Is it "Wildlife Photography" or "Photography of Wildlife"? - dradd's photography

January 2019

I'll cut to the chase: there's something that's bothering me when it comes to wildlife photographers labelling and tagging their photos, and that is the label of 'wildlife photography' when the pictures they are posting are quite clearly of animals in captivity. So many times I see the tag #wildlifephotography on photos of captive animals. 

Surely this should be labelled "photography of wildlife", or #photographyofwildlife

Let me explain my reasoning.

For me "wildlife photography" is the photography of a wild animal or bird in its natural setting. The photographer has made the effort to track the animal or bird in question in the wild and taken a photo of it, employing learnt fieldcraft skills in order to respect the animals space and freedom and not disturb it from its natural activities.

The animal or bird is not domesticated, and is not restricted in where it can go. It is truly 'wild'.

For me then based on the above, photographs of animals or birds that are in captivity - dependant on people to feed and care for them and are kept in a restricted enclosure, does not constitute "wildlife photography". The photographer has not had to research where to find the creature (save for to find out how to get to the zoo and what enclosure the creature in question is in), trek for miles to locate it, and get a photograph using their fieldcraft skills in order not to disturb it.

Parking up in a car park, and walking a few yards to a man made enclosure or viewing area (such as in a zoo) to take photos does not make any photos you take worthy of the tag 'wildlife photography'.

But captive is okay? Yes?

Now before I start getting loads of hate for this sentiment, let me be clear on one more thing: there is nothing wrong with photographing animals or birds in zoos and the like, if you are looking to understand that creature's behaviours, and to hone our photographic skills.

In fact you'll find it's where a lot of people start their wildlife photography journey, and to be fair, it can't be beaten as a photography resource and learning tool. To be guaranteed of creatures 'on tap' for your photography hit is a wonderful thing and should not be taken for granted.

And 'yes', I have taken photographs of animals in captivity, and it has taught me a lot about my camera gear, and how to think when considering compositions.

Let's look at the photo of the snow leopard below. This was shot through a metal fence of the animal while it was resting on a rocky outcrop in the enclosure. In order to get the shot I had to think about where to position myself in order to get an interesting composition, and blur out/reduce the impact of shooting through a fence. If I remember I had to stand on a park bench to get above the height of everyone else who was looking at this wonderful animal.

In short, photographing this animal in captivity, at the start of my photographic journey allowed me to think about camera settings and composition. Invaluable knowledge gained, and it stood me in good stead for when I got to photograph animals in the wild.

But its just not what you would call 'wildlife photography' in its truest sense.

It is surely 'photography OF wildlife'. And just to be clear, there is nothing wrong with that!

Snow Kitty

Now if I had wanted to get a photo of a truly wild snow leopard, and label it as "wildlife photography" I guess I would have had to have gone to Mongolia. This was not possible so a trip to our local zoo it was, and as a result it was 'photography of wildlife'.

Some time ago I had the chance to visit another well known zoo here in the UK with my then work colleagues. 

I didn't go as photographing wild animals in captivity at that time didn't appeal to me.

After the event, colleagues said to me "Oh wow, you would have loved it, and you would have got some great photos of the gorillas...".

Nice of them to say, but I would have got the same photos of gorillas that everyone else visiting on that day would have got. My movements would have been restricted in terms of compositions and where I could place myself (zoo staff would have been mildly annoyed if I had ventured into the enclosure to get a close up portrait shot of a silver back, and I may have become a mid morning snack for the primates!), and said gorillas would have had limited movement too, being kept in the confines of their enclosure.

Any shots of the day wouldn't have felt 'honest' to me, and that was the key thing that made me not want to go.

One wild fox, one not

Let's consider the two photos of a fox above. One photo was taken at a wildlife centre where the foxes were near domesticated, and the other was taken out in a forest of a truly wild fox.

I'm sure you can tell which shot is which (don't let the fence fool you).

You may have an opinion as to which shot has the most impact too.

But for me it was being able to shoot photos of a fox in captivity that taught me, when confronted by a fox in the wild, how it would move and behave, what to expect from it and how best to photograph it.


Now for a grey area: baiting. 

A question that is open for debate is that if you are baiting for wildlife, does that constitute "wildlife photography"? If you are putting out food to entice a certain wild bird or animal to grace the front of your camera with its presence, how true to the notion of 'wildlife photography' is that? For me it is perfectly fine as long as you are not causing the creature in question to do anything outside of its natural behaviour, and you are not endangering it by doing so. At the end of the day the creature is still 'wild' and is doing what it would normally do, that being to look for and consume food.

For most serious wildlife photographers who understand their subject matter, this is perhaps the best way to get photographs of their quarry, and the subject matter comes to them out of its own free will, and is not tracked and potentially disturbed by a photographer. We've seen this practice of baiting and leaving out food for wild animals to feed on even on TV, with the ever popular BBC Spring/Winterwatch doing it.

But then we should ask if our baiting/putting out food for animals and birds in this way is altering the behaviour of the creature at all? Is the creature truly 'hunting' for food if said food is freely available for it at a given location, and if this is done regularly then is this not a form of domestication? Is this creature becoming reliant on you for food? And if the animal in question is having its behaviour altered by such actions, then is our photography of it "wildlife photography" or "photography of wildlife"?

I'll be honest, I don't have a firm answer to this question, but I'm leaning towards "wildlife photography" because the animal still has to eat and that is a perfectly natural thing. It's not like you're teaching it to perform tasks it would never do in the wild, and if you are, then that quite clearly is a whole new subject area to discuss.

In essence for me it comes down to honesty. If you are baiting, photographing from a hide, photographing wild animals in captivity or in the wild, just say so. As long as the animals in question are not being harmed, and you, as a wildlife photographer are following the rules of fieldcraft ensuring the safety and freedom of your chosen subject matter, then there is no issue.

Just think about being up front with labelling your wildlife photography correctly, and don't call shots of animals in a zoo 'wildlife photography'; it's 'photography of wildlife'! 

I'm sure there's some strong opinion around this, so feel free to contact me via Twitter, or use the Contact Me button.

I'm happy to start the debate. 

Thanks for reading.


P.S. I'd also like to thank  @JamesW_754 for his input into this article.

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