Safety of animals comes first, photography comes second

To capture moments like the one in the opening photo, you’ve to be there, to be patient, to put the safety of the animals above any photographic interest. Can you accept that and be a responsible photographer?

My image of a sow exposing her nipples so the squeakers can feed, is the result of multiple things: a touch of serendipity, a pinch of technique and a cup full of patience and respect for the safety of the animals. Had we moved, even to search for a better composition, and the action would end there, with the wild boar and squeakers running into the bushes for protection.

Let me delve further into the conditions for the photograph above. I had scouted the location first, I knew the animals would appear there, so, in that sense, we were prepared, when I took a group of photographers to what seemed to be the best spot to see the action: it was just a matter of time. Still, serendipity crossed our path and changed everything, in the form of a wild boar that decided to stop to feed the piglets. Once I spotted the sow and squeakers, I told everybody to stay put and keep photographing the best way they could.

The light was less than good, the framing not the best, but moving to another position would probably mean that the animals would run away, and that was the last thing we wanted. The photographs may not be more than documents of the day, but the images we’ve in our minds make for all the missing colours, definition and composition. Having the chance to share such a special moment, with the two or three weeks young stripped piglets fighting for the most milk-rich nipples from the sow, was, one could say, our “hero shot” of the day, even if the photographs don’t do complete justice to the moment. But we were there, and we felt the uniqueness of the moment: a mother feeding her children. That’s something no one will take away from us.

One day at Tapada Nacional de Mafra as seen by Maria Emília Pires

Technically, this was a difficult image. I’ve a series, but chose this one because it shows the nipples of the sow with a piglet close by, while a second seems to be occupied with something else. The low light under the trees in this segment of the forest contrasts with patches of intense bright light created by the middle of the day sun. Using long lenses, from 300 to 600mm, handheld, meant that exposure had to be chosen with a compromise of an aperture to get some depth of field and a shutter speed high enough to keep with the weight of the lens. Values within the 1/500 and f/7.1 meant that ISO had to go up, as far as 3200 ISO as is the case for my photographs.

Usually, in situations where light levels tend to go low, I will choose to work in Auto ISO with Manual exposure, which in the case of the Canon DSLRs allows me to choose a pair of shutter speed/aperture, with the camera adjusting ISO within the values defined — for me 100–3200 ISO — to keep the exposure within acceptable parameters. Then I just have to compensate the exposure the way I want, meaning when I move the needle over the +3/-3 exposure compensation, the camera will still keep the aperture and shutter speed values I want to use, adjusting ISO.

Although you always have to keep watching your exposure values, to make sure you’re not trying to go beyond the range available, this is a practical way to guarantee that even when working under low light you can work — reasonably — fast in Manual mode, which I prefer. The beauty of it is that when I move from dark to light areas, the system reverts to lower ISO, meaning it goes back to the values I prefer to use, which nowadays go from 100 to 800 ISO.

One day at Tapada Nacional de Mafra as seen through the lens of Isabel Crispim

Enough of technical aspects, what’s really important here is the “being there, being respectful” aspect of these voyages of discovery of wildlife. The image of the sow and piglets is an extreme case, but we had, throughout the day, other moments where we had to decide between a better photo and the safety of the animals. We always choose the safety.

If you are willing to put your photographic interest above the safety of the animal, then you probably should not be allowed to explore Nature. If you feel that it is right to make one animal suffer, because you want a better photograph… then go and photograph something else, please. I am tired of seeing people running after animals to get their photographs, even put animals in dangerous situations, some leading to death, because of a photo. Is this the photographer you want to be?

A day in the life of Tapada Nacional de Mafra as photographed by Paula Correia

Being respectful of the animals is always something I try to share with participants in my tours. We do not own the places we walk or drive through. We’re there as guests, and it makes no sense, if we’re after a real contact with Nature, to try to change the pace or the rules so we’ve what some consider “best photographs”. The best photographs of Nature are those that happen when you become one with a place and let things flow the way they usually do. The fact that we’re already there creates a disturbance, let’s keep that to a minimum and make animals understand we respect them.

The photos published here are from three photographers, Emília Pires, Isabel Crispim and Paula Correia with whom I spent some hours at Tapada Nacional de Mafra, sharing with them my knowledge of the place and my — contemplative — passion for the moments we can experience there. It is not all about photography, it is also about knowing when to put your camera down and simply enjoy the moment, and the natural flow of the world we’ve the chance to experience, away from everything else.

As I wrote before, in another article, these trips are to be lived without being pressed for the next big thing or photograph. Some images of the day are not the most beautiful photographs, but they represent unique moments that will also be engraved in memory. Photography is also that experience, something I always try to put forward on this iberian safari, this time centered on wild boar, but, as the resulting photographs show, still offering many diverse opportunities.

Having the chance to publish here the photographs taken by photographers who shared some hours with me at Tapada Nacional de Mafra is one of the reasons for the creation of the Tapada Diaries. When a tour ends I always ask participants to send me photos — this time up to six — that tell their vision of the day. These series show the potential of a normal photography day at the Tapada. Also, they show how photographers, although sometimes choosing similar photographs to represent their memory of the day, keep to their own preferences, in terms of subject, color and framing. Nothing like having these images together to have a better idea of what the day was like as seen through their eyes.

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