Huntley Meadows Park in Alexandria, VA and I had slowly stalked until I was sitting 2-3 feet max away from this actively hunting green heron. Along came another photographer and without so much as a "by your leave" or "sorry" proceeded to flush the bird, twice! He didn't even seem particularly interested in photographing the bird, just wanted to get by on the boardwalk I guess. There was another way (slightly longer) around. I do expect this sort of thing from the walkers and joggers on the boardwalk, but expected better from a fellow nature photographer. In fact, all the walkers out this particular morning made a point of politely going around the other way when they saw I was actively photographing something.
I'd like to believe that this photographer was new to the hobby/profession (although he wasn't young) and was just ignorant of proper etiquette. Or that perhaps his mind was occupied and he didn't think about what he was doing, although he clearly saw the bird and stopped to watch. We all have had times when we didn't think things through in the heat of the chase or when distracted by other thoughts. I'd rather believe these things than believe he was knowledgeable and just downright discourteous. Thus, I thought it might be helpful to lay out some suggestions for how to approach another photographer who is actively working an animal subject. These are just my suggestions. I'd love to hear your suggestions and thoughts in the comments section below or feel free to tell me that I'm full of it and that it should be "every man for himself" when out in the field.
How To Approach Another Photographer Working An Animal Subject
1. First and foremost seriously consider not approaching. Multiple photographers puts more stress on the animal and greatly increases the chances of it flushing. Consider waiting patiently out of range until the other photographer is done and retreats, circling around and coming back later, or just moving on to another subject.
If, however, you desperately want to photograph that subject or you need to get by on the only path, etc...
2. Quietly ask the photographer if it is okay to approach or pass. If you think there is any possibility your voice will flush the animal, then wait for the photographer to look around and use hand motions/body language. Wait patiently until the other photographer has given you permission to proceed. Respect the other photographer's priority if he/she does not grant permission.
3. Once given permission, proceed extremely slowly and without any sudden movements. Avoid direct eye contact with the animal, particularly when moving.
4. Get as low, or lower than the photographer currently working the subject. If you are physically incapable of doing this, see suggestion #1.
5. Always approach no closer than slightly behind the first photographer, unless invited to move closer.
6. Always assume that the first photographer invested a lot of time, effort, and patience to get as close as they are. Never assume it is just a tame/habituated animal that you can walk straight up to, unless told so by the other photographer. Even then, use the techniques above to avoid undue stress to the animal.
7. Quietly thank the other photographer for sharing the subject.
8. If the animal flushes during your approach, always apologize to the other photographer (it goes a long way), even if you don't think it was your fault.
9. If you are the first photographer, and you are sure you have gotten your shot, be sure to give others a chance at the subject.
I hope every nature photographer will adopt rules similar to these and follow them even in the heat of the moment. How can we expect land managers and members of the public to treat us with respect and courtesy if we don't even treat each other with the same respect and courtesy? Please share this with other nature photographers you know and don't forget to check out my post "Top Ten Ways To Piss Off A (Fellow) Nature Photographer" for a lighter take on poor photographer behavior.