British Birds Bird photography – a new code of practice


This page contains 45 reader comments. Click here to view (latest Thu 14/11/13 18:01).

The interest in bird photography has boomed over the past decade. Many birdwatchers have become keen photographers, regularly carrying a camera when out birding, whether it be a conventional camera and lens or a compact camera for digiscoping. So it is probably safe to say that most people who go birding are photographers to some degree or other.

With so many more people wanting to photograph birds, particularly rarities, there are added pressures and responsibilities on photographers. It is usually necessary to get close or sit it out in hides on reserves but all this can bring us into conflict with others. Based on an admittedly non-scientific sample, it seems that many of the complaints about birders' behaviour these days, especially where rare or scarce migrants are concerned, are directed at people trying to photograph the bird. For many years, wildlife photographers affiliated to photographic societies, clubs and organisations have worked with a code of practice. The following list is as much advice to new and aspiring photographers as it is a guide to good ethics and ensuring that the photographer stays within the law. It is time that birders had a Bird Photography Code of Practice and I hope that these recommendations will act as a useful reference for bird photographers at large in Britain and elsewhere.

  • A well-used mantra but one that is paramount is that the welfare of the bird is more important than the photograph.
  • Birds should not be harassed by continual pushing and flushing. Most rarities soon settle into a pattern and successful photography can often be achieved by waiting patiently and allowing the bird to come to you.
  • The use of playback vocalisations should be employed sparingly, if at all; if a reaction is not forthcoming immediately, then playback is unlikely to work and should not be repeated in a given territory. It should be noted that the use of playback for species protected under Schedule 1 of the Wildlife & Countryside Act may be considered illegal.
  • Photographing breeding species listed under Schedule 1 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act requires a licence. It is an offence to recklessly disturb a Schedule 1 species when that species is nest-building, at, near or in a nest containing eggs or young. This includes the photography of dependent young, too. In recent years in Scotland, photographing lekking Capercaillies has also become illegal without a licence. Note that this includes 'rogue males' during the lekking season. The Forestry Commission has issued a directive not to conduct any activities within 500 m of known Capercaillie leks during March, April and May. To apply for a licence to photograph Schedule 1 species you need to contact the respective licensing bodies. In the UK these are Natural England, Scottish Natural Heritage, the Countryside Council for Wales and the Northern Ireland Environment Agency.
  • Photography at or near a nest should be undertaken only by those with a good understanding of the species involved and who are, therefore, able to keep disturbance to a minimum. If photography is likely to inhibit normal behaviour, a hide should be used and moved slowly into position; normal practice is for a hide to be moved a short distance each day. A competent bird photographer will be able to identify whether the birds have accepted the hide and this should be checked after every move. If the birds show signs of rejecting the hide, it should be moved back to its previous position. If signs of rejection persist, photography should be abandoned. Good hide etiquette requires the photographer to be seen into the hide by another person and duly collected. Hides used for nest photography should not be left erected at sites that might attract public attention.
  • Vegetation, whether around a nest or in other circumstances, for example concealing a shrike's larder, should not be chopped away; judicious gardening, including the tying back of branches, is acceptable, as long as the habitat can be returned to the state in which it was found.
  • Live mammals such as mice should never be used to bait predatory birds such as raptors and owls.
  • Always ensure you have the landowner's permission if you are venturing into an area away from public rights of way or common land.
  • Nesting colonies, roosts and important feeding areas should not be disturbed in pursuit of photographs. The thoughtless actions of one photographer can jeopardise the reputation of others.
  • Respect the rights of fellow photographers. If a photographer is in a position close to a bird, resist the urge to immediately join him or her without first gaining their acceptance. A photographer may have taken a considerable amount of time to carefully approach a bird and by assuming it is fine to approach you run the risk of both flushing the bird and making yourself unpopular with your fellow photographer.
  • Be honest in declaring the circumstances in which a picture has been taken; if it is of a captive bird, then that should be stated in your caption, particularly if publication or public display is intended.
  • If digital manipulation is used, in other words a material change to the subject matter, such as an extra bird added to (or removed from) the picture, a background change or other major cosmetic alteration, then this should be stated to avoid misleading the viewer and misrepresenting the subject.

Be considerate to other photographers, who may have made considerable efforts to get into a good position to photograph the bird, here a Red-necked Phalarope Phalaropus lobatus at a feeding loch on Fetlar, Shetland, June 2006. (Photo: David Tipling.)


I would like to thank Robin Chittenden, David Hosking and Dave Kjaer for their useful comments and advice while compiling these notes.

This article originally appeared in the April edition of British Birds, and is reproduced here with the kind permission of the author and editor.

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The information in this article was believed correct at the time of writing. BirdGuides accepts no responsibility for errors, or for any consequences of acting on information in the article. The opinions expressed are those of the author(s) and are not necessarily shared by BirdGuides Ltd.

hide section Reader comments (45)

Good reminders and very timely in the light of just how many people are out with cameras looking for 'that' shot! Respect for the creature (be it bird or other wild animal), environment and other people is the key! Developing personal fieldcraft skills, including tuning in to bird/animal behaviour is far more rewarding than using techniques that only add to the stress of an animals survival. We are there to observe their beauty they are there trying to survive! Thanks for the article and clarification of the code. :)
   Tom Charles, 01/05/11 13:17Report inappropriate post Report 
A long overdue article. The amount of Schedule 1 species appearing in the galleries during the breeding season is quite worrying!! Lots of people don't even seem to know what Schedule 1 is, let alone which species are on it. If you have a licence, then say so in the image info box!
   David, 01/05/11 13:19Report inappropriate post Report 
perhaps a list of schedule 1 species should be added to this article, for people not in the know?
   dave perrett, 01/05/11 13:37Report inappropriate post Report 
Theres a Schedule 1 link in bullet point 3 above.
   Tom Charles, 01/05/11 13:39Report inappropriate post Report 
Also here: http://www.rspb.org.uk/ourwork/policy/wildbirdslaw/birdsandlaw/wca/schedules.aspx
   David, 01/05/11 15:04Report inappropriate post Report 
Certainly the bird comes first - but what about other birders who are not photographers? This note seems to have relegated us out of sight - note the comment about "respect the rights of other photographers"! I get thoroughly fed up with photographers hogging the best viewing points for hours "waiting for that special shot", and moving immediately in front of me if a bird appears. Frankly I'd have been pissed off with the guy in the photo if I'd been viewing from a distance and he moved into my line of sight, or more likely disturbed the bird. The order of priority should be, bird, other birders, other photographers, and not forgetting landowners either.
   Mike, 01/05/11 16:09Report inappropriate post Report 
"The amount of schedule 1 species appearing in the galleries during the breeding season is quite worrying" Maybe someone should set an example and refuse to add them!. By the way if this current government gets it's way The Countryside and Wildlife act will be a thing of the past, as it is one of the bills they want to scrap.
   Richard, 01/05/11 16:29Report inappropriate post Report 
Re: #6...... hear, hear; absolutely
   NS, 01/05/11 16:30Report inappropriate post Report 
As the number of photographers has boomed, so too has the likelihood of encountering one that has no field skills or regard for others, and they stain the character of the good ones. I fully welcome this code, which is overdue, but as suggested above, it misses out the very important aspect of birders. Unfortunately, some photographers have a bad reputation for needing to be that little bit closer than the people who are 'merely' watching the bird. Having a camera does not give anyone the right to be closer to the front, or closer to a bird, than anyone else.
   Ian, 01/05/11 18:28Report inappropriate post Report 
Mike is spot on. This code ignores the rights of birders who are not photographers. Some photographers are selfish and have no respect for other observers. SJ
   Shaun, 01/05/11 18:55Report inappropriate post Report 
David is absolutely right about the worrrying amount of photos of schedule 1 bird species which appear on website photo galleries. Just use the search filter for Slavonian Grebe - Highlands on THIS website to see how many photos have been taken of a seriously declining breeding species (and presumably not at RSPB Loch Ruthven). I would like the editors of Birdguides to say what their policy is on allowing photos of such species to be downloaded and shown in their photo gallery. Is there any explanation of the issues (let alone the potential of committing a criminal act by taking such photos) when a person downloads his photos onto the site? Ian
   Ian Bradshaw, 01/05/11 19:30Report inappropriate post Report 
Kingfisher, Avocet, Black Necked Grebe, Dartford Warbler....quite a fair few photos of these birds have been uploaded over the past few weeks too....and they are ALL schedule 1... As a relatively new birder/wildlife photographer this article is extremely interesting to me. As a hobby, bird photography is open to anyone who can get their hands on a camera and lens and therefore is in no way regulated. There's no exam to take or induction to it (not saying there should be!) but that...more more
   Ben Andrew, 01/05/11 20:25Report inappropriate post Report 
A great article and anything that promotes conservation and co-operation is worth highlighting. I am sure that 99% of birders and photographers do put the welfare of the bird first. Indeed many photographers and birders I meet are careful to an extreme degree and this is to be applauded and encouraged. Further explanation on photography licensing may be helpful for clarification "A photography licence is needed if you want to photograph any Schedule 1 bird at or on the nest or any animal...more more
   Marcus Conway - ebirder, 01/05/11 21:04Report inappropriate post Report 
Well done David for putting his head above the parapet and attempting to tackle what has become a very contentious issue. It seems to me that bird photography is in danger of becoming the 'new egg collecting' with some individuals willing to put the welfare of their subjects at risk just to get a better shot. All the points made about disturbance to Schedule 1 species are valid and I doubt that the three photographers within spitting distance of a Dartford warbler nest containing dependent...more more
   Rob, 01/05/11 21:25Report inappropriate post Report 
An excellent and timely reminder. There are far too many photographers out there who aren't aware of the Schedule 1 licensing requirements or who simply choose to ignore them and to whom the subject's welfare is very much secondary to their desire to 'get the shot'. Jeff (Schedule 1 Licence holder for Kingfishers, Barn Owls and Avocets)
   Jeff Harrison (www.jeffharrisonphotography.co.uk), 02/05/11 09:04Report inappropriate post Report 
Interesting that Gyr Falcon is on the list of Schedule 1 species. When did Gyr last (or ever) breed in Britain? Or are they just kept quiet?
   Hugh Pugh, 02/05/11 10:57Report inappropriate post Report 
I applaud this code but fear the genie is out of the bottle already ….. take note the amount of camera equipment on view everywhere you go these days! At one time a ‘big’ lens was only in the professionals preserve and they had usually been birding/nature watching prior to taking up photography – now anyone can buy camera equipment and use it. Those of us who are already responsible will read it and sign up – those who don’t care won’t even know it exists – and its these people that cause...more more
   Pauline Greenhalgh, 02/05/11 11:23Report inappropriate post Report 
A contentious subject that I am glad has been revisited to ensure more birds are left undisturbed and more birders and photographers are aware of their actions. I have been a birder since a young age and know very well where I have inadvertently stumbled upon a nesting bird and know to back-off immediately. This experience has stood me in good stead with a more recent desire to take a few photographs when out birding. Whether we like it or not, affordable DSLRs are here to stay and we all...more more
   Robin Edwards, 02/05/11 13:17Report inappropriate post Report 
I appreciate those points Robin as I am a photographer myself, but there are more obvious examples when people are uploading species like Woodlark and Dartford Warbler that have a beak full of food or even images of dependant fledglings that really alarms me. When you do ask about a licence, surprise surprise you get no response. The "great shot" comments and "thumbs up" continue though, anyone can stand next to a nest and get a "great shot", there is no skill in that at all. And Richard is absolutely right IMO, even if shots like this are uploaded, they shouldn't be reaching the galleries unless the photographer has a licence or has taken the image from a public hide.
   David, 02/05/11 16:53Report inappropriate post Report 
Re the 'argument' that appears to have broken out between the rather arbitary groups of 'birders' and 'photographers', doesn't this all come down to respect and personal accountability, two things that seem to be sadly lacking in modern Britain? I have seen very poor and selfish (both to other people and the birds) behaviour in hides, at twitches, on reserves, etc. by birdwatchers both with and without cameras in their hands. As a cross-section of society in general, there will be bad eggs...more more
   Simon Edwards, 03/05/11 10:40Report inappropriate post Report 
Re: #17 "Those of us who are already responsible will read it and sign up – those who don’t care won’t even know it exists", perhaps those of us in the former category who feel strongly about this issue could carry a couple of copies of the BB article and/or the Schedule 1 list and (politely) hand it to anyone they encounter breaking the code? If enough responsible birders/photographers do this, the message will come across much more strongly than it does via comments posted online after the event, or made at the time but out of earshot of the transgressor.
   Nick Moran, 03/05/11 12:29Report inappropriate post Report 

a nice thought, but it'd just end up as litter - those who won't listen to reason won't read it either.

I have to say that birders have no claim to the higher moral ground here.

I've lost count of the number of times I've been (for example) sitting or lying quietly on a beach waiting for some common (italicised because it's important to the point I'm making) waders to slowly make their way towards my camera lens, when some ignorant lump with a scope and bins round his neck has barged right through 'em on his way to where some "interesting" bird was last seen, ruining my benign efforts to get a few images under my belt.

Some birders are as bad as most dog-owners, which is saying something...
   Keith Reeder, 03/05/11 12:36Report inappropriate post Report 
Keith - still worth a try IMHO; better than either a) a verbal confrontation at the time or b) wasting (more) time on t'internet. Talking of which, perhaps you could produce the equivalent for your (stereotyped male) birder - I'm sure he won't be reading this ;)
   Nick Moran, 03/05/11 12:41Report inappropriate post Report 
Maybe just a better attitude altogether might work? Entrenchment and backing into corners - defending perceived 'rights' which no-one has unless said bird is on your land and you deny access, name calling, stereo-typing and making snap judgements without observation of the person, are all the things I was referring to in my earlier post ....... and here we go - examples above......
   Pauline Greenhalgh, 03/05/11 16:10Report inappropriate post Report 
Good article. A professional bird photographer on Lesvos told me once that most of the very good images that appear on the internet are taken using playback and that most professionals use it. This is not saying that good fieldcraft can't get you good images but what is the percentage of those ? Another sore point in my opinion are the brilliant flight shots of certain passerines (or other birds) and not owning up to just having gotten to close....and as mentioned above the thumbs up keep coming.
   Gerald, 03/05/11 17:31Report inappropriate post Report 
#24 "Maybe just a better attitude altogether might work?" - couldn't agree more, Pauline - hence my practical suggestion to try to encourage the most selfish photographers/birders to show more consideration for both their subjects and the other folk who want to photograph/enjoy the bird. Incidentally, all the photographers/birders I met during a 5-mile birding walk round Cley/Salthouse on Sunday were polite and considerate... except for the disappointingly ignorant 'birdwatching' couple (decked-out with all the optical gear) whose unleashed dog chased me - and no doubt the host of birds nesting nearby!
   Nick Moran, 03/05/11 17:45Report inappropriate post Report 
This is an interesting discussion and part of the aim of this was to get a dialogue going. There was a time when the only conflict between birders and photographers was at rarities but this has changed dramatically in recent times with many now wanting to photograph not just scarce but common birds too. Living in North Norfolk I have in the past 12 months seen some really irresponsible behavior that gives all of us who carry a camera a bad name and I thought that by publishing this it might...more more
   David Tipling, 04/05/11 00:02Report inappropriate post Report 
This "code" is well intentioned but as has been previously commented makes no reference to other wildlife watchers. This is typical of the mindset of many photographers & twitchers (not birders) who give no thought to anybody but themselves so long as they "get the shot" or "tick". In any group there will be a minority that because of their selfishness spoil others enjoyment, bad twitchers are here to stay & unfortunately the numbers of ignorant selfish photographers is increasing rapidly
   Richard B, 04/05/11 09:38Report inappropriate post Report 
I think there may have been an omission in this article and quite an important one. What is the protocol if you witness someone, not just photographers, doing something at the nest site of a Schedule 1 bird? Do you ask to see their license? What if they don't have one, do you then call the police or what? I think we need something that details exactly what to do in those circumstances as it's entirely possible many of us may witness such a situation. In addition what if they are up to far worse then photographing such as egg or chick stealing and in which case approaching them may not be a good idea. I'd guess take some pictures and call the police but we do need a link or an addition to the article somewhere telling us exactly what to do in each event.
   Adam Jarvis, 05/05/11 12:19Report inappropriate post Report 
"What is the protocol if you witness someone, not just photographers, doing something at the nest site of a Schedule 1 bird? Do you ask to see their license?" - No. You phone the police, as you should for any (suspected) wildlife crime.
   Hugh Pugh, 05/05/11 12:31Report inappropriate post Report 
Mike #6 Well said! I agree 100% Ann
   Ann Gifford, 05/05/11 21:11Report inappropriate post Report 
David (sorry I can't be more specific as you appear to want to remain anonymous for some reason). I am the photographer of the 'dependant' Woodlark fledgling you refer to. What I find astonishing in your comments are the assumptions you make about the circumstances these photographs are taken in. Let me enlighten you: this juvenile Woodlark was photographed at the side of a B road at a well known New Forest raptor watchpoint, literally 1 foot away from the tarmac surface with cyclists...more more
   Ken Arber, 06/05/11 09:26Report inappropriate post Report 
Sorry Ken, but we will have to agree to disagree on this one, if its flown back to its parents and siblings, then yes it is dependant, which is also obvious by the growth stage of the bird. Why not disclose your "justification" of taking such images in the info box provided on upload next time, then people can make up their own minds. My view certainly hasn't changed and my surname is Ives by the way, no need for me to remain anonymous at all.
   David, 06/05/11 12:10Report inappropriate post Report 
David, I'm human and far from perfect. However, it isn't a question of whether we agree or disagree, I suspect that if we were to sit down and have a conversation about this we might even be surprised by how our views on the welfare of wildlife are shared. What I find offensive and why I have chosen to post on this occasion is that you take an accusatory/confrontational approach, I quote from you directly here: "Hopefully you have a Sched 1 license for this species? And "when people are...more more
   Ken Arber, 06/05/11 13:29Report inappropriate post Report 
Is it not possible to agree a good set of practices without generalising the supposed typical behaviour of different stereotyped groups of people or making gross assumptions about certain photographs/photographers without evidence. This thread is getting tedious and quickly off-topic, i.e. what should a good code of conduct be.
   Hugh Pugh, 06/05/11 14:05Report inappropriate post Report 
Ken, I apologise if my original question offended you, it wasn't meant to in the slightest, I actually found it offensive that you didn't reply on a matter which is to me quite serious. No I am not a JNCC or DEFRA officer, do I need to be? Anyone should be able to ask such questions when images with no explanation of the circumstances are uploaded IMO. The worrying part for me is that people viewing your image with no explanation may think it is ok to photograph fledglings of such species no matter how far they are from the nest or parents that are trying to feed them. As I said, I am sorry for offending you. Hopefully this article has refreshed this issue in all of our minds and perhaps educated some who genuinely didn't know of Schedule 1 before, it really should be highlighted more often IMO.
   David, 06/05/11 14:10Report inappropriate post Report 
I have probably missed the boat in this discussion - last comment being the 6/5/11 but here goes: Should there not also be an entry on this code: Respect and consideration for other people? What I mean by this is when I go out birding (occasional photographer) I do it for the love of nature and the great outdoors, for some peace and quiet away from the noise pollution of the modern world. But what do you get in an ever increasing frequency, sitting in a hide having to listen to constant electronic wirrs and shutter noises. Digital cameras have a mute option, they dont need to be making all this noise. How about some respect and consideration for other people??? I appreciate that this is not all photographers but some self-awareness would be good.
   John Fowler, 14/05/11 11:49Report inappropriate post Report 
john, whilst I agree with your wish for peace and quiet, I don't think camera noise should be more offensive to your ear than any other noise encountered in a hide, most from my experiance emenating from the mouths of the folk in the hide. Also I'm not sure what camera you use - my Canon does not have the capacity to mute the noise from the mirror when the shutter is opened because it is a mechanical action rather than electronic as you suggest. The trouble is John that respecting your needs might mean individuals sitting in total silence which might not be what others want from their day out. Surely it's about respecting the birds more than trying to please everyone in the hide ?
   Robin Edwards, 14/05/11 12:27Report inappropriate post Report 
True enough, Robin.

Besides, although I rarely spend time in hides with my camera myself, it has always struck me that the main source of obtrusive noise in hides is tripod legs being clattered around on wooden floors - and at any given time, in any given hide, there are likely to be more tripods being used to hold up scopes than cameras.
   Keith Reeder, 14/05/11 12:41Report inappropriate post Report 
I appreciate everyone has their own agenda and I would not expect it to be like a morgue in a hide, but Robin, do you seriously believe that constant wirring and shutter noises is appreciated in a hide by anyone? This article is about a photographers code of practise, I dont think the example of putting a scope tripod up is relevant. Plus, its like saying nobody can come into the hide as the door makes a noise. Once the tripod is set up what noise does it make Keith? Its obvious I have walked into a photographers trap :) I should know better. I wont be adding any further comment so feel free to rip this to shreds!!! :) To finish off with, and this is not aimed at you guys - I have always been aware of my surroundings and try and have consideration for others, but as with pretty much all other ares of modern life your hitting your head against a brick wall, Im all right jack...... something to think about over a cup of tea!
   John Fowler, 14/05/11 15:08Report inappropriate post Report 
I have taken photos of Avocets last year not knowing they were on the schedule 1 list. I was in a hide and there were lots of them. Two were feeding quite close to the hide and another flew in. I was very pleased with the photo and now I find I shouldn't have taken it. Is it allowed to take schedule 1 birds from a hide and if not - why not. I have just looked at the RSPB list from David's link and no mention is made of PHOTOGRAPHING birds - only disturbing or killing them.
   Sue Storey, 14/02/12 12:01Report inappropriate post Report 
Sue, the lead that BirdGuides took last year was to discourage uploading images of schedule 1 breeding species during the UK Breeding season on the basis that it may encourage some photographers or birders to cause disturbance. I think in the instance you describe, taking images from a public hide is acceptable as the birds did not suffer from disturbance. It is not safe however to say with all images of birds taken during the breeding season that this is the case though, hence the approach taken. There are other comments made along the way which touch on the subject of some people's intollerance towards photographers in public hides which is a wholly seperate subject.
   Robin Edwards, 14/02/12 12:43Report inappropriate post Report 
Sue - The law states it is an offense to intentionally disturb a schedule 1 species at or near the nest. So photographing Avocets from a public hide could not be deemed as breaking the law. If you had gone in front of the hide and tried to creep close to an incubating Avocet then yes that would obviously be intentional and breaking the law. But you can't be accused of breaking the law in the circumstances you describe. Furthermore the disturbance has got to be proven as intentional. It's fine to stalk non breeding Avocets too as long of course you don't harass the bird, that's ethical rather than legal. There has been much misinterpretation and misrepresentation of this law which is spelled out by Natural England in their guidance notes.
   David Tipling, 15/02/12 19:18Report inappropriate post Report 
David, I wish to put the record straight here. Schedule 12 of the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 specifically states the following: In section 1(5) of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 (offence of intentional disturbance of wild birds) after “intentionally” there is inserted “ or recklessly”. The reason for this important amendment was that it had proved almost impossible to successfully prosecute anyone for intentional disturbance because how can you show intent when the alleged offender simply claims that it was not their intention to disturb? Accordingly, the term 'or recklessly' was added so that prosecutions could be made against those who might claim they didn't intend to disturb but could be shown to have been reckless in their actions. Accordingly, bullet point 4 in the Code should be corrected to read 'intentionally or recklessly' and readers should take this into account when reviewing your well intentioned comments above. Happy Christmas and good birding to all.
   NPW, 25/12/12 07:39Report inappropriate post Report 
There is one big misunderstanding about the photographing of Schedule 1 birds. What you are not allowed to do (regardless of photography) is to intentionally or recklessly disturb the nesting birds. For the 99.99% of us without a special license, it makes no difference if you point a camera, telescope or just your finger at the birds, the issue is disturbance. The idea that pressing a shutter on a camera is the action that breaks the law is completely wrong (unless perhaps shutter noise from the camera does itself disturb the birds). In fact the law accepts that there are some circumstances where disturbance to the birds is allowed and photography with a license is one such circumstance. The license you get, is not a license that allows you to photograph the birds, you could do that anyway if you did not disturb them. The license is to allow you to disturb the birds, which normally you would not be allowed to do with or without a camera.
   Kevin Harris, 14/11/13 18:01Report inappropriate post Report 

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