I have been focussing on wildlife photography for a little over a year now, mostly around Porthcurno. For Planet PK, I have been trying to raise awareness of the variety of species we have in the valley and how they are impacted by increased footfall, tourism, and online exposure of this popular destination.
Photographing Wildlife and Protecting their Habitats
Wildlife photography is usually done with good intention, but there are many things we may do innocently to get the perfect shot that can have the opposite effect. Along the way, I have faced the trials and frustrations of a first-time wildlife photographer and had to learn the ins and outs of how to photograph wildlife without doing harm. Working on Instagram takeovers with Cornwall Seal Group Research Trust (CSGRT) and tagging along on seal rescues with British Divers Marine Life Rescue (BDMLR), I have learned specifically about the ways to photograph marine mammals like globally rare grey seals, while also helping to protect their lives on our coasts.
When photographing wildlife, protection of your subjects and their habitat should be the utmost concern, I feel as if it is a duty to highlight the importance of conservation while you show the wonders of nature. As tempting as it might be to get the perfect shot, you must never interfere with animals, their dens, or their surroundings, for example: cutting plants, spraying fake rain, or rearranging the scene. All these things play a role in the harm of the animals and the other animals in the ecosystem.
Understand and research the animals you want to photograph
It is important to research your subjects well so that when you are out waiting for species to cross your path, you are not accidentally damaging their habitat in any way. Once you have spotted an animal, never use bait, chase, or scare them to get the shot you envisioned. Using bait could lead to wild animals getting more and more used to humans, which can bring them closer to poachers/ hunters and lead them onto dangerous roads. Chasing or scaring the animal will obviously cause distress, disturbing its foraging, and causing injury if they run into something. Never trap or confine animals or manipulate them into certain positions/ put them in different places. This again will cause significant distress which in worst cases can be fatal. Photographing animals should only be carried out as they cross your path naturally, or you cross theirs without disturbance. If they are showing any signs of distress, you should back off and let them move freely away from you.
Wildlife Photography in Cornwall
Wildlife photography in Cornwall has some species-specific rules to consider when you are photographing. This ensures the safety of you and your subject! Grey seals are a common animal of interest here, these marine mammals are globally rare but frequent our shores. When hauled out onto a beach, they are usually sleeping or digesting their food and should not be approached! If they are approached, they can get scared and head back into the water too early, which can lead to exhaustion and fatality. Photographing while on BDLMR rescues and speaking with CSGRT I have found out several things that are vital to consider when trying to spot and photograph these magnificent mammals: Never try and shoo a seal back into the sea! If you find it on land it will be there for a reason, whether it is injured or tired or digesting its food, they spend half of their time on land and do not live in the sea! Hurrying them back into the water before they are ready can be fatal, especially if they are tired and unable to swim as efficiently.
Protecting marine mammals
If you think the seal is in trouble, contact BDMLR at 01825 765546. Never photograph a seal if it is looking at the camera, move away so you are out of its sight, otherwise they may start feeling vulnerable and move back into the water, injuring themselves for the aforementioned reasons. Never take selfies with a seal, although this may seem obvious, during tourist season grey seals fall victim to disturbances due to people trying to get the perfect Instagram picture! Marine mammals are not there for amusement and should be treated with respect. If you spot people approaching a seal on the beach who are not marine medics, encourage them to keep a good distance, they may not be educated on the subject or be used to being close to wild animals.
4 Ways to Get the Perfect shot!
That being said, photographing wild animals and showing their beauty is extremely rewarding when done correctly! Getting ethical and safe wildlife shots becomes way more accessible with the correct gear. Here are some essentials for getting the perfect shot!
- Zoom lens – a 70- 300mm lens is a great way to get started, affordable versions can be purchased such as Tamron lenses, whereas more expensive versions can be purchased from Canon and Nikon! Although this is a good place to start and a great all-around lens, up to 600mm of zoom can be especially useful to get up close to your subject without actually being close!
- Camera traps – if you wanted to get a glimpse of the mysterious nocturnal world or more flighty animals, camera traps are a great way to do that. You can set them up to be triggered by motion and being virtually silent, they do not disturb any passing animals. ‘Browning’ night cameras are a great option, they come at many different prices and with many different functions, you can strap them to trees, posts, and benches and they are well camouflaged.
- Camouflage – the thing that may be stopping wildlife from crossing your path is that you are too visible- the animals may spot and avoid you before you spot them! Dressing in earthy tones or camouflaging both you and your camera could mean you have a more successful shoot.
- Binoculars – an essential bit of kit, perfect for spotting animals far off so you do not scare them away by trudging through their habitat!
I hope this was a helpful guide on how to take wildlife photos without doing harm! If you take any nature shots around Porthcurno be sure to tag us on Instagram @planetpkporthcurno and use the hashtag #PlanetPK !
Maeve Cushla, Young Curator
Header Photo: Maeve Cushla