Ethics in Macro Photography

Shivan Parusnath All Authors, Macro, Shivan 1 Comment

Like any other genre of wildlife photography, macro photography should be conducted with a set of ethical guidelines in mind to ensure the safety and well-being of both the subject, and the photographer. Unlike many other genres of photography however, macro photography typically requires you get up-close with your subject, and therefore presents its own unique set of challenges. In this post I will discuss a few points on how to ethically practise macro photography.

1. Respect the Habitat

In my experience, there are two ways of finding subjects for macro photography. One is to anchor yourself in a suitable-looking spot (lush vegetation, near a water-source etc.) and search carefully within that area until the movement of small animals becomes obvious, and the other is to actively search by walking through a habitat, lifting rocks and looking through vegetation. The latter option is a more effective method for finding reptiles in particular, but also has more potential to cause destruction to the habitats of the subjects you are searching for. Remember that to small animals, the micro-habitat under a rock or in a tree may be the environment in which the animal spends the majority of its life, and even minor adjustments may cause fatal knock-on effects in terms of temperature, moisture etc. It is therefore very important to always leave the environment as intact as you found it.

2. Manipulating Subjects

Where possible, it is always ideal to photograph an arthropod or reptile exactly as it is observed. However very often, the subject in question may be skittish and try to flee, especially since you are trying to get fairly close-up. In some cases, handling the animal may be a possibility, but NEVER if there is a chance of harming the subject, or causing harm to yourself, and ONLY once you have sufficient experience with arthropods or reptiles.

This past weekend, I found a beautiful and delicate Common Stick Grasshopper in the Utopia Mountain Sanctuary in the Magaliesberg. As soon as I spotted it, I got my gear ready and set-up, but it had already hopped off. I followed it around and tried for a few undisturbed in-situ shots, but the animal was already too deep within the grass to allow for any decent photographs. I carefully allowed the grasshopper to crawl onto my hand, and placed it about a metre away from where I found it, in a small low-lying shrub. After spending about ten minutes with the grasshopper, I released it exactly where I found it. I made sure the whole while to not subject the animal to direct sunlight, or use excessive force when handling it.

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3. Handling Dangerous Subjects

Following on from the previous point, extra care needs to be taken with animals that are venomous. Firstly, never handle a snake, spider or scorpion with your hands unless you can confidently identify the species and know that it is not harmful. Secondly, when you are handling a species that has the potential to harm you, make sure that you are using a hookstick, grabstick, or a decent alternative to handle the animal from a distance. Even better, have someone with you to handle the animal while you are photographing it, and make sure that you are safe distance from the animal.



4. Capturing and Removing Subjects from an Environment

This is seldom a good idea. Capturing and removing a wild organism from its environment for the sake of photography has a risk of damaging or even killing the animal in question. Both small invertebrates and reptiles can be fragile and very sensitive to changes in temperature and humidity, and removing them from their environment is very risky if you are not well aware of their habitat requirements. The only times I have done this have been on research trips where there are permits and ethical clearance in place to allow for the handling, capture and/or collection of the organisms in question. Even if you intend to release the animal where you found it, it is possible that the stress damage may have already had its effect, or you are unable to relocate the exact spot in which the animal was found. Research has shown that releasing an animal even several metres from its home can be fatal, and this is particularly true for the small arthropods and reptiles that do have a wide home-range.

5. Placing the Animal in Unnatural Situations

Aside from creating an unauthentic photograph, placing an animal in an unnatural situation for the purpose of a photograph can often cause harm to the animal. For instance, photographing a nocturnal species during the day, or vice versa, placing a terrestrial animal in water, or vice versa, etc. As an extreme, there are macro photographers who use wires to pose an animal in an unnatural position to create “funny” photographs, or put two animals on top of each other that would not normally interact willingly. Moving an animal from where it is initially found is acceptable when it is moved to an area that is still natural for the animal, and returned to its site of capture.

6. Know When to Stop

The signs that an animal is in stress may not be initially obvious, and is another reason why researching and learning about the animals you intend to photograph is so important. While some subjects may be resilient and can tolerate a fair amount of coaxing and adjustments for photographs, some may be easily stressed and prone to permanent harm if restraint is not shown. Reptiles for instance have distinct lower and upper temperature thresholds and keeping a small lizard on a hot rock in the sunlight can very easily become fatal if the temperature of the animal is not monitored. Again, understanding the biology and behaviour of the animal in question is key to know when to end the photoshoot and let the animal go about its business.


Reading the above guidelines may make macro photography may seem daunting, since there are so many things to consider when interacting with animals. But many of these things should come naturally to you, and by taking the time to learn about the organisms you tend to photograph, how they move, how they react to being disturbed, how they deal with stress, you decrease the chances of causing harm to either yourself or your subject.

I would highly recommend starting with a hand-off approach, and spending time with somebody who may be more familiar with the biology of arthropods or reptiles while you are still learning the ropes. Admittedly, at some time while learning about macro photography, I have been broken some, if not all of the above rules. Because of this, I make very certain that when I am entering a natural habitat to do macro photography, that I follow the above guidelines so that the subjects I photograph are not less well-off than when I found them.

See more macro photography on Instagram and 500px.

About the Author

Shivan Parusnath


I am currently doing my PhD research on the conservation of the Sungazer (Smaug giganteus), a threatened South African lizard species, at Wits University in JHB. Working with reptiles over the past 6 years has fueled my obsession with macro photography. My aim with photography is always to portray a subject on its own level, whether a lion, a lizard or an ant. I am also excited by in-habitat shots, where the subject is shown in the context of its natural habitat. This is great specifically for rare or threatened species, so people who might not readily get an opportunity to see these animals can gain a greater appreciation for where the species fits into the bigger picture.

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