You are here

Photography In The National Parks: A Wildlife Advocate's View Of Wildlife Photography

Alternate Text
Bear cubs don't always look both ways for oncoming traffic. Sometimes humans should provide that service/Deby Dixon.

What is more important, the animal or the shot?

Nearly every day someone tells me that I have the dream job as a full-time wildlife photographer in Yellowstone National Park, but if they knew that a Dutch photographer nearly punched me out yesterday, when I was trying to assist a black bear in crossing the road on a blind curve, they might think again.

When I arrived in Yellowstone, in October of 2012, to spend the winter learning about wolves, I was a bright-eyed, bushy-tailed photographer who had visions of magnificent shots of the animals as they moved across the landscape.

What I did not count on was that there is much more to wildlife photography then picking up the lens and shooting as they stand still and pose, or run across the sage filled Lamar Valley - much beyond the patience in waiting for the animal to appear, or being in the right position, at the right angle with the right light.

I did not know about the animals themselves and how much they go through while living in a national park. My photographic adventure soon turned to one of advocacy for the wildlife as it relates to many aspects - the hunting of the wildlife, getting too close to the animals and blocking them from moving freely and so much more. Driving cautiously because the animals like to use the roads. My time in Yellowstone, that has now stretched out to nearly two years, has been the greatest, single learning experience of my life.

Not only have I learned that wildlife photography is an extremely competitive and jealous business and my year-around access to Yellowstone does not make me very popular amongst other photographers, but also that the welfare of the animal is more important than the shot.

Yes, I have become an ethical photographer who puts their camera down in favor of helping an animal across the road safely or by removing myself from a situation where the animals are crowded and stressed. And, yes, if need be, I will call upon rangers to come and assist the animals.

Alternate Text
Jockeying for that perfect photo/Deby Dixon

Yesterday, someone told me that calling the rangers would only ruin things for myself but what they do not know, is that I have to live with myself. And, so when a black bear sow with three cubs prepares to cross the road on a blind curve, I will alert people to slow down or stop if necessary, in order to keep those animals safe. In the case of yesterday, the cubs did not appear on the road but there was no way to know that when the adult was crossing.

Another wildlife photographer told me that it was okay for them to be close to a sow and three cubs because they were a 'œprofessional wildlife photographer.'

'œYou are not a professional if you are going to get that close to a sow and three cubs,' I replied. The woman walked off.

The problem for the wildlife is that not only do they have to worry about the visitors with the point and shoot cameras who want to get the same close-up shot as the wildlife photographer, but also the professional photographer who is willing to do anything to any animal or anyone to get the shot.

Meaning that photographers will step in front of and prevent other photographers from getting their shots, while some will use animal calls to lure the bird or wolf to their lens. Others will feed the animals - such as supplying owls with mice or fresh road kill.

I do not believe that the majority of the wildlife photographers, or visitors with point and shoot cameras, intend the animals any harm when they get too close or they feed them, but that they do not fully understand the cause and effect of such actions. I believe this because I did not understand much about the animals and the integrity of wildlife photography until spending nearly every day of the year inside of Yellowstone and watching the problems play out time and time again.

Animal calls make the wildlife easy prey for hunters and poachers and feeding an animal can make it become aggressive towards humans in its attempt to extract food. Being too close to the animals can make them lose their fear of humans, making them easier prey for hunters and some times causing them to be too comfortable around the roads and places where people congregate. These are just a few of the problems related with not giving the animals their wild spaces and allowing them to be free to move about. Animals can be caused to spook and run into the path of a car or in the direction of a predator.

It is our responsibility to alter the animal'™s behavior as little as possible in order to keep them safe. After all, if the animal is dead our photo ops have ended.

Now, having said all of this, I am not perfect. I, quite often, find myself closer to the animal then is allowed in the national parks, but this is usually due to the animal moving closer to me, rather than me moving closer to them. I tend to read the animals and watch their eyes and behavior for signs of stress. When an animal is grazing peacefully beside the road, they are doing fine, as long as I am not going any closer to them.

Alternate Text
How close to wildlife is too close?/Deby Dixon

Just two days ago, I watched as an habituated wolf - one that has been way too comfortable around humans - was hazed by a law enforcement ranger. The beautiful wild wolf has had a habit of coming way too close to people who have watched her in the landscape and she has done so without any signs of aggression whatsoever. I believe that she is just curious about us and wants to check us out, which would end in fatal consequences if she were to leave the park during hunting season.

The law enforcement ranger hit her with a bean bag and then fired a cracker shell between her and the people and road. The wolf took off running for the hills, hopefully a little less curious about humans. For myself, I would rather see this wolf safe then to ever get another close shot of her because she came too close.

So, the next time that you go to photograph an animal, ask yourself, is this animal safe or am I causing it harm. Then, ask yourself, will I enjoy looking at this shot later, knowing the full story about how it came to happen. I have many photos in my folders of times when an animal was photographed under less than ideal circumstances and even though they might be terrific images, the story behind the shot never goes away.


This just proves that "expert wildlife photographer" does not equal ethical or intelligent.  Anyone who does something which might lead to an animal coming to harm ishould be thrown in jail.  I just happened to be in the park over the weekend taking a YA field seminar and several times the instructor refered to "stupid people tricks."  

Great article, Deby. I agree with you here. Also, just sayin', if that charming picture of the three bear cubs was captured by my camera, I'd have it blown up and framed so that everyone who walked into my house had to remark on it.




[edited for a typo]

Several years ago we were in RMNP and came upon a small moose jam. (It was spring, so traffic was light, and long enough ago that moose were not so common as now.) I noticed one man toting his shiny new DSLR, flash in the upright position (does that tell you anything?). Small son in tow, he was edging closer and closer to this cow and calf. Several of us yelled at him. He gave us that universal sign of recognition and continued, as mom stopped grazing and took one small step toward him.

At this moment, my sympathies, and those of most of the other onlookers, went totally pro-moose. We watched in eagar anticipation of seeing the shallow end of the gene pool reduced. Luckily for the kid, anyway, a ranger came along and corraled Mr. Sure Shot.


There are plenty of stupid people tricks being played out there.  I shake my head often.

Maybe I will have to do that Rick - great idea.

Well said, Deby.

Awesome article.  I agree with your sentiments completely, Debbie.  I've seen many similar things over the years while filming professionaly.  I think a lot of the problem is that people from very urbanized settings, where they are not around wildlife day in and day out, and at best their closest experience to wildlife is from a zoo, lose their brains when they encounter wildlife in a wild setting.  This sort of thing is rampant not just in Yellowstone, but almost every big and wild national park.  Personally, the wolf watcher crowd in Yellowstone was a big turn off to me over the years.  I spent a lot of time in Yellowstone over a decade, and I saw it slowly change as my time went on.  I felt some of those wolf watcher groups created the circus atmosphere, and i'm glad to see you step clear from that circle, and i've watched you evolve over the years and think you are definitely doing great things by not only being an ethical photographer, but using your craft to be a spokesperson to explain the role of a national park, and that its wildlife is part of the environment, and that it's not a zoo.  That message becomes more critical as these willdlife species get contained basically to these wild islands that are our National Parks.

Just because these supposed pro photogs have top notch lenses, and top notch gear, does not make them a wildlife photographer/filmmaker.  I believe ethics and a keen understanding of wildlife behavior is critical in being a wildlife photographer/filmmaker.  They can shoot pretty people, and landscapes in cities, but that doesn't mean it translates to wildlife photogaphy, especially wildlife photographers with a sense of ethics. Unfortunately, that's a very small group in the national parks, and the problem is a bit out of control.  

Personally, I think the Denali NP approach to dealing with tourism on roads, is the best approach to how most NP's with wildlife should be modeled.  Maybe trams and busses are the future at Glacier, Yellowstone, Cades Cove in the Smokies, Yosemite Valley etc.  Protecting wildlife in its natural habitat, and making sure they are protected from these pseudo-zoo seekers should be priority #1 of the National Park Service.  

Loved the Denali approach. We got on and off when we wanted, took the chance that the next bus would have room. If not, well, let's watch the wildlife a little longer! Grand Canyon's Hermit's Rest Road is similiar, albeit crowded. Assuming accomodations are made for those unable to climb bus stairs and there are enough comfortable, well-maintained vehicles so the right choice is the easy choice, it sure beats fighting for parking spaces and the driver missing half the scenery (or half the road???)

Add comment


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

National Parks Traveler's Essential Park Guide