How to Choose a Photography Workshop that Respects and Protects Birds

These tips can help you get great pictures and keep the birds you love safe with a guide or group.

From a guided walk in a local park to a pricey multi-day excursion to a remote locale, your options for bird photography workshops are seemingly endless. At their best, workshops and outfitter tours offer an exceptional opportunity to build technical skills and community while seeing wildlife you might never encounter on your own.

Yet for photographers who want to celebrate and protect wild birds and habitats, it’s important to weigh the impact of any organized group you’re participating in. “We’re affecting wildlife every time we’re out there by the simple act of our presence,” says Melissa Groo, a conservation photographer and ethics consultant for Audubon. A lone photographer can disrupt a bird; a large group like a photography workshop should take even greater care. 

Some professional wildlife photographers may make their living by leading workshops—and many go to great lengths to abide by responsible practices and contribute to conservation efforts. But not all trips and tours are created equal. Under pressure to ensure clients leave with breathtaking images (especially when they’ve paid significant fees!), some may cut corners or employ irresponsible practices that put wildlife at risk.

Sorting through the abundant offerings can be tricky, but these tips and best practices can help you choose a workshop you feel great about. “You get better photos, too,” says wildlife photographer Morgan Heim. “The birds stop paying attention to you, and they go back to being the bird again.”

Picking a Workshop

The fundamentals of respectful, responsible bird photography are the same whether you plan to work alone or with a group. As a first step, familiarize yourself with ethical best practices that will help you in the field and help you pick a tour or workshop.

Keep in mind that there are no guarantees in nature: Steer clear of companies or tour leaders promising you’ll see a rare or elusive species, says photographer and workshop leader Lucas Bustamante. If you do have your heart on sighting a “nemesis bird,” figure out the time of year and locations where sightings of the species are most likely. Knowing this can help you avoid workshops that rely on extreme or unethical measures to find it.

Seek workshop leaders and companies that proactively talk about wildlife safety and welfare.

Look for green flags. Seek workshop leaders and companies that proactively talk about wildlife safety and welfare. A connection to conservation efforts—from donations of workshop proceeds or through the leader’s other work—can also make it clear what they value. Look for programs led by or that partner with local experts, another indication that your experience will respect the communities  you're visiting. “Nobody’s better to show you their backyard,” Bustamante says.

Once you’ve identified options, also look for any red flags in photos from past workshops, and on the leader’s website and social media profiles. Seek out photo forums and social media feeds for reviews and photos from past participants, and examine their work as well or reach out with questions. 

In particular, be wary if you see repeated versions of hard-to-get images. For example, many nearly identical photos of an owl flying straight at the camera with talons outstretched is a strong sign that bait may have helped lure the bird in—a practice that can endanger the animals.  Give extra scrutiny to photos of nests or young birds. A nest photo taken with a wide-angle lens is “a dead giveaway” the photographer got too close, says Groo. 

Finally, contact potential leaders with questions. Some good ones to ask include: 

  • Are the birds attracted in any way, by you or anyone else?
  • Do you modify the environment? Is habitat disturbed—for example, by cutting away branches around a nest—to get a better photo?
  • How big are your groups? (In general, the smaller the better the experience for both you and the birds).
  • What permits and certifications do you have? (Commercial permits, for example, are required for workshops held in many U.S. state and national parks).

Not every scenario is cut and dry: Different regions have different norms and relationships with local wildlife, and parsing ethics can get tricky when workshops are tied to conservation efforts like funding habitat restoration or creating an incentive to protect land from development. Doing your research, talking with others, and thinking carefully about the experience you want to have can help you find the right workshop for you.

During the Workshop 

A great experience starts with the right mindset, says Bustamante. He suggests focusing on surprise and gratitude for the species you do see, rather than dwelling on the ones you don’t. When you set out, remind yourself that your group will impact wildlife just by being there. You want to avoid pressuring your leader to overstep ethical bounds—or let others in your group do so—for the sake of an amazing picture. 

As you photograph animals, talk to your leader about the steps they’re taking to protect wildlife, such as the safe distance to keep from a nest. Their answers can help you and others learn. If you have concerns about anything that happens during the workshop—if, for example, an animal you’re photographing is showing signs of distress, or you think your group might have crossed a protective barrier—ask your leader about it, and give them a chance to respond.

When a leader is taking extreme actions you know can harm wildlife, like baiting or damaging sensitive habitat, it can be hard to know what to do. First, put down the camera. “If you’re not comfortable, then don’t shoot,” says wildlife photographer Daniel Dietrich. If you feel able to, Groo strongly recommends speaking up. Your leader may be open to changing their tactics, and at the least you’ll educate your fellow participants and send a message that the behavior should be questioned.

After the Workshop

If you had a great experience with a leader or outfitter, let them know. In your feedback and in captions on any photos you share publicly, highlight their respect  for the animals you photographed. Share your appreciation with friends or on forums and social media. If, on the other hand, the workshop didn’t pass ethical muster, don’t be shy about letting your own circle of friends and photographers know, and share your disappointment directly with the organizer.

It’s okay if you took photographs in the moment under conditions that you later recognize don’t align with your values. Heim suggests you treat these realizations as instructive, not shameful. “We’ve all done things we might not do tomorrow,” she says. “The important thing is to know it’s a learning process.”

With your new understanding, don’t post or share any photos you feel uncomfortable about, either on social media or as contest submissions. When you share the photos you’re proud of—artistically and ethically—include details in a caption about how you took the image in a responsible way (and keep in mind other best practices for posting). Outline the steps and precautions you took to ensure the bird’s safety, and tag or give a shout-out to your workshop leader. “It's a great way to teach other people by example,” Groo says. 

Ultimately, Groo says, a great workshop “honors the wildness” in birds and other creatures. “That’s what’s going to keep an animal safe,” she says—and it will set your photographs apart.