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 Earl Nottingham / TPWD

Sensitive natural areas, like Gorman Falls at Colorado Bend State Park (above), are vulnerable to ever-increasing foot traffic. Signs and barriers are intended to limit damage.


Picture This

Responsible Nature Photography

Photographers need to put nature first to protect landscapes and wildlife.


It may be a rhetorical question, but as outdoor photographers who admire the wide variety of beautiful landscapes in Texas, we need to ask ourselves: Is it possible that we can actually be a liability to those same landscapes that we cherish? Is it possible that we could be on the way toward loving them to death?

Historically, photography has been a wonderful medium to promote the appreciation and conservation of wild places. Iconic images by photographers such as Ansel Adams inspired generations of Americans to venture outdoors and hit the trails to experience the grandeur for themselves. Sadly, over the years, many of those trails and the areas surrounding them have become degraded by the throngs of nature lovers and photographers who use them. More and more, some photographers are trampling wild lands, ignoring regulations, trespassing property lines, damaging sensitive areas, disturbing wildlife and inviting (implicitly or explicitly) the public to do the same.

Contributing to that is a convergence of complex factors that have an increasingly negative impact on public, private and protected lands. These factors include:

• The rise of social media, increasing the ease of sharing photos and location information online.

• A significant increase in the popularity of photography.

• Steep increases in visitation to public lands and wild places.

• Lack of widespread knowledge of basic stewardship practices and outdoor ethics.

One international organization, Nature First – The Alliance for Responsible Nature Photography, developed seven core principles called the “Nature First Principles” as a guide for both professional and recreational photographers to help minimize impact on the land and preserve pristine locations. Photographers have always been some of nature’s best ambassadors. Let’s continue the tradition.

We are guests in wild places, with their unique natural features and diverse, 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.

Different landscapes require different kinds of stewardship practices, so in order to best care for these places, we need to be knowledgeable about them. Knowledge about the environments we photograph is essential to effective stewardship.

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. 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, he or she may still ruin the experience of others by actions such as using drones or leading noisy groups.

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, such as soft travertine terraces below waterfalls, simply cannot survive a significant increase in visitation. If you decide to share information, share the locations only of well-known places or areas which are unlikely to be damaged by increased visitation. Some areas can also be seasonally sensitive such as wildflower fields.

It might be tempting to hop over a fence and venture into private land for a photo. These actions, however, can have a snowball effect with negative consequences for both the land and others in the photography community, possibly increasing the likelihood of further restrictions on photographers.

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.

All  FILBORG | Dreamstime.com

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.

Please send questions and comments to Earl at earl.nottingham@tpwd.texas.gov.

For more tips on outdoor photography, visit the magazine’s photography page at tpwmagazine.com/photography.

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