How To Photograph Wildlife Responsibly

Photo: Zach Montes

Pro insights from wildlife photographer and eco-adventure guide Josh Metten

Creating photographs is one of the best ways to get outside and experience wildlife. And on another level, says Josh Metten, a wildlife photographer, naturalist and guide with Jackson Hole EcoTour Adventures, it also “creates value for wild animals and wild places.” Metten certainly knows the dual benefits of wildlife photography. He’s been guiding in Grand Teton and Yellowstone national parks for the past 10 years after graduating from Colorado State University, where he studied Natural Resource Management. Wildlife inspiration started long before that during childhood forays in Rocky Mountain National Park, where family visits in the fall, with golden aspens and elk bugling, created particularly lasting memories. Now Metten (@joshmettenphoto) regularly captures standout moments with grizzlies, wolves, elk, bison, raptors, eagles, and other amazing wildlife worth sharing. Here are his tips on taking great photos, and doing so responsibly.

The Best Places for Pictures of Wildlife

More than likely, says Metten, there are natural areas near you. “There’s a national wildlife refuge within an hour of every metro area in the country,” he adds, pointing out that while national forests are fantastic, natural areas within cities—where you’re taking photos of common species, like backyard birds on feeders—also work well for getting great wildlife photos.

Notably high-quality locations (out West) include Grand Teton and Yellowstone national parks, both well-known for wildlife photography. “And Rocky Mountain National Park is great seasonally, for elk in particular.” He also points to Brooks Falls in Katmai National Park for shooting photos of grizzlies catching salmon, and Nebraska’s North Platte River to shoot the sandhill crane migration. “You can rent and sit in a blind and take pictures of several hundred thousand sandhill cranes in the spring,” he says. “That’s something on my bucket list.”

Metten explains how knowing where the males of a certain species “lek,” or congregate in a display to get the females’ attention, can yield photo opportunities. The Wyoming Game and Fish Dept. has mapped sage grouse lek sites. “With some lek sites, you can get close enough for photography,” he says. “But others are better experienced with binoculars and spotting scopes from far away to avoid disturbing the birds.”

Top Photo Techniques for Great Wildlife Photos

The most important need, says Metten, is a telephoto lens so you can take pictures from a distance and allow wildlife to remain undisturbed. “If you can get a good shot of an animal with your phone, you’re probably too close,” he says. “You’ll want at least a 400-mm lens; you can get a kit lens for a couple hundred bucks.” 

Metten says he’s been enjoying digiscoping, using a spotting scope, adapter, and phone to take pictures and video. “The cool thing about that is you’re able to capture images or video of animals from a much greater distance in an ethical way than with a camera,” he says. And camera trapping, where you set up a camera to capture video and images when the camera senses movement, poses very little to no disturbance to animals. “Digiscoping is the next best thing,” says Metten. 

Another key tip: Make sure you have a fast enough shutter speed to stop motion. Switch to sport mode, or if you’re changing settings manually, make sure the shutter speed is 1/500th or 1/1000th for most animals. “Set it to 1/2500th or more for birds,” he says.

If you don’t have a fancy lens and want to take wildlife photos with your phone, shoot images of animals in a landscape, advises Metten. “You’re still capturing the animal but also showing how it’s interacting with the landscape,” he says. “How does it relate to the habitat? Is it eating, hunting, taking care of its babies, migrating? Those types of photos tell stories, and you can take them from further away.”  

The Ethics of Wildlife Photography

Sure, there’s an opportunity to document every occurrence outside now that so many people have a camera at the ready in their pocket. “But before you take an image or video,” says Metten, “try to consider what impact that’s going to have on your experience.” Maybe you just want to have the experience and not take the photo. “That might be more powerful and long-lasting than what image you’re trying to get—those are personal ethics,” he says. “Ask yourself why you want to take an image: Are you trying to brag about an experience? Or preserve a fond memory? Maybe the best way to preserve it is to simply experience it without having the image whatsoever.”

Wildlife photography also introduces the issue of people getting too close to animals, impacting both their safety, and that of the animals. “It’s really important to adhere to regulations,” says Metten. In Grand Teton and Yellowstone, that means staying 25 yards from any animal and 100 yards from bears and wolves. When wolves get habituated to humans, for instance, that can lead to the wolves getting killed. “Be mindful of taking photos,” Metten adds. “Try to avoid changing the behavior of the animal. Sit in a blind or stay in your vehicle. Avoid approaching animals and causing them to flee.”

Additionally, in colder months, animals are trying desperately to conserve their fat stores to make it through the winter. Forcing them to move by startling them when trying to take photos could affect their ability to survive. (So shoot images from far away.) Metten also warns against getting too close to bird nesting sites during any time of the year. “Adult birds need to go back and forth to feed their babies,” he says, “And you getting too close to the nest could affect that.” 

As you get deeper into the craft, Metten recommends adhering to more thorough wildlife photography ethics, such as these outlined by the North American Nature Photography Association.

Giving Back

Wildlife photographers and enthusiasts certainly benefit from the existence of the animals, Metten notes, but our encounters with them “are probably as a net-negative to the animals we’re enjoying.” To help rebalance that disproportionate dynamic, Mettern encourages wildlife photographers to seek out organizations doing conservation work that improves and increases wildlife habitat. “Support those organizations with your dollars,” he says. “Consider environmental records and policies of politicians you’re voting for. We have a responsibility to contribute so future generations can enjoy wildlife.”

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.