8 Tips for Responsible Nature Photography

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I’ve been spending a lot of my time lately on portraits, food, and event photography, so I got pretty excited recently when testing a new camera bag forced me to lace up the boots and hit the trails. The new Loka UL from F-stop Gear is a pretty awesome bag, but this article isn’t really about the bag. It’s about the overall nature photography experience. It’s one thing to be the master of your surroundings in the studio, but it’s quite another when your photographic adventure takes you off the beaten path into the trails, woods, mountains, or waters of Mother Nature’s studio. Being a responsible photographer on those journeys is about so much more than just getting The Shot. While I believe we all have a responsibility to our art, we can’t let ourselves lose sight of our responsibility to the environment and the world around us.

Take Only Photos, Leave Only Footprints.

I can’t claim authorship of this nature photography philosophy, but I agree with and embrace it wholeheartedly.  While I’ve heard other hikers and photographers take it even further with a “leave no trace” philosophy, I’m not going to lose sleep over leaving my footprints behind. Either way, though, it’s a noble approach to maintaining and protecting our environment without neglecting the art– or even the business if you’re out there on assignment. I’ve seen photographers break off branches that were in their way. I’ve seen others leave their trash behind rather than pack it up and take it with them. Let’s be clear on something. I’m not trying to be some sort of preachy environmentalist, but let’s face it– you wouldn’t leave your trash in my studio if you borrowed it, so why would you leave it behind at the water’s edge just because you happen to be outside and far from home?

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Watch Your Step.

I can’t stress enough how important it is to be aware of your surroundings, both in terms of your own personal safety, as well as that of any wildlife whose path you may cross. No shot is worth injury or worse. I just finished reading an article about yet another photographer being killed while shooting on railroad tracks. Just because something looks abandoned doesn’t mean it is, regardless of how far you had to hike to get there. It doesn’t matter if you’re hiking a quiet path ten minutes from your house, exploring mountain ranges on the other side of the world, or stalking exotic wildlife from what you think is a safe distance with a lens as long as your arm– be vigilant and aware of where you walk and where you shoot. Contrary to popular belief, getting the shot is not your top priority. Coming home in one piece is.

There is something else to keep in mind regarding watching your step. Don’t forget that depending on where you are, you could easily be intruding on another creature’s home. Trampling through it with reckless abandon is a surefire way to leave more than just your footprints behind. It may not seem like much, but destroying or damaging another creature’s habitat–regardless of intent– is just plain irresponsible.

Don’t Get Lost in the Viewfinder (Or the LCD).

Call this one a corollary to watching your step. Both the viewfinder and LCD can be a bit hypnotic. How many times have you shifted position for a better angle without taking the camera away from your face? Or continued walking while looking down at your camera’s LCD? Yeah– me too. All the time. But this can prove to be extremely unsafe, depending on which of nature’s remote outposts you find yourself photographing.

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Warning Signs Are There for a Reason.

Call me a hypocrite if you must. I confess to ignoring more than my fair share of “No Trespassing” signs. The shot below was taken in an abandoned prison which sits on property literally surrounded with them. Oh yeah– it also backs up to the Atlanta Police Department’s S.W.A.T. training facility. That “pop-pop-pop-pop-pop” that kept getting closer and closer? That turned out to be the sound of a live fire exercise. Not every “No Trespassing” sign should be construed as a dare. More often than not, the smart move is to read and heed.

Similarly, most established hiking trails will have signs at the trail head– and occasionally along the way– with rules, regulations, and safety reminders. Pay attention and take them seriously. They were put there by people with a whole lot more experience and knowledge of the area than you. Again– read and heed, my friend. Read and heed.

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Respect the Wildlife.

Remember that you are, quite literally, on their turf. I don’t know about you, but I get pretty damn grumpy when someone messes with my routine. The bottom line? Don’t mess with theirs. Just like you and me, a big part of an animal’s daily to-do list involves finding food. But whereas you and I have options for when our days fly off the tracks, the local fauna might not be as fortunate. And speaking of eating…

Do Not Feed the Animals!

You may think you’re doing something nice. It may help you get the shot. But it also has the potential for causing major problems down the road for the next hiker or photographer who decides to keep their food for themselves. The easier you make if for animals to get food without having to find it for themselves, the more they may come to expect or rely on people for their food. The more they come to rely on it, the more pissed off they are going to be at the person who denies them.

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Do Your Research.

You only do yourself a disservice by not learning as much about your destination as you can before embarking on any wildlife or nature photography journey. The information is easily and readily available. Being prepared will in no way interfere with the wonder and surprise you’re sure to experience. If anything, proper preparation will only enhance it. Remember that your gear will have to include more than just photography-related items. You can’t just figure this stuff out along the way.

Leave the Camera in the Bag Some of the Time.

Enjoy the moment. Take it all in. Experience the amazing things you are sure to see not just through a lens, but with your own eyes as well.

All photos are Copyright Guyer Photography, all rights reserved.

  • James Madison

    I second the notion to DO NOT FEED THE ANIMALS, but for a different reason. The food you are providing is often not as good as what the animals finds itself in nature. Processed meat may seem like high protein to us, but it lacks the minerals found in the organs and bones.

    The other reason is that when you leave and stop feeding the animals, they have become dependent on your handouts. They may have missed moving to more suitable habitat during good times, to find themselves starving during the bleak of times.

    Baiting is illegal for hunters, we hunt with a camera. If it is unsporting for hunters, it is unsporting for photographers.

    • Jeffrey Guyer

      Excellent points,James. Thanks for joining the conversation.

    • J belmont

      That’s a common myth up there with getting your scent on babu birds. While some of our food can be unhealthy for some animals (bread giving birds angel wing for example) it’s not magic or addictive. Just look at bird feeders for an example. Birds don’t stop migrating because of birdfeeders, nor do they stop foraging or hunting for natural food. They simply use the feeder in addition to everything else.

      The true danger with feeding animals is how it habituates them to human presence and even interaction. We’ve been the apex predators of this planet for tens of thousands of years, pretty much everything in nature’s been bred by selective pressure to leave us alone. Getting rid of that fear by habituation to our presence and interaction isn’t safe for us or them.