Field Etiquette (or Lack Thereof) in Landscape Photography
Yep, this post is long. You might want to grab a tasty (and possibly caffeinated) beverage before diving in...
As Ron and I started writing our first e-book on photographing Iceland, we decided to include a section on photography etiquette since we had encountered a string of distressing behavior from other photographers during some recent trips. These incidents started becoming so common that Ron gave them the nickname of Crimes Against Photography, some of which are included below. While the vast majority of my experiences with other landscape photographers have been positive, these other less-than-positive incidents have become frequent enough to suggest that the landscape photography community could benefit from practicing some common etiquette principles.
Considering that landscape photographers should be ambassadors for and respectful of the wild and natural places we visit and photograph, it is surprising to find that an important topic like this receives almost no attention from the typical sources of photography information. This also helps explain why the behavior we have observed occurs so frequently. With some landscape photography locations only becoming more crowded and more people taking up this pursuit, this topic is only becoming more important.
Before getting into examples and suggested principles, it is also worth noting that many of my personal experiences and those shared by friends occur when one or two photographers encounter a large photography workshop. It seems that many of the very people who should be teaching the principles I describe below are actually doing the opposite: modeling arrogant and abhorrent behavior that teaches their students that such behavior is acceptable. It is also important to note that many of these experiences have happened in off-the-beaten path places, so this is not just an issue at iconic locations where photographers tend to congregate. While getting away from the crowds can minimize these kinds of encounters, doing so unfortunately does not eliminate them as we have learned time and time again.
Examples of Landscape Photographers Behaving Badly
To help back up my point that bad behavior is quite common, I provide a long but hopefully entertaining and demonstrative list of examples below. All of these examples have happened to me directly or to photographers I know.
#1: The Shadow: The photography shadow is a common and particularly annoying figure, especially when visiting places where there is more than enough room to spread out. Let’s start with an example from a beach in Iceland (featured above)… My photography shadow started by setting up right next to me (on a beach that is a half-mile long with only a few other people around). He decided that I am in the best place, so he inched even closer and then closer still. My shadow then moved forward, ignoring the fact that I am using a wide-angle lens and he is now firmly in my composition.
Not being in the mood for a confrontation, I move on. Before I know it, my shadow has found me once again and continues following me around for the rest of the long sunset. The culmination of the evening comes as I am photographing some small shards of ice and wave streaks. Soon, he sets up right next to me - again! - and apparently doesn’t like the ice shards so he walks into my frame, picks up the pieces of ice, and throws them out into the oncoming waves without ever considering that I might be photographing them. Well, thanks for ruining my composition!
A friend shared a similar example from a canyon overlook in Utah. With no other people around the very expansive viewpoint, another photographer set up his camera so close to our friend’s camera that their cheeks could touch when looking through the viewfinders. Most of us would never get this close to a stranger in any other setting, so why do so when photographing?
#2: The “I Want a Free Workshop” Guy: The Zion Narrows is an excellent place for experimentation, with a lot of composition options along the 1.5 miles of hiking in the Virgin River to get to the typical turn-around point. With this much interesting scenery, there is no need to set up near other photographers. Still, Ron had a shadow in the Zion Narrows who was even worse than the guy I described above. The guy followed Ron relentlessly, setting up right next to him over and over again. The guy also kept on asking detailed, endless questions and seeking detailed photo tips. This guy was behaving like he was on a personal Ron Coscorrosa photo tour, even though he was a complete stranger (and offered no payment).
Ron finally asked the guy to give him some space and picked up his pace to try to get ahead of him. The guy caught up and continued his previous behavior, even after being directly asked to stop. This is an extreme example of the more common scenario: a photographer who keeps a running dialogue of technical questions going while others around the person might prefer to concentrate on their own photography.
#3a, 3b, and 3c: The Screamer: Delicate Arch in Arches National Park is a busy place, with both photographers and hikers arriving in the late afternoon to watch the sunset. Nearly all of the photographers set up in the same place at the top of a large sandstone bowl. Not surprisingly, most of the people visiting for a reason other than photography want to walk up to the arch to experience it up close. This becomes too much for two photographers who start screaming at the hikers to get out of their frame. Different hikers arrive. More screaming ensues. Sorry, but at a place like Delicate Arch, hikers should not have to stay behind some invisible line because you are set up for a photograph and then be the object of aggressiveness because they are exploring the place they have just as much right to be as we do.
A fellow photographer recently relayed a similar story of photographers yelling at non-photographers at the Zion Subway, a small, remote slot canyon that is accessed by a difficult, nine mile round-trip hike. It is absurd for a photographer to be yelling at people who have just hiked for a few hours to see a special destination and will probably only be in the canyon for a few minutes to get out of his way because he is photographing.
A second common variation on The Screamer involves photographers screaming at or aggressively talking with each other at locations like Mesa Arch in Canyonlands National Park and Maroon Bells in Colorado because of minor but easy to anticipate events like accidentally bumped tripod legs. In places like this, a little of civility and adult behavior would go a long way in making the experience more pleasant for everyone.
A third common variation, and an especially annoying one, is the Barking Workshop Leader who screams commands at students while the leader is mostly focused on taking his own photos. The rest of us do not need your advice to “USE f/14! AND MAKE SURE YOU ARE PROPERLY FOCUSED!!! BRACKET! REMEMBER TO BRACKET!!! JIM, COME OVER HERE AND TAKE A LOOK AT WHAT I’M DOING!” One of the only acceptable reasons to be loud and obnoxious in a natural or wild place is if you are trying to fend off an attacking animal. Screaming at other people or being loud is just not appropriate in the places where landscape photographers visit.
#4: Damn Nature Getting in the Way of My Nature Photography! What do you do when a pesky and annoying river otter keeps on messing up your reflection? Throw rocks at it! This seemed like the best plan for a photographer who clearly cares more about getting a photo than respecting the wildlife that lives in the place the photographer was visiting. Hurting or disrupting wildlife for a landscape photograph shows a complete lack of regard for the places we visit and photograph.
#5: Mr. Really Important Workshop Leader: I have enough personal experiences and anecdotes from friends to create an entirely separate blog post on this topic, but think these two examples illustrate this one best. First, a well-known photographer is leading his large tour group to a public backcountry archeological site. A member of the tour leader’s staff heads out in advance of the tour to make sure that no one will be there to ruin the experience for the tour group. The staff member encounters two other photographers, set up and ready to go once the best reflected light of the afternoon comes, and tells them, “Really Important Photographer’s group is about ten minutes behind me and you need to be gone by the time they get here.” The staff member delivered this as an order, not a request – an order that the photographers ignored, considering they were in a public place with as much right to be there as any other photographer.
Some friends also shared a similar experience in which a workshop instructor told them that they needed to move so the workshop students could set up in the “best” spots on a long public beach, the spots where our friends were already set up for sunset (and had been for some time). After they did not move, the instructor told his students to just squeeze in and lock tripod legs with our friends – all on a beach with many other options. All ten of the workshop students crowded around our friends, just as instructed and without a second thought.
#6: The Oblivious Whirlwind: We arrive well before sunrise to photograph a lake in the Canadian Rockies and set up on the lakeshore. About ten minutes before sunrise, a car speeds along the road and screeches to a halt at the lake. A guy jumps out, runs down to the shore, and clumsily walks out into the lake with no regard to the fact that we are already photographing the perfectly still lake reflection. After deciding he didn’t like the view in the lake from that spot, he walks along the shore and jumps in at a different spot, again with no consideration of the fact that he might be interfering with other people, people who were there much earlier than he was. After more in-and-out of the lake, he started throwing something (probably food of some sort) at a goose, apparently trying to get it to come closer to him so it would be in his foreground. Further pursuit of the goose ensued to add a little more fun to the in-and-out of the lake routine.
Minus the goose, we had the same experience at another lake in Washington. With filters flying, lenses going on and then coming off, and tripod height changing every few frames, this Oblivious Whirlwind was dodging right in front of us, behind us, and around us for the duration of the sunset. In addition to his distracting physical presence, he was chattering relentlessly. Both of these guys, and the others like them we have encountered in many other places, never stopped to consider that their behavior might just be negatively impacting the other people who were there first, both in terms of photography and in disturbing the peace that most of us seek when going to natural places.
#7: The Attention Seeker: The Attention Seeker comes in many forms, including the Gear Expert, the Gear Snob, the Look at My Expensive Gear Guy, the Camera Brand Fanboy, the Technique Critic, and the Exaggerating Storyteller. What these people all have in common is talking loudly to attract attention in their direction. Another common hallmark is offering unsolicited, condescending advice to other photographers around them (like, “You should really be using a filter. Professional photographers don’t blend exposures, just FYI” or “That lens is not the right focal length for this scene” or "Hey, the lake is behind you" to a photographer taking a photo of a smaller scene). While all photographers probably fall into at least one of the categories above (I know I do!), most do not feel the need to draw attention to themselves in a manner that is distracting and disruptive to others around them.
#8: The “My Photograph is More Important than Your Photograph” Guy: After hiking deep into Colorado’s Great Sand Dunes and setting up to wait for late afternoon shadows to appear on the dunes, another photographer walks right across the crest that is my photography subject. He can clearly see I am set up and photographing the dune he just walked all over and doesn’t seem to care a bit. After finding this spot the day before, I arrived a little early to capture better shadows on the dunes. Thanks to him, both today’s opportunity and the next few days for this composition are ruined because he couldn’t take five minutes to walk around me in the otherwise remote and pristine area of dunes. Same goes for the guy who sauntered into the large field of wildflowers I was photographing at a remote backcountry lake in Colorado and set up right in front of me, plus the many others like him I have encountered during my travels.
#9: The Disruptive Workshop: A few times a year, I actually enjoy the camaraderie that can come with being at a popular spot with other photographers – places like Tunnel View, Oxbow Bend, or a Grand Canyon overlook. It can be fun to meet new people and quietly talk shop while waiting for sunset. The social experience is part of photographing this kind of place and most of the time, everyone is nice and friendly.
Acting like it is a rowdy happy hour, on the other hand, is probably not appropriate behavior for a group of landscape photographers visiting a popular public overlook. An extreme (but real) example of this scene which took place at a popular and busy overlook in a US national park: Copious amounts of alcoholic beverages are passed out to participants. Loud, rambunctious talking and laughing ensues, punctuated by frequent screaming across the overlook between participants. Little photography takes place (with the exception of the workshop students who walk below the overlook, getting in the way of everyone who arrived well before they did). More alcohol is passed out and the crowd gets even more rowdy. Workshop students continuously dodge cars passing along the busy public road between the workshop vehicle and the overlook, causing traffic to back up and creating the possibility of someone getting hit by a car - over and over again. Seriously! Have a little respect for the place you are visiting and the others who are around you. Save the party for the bar after sunset.
A List of Principles to Consider
I end with this example to make a specific point. Having a fun and enjoyable experience is one of the best parts of landscape photography for me and I am not suggesting it should be otherwise. What I am suggesting is that a small minority of landscape photographers do behave badly and it negatively affects the experience for others and, as I’ll talk about in a future post, can be damaging to the places we photograph.
I strongly believe that landscape photographers have a responsibility to be good ambassadors for and stewards of the places and subjects we photograph and part of that responsibility comes in the form of behaving in a civil, respectful manner to the people we encounter when we are out practicing our art and craft. With this responsibility in mind, I hope you will consider practicing the following principles for field etiquette in landscape photography:
- Be kind and courteous to other photographers and non-photographers. They have as much right to be visiting a place as you do and a little courteousness will go a long way to helping make the experience pleasant for everyone.
- By definition, landscape photographers typically photograph natural places. Behave like you are in a natural place and treat the location with the respect it deserves. Having fun and making quiet conversation with friends and other photographers is one thing. However, being loud and disruptive in natural places is almost always inappropriate.
- Give other photographers some space! Refrain from setting up right next to someone who is already set-up and never follow another photographer around, repeatedly setting up next to them.
- If you are traveling with another photographer, remember that photographing together will require some give and take. If you find yourself always setting up first or staying planted in one spot, you might not be giving your companion fair opportunities to get the photos they want to take.
- Avoid yelling and being loud to help maintain solitude in both wild and not-so wild natural places.
- Remember that many landscape photographers are motivated to photograph in part by the ability to get out and experience solitude and peace. Incessantly talking or disrupting another photographer could be negatively affecting their creative process and ruining their experience in a special place.
- Wide angle lenses are called that for a reason – they take in a wide angle of view! Don’t assume that you will not be in someone’s frame. Ask! And if you are in their frame and the person was set up before you, move!
- If you are at a location and a photography workshop arrives, remember that you have as much right to be there as they do. Although you might not want to be around a large group of photographers, never let a workshop instructor intimidate you into leaving.
- Generally, you should respect another photographer who has arrived before you by staying out of their way and not walking into their composition. If you had something else in mind, striking up a friendly conversation can sometimes lead to a compromise. If not and you didn’t get there first, you either have to accept their presence in your composition, move, or get to the location earlier on another day.
- If you are photographing from the roadside, park your car in an appropriate spot. Do not block the road for others driving through. Also, parking your car in a spot to prevent other photographers from setting up in that same spot is rude.
- Refrain from making insulting or demeaning comments about other photographers, their gear, or their technique or bragging about your own gear or photographic prowess (how sharp your lenses are, how much your camera cost, how you can’t possibly understand how someone could be using that other brand, what magazine just featured your work, how popular you are on 500px, etc). Striking up a friendly conversation with other photographers helps built rapport and possibly even lasting friendships. Dissing other people or bragging about how important you are just makes you look like a jerk.
- If other people are also photographing a scene, do not do things like moving elements in or out (like the ice I described above or a large boulder like someone else described to me). Asking if you can do a bit of clean-up is one thing but messing with the natural elements of a scene that another photographer has chosen to photograph is just bad behavior.
And a Few Final Observations for Workshop Leaders: Unless you have a specific permit allowing you exclusive access to a place, you do not have some special right to public places just because people are paying you to show them around. Instead, you have the responsibility to model good behavior for your students. If your group arrives after other photographers are set up, can you please kill the self-important attitude and show a little respect to the photographers who arrived to the location first? Please never say, “I’m Really Important Photographer” in an effort to intimidate others to leave a public place. And if you are on a workshop with this kind of leader, do not use their abhorrent behavior as permission to model the same kind of rudeness during the workshop or after when you are on your own.
What do you think?
Is bad behavior an issue in the landscape photography world or do you think I have picked out isolated incidents to make a case for a problem that does not exist? Do you have your own examples to share? Would you add any principles to my list? Did anything in this post make you think about possibly changing your own behavior? Thanks in advance for commenting!