In Wildlife Photography – Where Do You Draw the Line?

Gerry van der Walt All Authors Leave a Comment


How picky are you when it comes to your wildlife photography?


Looking around on Facebook, Flickr and other social sharing sites I see a lot of images which has wild – or apparently wild – animals as the subject but something just does not feel right.  I am not talking about images of lions and tigers in zoos and then passing it off wildlife photography as that is a topic for a different time.  I am talking about images taken in wildlife reserves that still just does not feel right.  Images that do not quite feel wild and natural.


One of the most common problems, as that is what I see it as, is the inclusion of fences, power lines and other man made structures.


Seeing an image of a free roaming lion with massive power lines or a fence behind it just does not quite cut it.  For me it takes all the romance of Africa out of the image.  It reminds your viewer of the human influence over nature.


Just for the record, I am not talking about travel photograph images or images in which you try and show people the context of your sightings or how close the lion came to the lodge as that is something completely different.  I am referring specifically to wildlife images.  Images of animals in their natural environment.


Now where should we draw the line?  Fences?  Buildings?  What about all the roads that have been created for us to access all these wonderful places?


Does including a man made road in your images influence the image as much as the inclusion of something solid like a fence?


Whenever I pick up my camera to photograph wildlife one of the items on my mental checklist is to scan the image to make sure that I have not included anything that could influence my image.  Excluding items is a way more powerful tool in photography  than including.


To me wildlife photography is about capturing and sharing the beauty of nature as it once was and as it should be.  The goal is to keep a little bit of the raw, romantic elements of the Africa we all grew up with.  Even the smallest hint of human interference can change the mood, look and feel of an image completely.


So my question to you is this.  When considering whether to include or exclude certain human elements from a frame, where do you draw the line?



Until next time.


Gerry van der Walt


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Comments 0

  1. Ivan

    Ha, ha … this one should be titled “Road Kill”, love the shot. Good points, I think this becomes more and more of a challenge as more and more people flock to the Reserves. One see’s images from Kruger for example where a great sighting is simply surrounded by vehicles … painful! The other issue that starts to be a challenge is collared animals, does the collar compromise the shot?

    1. Gerry van der Walt

      I like that… Road Kill! 🙂  Collars are most definitely an issue.  The problem comes in that the moment you mention that you start the ecology versus tourism debate as the research can benefit the species etc etc but I do feel that from a pure wildlife photography point of view it does compromise the shot.  Documentary type photography?  Different story!

  2. Hilton Meyer

    Fences and telephone poles should be out of the question as too asphalt roads. Dirt road’s could be use to your advantage but things that are man made should be kept to a minimum. Then again this lends itself to the question of how much should you do in Photoshop to remove those elements if you simply couldn’t avoid them. Not everyone can get to the plains of the Serengeti…

    1. Gerry van der Walt

      Agreed Hilton.  Dirt roads can be used very effectively for wildlife photography as long as the rest of the human elements are kept to a minimum.  Also, many of the ‘wild’ animals have gotten so used to walking and resting on the roads that it is a great place to look for and find them.  

      With regards to Photoshop – my first prize would be to remove the elements in the field – i.e. not include them – but if you do remove anything to be open and honest about it. 🙂

  3. Dave

    Very interesting topic Gerry. I have for years always tried to exclude human elements from my images, to the point that I have very few images of people, only birds and mammals.But were do you draw the line?A lot of my bird images are captured in an urban environment. How large must the reserve be for the environment to be free and natural. (Krugerdorp lion park, Rietvlei Pretoria, Pilanesberg, Madikwa or Kruger)
    If the size of the environment is not the determining factor, is it a wildlife image if you just exclude human elements from the image?
    Is there anything wrong with an urban wildlife image? (Nat geo have a urban wildlife catagory in there comp.)

    Are we as photographers not looking at this with blinkers and should we not open our minds. ( Please note I include myself)


    1. Gerry van der Walt

      Thanks for the comment Dave.  I think Urban wildlife images are great and love the way how you can create images that show how nature still exists in and around where people live.

      I suppose the thing would be to – like Nat Geo does – create and stipulate the type of image and whether it was intended as a clean wildlife image, urban wildlife or documentary type image.

      I agree that we should all loose the blinkers, open our minds and look for photo opportunities that goes past what a ‘normal’ wildlife image should be about and focus on the ‘photography’ part thereof. 🙂

  4. Albie Venter

    I think too many people want a stereotypical clean portrait. Except for the average guy who want to get an additional star at his camera club with the clean image, photography should certainly relate stories and better still the conservation status of our subjects. And if humans (as they often are in today’s world) are a part of that then it should be included. I am currently working on a wilddog project in Northern Kenya and from time to time photograph collarred animals. Although undesirable it tells the conservation story of the alpha dogs being collared and thus the conservation background. Its doesn’t just portray the romantic notion that all is fine with wilddogs in africa but the real issue facing them. The trick is to make the human element as evocative as the wild subjects. Not as easy. But yes I would certainly also try and crop out the road. fence, telephone pole etc. Cheers Albie

    1. Gerry van der Walt

      Thanks for your comment Albie.  

      You mention ‘… tells the conservation story…’ and that is the point.  If you, as a photographer, decides to include something in the frame it should be a part of the story whether that is a clean wildlife image or a conservation / documentary type image. 

      Showing a human element that enhances the conservation story, or even just hints at it, is great but things like fences, poles, etc that do not contribute to the story has no place and as a photographer you should try and exclude these elements if at all possible.

      Your Wild Dog project sounds very great and as a photographic project must be helluva interesting to shoot!  🙂

  5. Deon De Villiers

    I think it ultimately boils down to what you want to do with the image, as to whether you remove items or leave them in. I knew somebody who was dead against removing even a branch on post process, until I asked him why he considers it fair to push a tree over with a game drive to get a clear shot – surely the latter would be less ethical than the former…?

    In saying this however, I feel the surrounds are what make an image an image, and should an image tell a story then the surrounds should certainly make up part of it…! If you want your image to tell a different story to what the story was behind the shot, then sure change it as you wish… after all, it’s your image and this isn’t a sport, it’s art…! And nobody can disagree; a good image is a good image – whether it is manipulated or not…!

    But fair is fair, and one shouldn’t have to lie about how they obtained their image or how they processed it, or even about the whereabout of the subject…. as if they do, then there’s probably a lack of ethics involved somewhere…!

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