top of page

My moral issues with aerial photography

Updated: Dec 21, 2023

Our chopper swung sharply to the left, after speeding ahead of the running zebras and, as a single unit, the zebras took an immediate U turn. Dust was flying in a crazed manner all around us, pounded out of the earth by the thundering hooves and sent scattering in the air by the spinning blades of our chopper.

I could see many plump striped rumps vanishing in the thick, dirty brown clouds and kept clicking furiously. This was a photographer’s dream.

And, then, just seconds later, as the dust started to clear a little bit, I noticed a young zebra calf slow down in its frantic, panicked run. Exhaustion had overcome fear. Its mother, noticing it, also slowed down and looked back at us, while keeping pace with her kid. As if on auto mode, I kept clicking.

A zebra in a dust storm

A brave, young zebra in the middle of the swirling dust left by it's scampering mates

The import of that moment registered only later and it, to put it mildly, was distressing.

Wildlife photography is growing in popularity and along with it, the quality of gear has also been improving in a breathless manner. As a result, no longer is a standard, sharp, well-lit image enough. That is something any photographer, with reasonably good gear, can get. Images need something more to stand out. In order to stand out, many are now looking for drama, for emotion, for mood…anything that will lead to a momentary pause of the furious swiping on the mobile screen.

Light, dust and perspective.

That is what I go searching for.

If these three elements fall into place together, I can get a truly powerful image. I would be able to capture the essence of the wild, to communicate an exaggerated sense of the drama and the mystique that nature holds for most of us. As for the viewer, there can be a sharp intake of breath, a slight widening of the eyes, a muttering of an expletive or two and if I achieve that…as a photographer, I feel satisfied.

Aerial photography, at least what I was experiencing, provides that.

The question, however, that was playing like a broken record in my mind was – at what cost ?

That image of the young calf slowing down in exhaustion, the look its mother threw back at us was indelible. We had not flown too low or done anything dangerous, but we definitely seemed to have stressed them out.

A little earlier, we had flown over a flock of flamingos and, in all probability, they took flight thanks to us. We took stunning images of the stark white of the flamingoes contrasting brilliantly against the deep blue of the water with the algae throwing up intriguing and fascinating patterns.

Aerial view of flamingoes in water

Flamingos at rest, start to get a move on

Aerial view of flamingoes flying over water

The much chased after image...flamingos in flight next to the algae patterns

But…did we have to make them fly ? They were peacefully resting. Wouldn’t they have taken flight simply out of stress and fear that we caused ?

Should we be ok to create stress in them for just a photograph ? Or, am I over reacting ?

Just to be clear, my ride was not an outlier. The search for a powerful image is common and lines do get crossed, sometimes deliberately. I have seen images from many famous photographers featuring zebras, elephants, wildebeest in a fascinating cauldron of light and dust. The perspective from which these images have been shot shows that these have been taken from the air.

Elephants huddled together in a sea of swirling dust undoubtedly provide for an unbelievably arresting image, but spare a thought for what might be going on in the minds of those frightened animals.

At what point do we ignore the impact of our obsession to get THAT stunning image ?

Is there a line ? Where is it ? Who draws it ?

Fighting zebras in the dust

These two were raising quite a dust storm which caught our attention and they paused, to study us

There are ethics that wildlife photographers are urged to follow. Contests specify many of these too as a necessary condition for even consideration.

However, as with most things to do with morality, it’s not always in black and white.

We are urged not to take photographs of chicks of birds. Our presence might cause severe stress plus attract other predators to the nest. There is no ambiguity here. It’s a clear, red line.

Wildlife photographers are advised that it is always better if the subject approaches you instead of the other way around. That shows an element of trust on their part. However, there is no defined distance upto which you go and wait. You need to do it, observing the subject’s comfort. The line here gets a little blurry. To some extent ,it depends on each individual’s reading of the situation.

Live baiting could be where the line is even more lost in the fog. It depends on the situation, some argue. If food is given to a wild animal, goes their argument, only in certain months when food is scarce ( and that scarcity is ostensibly due to us, humans) we are simply helping them survive without negatively impacting their ability to hunt.

If I were to stick with the example I started with – about stressing the zebras and the wildebeests, they do scatter around when you are out on a game drive. Does that mean that game drives are a problem ? After all, in a sense, we are intruding here too.

Undeniably, photography does play a vital role in conservation and while it would be ideal if the wild is left totally untouched, the reality is that without tourism, without awareness, they face greater danger from poachers and other commercial interests. At the same time, if that objective of helping them is arrived at by the means of creating clear distress in the same subjects we love and want to protect, to me, that is a problem.

I might be wrong, but a vehicle on ground might still represent some level of familiarity. A noisy machine in the air swooping down might create a completely different level of panic.

The cardinal rule obviously is about not causing stress to the subject.

When we went up in the air for the second time the following day, we put down rules about what we will not do.

We will keep a respectable distance. We will not chase any animal. We will not create stress.

We went where we saw some action. We maintained a safe distance. I tried slow shutter to create the mood. We did get a few decent images. Maybe nothing dramatic that can stop anyone in their tracks mid-stride, but definitely a few keepers.

Aerial photograph of a giraffe and its shadow

A stereotypical image but one that I wanted

Slow shutter speed image of a running wildebeest

A slow shutter speed experiment...these animals are skittish, they will run...

but we tried to avoid creating additional panic

Running giraffe

This giraffe was running towards us...something else had spooked it

However, the images that I got from my first ride were significantly more powerful.

Aerial photography is rather expensive and if the chances of getting an arresting image are low, it certainly skews the cost benefit ratio.

Would I be comfortable to spend this amount of money for only the images I took in my second trip ?

Maybe. Or not.

What is clear to me, is that I would definitely try to understand a lot more about the potential distress that a chopper could give to the wild before signing up for one.

Recent Posts

See All


Ajay Kumar
Ajay Kumar
Dec 04, 2023

So empathize with your moral dilemma.. And obviously there are no clear cut answers.. My hope would be that all wildlife photographers experience what you did, the emotions I mean.. Once that happens, hopefully we are still human enough to respond to that emotion in a constructive way going forward, as I am sure you will.

Ashok Nair
Ashok Nair
Dec 13, 2023
Replying to

Sorry , Ajay...I justrealized that my response hadnt gone...yeah, the line can be a bit blurry but, as you said, if everyone can have their own line, be willing to look at it and respond to it, that itself will be great. The image is secondary - always :)

bottom of page