The Recorder – Speaking of Nature: Examining the rules of nature photography

The Recorder - Speaking of Nature: Examining the rules of nature photography


The world of wildlife photography is an interesting one. First, there are the difficulties associated with actually taking the photographs. In the days when I first got started (back at the end of the 20th century) the difficulties were almost beyond imagination. Imagine a scenario in which there was no such thing as a digital camera. Imagine a scenario in which you may wait for hours until a species or an event finally happens, you take a photo of this species or event, but you don’t know if you “got it” for several days. Such was the case back in the days of film cameras.

Today, with digital cameras, you can take a photo and know almost instantly if you “got it,” or not. Regardless of the wait time (seconds or days) there is still the spirit-crushing anguish associated with the knowledge that the event you attempted to capture on film may not occur again for another year, or even worse, never. Missing a photo can be devastating.

There is also this notion of “authenticity.” What are the rules that govern a photo’s acceptability in different publications? What are the taboos that should be avoided in the world of wildlife photography? Well, the first one (the big one) is pretty reasonable: No photos of wildlife in captivity. It doesn’t matter how beautiful the animal is, nor how “natural” the setting may appear, you just don’t do it. This suggests that the notion of “wildness” has to be respected and maintained by the people trying to represent it. Seems very reasonable, right?

Then there is the notion of background. Unless the content of the story with which a particular photo is associated specifically mentions the specifics of a particular photo’s qualities, it is usually desirable to avoid including certain manmade objects in the background. Again, there seems to be a certain chauvinism against humanity that is associated with the notion of wildness; the idea that somehow, if any trace of humanity is included in a photograph, then it is somehow tainted. Of course there are exceptions to every rule. A bird nest inside an old rusty mailbox might be more desirable than the bird nest by itself, if you know what I mean.

So this brings us to an examination of the photos that I provide with my columns. What sort of photos are acceptable and what sort are not? Are the rules different for me, compared to the rules that might be imposed on a photographer for National Geographic magazine? The inescapable reality to this question is a resounding yes. I can get away with things in this column that I could not get away with in most magazines and it all comes down to context.

The focus of my column has always been the nature that you can experience in your own neighborhood and your own back yard. Over the years this has included the theme of backyard birdfeeders and this is especially true when winter rolls around and the bustle around birdfeeders increases. I am allowed to take photos of birds at feeders because I am specifically trying to show you how to identify the birds that may come for food. And let’s face it, you could wander around in the woods for hours, days and weeks without seeing the sort of activity that you can observe at a backyard birdfeeder in an hour or two.

As a result, I can use photos that have obvious artifacts of human civilization in the background. The railing of my deck has been featured in my photos more times than I care to count. The different feeders that I use have also appeared so predictably that I have no idea of the actual numbers. But even I still endeavor to capture an image of a backyard bird that is taken in a more “natural” setting whenever possible. This week’s photo is a perfect example.

I was sitting in my Thinking Chair on that unusually warm weekend at the beginning of November and I was taking photos of all the birds that were gathering around me. The only reason that they were congregating in my vicinity was because I had put out food. In fact, I do this so regularly that the birds are often waiting for me before I even arrive. Once the food is out, the level of activity grows as the word spreads and it is always interesting to see how a group of chickadees can attract the attention of other birds.

So it was that a dark-eyed junco (Junco hyemalis) happened to appear on the fringes of the day’s crowd. Curious about all of the commotion, the bird quickly saw that there was food available and though it was understandably shy at first, it eventually joined in and got some breakfast. I happened to snap this photo of the bird as it sat and assessed the safety of the situation and in so doing I captured a wild bird in its wild habitat; perhaps the finest photo of a junco that I’ve taken in many years.

But here’s the thing … later in the winter this same bird may visit my deck to look for food. In fact, every day this same wild bird may spend hours of its life around the feeders on my deck as it tries to survive the winter. So doesn’t that make my deck the “natural” habitat of this wild bird living its wild life? Clearly the answer is yes, but there still remains a certain authenticity associated with a photo with a “natural” background. Fortunately, I think we all just want to see the birds wherever and whenever we can.

Bill Danielson has been a professional writer and nature photographer for 25 years. He has worked for the National Park Service, the US Forest Service, the Nature Conservancy and the Massachusetts State Parks and he currently teaches high school biology and physics. For more in formation visit his website at, or head over to Speaking of Nature on Facebook.