Landscape Photography Ethics
Some landscape photographers will go to almost any end in their quest to capture the beauty of nature. And with increasing numbers of cameras competing for the grand view these days, it's important to consider the topic of common courtesy and ethics.
Leave no trace
There's a longstanding set of guidelines under the umbrella of "leave no trace" intended for everyone involved in the outdoors. Since this includes photographers, it seems like as good a place as any to begin our discussions here. There once was a time when outdoorsmen took pride in building elaborate shelters that made use of resources they found in the wild. People thought nothing of cutting down trees to build shelters or of digging fire pits to cook over. This may have been acceptable when few ventured into the wild, but over time it became clear that such a relationship with the natural world could result in real harm that could take far longer to recover than the time before the next explorer came that way and made things worse. To prevent such problems, attitudes began to shift towards interacting with nature in ways that left no trace, caring for, rather than exploiting what was found in the wild.
Not all campers are as thoughtful in such matters, and neither area all photographers. I have encountered both good and bad stewards of the environment when I'm out shooting. Unfortunately, not everyone has gotten the message. But it's not enough to capture a beautiful vista with your camera if it means damaging the environment to do so. Sadly, tales of photographers cutting trees to get a better view, or of leaving scorched burn marks on ancient rock formations in order to light night time scenes continue to turn up in the news from time to time. While many of would never think of going to such extremes, many wouldn't think twice about trampling on alpine meadows or fragile soils to get better view. One person doing this may only cause a little damage, but enough doing so almost certainly will leave a trace.
Many national parks and other popular sites are becoming victims of their own success, with visitor traffic continually up, year of year. A lot of those visitors have cameras, even if only the one built into their smart phone. Many are content to stand next to their car while parked at the scenic overlook, but some have much greater ambitions. I often see photographers wandering around off trail, having gone around a "meadow reconstruction" sign to get there. Some sheepishly realize the error of their ways, hurrying back to the to the trail when caught red-handed. But some will try to justify their actions, claiming that they "only" did this or that, and that others have done much worse.
But it really shouldn't matter what others do. Each of us should be answerable to our own conscience first and foremost. If that image is worth photographing, it's worth protecting. That that includes more than just what eventually falls within the frame, it should include the entire ecosystem in which we found that gorgeous view. Treading lightly needs to be part of the ethic with which we approach our craft. What exactly that means may depend on the circumstances, but each of us needs to consider the consequences of our actions before we take them, not after. The message of our photography shouldn't just be that beautiful sights can be found, it should include the idea that they can be found without damaging the environment to capture them.
Respect private property
There are other ethical challenges to being a landscape photographer too. Not all lands are open to the public. Many private land holders would be only too willing to allow the considerate photographer to access their land to take photographs, but some cold be far less kind and could threaten arrest for trespass. It's always best to ask first or simply avoid the problem entirely. It's worth noting, too, that one of the main factors that form the opinions of land owners is their experience with previous photographers are trespassers. Bad encounters lead to fear of problems with the next encounter.
If you do find yourself able to benefit from the kindness of private land owners, it can be a nice gesture to offer them copies of what you shoot even when no other compensation is requested. Each of us benefits from the consideration of those who came before us.
Respect other photographers
Sometimes, you will find yourself the only photographer there to witness the magic of sunrise unfold. Other times, you will have more company than you wish for. It's best to show consideration for others and let them have a shot if there are few good vantage points. If you want to make sure you have dibs on the best spot though, it's best to arrive early, before it gets crowded. This will let you consider the possibilities at your leisure, before the action really starts.
When others are there, try not to get in their way, and try not to bother them too much. I'm sure they will appreciate it. Don't distract them with idle conversation and questions when they're busy. I generally find there's plenty of time to strike up a conversation once the action winds down.
This weekend, we celebrate Earth Day, a tradition that dates back to 1970. Each year, more than a million people now participate in Earth Day events that strive to educate and inform about the need to protect the environment. As landscape photographers, we have a dual responsibility to document the natural beauty that surrounds us while avoiding despoiling that beauty in pursuit of our efforts. It's an amazing world out there. Let's keep it that way.