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Conservation photography tips given during SCCF presentation

By Staff | Apr 26, 2017

It is important to practice respect and common sense while photographing wildlife by using equipment that will keep you a good distance from the species your trying to capture. AUDREY ALBRECHT

Best practices for photographing wildlife and landscapes was the subject of a special presentation given last week at the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation.

Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation Public Outreach Coordinator Alexis Horn has been doing photography as a side business for six years. She’s had art shows in Tampa Bay, as well as Sidney, Australia and published in numerous conservation campaigns and the Australian Geographic.

In addition to her passion, Horn has also been an endangered species biologist for the federal government, a adjunct professor at the University of Tampa, a research scientist in Australia and has run the Florida Panther Program for the National Sierra Club.

“Photography, to me, is more of a byproduct of the life I have gotten to live and the jobs I have had,” she said. “It’s one of the greatest tools of conservation in my mind.”

Her presentation, “Conservation Photography: Ethics in Practice,” highlighted common sense and respect while photographing wildlife and landscapes.

The first tip of photographing wildlife is to become a biologist, figuratively.

“Knowing the life history of an animal will allow you to capture it more naturally, while also not stressing the animal out,” Horn said, adding that it is also important to have environmental knowledge of the species.

Some of the areas one wants to learn is the species behavior, while respecting the animal’s routines and use appropriate photography equipment such as long lense.

Horn also touched upon landscaping photography because of barriers that are placed – walkways, trails – to protect both the landscape and people. Other aspects of landscape photography is watching what is in “your frame.”

Horn said sometimes unwanted people can add dimension and scale, creating a more dynamic photo.

Her presentation also touched upon individuals being an ambassador of photography.

“Always try and do your best, be courteous to others, and be a really good role model,” she said. “Keep in mind it’s not always about you.”

An example shared was when she was taking pictures of a bull elephant across the road from a safe distance back when a guy in a Jeep was upset they were there and roared between them and the elephant.

“It upset the elephant and it charged us. Good thing we had a very quick responsive driver. That one second of anger could have been really dangerous,” Horn said.

One of the frequent questions she receives from individuals is what are the best species to photograph on the island, which often includes further questions about sea turtles.

Horn said sea turtles are a federally protected species. She said since they are a nocturnal species, they are typically spotted when mothers are laying their eggs at night.

“You have to have specialized gear to do night time photography. You can’t use a flash at all, so the biggest thing is artificial lighting. Sea turtles are highly susceptible to whatever the brightest object out there is. Our biologist has said that she has seen numerous nights (where) turtles orient to people wearing white clothing, so they are that sensitive,” Horn said.

She said if an individual comes across a sea turtle nesting at night they should be respectful and keep their distance and never approach them head on.

Horn said they have witnessed a lot of people using their cell phones as flashlights at night on the beach.

“They sell red filters and sell flashlights that have a red filter on them. Some reason turtles don’t see that wave length of light,” she said.

An individual’s viewing time of a sea turtle should be limited to 10 minutes.

“They are a really sensitive species and they will abandoned their nesting if they get startled,” Horn said.

Another favorite to photograph are shorebirds – snowy plovers. She said SCCF ropes off its nesting area because snowy plovers lay their eggs on top of the sand.

“They are extremely well camouflaged,” she said, adding that they like to hang out where all the seaweed goes, which is also where individuals walk. “We rope these areas off to try and protect them. They don’t like to be disturbed. If there are eggs on the ground and the adult is disturbed they will leave them for too long and the eggs will cook. If they have hatchlings and if the parents go away to avoid the predator, like us, other predators will come in and take them.”

Individuals are asked to stay at least 100 feet away from the birds when photographing them, as well as not crossing the roped off areas.

Last year, SCCF’s shoreline biologist received reports that crows started to figure out the behavior of individuals and their cameras when sitting in one spot.

“When they left, the crows would scoop down and see what was down there,” Horn said of what some of the beachgoers reported to SCCF. “Crows are one of the biggest killers of shorebirds and its chicks.”

Another behavior she had asked individuals not to do is flush birds when trying to photograph them on the beach.

“It causes them to expend energy that they wouldn’t necessarily be expending. They will flush naturally,” Horn said. “If you are patient and know the biology of the species you can wait it out.”

If a bird is looking at the photographer and the eyes, pupils are getting big, they are showing signs of stress. She said that is an indicator that the photographer has been there for too long and they should go. Again photographing shorebirds should be limited to 10 minutes.

Her presentation also touched upon using photography, camera trap photography, for science. She said the technique is excellent because the photographer is capturing a natural world individuals would not be able to see.

“It’s on a box and it is triggered by movement,” Horn said.

An example she gave was photographing a female Florida panther that traveled north of the Caloosahatchee for the first time last November since 1970. A month ago the panther had kittens.

Due to those pictures, Horn said there could be more lobbying done to further protect the Florida panther.

“Photography is an incredible tool for science,” she said.