What is the meaning of the word ethics? Ethics is the moral principle that governs a person’s behavior or the conduct of an activity.

Ethics examines the rational justification for our moral judgments; it studies what is morally right or wrong, just or unjust.

How important is ethics in photography?

Ethics are essential in all genres of photography because if we’re seen to be harming our subjects, no one will want to be photographed by us; in addition, unethical photography sets a lousy name for the entire photography industry.

When discussing photography ethics, we are talking about applying concepts like responsibility, power, and dignity to how we take and share photographs.

Below are three examples illustrating unethical photography practices and why the photographic industry must stamp down hard on this behaviour to safeguard the survival of flora and fauna and the photography industry.


The internet has been flooded with photographs depicting photographers with their human and pet subjects picking and trampling flora in Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI).

The image above was photographed by amateur photographer Jennifer Schenck back in 2017. While the photo may look pretty, the behaviour of both the human subject and the photographer is inappropriate.

Social Influencers are just as bad. The image below was photographed in 2019 by the Instagram handle @Indrabusa, illustrating a female subject sitting on protected bluebells in Heartwood Forest.

Every year from mid-April, thousands of photographers embark on portraiture photography, where spring bulbs bloom in SSSI zones. However, these spring bulbs are a protected species in the United Kingdom, like Rhino and Elephants are a protected species in Africa and Asia.

It’s against the law to intentionally pick, uproot or destroy bluebells. Bluebells are protected under the UK Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981.

Like most wild plants, Sites of Special Scientific Interest are also protected under The Wildlife and Countryside Act of 1981. Furthermore, photographers may require a permit or permission from the landowner to shoot in these protected areas.

The UK has thousands of these important sites. England has over 4,100 sites covering more than 4,200 square miles. Around half of this area is internationally important for wildlife.

Surely just one photo can’t harm them?

Unfortunately, if one person walks on the bluebells, this encourages more people to do it too. In popular bluebell woods, one person’s narrow tracks soon widen as more people walk the same route. The bluebells then end up in island-like patches instead of the blue carpet we all love.

The bulbs also become damaged when the soil is compacted from the weight of persistent footfall.


Classified in the UK as Green under the Birds of Conservation Concern 5: the Red List for Birds (2021). Kingfishers are protected in the UK under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981.

However, despite the law, this still hasn’t stopped a significant minority of wildlife photographers from baiting them.

Source: Twitter – Image: Kingfisher Tank and Post

Baiting often involves the bird being harassed and stressed by the behaviour of those trying to get a closer view. With the tanks also being so small and transparent, there have been times when kingfishers have hit the side of the tank in pursuit of their prey resulting in injury and death of a protected species.

Furthermore, the bird itself has an unfair advantage over its prey, and most tanks and pools are filled with minnows, which hide owners often fish from local rivers without a fishing permit.

Some photographers will try to bend the rules here, whereby they remove the tank and create a larger artificial pool. However, they overlook that baiting is actively luring an individual bird (usually a raptor) with live (or simulated live) prey to provoke hunting behaviour, bringing the bird near the observer for purposes such as bird-watching or photography.

Persistent bating often leads to habitation, meaning the bird has forgotten its natural hunting and foraging behaviour, thus relying on humans as its primary food source. As a result, over-baited birds can suffer from starvation and malnutrition when local hides close for the season or photographers move on.

Info: Dead Kingfishers

Furthermore, if adult nesting birds are nursing young that have yet to fly the nest, they too could perish due to persistent baiting—disturbance, stress and harassment. Fledglings that have yet to fly the nest cannot be taught how to hunt and forage if the adult birds have been over-habituated.

Social Influencers

Social influencers have built a reputation for their knowledge and expertise on a specific topic. Social influencers rely on social media engagement, i.e. controversial issues, likes, followers, shares etc., to earn a living.

Contrary to popular belief, social influencers aren’t necessarily young people who own mobile phones and social media accounts. A social influencer can be anyone with a camera phone, DSLR, and social media account.

The image below illustrates model Jessica Rast lying naked on an endangered Asian elephant.

Source: The Irish Sun

While the images may have increased Jessica Rasts’ page ranking on Instagram and Google and attracted more followers. The viewer does not see how this endangered elephant was broken and abused for humans to use as they so wish.

Credit: Beast Planet

The idea of domesticated elephants working in harmony with their human handlers (mahouts) may sound idyllic, but the reality is anything but. Whether born wild or in captivity, young elephants must be made fit for human use through a process known as “breaking” or “elephant crushing”, involving the systematic breaking of the elephant’s mind, body and spirit.

Babies are taken from their mothers (traumatic enough in itself for both child and parent), after which their “training” may include being confined in tiny pens, systematically beaten with bullhooks or nail-studded sticks, starved, and deprived of sleep. Once these hugely influential animals have been terrified into doing their owner’s bidding, they are considered safe to interact with tourists.

Elephant riding and breaking an elephant is still legal in Thailand. Elephant tourism plays a huge part in the country’s economy, with many inbound tourists visiting elephant sanctuaries where they can interact with these majestic creatures.

However, that doesn’t mean tourists should participate in such inappropriate behaviour.


Unethical photography is bad for business; it tarnishes the good name of photographers that work hard to make a living and casts a spotlight on the photography industry.

In addition, photography organisations, social media platforms, and enforcement agencies must do more to punish those that engage in unethical photography practices.

Ignoring or choosing to brush these problems under the carpet for fear of upsetting people only worsens matters. Furthermore, it sets a bad example for younger and beginner photographers.

Unethical photography is also bad for wildlife, whether it’s a plant or animal, or the species is listed as “Least Concern” or “Vulnerable” on the IUCN Red List.

To learn more about ethics in photography, please read my study article here: Talking Ethics in Photography. This article may be unsuitable for reading on mobile devices. Therefore, reading it on a laptop or PC is best.

The Norfolk Photographer

Jon Williamson is an ethical photographer and writer with fifteen years of experience in the industry, specialising in fine art, landscape, seascape, workshops, talks, prints, frames and stock imagery.

Published by J. J. Williamson

Prints, frames, stock images and portrait services.

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