Traveler etiquette: Photographing animals

This summer I’ve been a bit obsessed with photographing animals. First of all I think the animals found around Iceland are adorable but another reason is that I simply don’t have enough human models willing to pose for me. I’m trying to get better at photography, you see, and for that apparently practice is the best method. The boyfriend and the princess put on a silent protest earlier this summer which was my cue go out and seek greener pastures (quite literally since most of the animals are found somewhere out in nature).

They finally caved in yesterday at Þingvellir and allowed me to snap a few photos of them

They finally caved in yesterday at Þingvellir and allowed me to snap a few photos of them

The animals of Iceland

Let me tell you a little bit about the animals that can be easily found in Iceland. First of all we have birds, puffins being the queen bees of the tourist snaps, but I find them hard to photograph because they don’t care much for us humans and I don’t have a good zoom lens. In certain areas though the puffins are quite social and don’t mind posing in close proximity to you. Secondly you will find sheep, horses and cows all over the place and they are pretty compliant if you approach them in the right way. Another popular animal to photograph is the whale but they spend most of their time below sea level so you have to a) find them and b) be ready with your camera at the right moment when they finally make an appearance. Seals on the other hand are curious about people and don’t mind the camera at all. If you are really lucky and you are traveling in the right areas you might also find reindeer and arctic foxes

A pretty little sheep in Þingvellir National Park

A pretty little sheep in Þingvellir National Park

Photographing animals in Iceland

First of all, it’s important to bear in mind that the animals are living creatures and they deserve being treated with respect. These are mostly domesticated animals so they are not strangers to humans but you are not the human they are used to. They are particularly wary around people when they have their young ones around , especially the sheep.

A mama I met in Hvalfjörður this summer

A mama I met in Hvalfjörður this summer

Photographing sheep can be a tricky thing to do. I take most of my photos on a 50mm prime lens (on a crop sensor) which means that if I want to get a good photo of a smaller subject I have to get relatively close while I have to go pretty far away if I want to capture landscape. This is not ideal but lenses are expensive and this is all I have to work with at the moment. The tricky part is getting close to the animal.

On the photo above I walked towards the sheep until I noticed that it was starting to follow my movements. This was a mama sheep with one lamb and I didn’t want to disturb her too much but the surroundings were too beautiful not to attempt a photo. Once I got close enough that it was making little mama here uncomfortable I stopped, sat down and waited a while. That seemed to calm her. Then I crawled slowly, a short distance at a time, so I wouldn’t spook them. After I go close enough I waited a long while before they stood up and became something more than a white pile on the ground. All in all it took me 45 minutes or so to get this photo (and more obviously) and I never would have got it without some time and patience. Well, either that or a fancy zoom lens.

A blond beauty I met in Borgarfjörður in March

Horses are a bit easier to photograph I find but it depends on the season. In summer when they have enough grass around they don’t really care much about you but in winter when there’s less grass there’s a good possibility that you have some bread in your pocket so you are definitely worth checking out. If you don’t have bread they might make do with some scratching and patting. 

In my experience (which, mind you, is limited) mares with foals are more easily spooked than a normal flock of horses. Therefore you have to approach them with more caution. Even in winter and in the absence of foals  it can take a while to convince the horses to approach you and sometimes they just can’t be bothered.

Contemplating whether it’s likely that I will be beneficial to interact with.

Cows are not quite as common as the horses and the sheep and are usually kept close to the farms since they need to be milked two times a day. They are therefore maybe a bit more difficult to approach without angering their owners. However, once you get close to them they take a good time checking you out which gives you time to snap their photos.

A good general rule, no matter what kind of animal you are trying to photograph, is to approach them slowly with care and not make a lot of loud noises. Put yourself in their shoes and think about how you would feel if a lot of loud strangers would come charging towards you.

Strange as it sounds this interaction with the animals, trying to earn their trust or at least not getting them frightened, is what I enjoy most about photographing them.

A couple of cows I met in West Iceland

A couple of cows I met in West Iceland

Photography etiquette

Finally I want to mention a small annoyance to keep in mind. This summer it has happened more than once that I’ve spent all the time and effort described above to woo these animals over when a group of tourists has pulled up in their rental car and stormed towards me and the animals with their iPhones. A sheep may not be threatened by one human cautiously approaching it but a group, a running car and a lot of noise will for sure make it run. Which is what usually happens and then all we are left with is a frustrated photographer (me), bad photos of animals fleeing and and a few startled creatures. Not to mention the boyfriend’s bleeding ears when I come home and complain about the thoughtlessness.

So next time you see someone taking photos of animals by the road and you think you’d like to take photos of the same animals – wait your turn. Or just drive 5 minutes more and stop by the next place. Because there’s always a next place.

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10 thoughts on “Traveler etiquette: Photographing animals”

  1. Geoff says:

    How do the farmers typically feel about tourists feeding their animals food from the side of the road? I fed some horses some carrots before realizing their owner may not appreciate this.

    1. Heather says:

      If it is not on their side of the fence and what they can reach, I don’t think they should be able to have it. I have been told that bread is supposed to be fine, and I was present when a guide gave it to them. I was not convinced tho. I would hate to think they were harmed by something that was introduced, which was not applicable for them.

  2. mm Auður says:

    I’m not sure – I would never feed the animals myself (except with grass) without knowing their owners but I know a lot of horse owners give their horses bread and I can’t see that carrots would do them harm.

  3. Marie says:

    Great tips and love your photos! Small English correction for you though- although we are getting lazier with our language these days, there is something called collective nouns in English- some are more common than others. So, its a flock of birds or a flock of sheep, but never a flock of horses…it would have to be a herd of horses. 🙂

  4. Auður says:

    Thank you Marie, very helpful. I thought flock could be used with everything – it’s was supposed to give a “humorous” feel to it.

  5. Scott Calkins says:

    I was lucky enough on my last trip to have no problems photographing the horses. In fact I almost needed a macro lens a few times. I would stop along the side of the road to photograph one horse, and a few minutes later a herd of horsed flocking to me. There is a semi-correct use of flock with horses 🙂

  6. Hans says:

    Two things I would like to add to your column:
    1/ Be careful with horses. Icelandic horses are generally very friendly BUT like all horses they can spook, and/or become aggressive. Don’t approach herds too much, and at the tiniest sign of negative agitation (ears pulled back, eye white showing, horses walking toward you with a definite step instead of tentatively), step back immediately. Also, never walk up to a horse from behind, as it is their blind spot and they will kick if they’re surprised. Horses bite and can kick. A kick in the head (although very rare) can kill a person.

    2/ As a guideline, one should never feed an animal they don’t know. You can never know that particular animal’s needs or potential problems (allergies, …). In particular, horses like Icelandic horses which have evolved to live in a very harsh land with little food are prone to obesity and a special horse disease, laminitis ( unfortunately both very common and very dangerous, with long-term effects) which comes about when a horse is overfed.
    Depending on the horse, one hour of grazing on very lush grass can be enough to cause laminitis. And horses who have already had the problem are especially sensitive to it – a loaf of bread could be enough to cause another bout.
    So please DO NOT FEED HORSES anything. Unless they’re your horse, you shouldn’t decide what goes into their stomach! 😉

  7. Leanne Johnson says:

    Thank you for this article! A lot of people do not have enough respect for animals and they approach them so carelessly 🙁 I have learned in photography that you must be patient and kind. I have a good relationship with animals and understand them well, but it is important to know (& respect) that they have their own space. Animals should not be treated as entertainment for any humans.

  8. Ashley says:

    Love love this blog!

    I’m going to Iceland in September/October and I wanted to know if the horses will be out at that time? I am an equestrian rider, and it’s very important to me to go over and photograph these beauties. I originally planned my trip for mid October but have since decided mid September bc I think certain trails and areas will be open?

    I thought I had read somewhere about the free roaming horses being round up in October which made me change my dates!

    Can you advise me on this. 🙂

    1. mm Auður says:

      The horses are out all winter so it doesn’t really matter whether you come in September or October. The horse round up is usually around the end of September, maybe beginning of October but that’s not something you can participate in as a traveler unless you buy a tour or you know someone here.

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