If You Photograph Nature, You Gotta Read This! « Arthur Morris/BIRDS AS ART

If You Photograph Nature, You Gotta Read This!

If You Photograph Nature, You Gotta Read This!

Denise Ippolito at Nickerson Beach photographing terns on the morning after the IPT.

When you come across a single photographer photographing a small group of birds the best course is to let them be and to give them and the birds a wide berth as you pass by….

Image above created at f/5.6 with the:

Field Etiquette for Nature Photographers

I was walking along a narrow path next to Little Estero Lagoon while scouting for a Southwest Florida IPT. About 50 yards ahead of me there were two American Oystercatchers foraging. The only problem was that 35 yards ahead of me a photographer was lying on his belly photographing the pair of attractive birds. They were catching big worms and the light was lovely… What to do? The guy was on the wet sand was facing away and was not at all 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 with a bit of envy. 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—a friend, a well-known professional nature photographer and author, 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 just ran into 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, a 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).

If the photographer is aware of your presence, you have another option: you can 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 and you are going to approach while 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 will 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 and were late for dinner… 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 down on your knees while you are well back and then again, 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, make sure to go in low and slow. As always, you need to take great care to avoid flushing the flock. There are of course 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 paramount 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 other members 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 doubly imperative that you be doubly considerate of other photographers who are not part of your group.

… if you are a member of a tour group, the restrictions on approaching… other members of the group are greatly relaxed….”

If you’d like to join us in Katmai next September please contact me via e-mail.

Image above created with the hand held:

There is one exception to the above. If one of the group has split well off from the group and gotten close to a nice bird (or a nice flock of birds), I would suggest that you treat them as if they were a stranger, that is, with great respect.

At Homer, Alaska, when it was legal to feed the Bald Eagles there, I would routinely spend more than $1,400 on fish over a ten day period; herring is a relatively 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 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 their 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 rig!) If you are photographing with or in the vicinity of 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 a subject from a hundred yards away chastise other photographers who were working a tame subject from much closer range with short lenses. If you choose to stay well back and work with a long lens, you are the one who needs to move. With your narrow field of view you will only have to move a very short distance to get a clean shot. On the other hand, if several folks are working a subject with a long lens, it would not be proper for you to block them by approaching the subject.

If you have worked hard to get close to a great subject or a flock of birds—remember that 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 on countless occasions 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 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 to follow 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 by without scaring off the subject. If in doubt, it is best to give them a bit of time with the subject before you attempt to go by them. If you are positive that the bird or animal is tame you can approach at any time. When you do approach, do so slowly and with extreme care. On a related note, 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. (Note: if you are photographing from your vehicle with a big lens it should be on a BLUBB.) 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 will often be 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—they were herding and catching huge mullet–in a pool right next to the road when a car pulled up behind me. A guy got out with an intermediate telephoto lens and all the birds flew away, about two miles away… At East Beach at Fort 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 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. Best would be to photograph the offending photographer in action and then photograph their license plate. When you do opt to report someone to the authorities you are—in my opinion—obligated to leave your contact information.

The suggestions above are guidelines based on my 28 years of field experience. There are of course lots of grey areas and close calls. At all times, however, it is best to obey the posted rules,to use common sense, and to be considerate of others and the subjects that they are photographing.

Malcolm MacKenzie photographing at Nickerson Beach with his 400mm f/2.8L IS II lens and a 1DX.

Malclom was a participant on the Nickerson Beach IPT; though he was part of the group I cautioned others not to approach him in this situation as he had gone off on his own, gotten to a good spot, and had some young Black Skimmers and just fledged Common Terns right in front of him.

Malcolm’s gear:

Comments, Questions, and Your Thoughts

Comments, questions, and your thoughts on anything above are of course welcome. Feel free to share your tales of folks who really need to study the materials here 🙂 Please do leave a comment.

Nickerson Baby Beach-nesting Birds IPT: July 23-25, 2013: $1099. Introductory slide program: Monday, July 22, 2013. Limit 12/Openings 8. Co-leader: Denise Ippolito.

Join Denise and me on Long Island, NY next summer to photograph Common Tern chicks, baby American Oystercatchers, and just-hatched Black Skimmer chicks along with the adults. The opportunities will include chances to photograph a variety of breeding behaviors including courtship feeding, display flight and combat, and copulations. Car-pooling is recommended; if we opt to return to the beach before 5pm there is a $30/vehicle parking fee that is not included so it is best to share that expense. Parking in the morning is free.

I expect that many who have photographed with us at Nickerson before at different seasons will wish to join us for this very special Nickeron IPT. Both Denise and I will be speaking at the 2013 NECCC event the weekend before this IPT.

Bear Boat/Bears Catching Salmon IPT: September 2-9, 2013 from Kodiak, AK: $6699. Happy campers only! Maximum 6 + two leaders: Arthur Morris and Denise Ippolito. Openings: 3.

We will take one or more float planes to the boat mid-morning on September 2. e will photograph bears that afternoon and every day for the next six days (weather permitting of course). We should have bears catching salmon every day. In addition, we will get some nice stuff on Mew Gull and Glaucous-winged Gulls dining on roe and the remains of predated salmon. We may–depending on where the concentrations of bears are located–get to photograph harbor seals and some hauled out Steller’s Sea Lions (an endangered species). Halibut fishing (license required) is optional. On September 9, our last morning on the boat, we will photograph in the early morning and then take return to Kodiak via float plane.

Please e-mail for complete details.

NYC Weekend Nature Photography Seminar

Presented by Denise Ippolito/A Creative Adventure and Arthur Morris/BIRDS AS ART
Hilton Garden Inn, Staten Island, New York. December 8-9, 2012 from 9am-4:30pm.
Weekend: $169. SAT or SUN: $99. Lodging available for out of town guests.
Saturday: Image Capture Sunday: Image Evaluation and Processing

Click here for complete details including the Saturday and Sunday schedules, club and group discount info, and registration incentives and for more info on the In-the-Field Seminar Follow-up Workshop.

Artie, the grizzled veteran, is widely noted as one of the premier bird photographers, tour leaders, and educators on the planet. Denise, who specializes in flowers, is the mega-creative up-and-comer, a popular lecturer, a skilled field instructor, and an amazing Photoshop wizard who will share her tips and tricks with you. Both artie and denise are full time professional nature photographers.

BIRDS AS ART Instructional Photo-Tours

Click here for complete IPT information including the current schedule and links to general IPT info, deposit and cancellation policies. and the required registration and release forms.

Shopper’s Guide

Thanks a stack to all who have used our B&H affiliate links to purchase their gear as a thank you for all the free information that we bring you on the Blog and in the Bulletins. Before you purchase anything be sure to check out the advice in our Shopper’s Guide.

Staples from the BAA On-line Store:

LensCoats. I have a LensCoat on each of my big lenses to protect them from nicks and thus increase their re-sales value. All my big lens LensCoat stuff is in Hardwood Snow pattern.
LegCoat Tripod Leg Covers. I have four tripods active and each has a Hardwood Snow LegCoat on it to help prevent further damage to my tender shoulders 🙂 And you will love them in mega-cold weather….
Gizo GT3532 LS CF Tripod. This one replaces the GT3530LS Tripod and will last you a lifetime. I’ll be commenting on this new model soon. In short, I like it.
Mongoose M3.6 Tripod Head. Right now this is the best tripod head around for use with lenses that weigh less than 9 pounds. For heavier lenses, check out the Wimberley V2 head.
Double Bubble Level. You will find one in my camera’s hot shoe whenever I am not using flash.
The Lens Align Mark II. I use the Lens Align Mark II pretty much religiously to micro-adjust all of my gear an average of once a month and always before a major trip. Enjoy our free comprehensive tutorial here.
BreezeBrowser. I do not see how any digital photographer can exist without this program.

Delkin 700X CompactFlash Pro UDMA Enabled Cards

All of the images above were catpured on Delkin’s new 64gb 700X CompactFlash Pro UDMA Enabled Card. Learn more about these great cards by clicking here and learn why the more expensive 1000X cards are overkill for still photographers.

34 comments to If You Photograph Nature, You Gotta Read This!

  • Hi Artie! Love this. I have a blog & Facebook page. Would you mind if I suggest people go to this link from my blog & Facebook page?

    OK to quote part of it or copy & paste some into the blog/FB page and also send them to this page?

    Would like to spread the word & educate.

  • avatar Dennis Pritchett

    In my experience it has mainly been the reverse. Other photographers jumping in front and blocking the view with no respect for others. I was photographing the top edge of a waterfall one day, and it was obvious to anyone what I was doing, with my tripod and all. These two fellows came over, and without so much as an excuse me, went outside the cable that was there for safety, and set up a display beside the edge of the waterfall, in an area with signs warning not to go there, and spent an hour doing shots. They completely ignored all protests from me and several others. They may have thought of themselves as pros, but with those antics, they certainly were far less in my opinion. In my experience the non-photographers are polite and helpful.


    • avatar Arthur Morris/BIRDS AS ART

      Dennis, I think that you missed the boat on what I wrote–it was basically written for photographers….

  • Hi Artie,

    A excellent tome that speaks to the experience we had with the oblivious fellows at Nickerson, and unfortunately, those that you have had over the course of your career. I really appreciated how you define the guidelines within the context of bird behavior. Very insightful.

    Alas, regardless of one’s level of understanding of bird behavior courtesy need not be such uncommon sense, whether a photographer, birder, angler, or anyone out for a stroll. Perhaps, I may be expecting a bit much, but a bit of empathy goes a long way. Too few consider the what if that were me scenario. Respect and courtesy go a long way, and I agree with David Policansky that it is good to recognize the respect others afford us.

    All the best,

  • avatar Melissa Groo

    What a fantastic, exhaustive etiquette guide, Artie. Thank you so much for writing this up. I found myself agreeing with each point. And then I realized–of course. It’s all just common sense. Which of course is–not so common.
    I think it’s a great idea to put at the beginning of all your guides, as one person suggested. Wish it could be published far and wide in all manner of guides and books. Really great. Thanks again.

  • avatar Dieter Schaefer

    Thanks Artie for posting this. Am I the only one who finds it saddening that this actually needs to be said and written down and taught to adults? Proof positive that common courtesy and common sense aren’t as common as the words imply?

    How I like having that huge shadow fall on me and hearing that booming voice question whether I am getting good pictures when after belly-crawling and being all spread-out in the sand on the beach in front of some snowy plovers without having scared them off I am finally ready to get some work done. I like it even more when that person doesn’t get my response that I wasn’t actually after taking images of sand or empty stretches of beach. Never heard anyone utter an “I am sorry!” either.

    Witnessed (and got the pictures to prove it) a guy who repeatedly ran towards and into a flock of Black Skimmers all the while machine-gunning his camera. I was on my way to approach that flock but still too far away to intervene. Needless to say that I gave up approaching those birds that day.

  • avatar Joanne Barker

    IPTs are out of my reach. But I enjoy reading your blogs (and now Denise’s too). I’m learning alot from them. Thanks again!

    YAW; all good. artie

  • avatar Joanne Barker

    Great advice Artie – I wondered what the correct protocol was when coming upon IPTs. Thank you. It has also been my experience that if you do not make eye contact with the bird/animal, keep my head down and eyes averted, they seem less likely to spook.

    • avatar Arthur Morris/BIRDS AS ART

      Thanks Joanne. Not just for IPTs but for all photography groups. As for the eye contact thing, maybe yes, maybe no. But that is a different topic :). Will you be joining us on an IPT?

  • I have had this situation happen to me now 4 times in two years. Another fellow photographer walks right up full stride, my face buried in my viewfinder and my thoughts focused on perfecting long lens technique I read in some very informative book th night before. Being naturally sarcastic, I have a difficult time not responding that way.. I usually just try to hold up a hand (not a single finger) as if to send the international signal of, “hold on a second, I’ll be right with you to discuss whatever you would like since now my quiet morning has been shattered with your desire to do an impromptu consumer report on the latest Canon gear. ” Please, I beg you, don’t do this! Happy shooting!

  • avatar Bobby Perkins

    Great Article Artie. Your right about “Good luck with the non-photographers”. I was shooting shorebirds on my belly at a lakeside one early morning. A fisherman in a boat came up right infront of me and began casting his line right to the shoreline where the birds where that I was shooting, scaring them off. Just looked at the guy “Really?”, my morning was over. Of all the places to be on the lake, all the directions he could of casted, lol.
    Oh to funny, not at the time but many of these comments I’m sure been there done that. I’ve had the dogs with out the leash! arrrgh. Times where I forgot it was hunting season!, and guess who’s not wearing orange? Wont even get into the things I’ve seen some hunters do! Also other photographers (usually the drive-by shooters), that go out to talk rather then shoot, how many times I’ve secretly said to myself “I wish this guy would leave me be!” Before he showed up I had birds in front of my lens.

    • avatar Arthur Morris/BIRDS AS ART

      I am somewhat of a strange bird when it comes to socializing with other photographers. As the prototype people person, I will go out of my way to walk by another photographer to say “Hi.” But never at the risk of scaring away his subjects.

  • avatar Bill Goodhew

    Great post. You should put this in the foreword of all your site guides.

  • Bravo Artie! I’m tempted to carry copies of this and hand them when needed at Ft. DeSoto. 🙂

  • Great post. Perhaps this should be required reading before being allowed to purchase a camera! 🙂

    Reminds me of last September while lying on the sand on Indian Rocks Beach photographing a very cooperative flock of Red Knots that were between me and the water. It was obvious what I was doing, and every beach walker was walking around behind me as there was plenty of sand behind me. The birds would move a little in and out of my area as others walked by, but never took flight. That is until a young father, mother and their kid in one of those 3-wheeled baby carriers that joggers use came up and went right through the flock. I called the father on his inconsiderate interruption and asked why did he do that. His answer, the sand is harder here and it’s a public beach. Both statements are true, but I can attest the sand was pretty hard behind me too and he could have easily pushed that big wheeled stroller around me. It was low tide…plenty of hard sand. But as you wrote, good luck with the non-photographers.

  • avatar Mike O'Brien

    Artie, thanks for the Nature photographers etiquette guidelines, very well said. While I am primarily a dedicated butterfly and insect photographer, I have encountered some of these same issues on our local NABA field trips, on occasion. The photographers in our butterfly group seem to inherently abide by your rules, non- photographers do not. It is usually just a case of them being unaware of such rules since they are not photographers themselves. I generally like to lag behind or stray a bit while still remaining social.
    Thanks again.

    • avatar Arthur Morris/BIRDS AS ART

      You are welcome Mike. Sad to say with the increased popularity of bird photography there are lots of newbies out there who simply have no clue….

  • avatar RayM

    Thanks for the article.
    Have thought of making some kind of sign to pin to my back:

    Do not approach.
    Thank you!

  • Just late last month, I was at Merritt photographing a snowy egret fishing off of an under-road sluice gate (smart bird). I was inside my car at a narrow point in the road, engrossed in photographing, out of the driver’s window, the antics of the bird as he caught fish after fish. Presently, a car pulled up behind me (unbeknownst to me). This non-photographer, after only a moment or two, got out of his car, walked up to the passenger window, knocked on the glass, and asked me if I would move my car forward. After noting that the snowy had departed, I assented and moved my car. I suppose I should have been more watchful, but I was a bit angry at his discourtesy. I thought he could at least have waited a few minutes (like 3-5) without scaring away my subject.

  • avatar Jennie Stock

    Great advice Artie – just don’t get me started on people walking their dogs off the leash and actively encouraging them to run into the middle of flocks of birds…

    • avatar Arthur Morris/BIRDS AS ART

      Ah. Good one. On my last afternoon at Nickerson a young father was encouraging his young son, about five I guess, the run at the resting flocks of skimmers. Repeatedly. As they finally left, I approached the guy and said, “There are still lots of chicks that cannot fly in the groups you were chasing.”

      He said, “Thanks. Sorry, I didn’t know.” I refrained from telling him that he should not have been chasing the birds at all not to mention teaching his son that it was both fun and OK….

      You gotta love it.

  • avatar David Policansky


    And sigh again….

    Thanks for your good advice. It applies not only to photographers. I’m also an angler and some anglers, just like photographers, know and observe etiquette, others don’t. And don’t get me started about parking spaces.

    But it never hurts to read the advice again; I’m sure the excitement of the moment has led me to do things I shouldn’t have. So thanks again.

    I do have one additional thought. Sometimes people will see my camera and long lens and stop in their tracks so as not to bother me. I try hard to thank them and wave them on as soon as it’s possible, which usually is immediately.


  • avatar Charles Scheffold

    Great advice Artie…

    I think this is also good advice for NON-photographers who like to be around nature. On several occasions, I’ve had people walk right up to me while I’m on a bird and say “hey what are you taking pictures of?” or “wow that’s a big lens!”. Of course the bird flew away immediately.

    At Nickerson, I’ve encountered several joggers who seem to take great joy in scaring off the shorebirds foraging at the shoreline. I once spent 45 minutes getting very close to a pair of Piping Plovers, only to have a jogger run right over me as I lay prone in the sand. As if I was just lying there for the hell of it. I shouted “thanks!”. The guy just ignored me and kept going.

    That said, I’ve also met many considerate people who behaved themselves and kept their distance. Even altering their path to give space to the bird. Unfortunately those seem to be the minority!


    • avatar Arthur Morris/BIRDS AS ART

      Good luck reaching the non-photographers! I just hope we can reach most of the photographers. 🙂 And remember, the joggers who scare off the birds are the same ones who make the birds much tamer than they would be on a desolate beach. Agree; the great majority of both beach-walkers and photographers are quite considerate.

      The best was when I was with a group at Estero. Two guys rode by on bikes and one of them simply started screaming and cursing us out. Go figure….