On Drones and Remote Control Vehicles in Wildlife Photography

Gerry van der Walt All Authors, Gerry 16 Comments

Have we reached a point in wildlife photography where the need to be different, to create images that stand out, is making us walk a very fine line?

I understand this need completely.  It drives me and it is the reason that I do what I do.  It’s a passion I share with photographers who I take out into the field.  But there are rules aren’t there?  Unspoken truths which, even way back when I was guiding full time, was never questioned and forms the foundation of what we do, or should be doing, as wildlife photographers.

A few days ago the 50th Wildlife Photographer of the Year was announced and acclaimed National Geographic photographer Nick Nichols won with this image.


Amazing as this image is, and I am a huge fan of Nichols’ work, I am not convinced that it was the best wildlife image of 2014 but with photography competitions like this, which rely on the creative vision and decisions made by a small group of judges, I suppose it is expected that we kind of agree to disagree.  The discussion of whether this image deserved to have won the prestigious title or not has already been pulled to pieces on social media platforms and online forums so let’s leave that be.  When I saw this image the concern I have been mulling over for quite some time was again brought to the fore in my mind.

More and more wildlife photographers are starting to use drones and remote control vehicles to get closer to their subjects in order to get unique images.  Images that up until now very few, if in fact anybody, has been able to get.

Did Nichols use a drone or remote control vehicle to capture his winning image?  It does not specifically mention this in the description of his winning image but the work he did for National Geographic photographing Tanzania’s lions was well documented for using drone technology and remote control robots and this winning image is included in all of the coverage of that project.  One of Nichols’ other images, one taken with a remote control vehicle with a camera attached to it, was also highly commended during this year’s competition.

Now I would never question the ethics or behaviour of someone like Nick Nichols who, apart from being an inspirational professional with many years in the field experience, has been adamant about the ethics in photojournalism but it feels like we might have passed a point of no return.  A point where the unspoken truths of wildlife photography might just be brushed off to the side in order to get the shots.

How many photographers are now, inspired by the amazing work of photographers like Nichols, going to rush out and get their own drone or remote control vehicle?  How many of these photographers, thinking they know more about wildlife and animal behaviour than they really do, are going to take the need for unique images too far and blur the lines of ethical wildlife photography?

A few years ago in the Mara I saw first hand what happens when technology like this ends up in the hands of photographers who have no regard or understanding for the stress level of their subjects and just want the shots.  During a river crossing a group of four photographers launched a drone in order to get aerial images of the wildebeest as they were crossing the river.  Long story short, they proceeded to stop an entire crossing, stress the animals out way more than they already were and spoiled the entire sighting for everybody around them.

With drones and remote control vehicles being pushed more and more into the spotlight through online imagery and photographic competitions do we not stand a risk of every second photographer trying to get shots without doing the hard yards?  Is it possible that in a few years from now you could arrive at a wildlife sighting in your favourite park and have a number of specially modified remote control vehicles, which are already being sold commercially, around the subject?  And perhaps a drone or two floating in the skies above?

We have all read about people behaving like complete idiots in places like the Kruger National Park as they drive their vehicles closer and closer to an animal to make it get up so that they can get a shot.  How is driving a remote control robot with a camera right up to an animal, into it’s personal space, and getting unique images due to the animals reaction any different?

The unspoken truth in guiding, and I would like to believe in wildlife photography as well, is that the moment you change an animal’s behaviour you have failed.  You have stepped across a line that should never be crossed regardless of how amazing the resulting images are.

A hunched down leopard snarling right into the frame?   Yes, it might be a great image and very sharable on Facebook but it is also the result of pushing a subject, stressing it out, in order to get the shot.  It’s just not right but the need for ‘different’ seems to make it ok.

On the Wildlife Photographer of the Year website it states: “WPY champions ethical photography. Images are chosen for their artistic composition, technical innovation and truthful interpretation of the natural world.”  

Artistic composition and truthful interpretation of the natural world goes without saying.  These are things we all strive for all the time and what keeps us going back out into the field.  Technical innovation is where some people might loose the plot a bit.  Just because we have the ability to put our cameras in the air or drive them right into a subject does not necessarily mean we have to.  Is there a new precedent being set? Is wildlife photography as we know it changing?

Make no mistake, the techno geek in me would love to get my hands on a drone or have my camera on a remote control vehicle but I just cannot reconcile this need and getting different images with the affect it will have on my subjects.  I would also like to believe that having grown up in Africa and with a deep understanding and appreciation of our wildlife I would never, even if I had the technology at my disposal, blur the lines between capturing images of nature and affecting the stories.  Will animals eventually get used to being approached by flying cameras and DSLR’s on wheels?  I’m sure they will but is that really what we want?  I sincerely hope not.

Do you not think there is a reason why the skies above some reserves are no fly zones?  Why you should not approach to within a certain distance of animals you are viewing and photographing?  Respect, safety, sustainability.  Is it worth risking any of these purely to get a new type of shot?  Apart from all the other concerns dare we even think about the implications from a poaching point of view?

From a wildlife photography competition point of view it seems that drones, remote control robots and camera traps have been accepted as the norm and a way to create great image.  This is not going to change.  That’s fine, but in order for us not to loose the essence of wildlife photography, to hold a camera in your hand while relying on patience and field craft to get your shots, would it not make sense to create separate categories for these kinds of images?  Comparing an image taken with a remote control robot and one taken the good old fashioned way is not quite fair.  If, for a moment, we look past the ethical question of influencing the subject, the angles and type of images created will always be different and it would be a very sad day if we have to rely purely on drones and robots to create award winning images.  Separate categories will give the majority of photographers, who shoot out of hand, the opportunity for their images to be judged on merit rather than against a very different type of image.  We can then only hope that the photographers who go the remote route do so in an ethical and sustainable manner.

Yes, using technology will enable us to create incredible images in order to showcase the natural world in a brand new light and people like Nick Nichols will continue to lead the way but we need to be very, very aware of the slippery slope we are navigating.  With an ever-growing sense of curiosity about the wild places of the world comes an inherent responsibility to protect and preserve our beautiful natural heritage.

In the right hands drone and remote control robots will continue to change the way we see wildlife photography but the moment the images we create, with or without new technology, become more important than the natural subjects we are photographing we have failed.

Until next time.


About the Author

Gerry van der Walt

I am a private and specialist photographic safari guide, public speaker, co founder of Wild Eye and wildlife photographer. Visit my website at www.gerryvanderwalt.com or follow my journey on Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram and Twitter a look forward to changing the way you see the world.  I also host a Wildlife Photography Podcast and I Vlog!

Comments 16

  1. Simon Beevers

    I got into wildlife photography because I love the bush. The less that we interfere with it the better. Indeed, at times, I wonder if we should be there at all. Does our mere presence not create problems.

    I was fortunate enough to go the Mara recently to witness the migration. I got to see a few small crossings, but every time a big one was building, it was man who interfered and upset the animals by driving too fast and too close to them.

    I do think drones and remote controlled vehicles are a step too far, but who am I to judge. Maybe 80 years ago people though a road or vehicle in Kruger was too much.

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  2. Wim Werrelman

    Hi Gerry,
    I share your concerns. However with every kind of photography it is not the technique (as you know) but the way you use it that decides whether or not it is too intrusive.

    I have travelled and taken photographs all over Africa the last few decades. Next to the many wonderful experiences I have had I have seen things that made me wonder and be concerned. Two examples. In Kenia in 1989 (25 years ago!) I have seen several scenes with 10 or more minibuses around lions or leopards. Last month in Zambia I was on a night drive and we stopped around a scene of eating lions (a recent buffalo kill). We were one of 5 or 6 game drive vehicles that all shone there search lights on this scene. Two examples of situations that I did not like very much and I would like to avoid in the future (I am not a fan of night drives). Were the animals disturbed in their natural behavior here? Have they become so used to it that they don’t care anymore? I suppose that many of you have unfortunately had even worse experiences…..

    Last month in Zambia I used a remote controlled car with a camera on it. Following are my personal experiences and my (humble) advices for people who want to use this technique.

    First it is great fun and gives potential great images!
    The lions reacted curiously and cautiously but did not seem to react stressed or aggressively (as far as I could judge). They flapped their tails, did not snarl, approached slowly, touched the car, sniffed at the little car …… and lost interest and walked away slowly and lay down some 10 to 30 meters away.

    So, my personal advises:
    – Use this technique only on lions. Non-predators are frightened by it.
    – Drive the vehicle as slowly as you can and let it stop as soon as you are on the right spot.
    – Use it only when there are no other people or vehicles around.
    – Use it only during the day.
    – Be respectful and stop the activty when you see that the lions start walking away or react aggressively or stressed.
    – Do not follow them when they walk away.
    – Do it for a maximum of 10 to 15 minutes.
    – Do it early in the morning or late in the afternoon (not when they are sleeping, hunting, eating or having sex).
    – Be prepared to accept the loss of your equipment, and not to drive into the bush to retrieve it. That did not happen to me but I have seen movies on the internet where this happened.

    On drones.
    I see a big difference here. You cannot stop a drone in mid air because it crashes if you do. The noise and movement is constantly there and cannot be stopped by the operator without stopping altogether. To a certain degree animals are used to machines on wheels (with or without people), but not to flying machines. I do not like drones and have never used them.

    Gerry, maybe not the answer you were looking for but I hope I have contributed to the issue. Hope to see you in the field some day. Enjoy life!


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  3. Conrad Walker

    Gerry, thank you for writing this piece – it says many things that need to be said. I have been a great fan of the Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition for many years, having attended the Exhibition at the Natural History Museum in London a number of times. There are some incredible images presented but I have often had misgivings about some of them, particularly the choices of “Winner”. Perhaps you remember the wolf jumping over a fence in the moonlight – later stripped of its title?
    Obviously the use of technology in photography is fascinating to us techno-geeks, and we have learnt much about the natural world with its judicious application, Arguably even the use of the latest and greatest xxx mm bazooka lens mounted on a camera with a 100 image per second burst mode with a 100 MP sensor at ISO 128,000 is in this category! However, there is definitely a line that is crossed when you have a gadget that can sneak up on a beast or get an otherwise unattainable perspective. While images obtained in this manner for the purpose of learning about animal behaviour can and should vastly expand our knowledge of the natural world, I feel they definitely have no place in a Wildlife Photography competition. I was looking at the winning lion image when it was released a few days ago, and a couple of thoughts came to mind:
    1) Where was the guy standing when he took it. (According to the BBC, he was on top of his vehicle, but perhaps his camera wasn’t?) (http://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-29701853)
    2) If I had submitted this image, would it have won.
    With the credible suggestion that the photographer may have used a drone, it would becomes a very ordinary image for me, and even if it is from a hand camera, one has to wonder about this particular choice. A couple of the other winning images are amazing, e.g. the Lightning Strikes in Chile and some of the junior categories, and clearly took a lot of hard work.
    Much as I enjoy it, the WPY competition, for me is a showcase of great images (and techniques) but I set little store by what a particular panel of judges believes is the best.

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      Thanks for your input Conrad. You raise a number of very valid points that are being discussed on various online forums. Going to be interesting to see where all of this ends up. Hope you and Rose are well!

  4. Michael Tracey

    I recently had the unfortunate experience of seeing someone, who I can only describe as an unprincipled idiot, try to get close up pictures of a nesting black sparrow hawk using a drone.
    The bird took off in extreme alarm and as far as I can ascertain never returned as the nest was definitely abandoned.

    My personal opinion is drones, mobile cameras and the like, should only be used by professional conservationists when attempting to learn more about the behaviour of a species, hopefully they will have sufficient knowledge not to disturb their subject.

    I certainly believe such aids should be banned from photographic competitions if only in an attempt to limit their use.

    Great article covering much of what needs to be taken into consideration.

  5. Andrew Morgan

    Great article, I have a drone that I use for photographing lodges and hotels etc, I took it with on a safari earlier this year. I put it in the air once while out in the bush (after getting permission and a national parks ranger to accompany me), towards a herd of elephants and as soon as I got close to them, it was clearly evident that they were incredibly distracted and unhappy by the noise. As much as I think it has great potential for “different” images as you say, I’ve not done it since and will most likely not try it again… On a recent trip to the Serengeti, we did a hot air balloon trip which although quieter than the drone also sent all the animals we saw, running in the opposite direction. I got some cool shots, but all of animals moving away!

    It’s an interesting topic, but I guess as you say it is something that the animals will unfortunately become used to over time unless it is stopped before then. One thing I’ve noticed in Tanzania, is that when you are driving in the Serengeti or Ngorongoro, the animals tend not to be too skittish and don’t generally run away. However if you go down to the Southern parks like Selous or Ruaha where there is much less traffic and tourism, the animals in general were much more skittish and would run away from the vehicle easily. So over time the animals in the north have become used to land based vehicles, does this mean that they will start to become used to aerial assaults too?

    It would truly be a sad day to sit at a sighting with a bunch of drones hovering over head.

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  6. John Gore

    Very valid points by all above. I too have grown up with a great respect for nature and love for the bush. Also an avid wildlife photographer as a hobby (not concerned with competitions and such, the very idea of a competition drives people to push limits to win).

    As many of you know me already, you also know we specialize in filming with large drones in the film and commercials industry. More recently we have also had natural history projects for clients including BBC and National Geographic, Earth Touch, etc.
    The first discussion before any shoot is about what kind of shots the client is looking for, and the potential effect on the animals and on behavior.

    Most of what we shoot in the bush is large landscape and scenic shots, establishing the landscapes, however we have also filmed wildlife quite a lot.
    Traveled to Serengeti, Tanzania, Kenya, Savute, Botswana, Zim, Namibia, all over SA, etc.

    We now have a keen understanding of animals reactions to the drones, those which do not reach well we leave well alone. Many animals are equally happy with the drone as they are with a 4×4 vehicle. But all our operations stay a comfortable distance away from the animals personal space and use longer lenses, etc. we do not use GoPro type cameras that need to be a few meters from the animals to get a shot.

    I have been in a number of situations where my stomach has really been turning, as we watch how some tourists , photographers and even some professionals torment animals to get shots. One of the most irritating for me is the GoPro on a long stick our the car window, used to poke at animals to get reactions. Seen this far too many times. Tour guides who drive up to animals or try to herd animals towards predators or towards water crossings to get some action.

    More recently we have also seen a number of tourists equipped with phantom type drones with GoPro type cameras flying in parks in a very wreckless manner with no regard for the animals, while the tour guide laughs and eggs them on to fly closer or faster to the wildlife. This really infuriates me!

    The solution? I’m not sure there is one. Education is a good start, but if people do no have a genuine love for the bush, they will never behave themselves. They are going to keep pushing the limits so they get a bit of entertainment.

    We continue our operations guided by our principles and respect for nature, knowing that we interfere with the animals the same or usually much less interference than a fell sized helicopter, hot air balloon or safari vehicle would do.

    We also film far away from tourist so that they do not ruin the sightings for us. Many times we have been happy filming and a tourist vehicle pulls in a disturbs the sighting (animals were happy with drone, but not happy with tourist vehicle as they have been harassed by that vehicle before).

    In SA drones are banned in all SAN Parks, and have been for 2 years now. I think this is a VERY good thing. Amateurs and hobbyists with drones are notorious for doing stupid things.
    As professionals we always film with permits and often with a ranger or part official with us. Of course this means bigger budgets need to be available for fly drones or film in the parks, which again limits “traffic” and disturbance to wildlife and flora.

  7. Mandy Marais

    Hi Gerry

    From the very start of these drones and tank like gadgets I have voiced my opinion loud and clear. What starts out as a great idea being handled responsibly inevitably ends up in the hands of the masses which means it is bound to fail. You can walk into your local Dions and purchase a ” camera drone”. Having the latest DSLR and largest lens and Go Pro and and and does not make you a wildlife photographer, it is a lot more than that as you mentioned in your blog. Can just picture xmas in Kruger with drones flying above the lions like flies, leopards being chased off their kills in trees and everything else fleeing from something foreign and unknown, the Rangers have enough on their plates without now having to drive around after these drones not to mention that they can also be used with video equipment for poaching………For some, ok a lot, it is all about that image that they can share on social media, kind of like a trophy hunter, look what I got, at any cost. Sit in your hot car for hours, wait days and weeks for that perfect shot, take it like it is meant to be and put some effort and SKILL into it, loading up the batteries and letting a flying object go while you manoeuvre the controls like a play station game is not, in my opinion, being a wildlife photographer. I suppose Natgeo have now set the bar so other’s will be sure to follow. On the winning image hoping it will also be used to highlight the plight of our African Lions and it really did not do much for me. Thanks Gerry

  8. Johan

    Drones and quad bikes are the same as far as I am concerned.

    They both fill a unique gap for some people BUT neither belongs around game.

  9. Jakes De Wet

    Started photographing wildlife and nature 40 years ago with very simple equipment. Today people do not know how good the equipment is and for me the challenge remain, capturing that special image with Camera in hand and the total process that goes with it. For me fundamentally nature photography and to a large extend photography in general has become an issue of technology and not photography. There are many more forums discussing equipment then there are forums discussion the images, the techniques or story behind the image. Most photographers post their images with Meta data and very few with the story behind the image as very few images tells a story. In my view this is where the problem starts, the drones and mobile cameras and traps have become the replacement for true skill, the images are there to satisfy the social media rooms with a 3 second wow and 500 likes and for the image not to be seen again. Photography competitions are fueling this trend by giving more recognition to the use of technology rather than the skill and expertise of the hard working photographer. The true artist in nature photography is getting less and less recognition, killed by its own. Today you go on a photography safari and every camera and photographer is loaded with a flashlight. What has come of the use of natural light. Even in brought daylight, and I understand the “need” for fill flash, however this has now become the trademark of some highly regarded photographers. I recently booked a trip with an operator and cancelled when I saw images of the guide shooting with a flash and beamer. Shooting flash into the face of a wild animal in my view is the same intrusion as a drone. We as wildlife photographers need to police our own, we need to become obsessed again with taking pictures with hand holding a camera and lens, reflect our skills and art. Photography competitions needs to be judges by conservationists and photographic artists not trending technologists. This is in line with our mission to conserve and preserve and create awareness amongst the young.

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      Gerry van der Walt

      Thanks so much for your comment and thoughts Jake. Couldn’t agree more. I think a lot of photographers are missing the plot and rely on all kind of gimmicks to get images which leaves the craft if pure photography somewhere on the side. Drones, flashes, beetlecams, traps, remotes – all these things are seen as a new way to photograph animals but as you say, we need to focus on the sold foundations of photography and the reason we all started photographing wildlife in the first place. Thanks again and good luck with your photography. Gerry.

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