Historically, nature photography has been a force for good. Conservation photographers have promoted the preservation of many ecologically sensitive and magnificently beautiful places. Nature photographs have motivated scores of people to experience nature for themselves, and in many cases become advocates for the preservation of wild places. Photography also offers a personally meaningful way for many of us to engage much more deeply with the natural world and then share those experiences with others through our photos.
In recent years, this positive legacy has been upended. It is now easy to make the case that pursuing and sharing photographs of nature has much darker consequences. Nature photography has undergone a dramatic transformation in the last five years with the rise of platforms like Instagram, easy access to detailed location information online, and technology advancements that make photo-taking much easier. These trends are leading to the irreparable destruction of some special natural locations, overcrowding in places that can’t handle the volume of visitors, and a sharp increase in injuries and deaths from people seeking to “get the shot” or see the view they saw featured in a super-popular Instagram post.
During my almost ten years pursuing nature photography, I have done things like crossed boundaries to access closed areas, walked into fields of wildflowers, and left footprints on remote playas. Five years ago, this kind of behavior didn’t seem terribly consequential because I would be the only person to walk on that playa that week or one of the few visitors to the field of wildflowers that spring. With dramatically increased visitation to formerly unknown places, these formerly innocuous behaviors now get amplified and have much more serious consequences.
One notable example sticks in my mind. A friend recently posted on Facebook that access below the viewing platform at Panther Creek Falls in Washington has been entirely closed off. Based on news reports, this closure is due to the fact that a young woman died in a fall while trying to access the lower view – a view made popular by photographers like me. When I visited, access was sketchy but not restricted, probably because only a few photographers a year tried to get below the viewing platform. Vibrant mosses grew across the expanse at the base of the falls – more evidence that only a few photographers here and there accessed the area. Years later, all the moss is gone, tree roots are entirely bare, and a woman has died because she wanted to see the same view that I photographed years earlier. Thus, going into a closed area feels much more consequential today than the same thing did years ago.
Visitor impact on public lands is an incredibly complex problem, with different root causes and key issues depending on the place – over-marketing of national parks, the rise of social media, easy access to location information, no consequences for bad behavior, lack of public will to expand public lands to reduce overcrowding, lack of funding for existing parks, a culture of entitlement, incentives to post extreme photos, plus many more. One constant is the role of nature photographers – we promote these places through our photos and thus have the responsibility to play a role in addressing these negative trends.
If we as a loosely affiliated community of nature photographers don’t proactively address some of these issues, we are going to see closures, significant restrictions on our activities, and the continued destruction of the magnificent places we profess to love. In response, a group of nature photographers, including me, has come together to create Nature First, a movement focused on changing the culture of nature photography. We started by creating 7 Principles, which 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. Here is a quick summary of the #naturefirst principles (you can read the expanded principles here):
• Principle #1: Prioritize the well-being of nature over photography. This means sometimes walking away from a photo opportunity because your actions might damage the place you are visiting.
• Principle #2: Educate yourself about the places you photograph. Example: did you know that you should be very careful about off-trail travel on the Colorado Plateau? You could damage cryptobiotic soil as part of getting a better view for a photo. The impact accumulates over time as more and more people do the same thing, leaving significant ecological impacts behind.
• Principle #3: Reflect on the possible impact of your actions. While stepping over a fence might not seem like a big deal, others will see your photo and do the same. This has resulted in deaths, large area closures, and significant resource damage in many places.
• Principle #4: Use discretion if sharing locations. As a guidebook author, I know this is a tough issue - we have removed all sensitive info from our books because we don’t know how the info will be used and we are thinking about not selling our location guides at all in the future. Information about sensitive places has become too accessible. Too many people aren’t getting basic wilderness stewardship education and go into wild places without basic knowledge of how to protect a place. Changing how you share location information is one way to help.
• Principle #5: Know and follow rules and regulations. Don’t trespass. Don’t harass wildlife for photos. Respect closures. Being a good steward means following the rules that land managers and private land owners have put in place even if it means foregoing a photo opportunity.
• Principle #6: Always follow Leave No Trace principles and strive to leave places better than you found them. Bring a trash bag and clean up the places you visit. Never share a photo that encourages bad behavior (setting up a tent on a lakeshore, a person in a field of flowers).
• Principle #7: Actively promote and educate others about these principles. When you share photos, share information about the place. Share why it is important to be a good steward. Share about wilderness ethics and why such practices are important to you and the place you are sharing.
• If you are a writer, workshop leader, or “influencer,” you have a special responsibility to exemplify and amplify these ideas. Actively talk about and positively encourage these principles. Teach that it is okay to forego a photo because nature is more important.
If you believe in these principles, please join this movement - it is simple and free: naturefirstphotography.org/join
After joining, you can help amplify these ideas by:
Sharing the 7 Principles on social media, through a blog post, or directly with your photography friends or photo club
Using the hashtag #naturefirst when sharing your photos on social media
Actively educating others about wilderness ethics
Making sure that your own practices put nature first.
You can also stop engaging with photographers and photos that don’t exemplify these principles. For example, if you see a photo of a tent by a lake, ignore it (no likes or comments!) or politely engage with the photographer. If you are comfortable in doing so, positively educate others about these ideas when you see problematic things, both online and out in nature. Provide feedback to companies that feature problematic photos. Report especially egregious examples (example: drone use in national parks) to public land managers. With enough collective action, the incentives for such destructive behavior could start to disappear.
We as nature photographers have an obligation to help preserve and protect the places we visit, photograph and share with the public. I hope you will help in reversing some of these negative trends by actively practicing and sharing these ideas within your network, and by joining the Nature First movement. These 7 Principles are just a start. We hope to expand this movement through additional partnerships (public land managers, for example) and activities like working with companies to be more responsible in choosing promotional photos for social media. If you have ideas for how we can expand this movement, please share below and get involved with our efforts.