Use of Flash and the Ethics of Nature Photography

A collage of my bird photos from 2022 – for more, see:

I have been experimenting with ”Taavi Tunturipöllö” (the Snowy Owl toy that Santa brought me) by using a low-powered flash to create more illumination into nature photos taken during the dark winter’s days.

”Taavi Tunturipöllö”
(a toy photo outdoors experiment, using a remotely triggered flash).

Generally, I almost never use flash, as I think that the strong flash light makes photos look artificial, dull and uninteresting, I love the tones of natural light, and I also do not want to disturb the birds and animals that I photograph. However, it can be very dark for really long time over here, and I have found out that there are actually many different ways of using additional light sources — and there even seems to be a sort of “ethics of flash photography” scene that I was not previously aware of.

Today’s cameras are already very good in low light, and there are also now long-range wireless transmitters that allow one to position several relatively weak-powered flashes into the planned scene in advance, thereby creating more natural looking and also non-invasive ambient lighting, rather than suddenly just pointing a harsh flashlight directly at the poor subject. (One can try pointing flash into one’s own eyes to experience how that feels.)

Pointing a powerful flash directly to the eyes and face of a night-hunting predator like an owl can blind the animal for maybe even 5-20 minutes, and make it unable to get food – or even make it fly blinded against some obstacle and get injured or killed.

On the other end of flash-ethics, taking photos that use low-powered flash as a source of fill-in light during the daylight hours seems to be safe – it is just harmless flicker to them, ignored by most birds and animals. Even then, a flash positioned too close can create a sudden fright reaction in sensitive birds and animals.

It should be noted that the presence of photographer already might be the disturbing element to the animal, and the negative effects of a flash are secondary. And this is not even getting into the ethics of other techniques some photographers use, such as using taped bird-song as a lure (which can deplete the bird of energy as it reacts to an “intruder”), shouting or throwing objects at animals to get an eye contact from them (yes, indeed some idiot “photographers” apparently behave like that) or even hunting and chasing sensitive animals with photography drones to get “cool” footage.

Let’s not be that guy.

I will continue doing a bit of research on this topic, collecting some useful resources and links below. If you have some good sources to suggest, please comment below, or send me a line.

I made already one cautious experiment (photo below) where I used a remotely triggered flash in the dark while photographing this Great spotted woodpecker that was visiting a forest-located bird feeding site. In this case at least the woodpecker seemed to ignore the light and returned to the feeding site multiple times regardless of me taking photos. But this required me staying in place for more than an hour in the snow, immobile, so that the bird gradually started to trust that I was (mostly) harmless and that it could come close to me. Note, that there were other feeders also available to it that were not this close, but it chose this one.

Great spotted woodpecker (Dendrocopos major, ’käpytikka’; photographed in late evening in a forest feeding site using remote flash as additional light; the bird showed no signs of reacting to the disturbance and continued to feed.)


”Audubon’s Guide to Ethical Bird Photography and Videography” (Aubudon started their nature and bird conservation activities already in 1896; this guide provides both general guidelines for ethical behaviour while taking nature photos, and information about bird specific situations that require special care):

”How to Be an Ethical Wildlife Photographer” (this guide, published by Amateur Photographer magazine, is a synthesis created by Peter Dench of several existing earlier guides; he points out that while not every photographer can be expected to be a biologist/zoologist, but everyone has the ”duty of care”):

”The Ethics of Wildlife Photography” (this article, written by Jill Waterman and published by B&H, a big photography gear company, highlights that while nature photography is born from love of nature, it is today so popular and increasingly invasive, even business-like activity that it has also dark aspects and bad practices that it is important to be aware of, while promoting the non-harmful and less stressful alternative approaches):

”How to photograph wildlife ethically” (National Geographic is a leading journal of photojournalism and high quality nature photography; this guide, authored by Melissa Groo, discusses the key ethics principles while also highlighing problematic practices, and, e.g., is advising to always ”caption one’s photographs with honesty”, meaning that we openly disclose the techniques we have used to capture that image):

”Does Flash Photography Harm Animals?” (Authored by photographer Will Nicholls, this article tries to discuss few available studies on the effects of flash light – noting that this is a controversial area and that different species appear to have very different sensitivities):

”Is Flash Photography Safe for Owls?” (This article, written by Sharon Guynup and published by Aubudon Society, notes the lack of scientific research on the topic of flash effects, but notes that bright light can lead into temporary ”flash blindness” which can be dangerous to owls and other noctural birds, and flash can also startle or wake sleeping owls, disturbing their rest and daily rhythms – there are just many reasons to avoid using flash photography techniques on owls):

See also:

North American Nature Photography Association NANPA ”Principles of Ethical Field Practices”:

Suomen Luonnonvalokuvaajat ry. ”Eettiset periaatteet”:

Birdlife Suomi ry. ”Havainnoi huomaavaisesti”:

-Any other good sources to add into this list? (Thanks to all experts and colleagues who have contributed and/or commented on this piece!)

LARP: Art not worthy?

worldcon75Worldcon 75 in Helsinki has generally been an excellent event with multiple cultures, diverse forms of art and innumerable communities of fandom coming together. However, what left bit of a bad taste to the mouth was the organizers’ decision yesterday to cancel a LARP (live action role-play), dealing with old people and dementia. The decision is highly controversial, and apparently based on some (non-Nordic) participants strongly communicating their upset at such a sensitive topic has been even allowed to be submitted in the form of a “game”, into the con program. On the other hand, same people would apparently be completely fine with Altzheimer and similar conditions being handled in form of a novel, for example.

There will be no doubt multiple reactions coming in to this from experts of this field in the future. My short comment: this is an unfortunate case of censorship, based on cultural perception of play and games as inherently trivializing or “fun-based” form of low culture. It seems that for some people, there still are strict cultural hierarchies even within the popular culture, with games at the very bottom – and that handling something sensitive with the form of role-play, for example, can be an insult. Such position completely ignores the work that has been done for decades in Nordic LARP and in digital indie “art games” (and also within the academic traditions of game studies) to expand the range of games and play for cultural expression, and to remove expectation or stigma of automatic trivialism from the interactive forms of art and culture. The organisers have obviously been pressurised by some vocal individuals, but the outcome in this case was a failure to stand up, explain the value and potential of role-playing games, and Nordic LARP in particular to an international audience, and make a difference. A sad day.

Link: Worldcon 75 cancellation statement (currently in updated and revised form) in Facebook regarding “The Old Home” [edit: should be “A Home for the Old”] LARP:

(There has been multiple exchanges regarding this matter in Twitter, for example, but not linking them here.)

(Edit: the documentation for the said LARP is available for download here:

(Edit2: LARP scholars and experts Jaakko Stenros and Markus Montola have published a thorough account of this incident here

(Edit3: Wordcon organisers have now published a more thorough explanation and reasons for their decision here

Money & Games blog note, #moneygames

A quick note about the Money & Games seminar, based on the first day: I was expecting the relationships between money and games to be diverse and rather complex field, and I was not disappointed by the seminar. The idea that game could be seen as a straightforward product that someone just builds, and then sells to someone else for a fixed sum of money is not how things play out – and, as the historical reviews of the seminar pointed out, is not that typical about how things have been in the past, either. For example, the entire era of game arcades was based on coin-operated games, where the economic incentive was to design for short, micropayment style transactions: every time the player failed, the was room for another coin to be spend (something that Sebastian Deterding’s ambitious “Toward Economic Platform Studies” paper and presentation was particularly emphasising). Value of games and monetary and time-based investments are intricately intertwined, and it is clear that e.g. putting a higher price tag on something can mean that pleyers are more likely to expect it to be of higher quality, or value, than a cheap game. Thus, setting the right price involves theorycrafting practice of game business economics of its own – or “valuecrafting”, like the paper presented by Mia Consalvo suggested about indie developers. Free-to-play business model and the associated monetization strategies were particularly discussed in the seminar, with several interesting case studies focusing on that, plus the more philosophically oriented paper by Olli Heimo et al. used it, plus industry advertising practices as a target of (Aristotelian) virtue ethics based criticism. There were comments expressed in the seminar that the political economy angle of the entire free-to-play sector would be something that would be valuable at this point. On the other hand, while Janne Paavilainen presented the first results from a detailed micro-ethnography in Armoured Warfare game, pointing out the multiple “dark design patterns” or manipulative tricks that tempt the free-riding player to become a paying player, Markus Montola was quick to point out that many of the analysed design choices actually sounded just like good, regular game design that is balanced and appropriately both challenges and rewards the player – and Janne agreed that Armoured Warfare is an example of good game design; free-to-play payments are just used to make an already good game to play even better. Great papers, presentations, and discussions, thanks everyone! Also, our invited commentators, Pauliina Raento and Juho Hamari, did excellent job in providing commentary and guidance, Pauliina also giving a keynote talk of her own about doing gambling studies, about the lessons she personally has learned from her history in this field, and that made the valuable point about importance of bridge building between isolated academic communities. – Link to the seminar program page:

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