Every photograph on this site was taken using a completely wild subject in its natural habitat.
I’ve visited zoos and I’ve watched animals in captivity, particularly as a child. I’ve also done so as recently as 2015 to see if it would provide a stimulus to a family member who was in the advanced stages of Alzheimer’s disease. I seem to remember that I used to enjoy visiting zoos as a young child, but even then I had reservations. One memory that has never left me is from a time that I visited a zoo with my father, and watched as one of the larger primates sat near the bars, holding on to them with one hand and cradling and feeding her baby with the other, with a look of both sadness and disdain on her face towards the many human onlookers. Anthropomorphism should be avoided, but particularly when dealing with such human-like species, and in such an artificial circumstance, it’s hard not to do it. Ever since, I’ve been uncomfortable seeing animals in captivity, but I’m sure that would have happened sooner or later anyway. Stripped of its natural behaviour, freedom, social groups, and the ecosystem in which it normally exists, I find a captive specimen to be no more than its stuffed counterpart specimen in the corridors of the Natural History Museum. That’s not to say I don’t think there can sometimes be a place for captivity. Zoos just aren’t for me.
It’s certainly true to say that captive creatures will invariably give the photographer infinitely more opportunity to nail the shot, and there are no rules governing the declaration of captive subjects in wildlife photography. The overwhelming majority of photos found online of certain British species such as, for example, Harvest Mouse and Scottish Wildcat, are captive. Harvest Mice don’t pose for close-ups on top of ears of corn in the daylight, Scottish Wildcats can’t be approached for a close-up picture while sunning themselves in the afternoon, and the natural habitat of Red and Fallow Deer isn’t enclosed behind the walls of a London park. There’s nothing wrong with photographing any of these species in those circumstances, but it would bring me no enjoyment, no matter how good the resulting pictures. Incidentally, my own photos of wild Harvest Mice were taken during licensed small mammal surveys, and whilst I have photographed a Scottish Wildcat, the only way I could manage it was with a camera trap at night, the resulting terrible images taking over two years to achieve, and bringing me far more satisfaction than a perfect shot of a captive cat ever could. In the same way that seeing a captive specimen does nothing for me, neither does photographing one.
‘Pay per view’ wildlife photography seems to be very popular at the moment. That is, paying someone to effectively set up your photos for you by doing all the legwork in getting the subject to come to a predetermined place, telling you where and when to arrive, and perhaps giving tips on how to take the shot. It could be as simple as paying to be be taken to an otherwise freely accessible public place, or perhaps the provision of a hide on private land. In some instances it might involve live bait, or perhaps an over-engineered ‘stage’ of manicured moss, carefully placed props and a convenient pool of water for a perfect reflection – an entirely artificial situation in an otherwise natural setting, and it usually shows in the resulting photos. The ethics of live bait and alteration of natural behaviour aside, I have no issue with this kind of photography. However, it usually results in a lot of people having predictably similar photographs, to the extent that individual birds and features become widely recognisable from one persons photo to the next, and the world really doesn’t need any more photos of a Kingfisher perched on a ‘no fishing’ sign. It’s reliable, quick and easily obtainable, but surely a somewhat less satisfying way of seeing wildlife. It’s (usually) a wild animal, but the experience doesn’t seem very wild to me. Watching and photographing wildlife can be unpredictable, surprising, rewarding, lonely, lucky, disappointing, inspiring, boring, cathartic and so much more. Paying your £100 to have all the work done for you kind of misses the point. I’ve been offered payment many times to help people see various species locally, but I tend to believe wildlife is there for everyone to enjoy without becoming a commodity. That’s not to say I’ve never paid to gain access to wildlife, but only when it has involved transportation that I’m not capable of (e.g a boat or flight), or when it would be illegal to enter a given area without a government official or guide (e.g certain foreign national parks).
My own rules and methods are very simple – If the subject is wild and freely accessible, then I’m happy to point my lens towards it. I never photograph captive subjects so there is never any ambiguity or doubt that any of my pictures might not show a wild subject. For me, the pleasure of watching a wild animal comes from seeing it in the wild. The photos are important to me, but the experiences and the memories are even more so, and my best memories of all are the wildest ones.