Nature photography has significantly increased in popularity over the last 10-15 years — probably even more so since the beginning of the pandemic. Many people have picked up the hobby, which I think is great, because it's an awesome way for people to relax and connect with nature.
However, it seems that many people seem to be more concerned over getting likes on Instagram than they are over the prosperity and well-being of the locations and subjects that they photograph.
Over the years, I've witnessed photographers (who shoot with either a "big camera" or simply with a phone) feeding animals to attract them. This poses a danger for wild animals, as they don't practice their hunting skills as much, and there's the obvious danger of getting run over by a car.
I've also seen other people disposing of litter on the ground and crossing barriers and willfully entering into restricted or protected zones... only to "get the shot".
These actions can be detrimental to the environment, and to the wild critters that call it their home.
I've been putting off publishing this article for quite some time, because I don't want to sound preachy. I'm not here to tell people what to do or what not to do. However, I think it's important to at least bring awareness to the public, and hopefully inspire other photographers to follow suit.
I want to talk to you about Nature First — The Alliance for Responsible Nature Photography. This is a movement that tries to make a difference by creating awareness to photographers around the world.
I've been a member of Nature First for over a year now. The idea is that nature photographers pledge to abide by the Nature First Principles and accept that membership is based on continuing commitment to these principles.
Nature First is built on seven core principles that help communicate how each of us can enjoy nature photography responsibly. The Seven Principles of Nature First Photography were developed to help educate and guide both professional and recreational photographers in sustainable, minimal impact practices that will help preserve nature’s beautiful locations.
The Seven Nature First Principles
Prioritize the well-being of nature over photography. We are guests in wild places, which are the home to unique natural features, as well as diverse and delicate ecosystems. We, therefore, should tread lightly and never cause harm to the natural world in our pursuit of photography. Instead, we should minimize our impact to the greatest degree possible in order to preserve and protect these places we love.
Educate yourself about the places you photograph. Different landscapes require different kinds of stewardship practices, so in order to best care for these places, we need to be knowledgeable about them. For example, while walking cross-country in some places (like those covered in snow, for example) will cause no harm, walking cross-country in other areas could significantly damage an ecosystems (for example, cryptobiotic soils in deserts, or slow-growing mosses in less arid places). Knowledge about the environments we photograph is essential to effective stewardship.
Reflect on the possible impact of your actions. Seemingly innocuous actions may have significant consequences. For example, it might not seem like a big deal to set up a tent next to a lake or in a field of wildflowers for a photo, but such activities can have a cascade of negative effects. Other visitors will do the same, eventually eroding riparian areas that are necessary habitat for wildlife, or permanently eliminating the ability of vegetation to grow in heavily trafficked areas. Not only do these actions scar the landscape and affect wildlife, it is increasingly causing land managers to further restrict photographers’ access to these places as a result. Also, consider how your behavior affects the experience of other users of natural places. Even if a photographer does not cause damage to a place, s/he may still ruin the experience of others (for example, using drones around others, leading noisy groups, and light painting). Taking time to reflect on potential consequences before photographing or posting a photo online can help avoid these issues.
Use discretion if sharing locations. Sharing location information can have significant consequences for that location. As soon as a place is determined to be photogenic, it becomes a magnet for photographers and the general public. Many natural places simply cannot survive a significant increase in visitation. Keeping natural areas off the radar is the best way to protect them. If you decide to share information, only share the locations of well-known places or areas which are unlikely to be damaged by increased visitation. Respect other photographers who have made a choice not to share location information. Finally, consider not posting photos of sensitive areas online, even if you do not mention the specific location. Simply posting a photograph may create a desire for photographers to visit that area and people can often figure out where the photo was taken even if you do not disclose it. Some areas can also be seasonally sensitive such as wildflower fields and fall color forests. Consider a ‘thoughtful pause’ of a week or more before posting your images to reduce the impact of real time trending and potentially harmful footprints of people who may want to immediately follow you to these locations.
Know and follow rules and regulations. It might be tempting to hop over a fence and venture into a closed area for a photo. These actions, however, can have a snowball effect with negative consequences for both the land and others in the photography community. Many photographers assume that they are the only person doing these things and thus the impact will be minimal. At the same time, other photographers think that since others have visited a particular spot, it is fine for them to do it as well. The result is often continual damage to areas the rules were designed to protect, a loss of our integrity as stewards of the natural world, and an increase in the likelihood of further restrictions on the nature photography community.
Always follow Leave No Trace principles and strive to leave places better than you found them. Leave No Trace is a widely recognized set of principles for outdoor stewardship. Nature photographers, like all those who recreate in the outdoors, should adhere to these principles. Follow the link to find more details on the Leave No Trace 7 Principles. You can take Leave No Trace a step further by striving to leave a place better than you found it by practicing these principles and doing simple things like picking up litter and reporting vandalism.
Actively promote and educate others about these principles. Regardless of the size of your audience, you have the ability to teach others about these principles and encourage their adoption. When you share your photos or stories about your travels, you can influence others to be good stewards of our public lands, thus amplifying these messages. If you are comfortable playing an advocacy role, use whatever platform you have to speak out about these issues and find appropriate ways to discourage actions that are in opposition to these principles. Bad behavior by photographers reflects poorly on the rest of us.
I hope this helped bring awareness to the issue. I see it too often, people trespassing on restricted areas, people getting too close to nests or dens, people leaving trash behind, etc. It's irresponsible to do so, and I don't mind calling out publicly those who make a living with photography while behaving in a way that negatively impacts nature.
I personally have always acted this way. Of course, the fact that I work for the agency that manages Canadian National Parks probably makes me more sensitive to these things than most people. I've been following these guidelines since before I even picked up a camera. And while the rules are sometimes slacker outside our national parks, I tend to always act as if I was in a national park.
So if you're out photographing in nature, please consider following the Nature First Principles. Obey the signs, don't disclose exact photo locations, keep a safe distance from wildlife and don't disturb the precious environment you're there to photograph.