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Ethical Landscape Photography

Landscape Photography Ethics

As landscape photographers we visit and photograph some of the most beautiful places in the world. Many of these scenic locations attract millions of people each year. A lot of these locations are found by others by searching for the photos that we take and share on the World Wide Web. In most cases we don’t realize the potential for harm of the places that we love and photograph by sharing them. It is natural for us to want to share the photos of these incredible places but I feel that we need to be aware of and to share with others how to protect the environment which, in most cases, is the reason that these places are so special.

In the years that I have spent as a full-time working landscape photographer I’ve been able to see the gradual damage that’s being done to some of the most beautiful spots in the Pacific Northwest by its overuse. Most of the erosion and the denuding of the grasses, ferns and mosses is from repeated footfalls onto areas beside and beyond designated paths and fences.

I spend a lot of time in the field visiting these beautiful places and am a witness to so many people who shun the posted signs or fences that are placed to keep people from fragile environments or those that are being reclaimed due to the traffic that has ruined them. I feel that it’s easy for most people to think that it won’t hurt if they go because as an individual they won’t cause any harm. I personally feel that it’s a form of selfishness and greed to think that the signs and rules are for everyone else but them.

Although it is true that as individuals we have little impact on the areas that we tread, but we’re not individuals when we visit these highly impacted areas. We are a part of a collective of humanity that causes an accumulative, damaging effect. It is not just the one person but the effects of us all wearing these places down. I feel that it is imperative that we develop a collective consciousness that instils a want to preserve these places. We each should develop a personal code of environmental ethics and to encourage others to do the same. We need to take responsibility for these places. We need to take care of them. Not doing so will further erode them to a point where access will be limited or closed completely.

As landscape photographers who share photos of these places, we can take the lead in raising the awareness of the fragility of the places that we photograph. I think that every landscape photographer who shares their work online should create and adhere to their own photography code of ethics and have a Nature First attitude that addresses how we conduct ourselves while in the field. We can also add a short plea in the description of the photos that we share that urges those who go to be careful where they tread.

My personal code of ethics includes three parts. Environment, Social and Self. These principles are endorsed and shared with others via Nature First . Nature First is a group formed to urge photographers to become responsible stewards to the places that they visit and share online. It’s a place where the Leave No Trace principle is urged and Nature First Principles are shared. If we all adopt a personal code of ethics and encourage others to do the same perhaps we can turn this trend of abuse of the locations that we love around and make it cool to protect the beauty of these photogenic places. 

Nature First Principles for Photographers

Prioritize the well-being of nature over photography.

Educate yourself about the places you photograph.

Reflect on the possible impact of your actions.

Use discretion if sharing locations.

Know and follow rules and regulations.

Always follow Leave No Trace principles and strive to leave places better than you found them.

Actively promote and educate others about these principles.

Learn More at Nature First

Wildflower Season and Leave No Trace

Balsamroot Sunflowers at Rowena Heights in the Columbia River Gorge

Wildflower Season and Leave No Trace

Well, it’s February and, so far, a mild Winter. If this trend continues we will have an excellent wildflower season. An early Spring has two consequences for photographers. I beautiful wildflower season and a lot of mosquitoes and ticks.

The Columbia River Gorge has many beautiful fields of flowers. One of the most popular locations by far is Rowena Crest. Rowena is known for its fields of lupine and balsamroot flowers. The location is usually over run by photographers and hikers who love these fields. Because of this the wear and tear on the terrain, as well as newly developed trails made by off trail walkers, it’s becoming pretty severe, especially in certain viewing areas. Beautiful foreground areas have been denuded and worn down to bare dirt.

Rowena is only one of the areas that are being affected by the increased use due to the popularity of photography today. Because of this I would like to remind everyone to do their best to Leave No Trace at these sensitive high use areas.

Walk on established trails. It’s difficult sometimes to stay on the trail when you see a nice clump but there’s a great chance that the trail is there due to its view and there will be many other flowers along the way. Once you mash the grasses down to resemble a trail, others will naturally follow.

Don’t pick the flowers. It may be tempting to pick a few flowers to create an arrangement, to turn their faces toward the camera or to simply bring home a bouquet. Please reconsider. Once they’re gone they’re gone for others and their ability to go to seed to supply fresh flowers next Spring is gone.

If you go with friends please limit the size of the group. The larger the group size the more apt for the group to leave the trail. A group of photographers in one place can cause a lot of damage. I’ve seen a group come in to photograph a place and completely stomp the area down.

Although controversial, consider the practice of not sharing the location to a pristine area that has yet to be affected by this high volume traffic damage. Some call this elitist, but in my mind it’s certainly not. If I’m able to explore to find my own little discoveries, others can make that same effort too. If I could trust my fellow photographers to actually be conscientious enough to not tear these areas apart, I’d be happy to tell the world. In the last 15 years of doing landscape photography I have seen so many of my favorite areas become overrun with non caring humans who have crowded these beautiful areas, tearing up the foregrounds that were once used in photos.

My message is simple and is not meant to be elitist. My message is simply to respect these places that we love to photograph. Preserve them for future photographers. Volunteer with local groups who are restoring or maintaining these areas. Keep these places from being closed down permanently. If you see another photographer off trail, consider mentioning in a nice way that they might consider staying on a trail. If you see others causing malicious damage, especially vandalism, consider reporting the action.

We all need to consider ourselves stewards of these lands. Most are public lands shared by all. Consider them something that you need to value and take care of.