s just a few seconds or a few minutes, it’s not like we’re hurting them right?
Well, just like humans, stress can change a lot of behaviours and cause a lot of harm to animals. Have you ever lost your appetite because of nerves? Have you ever had a confrontation at work or an argument in the street? Did it ruin your day?
It’s the same for animals, and more so for wildlife. In fact, animals can, and regularly do, die just from the stress of captivity, capture or even rescue. It’s a serious issue. If they see a predator or competitor, they may feel stress. They may stop what they were doing, which may have been foraging for food or hunting. They may abandon the area as no longer their own, or just run away from you into another animal’s territory. They might stay alert for a long period of time, refusing to eat if they think they are under threat (even my dog does this if there is another animal around).
Most of this is very simple, it’s a case of understanding what is your job and what is the animal’s job. The animal’s job is to be an animal, your job is everything else. The light or composition is bad, the animal isn’t facing the right way, the background isn’t nice, whatever it may be. As a photographer, these are all your problems and if you can’t get it right, you need to improve and plan ahead, not interfere with the animal to get a better photo. There is usually a simple solution to most of these anyway: patience.
I have cancelled entire photo shoots because the animals were not comfortable, and I am proud of that. My photographs are my problem to deal with, not the animal’s. No excuses, no exceptions.
I know a photographer who picks up small animals and places them where he wants them. Not too far away, and perhaps he even puts them back afterwards. This is not ok.
Sometimes it’s unavoidable. Animals may come to investigate you and your setup. There’s nothing wrong with this if this is their decision. Indeed it’s quite common among wildlife that are used to people in cities, tourist areas and so on. So as long as you are both safe then enjoy your moment, but don’t encourage this behaviour. Bear in mind even by being kind to wildlife, by feeding them or encouraging them, you can be hurting them. For example, animals fed by humans can often become reliant on humans for food in the future. Or imagine you are in an area in which animals are hunted. If they see humans as friends they may learn that humans are safe, and become more likely to approach hunters in future.
All this helps your photography too. There’s a reason that wildlife photographers use long lenses, and why birdwatchers have elaborate hides and camouflage. The less you are noticed, the more wildlife you will see, and the more natural behaviours you will be able to capture in your photos too. I once took photos with my own pet dog in an unfamiliar place with another dog around. She was nervous, her ears were back and she wouldn’t make eye contact. The photos weren’t good, and looking at them now just reminds me that she was uncomfortable.
Just like humans, sometimes the best moments are not posing uncomfortably for the camera, but candid shots of people acting naturally. So do yourself a favour too and interfere as little as possible.
As we have noted already, there are differences in dealing with wildlife, captive animals and pets, but the basics are still the same: respect the animals and if they are uncomfortable, walk away.
Firstly, remember that when dealing with captive animals at sanctuaries or zoos, domesticated animals like horses, or even people’s pets, the danger is no different. A stressed dog backed into a corner may just as soon bite as a wild animal. A tiger bite in an enclosure will hurt you just as easily as a much as a bite from a wild tiger.
It’s tempting to get complacent, especially when photographing captive animals, but stay alert at all times. Remember to look outside of your viewfinder occasionally to make sure you are not too close. Objects in the rear view mirror may be closer than they appear! If you are photographing your subject then you should already be paying close attention to their behaviour. Understand the species you are photographing, and their signs of stress. A cute smile from a primate may actually be a sign of aggression. A big yawn from a dog doesn’t mean they are sleepy and relaxed, it may mean they feel anxious. So while you are watching, if you notice they are scared or stressed, walk away.
And I don’t just mean wait, I mean stop, turn the lens away or walk even away. Let them see you have left, let them relax. Try again later. Be patient.
With captive animals you must also respect the carers. If a pet owner asks you not to do something, don’t do it. If they tell you a dog will not be happy doing something you ask, then respect that.
Don’t interfere with their schedules for feeding and so on. Separating an animal from its group to get a better photo may cause stress or confusion. Feeding treats or extra food to domestic or captive animals may be ok, or it may not. It may interfere with their diet or cause aggression or competition among other animals who didn’t get extra food. Be patient, try to get what you need without any such interference. If the carers tell you it is ok, then do what they allow, but ask first.
Another quick note that wont come up every day: if there are any activities being performed such as rescues or veterinary procedures, do not interfere. Don’t get in the way, don’t hold anything up, even for one second. Don’t ask people to pose or slow any of the activities that are happening, by accident or because you want to get a certain shot.
In surgeries, rescues and other time-critical activities, every second counts. Getting the shot is not more important than the welfare of the animals. Be invisible.
Finding captive animals is the easiest part, but that doesn’t mean they are easy to photograph. Any good sanctuaries or zoos will have many areas for the animals to hide themselves away. If they haven’t, and the animals are always in full view, you should probably rethink if this is a place you want to be visiting. What this means is yet again, patience is the key. Find out when the animals will be fed, and plan your shooting schedule around that. Indeed, good facilities will usually provide mental stimulation and encourage natural behaviour in their animals by hiding food around the enclosures, giving you plenty of chances to see the animals outside.
As always, there are many shades of grey in dealing with wildlife. Leaving bird or squirrel feeders in your garden are generally considered acceptable. Feeding other wild animals such as badgers in Europe, monkeys in Asia, or leaving food waste for bears in North America, may be frowned upon. Not only may these animals may be considered pests or disease carriers, they may start relying on humans for food and become unable to survive in the wild. In many countries there may be programmes to kill many of these animals to keep populations under control, so by encouraging them you may be leading them to their death. There is no right or wrong, but think hard, and talk to many people in local wildlife groups to see what is best for the animals.
City animals who already live among humans are one thing, but most people accept that baiting wild animals for photography is not good for the animals. Not only may people consider a ‘fakeness’ to the resulting photos, you are interfering with their natural behaviours in a way described in the previous chapters.
A perfect example of this is bird baiting. Playing recorded bird calls from a speaker can be used to attract rare birds, either being mistaken for a potential mate or a competitor. Birds which are already under tremendous pressure to survive will stop whatever they were doing and go to the fake bird call. They may have been looking for food or feeding their chicks, and have to investigate this potential threat.
Even worse than bird calls, in 2015 a group of Singapore photographers were caught baiting eagles with live fish injected with air (and in some cases stuffed with styrofoam). The live fish then struggle and float on the surface so the group could get an easy shot of a bird swooping down to catch this. Firstly, would you feel proud to display that on your wall and call it ‘nature’ when it wasn’t natural situation? Secondly, not only do the fish suffer horribly, but the bird (in this case endangered) will almost certainly die if it eats such a large amount of styrofoam.
Does it get worse than that? I’m afraid so. Photographers have also been caught tying down baby birds in order that their cries will attract the parents so they can photograph them. If you are in any doubt as to how ethical this is, consider that this is the same trick used by poachers to capture and kill birds, bears and any other species they can find. But hey, anything to ‘get the shot’, right?
Yet again, think about the story you want to tell with your photographs. Would you be proud getting a photo of a rare bird you attracted with a bluetooth speaker, who then ate live bait you laid down and then probably died? It’s an extreme example, but the principle is the same. We should feel proud and happy looking at our photos, knowing we didn’t have a negative effect on nature, no matter how small.
So we are left with the good old fashioned ways of finding out where they live, where they have been previously sighted, having a little patience and a lot of luck.
Finally, when you do find them, be careful of identifying where they are. It is not always a good idea to publish exact locations or geotag the photos, depending on the species. For wildlife found via research or camera traps, and for situations like endangered species releases, you may be just inviting hunters to come and find them as well. In Vietnam I was on a release of 24 sunda pangolins, a rare species which is very sought after by poachers. Not only was the release site kept a secret, but great care was taken to make sure no identifying landmarks or maps could be seen in the photos. If you think this might endanger the animals, then avoid it.
Don’t use flash. End of story.
Ok, let’s explain a little more. In low-light situations, you can use as high an ISO and as low a shutter speed as possible. If you still can’t get a clear enough shot then you may feel like you want to break out your flash unit in order to ‘get the shot’. This is generally a bad idea.
Firstly, you may scare the animals. The stress of a big human moving around their habitat, smelling up the place and pointing already intimidating equipment at them (remember the huge eye you’re pointing at the animals) now shoots flashing lights directly into their eyes. Remember the earlier discussion about stress and its negative effects? This is one of the worst, and also has a good chance of scaring off the animals anyway.
Scaring them is one thing, how about blinding them? Some nocturnal animals’ eyes can be extremely sensitive to light; they have to be in order to survive in the darkness. When you use a flash in your own eyes, you can’t see for a few seconds, so imagine what it’s like for a nocturnal animal with much more sensitive eyes. Depending on the animal, estimates of how long they are blinded for are between a few minutes and a few hours. During that time they are panicked (don’t forget they are still right next to the scary human who did this to them), and they are unable to escape, find food or escape predators. Don’t do it.
Some animals like pet cats or dogs may be ok with flash. If you want to use flash in these situations, ask the carers first. Personally, I say just don’t do it. Use a reflector if you have to, but in the long term, it’s just better to learn the hard way. I guarantee if you miss the shot because of the time of day or standing at the wrong angle, you won’t next time.
In the early evening or indoors, usually there will be enough ambient light to get a photo with modern cameras. What about in extremely dark conditions like night-time in the countryside?
If you must, use your torch or head lamp, you probably have one with you anyway. But even then, try shining it in your eyes. I bet it’s still uncomfortably bright. Use it on the lowest setting possible, and only shine it on the animals while you are taking a photo.
Better yet, use a red light. Some head lamps have a red-light mode, or you can buy dedicated red light torches. You can also buy plastic covers for your torch or head lamp to filter out just the red light.
Why use a red light? I’m no biologist, but all you need to know is that most nocturnal animals’ eyes are unable to detect some frequencies of red light. While these nocturnal animals have evolved to see at night, we are more general purpose creatures.
Our eyes are less sensitive than theirs, but we can detect a greater range of wavelengths. In short, we can see them but they can’t see us. Red lights don’t disturb them while you’re taking your photos.
I have shot various nocturnal animals in captivity and in the wild, but I have never used flash and I never will. Every animal is different too. I frequently photograph captive pangolins, and they have never been bothered by torches. Their carers use head lamps every day while they are feeding, cleaning and so on, so they may have gotten used to it. On one photo shoot for slow lorises on the other hand, they were very bothered by a low-level head lamp. When a red-light was used instead they simply went about their business and ignored me.
Your photos are going to be red, of course, and for some cameras this is also going to increase the amount of red noise (which will already be huge because of the high ISO you will probably be using). This is unavoidable, but these photos can look a better (and more atmospheric) in black and white.
In my experience, the idea that the animals can’t detect this light at all is a bit of an exaggeration, but it really does make a huge difference in their behaviour. Not only this, but your photos will have a completely different feel. To me, these photos show how mysterious and intimate these encounters were, and isn’t that how you want people to feel when you think about those animals?
As always, if the welfare of the animals isn’t reason enough, then maybe your photos are. You might find using a flash will get you a better quality photo, but that’s a narrow definition of quality. Sure, you will have less noise if you are pixel-peeping and only care about the technical aspects of a photo. But nature photography is not about adding artificial lighting, it’s about understanding the world around you. Do you think your viewers will feel a deeper connection to a rare nocturnal animal if they see a pixel-perfect, well-lit photo of one? Or would you connect with them better if they could feel what it was really like to be there with them, in the dark, seeing how they really live.
If light is bad, choose a different location or time of day. Skip the easy option and instead make an effort to connect with nature, I promise you that people will be able to feel it through your photos.
Good photos tell a story, so make sure it’s a real one. Photos can show what we want them to show, so we have a responsibility to make sure they reflect reality. Take honest photos, and let those photos speak for themselves.
Remember the example of that photographer putting his arm into the bear cage because the bars were in the way? Forgetting the safety issue, think about it for a minute, what kind of photo tells a better story of this bear, being rescued from years in a cage? A photo of the bear’s face with no other context, or a photo of the bear behind bars?
In the same way, it’s not always necessary to get close to an animal, or attract its attention. What tells the story of your wild subject better: staring at the camera or foraging, on a hunt or displaying other natural behaviours?
Don’t pretend staged situations are natural. This cuts both ways. If you are documenting cruelty, just show the facts. Don’t make it look any better or worse than it is. And if you are taking photos in the wild or at a sanctuary, there is no need to hide that fact, or make it look more than it is either. No situation (or photo) is perfect.
Be honest, show what is there, and tell people about what they are seeing so we can all understand nature a little better.
Hopefully, nothing in this book should be surprising, but I also hope that it stays in your mind whenever you are working with animals. We should strive to have the absolute minimum effect on wildlife and their environment as possible.
Doing anything to ‘get the shot’ has become some misguided badge of honour for photographers. Our photos should help to show the beauty of nature, so we shouldn’t detract from it, even a little bit.
If you’ve got this far into the book, I know that you already care enough about wildlife. So I hope you agree that next time there’s any doubt in your mind, you will decide that the animal’s welfare is more important than just ‘getting the shot’. And you should be proud.
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The idea of that photographers must do anything to 'get the shot' is not always good for nature. Miss the Shot: A Guide to Ethical Wildlife Photography is a short guide for any photographer working with animals, taking a look at a range of topics such as baiting, use of artificial light, interfering with nature and journalistic integrity. This quick and simple guide helps photographers understand when and why they should decide not to 'get the shot'. And that should be a mark of pride to anyone who cares about wildlife.