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How to Practice Low Impact Nature Photography

In many parts of the world, spring has blossomed into summer, furry and feathered babies were being born and summer is on its way. Photographers are pulling out their camera gear and finally heading back outside for some nature photography. I am so ready to get out and photograph the bounty that warm weather brings, I bet you are too. Before you head outside though, here are a few tips on having a little lower impact on the nature you’re photographing.

Low Impact Nature Photography - nature in bloom

Spring has sprung so let’s all get outside and shoot. Canon 5DIII, 70-200 @ 121mm, ISO 500, f/4, 1/750th.

Reduce your carbon footprint

When you do head out to do nature photography, consider your carbon footprint. We lead such comfortable lives these days that’s it’s easy to forget that hopping into the car for a two-hour drive isn’t all that great for our environment. Car-pooling with two or three of your friends is an easy way to reduce emissions. It’s a lot more fun to spend the day shooting with friends, too.

Low Impact Nature Photography - shoot with friends

Planning a day trip or holiday to shoot with your friends is not only more fun, it also helps to reduce your carbon footprint when you carpool and share vehicles.

Doubling up

Another way to reduce your carbon footprint is something I call “doubling up.” Whenever you fly somewhere, research what else you can easily see while you’re there. For example, this fall I’ll be a special guest photography teacher for Big Sky Yoga Retreats “Yogatography,” a combined yoga and photography retreat in Montana.

The ranch I’m staying at is only about a 90-minute drive from Yellowstone National Park so it makes perfect sense to add a few days in the park after the retreat ends. Of course, I also save money by combining my visit to Yellowstone with the Yogatography retreat but more than that, I reduce emissions by flying to Montana once instead of twice.

Low Impact Nature Photography - Mammoth Hot Springs

The last time I was in Yellowstone I was only carrying a little point and shoot while I hiked so I’m pleased to be able to “double up” this fall when I’m in Bozeman teaching and have another crack at shooting Mammoth Hot Springs with some beefier gear.

Heed the signs

Once you arrive at your location, heed the park signs. Often, the signs are meant to protect you from harm. But sometimes they’re meant to protect the wildlife around us.

How to Practice Low Impact Nature Photography

On the left, a sign from Antelope Island in Utah requesting that cars and hikers stay on the road to avoid aggressive wild buffalo encounters. On the right, a funny and scary bathroom sign from a Nevada park. For heaven’s sake, don’t slip. There are rattle snakes!

Several years ago in Utah, I left the trail while I was shooting in Arches National Park. My guide quickly pulled me back and pointed out what I hadn’t seen. Right next to where I’d planted my foot was a type of very slow growing fungal plant life that, when crushed, will not revive for hundreds of years.

How to Practice Low Impact Nature Photography - Arches National Park

It’s hard to see, but tucked in and around the rocks and bushes are delicate fungal plants that are easily crushed when stepped on. Canon 5DIII, 24-105 @ 22mm, ISO 100, f/16, 1.5 seconds.

We all want the best, most unique photographs but if we all leave the trail, our combined impact can destroy the beautiful environments we are trying to capture not to mention causing a lot of potential injury to ourselves.

Share special locations judiciously

While I greatly admire photographers who openly teach and share, consider very carefully whether you should share every amazing location you stumble upon with every photographer you know. Unfortunately, delicate environments can’t handle hordes of photographers. The wear and tear of too many people hiking in and out can destroy the natural beauty of the location itself, even if everyone stays on the trail.

Low Impact Nature Photography - secret location

Canon 7DII, 70-200mm with 1.4xIII extender @ 280mm, ISO 1000, f/5.6, 1/250th.

I love to photograph the tiny Key Deer on Big Pine Key in Florida. When I drive the island, I know just where these little creatures like to hang out. I don’t tell very many people about this location though, because the deer have become too habituated to humans, frequently approaching people and begging for food.

Too many human visitors can also frighten wildlife, disrupt nesting, and impact natural reproductive cycles. While complete secrecy about a magical location seems stingy, consider sharing more environmentally fragile places only with photographers who know and understand the impact they have on where they shoot.

Look, don’t touch!

When I see a lush, velvety plant growing at the Chicago Botanic Garden, all I want to do is run my fingertips across its surface. The rule at the garden, however, is to look and not touch. Sometimes I practically have to put my hands in my pockets to stop myself from touching the amazing specimens on display!

Luckily, they have a wonderful Sensory Garden where visitors are encouraged to physically touch the plant life. The Sensory Garden is mainly a teaching and learning area. But by allowing visitors to touch the plants there, it also helps prevent wear on the rest of the garden, leaving it pristine for the thousands of weekly visitors, many of whom are photographers.

Low Impact Nature Photography - velvet leaf

These broad velvety leaves beg to be touched. Canon 5DIII, 24-105mm lens @ 105mm, ISO 1000, f/4, 1/2000th.

If you’re shooting in a wild and remote place, use the same rule as that applies at the Chicago Botanic Garden, and don’t touch the plant life. Imagine hundreds of people walking through that same wild area and touching the same plant you’re touching. It wouldn’t take much before the plant started to wither around the edges, and ultimately turn brown and die. Next time, before you touch, ask yourself whether you’re truly leaving no impact on the plant. If you are impacting it, perhaps reconsider your actions.

Don’t pick the flowers

It probably goes without saying that when you pick wildflowers you’re impacting the environment in a negative way. Acres and acres of wildflowers are a breath-taking sight. A field left with only one or two flowers standing? Not so much.

Low Impact Nature Photography - field of tulips

Like a field of wildflowers, a picked-over field of tulips wouldn’t be nearly as stunning to photograph as this lush bed was. Canon 5DIII. 70-200mm lens @ 111mm, ISO 250, f/4, 1/1000th.

In some locations, it’s also illegal to pick wildflowers. It’s also illegal to remove shells, bones, pottery shards, and petrified wood from many state and national parks. While we humans seem to have a knee jerk reaction to gather and collect things, leaving plants and artifacts alone preserves them so that all of us can visit, enjoy and photograph them.

Avoid leaving tracks

Is that mud flat, playa or sand dune you’re photographing absolutely pristine? If it is, take care not to walk on it or leave footprints. Don’t drive on it or leave tire tracks either. Environmental recovery from this sort of carelessness can take decades before there will be enough wind or rainfall to smooth out your tracks. You’re not only wrecking the image-making opportunity for the next photographer that comes along, you’re destroying the beauty of the location for everyone who visits it.

Low Impact Nature Photography - Cumberland island boardwalk over dunes

On Cumberland Island, in Georgia, the National Park Service has constructed boardwalks so that visitors can view the dunes without damaging them. Canon 5DIII, 100-400mm lens @ 100mm, ISO 12800, f/8, 1/6000th.

Keep wild animals wild

Because I mainly photograph wild horses, I’m frequently asked if I touch, pet, or ride them. These questions always strike me as naive but, because most people are used to domesticated horses, perhaps they think that wild horses tolerate or accept humans more readily than other wild animals. They don’t.

Low Impact Nature Photography - cautious wild horse

Does this wild stallion look like he wants to be petted? He doesn’t. His ears are pinned back and he has an eagle eye on me too. Canon 5DIII, 100-400 @ 400mm, ISO 1250, f/6.7, 1/500th.

The same rules apply to wild horses that apply to any other wild animals. No matter how sweet or cuddly a wild animal seems, never approach, feed, touch, hug, or pick it up. Wild animals are often so much bigger than we are and even if they fearfully strike out with mildly aggressive behaviors, you can be seriously injured. Always keep a safe distance between you and the animal you’re photographing and, in some cases, shoot from the car or another protective structure like a blind. If, as a photographer, you’re afraid you’ll be too far away, buy or rent a bigger lens.

If you’re afraid you’ll be too far away to get a good photo, buy or rent a bigger lens.

Low Impact Nature Photography - don't feed wild anmals

Visitors to Big Pine Key often get too close to the Key Deer that live there. This woman fed the deer her lunch leftovers (!!) and then tried to pet them. This is the perfect example of what not to do when you’re photographing wild animals.

These rules may not seem like much “fun” but they are for the animals’ safety as much as for yours. Animals that become too accustomed to humans become less wild, more dependent on humans for their food, and ultimately nuisances when they start to forage for food in suburban areas. When too many wild animals invade populous areas, they are often culled, which is just a more politically correct word for killed. Keep your distance and keep wild animals wild, free, and alive.

Pack it in – pack it out

You’ve probably heard this bit of advice before. Whatever you carry in with you when you head into a refuge, preserve, or wilderness area, you should also plan to carry out with you. Garbage littering the landscape doesn’t make a very pretty picture. Of course, you can just “Photoshop it out in post-processing” but for the environment’s sake, and for the safety of the animals who might ingest any garbage left behind, take everything you brought in with you back out when you leave.

Low Impact Nature Photography - trash in water

The Salt River Wild Horse Management Group volunteers do an amazing job of regularly cleaning up the river but too many people toss their trash into it rather than carrying everything out with them when they leave. Even the day after a massive clean up effort, these wild horses were drinking next to floating trash. Canon 5DIII, 100-400 with 1.4xIII extender @ 560mm, ISO 1250, f/8, 1/500th.

An even nicer thing to do is to leave the area cleaner than you found it. On your way out, pick up the garbage other less savvy hikers and photographers have left behind and dispose of it appropriately once you get back home.

Leave Fido at home

If you’re a weekend warrior type of photographer – and many of us are – it might seem like a natural thing to bring your faithful pup along with you. In a very few situations, bringing your dog (or any domestic animal) may work out just fine, but at best bringing your dog along is a distraction from making images. At worst, your dog can wreck a field of flowers or scare off wildlife (or get injured).

Low Impact Nature Photography - dogs on boat

These two dogs are having a much better time relaxing at sea than they would be out hiking while you photograph wildlife. Canon T3i, 55-250 @ 240mm, ISO 200, f/6.3, 1/320th.

Perhaps if you’re a macro flower photographer, your well-behaved and leashed dog won’t a problem. He can rest on the path while you shoot. A puppy however (at least any that I’ve ever met) probably won’t be content to relax on the trail. Instead, he’ll be crashing through the flowers, possibly damaging them, and rendering them less likely to be image-worthy for the next guy that comes along with a camera.

Domestic animals affect the behavior of wild animals

If you’re photographing butterflies, birds, or wild animals, your dog should really stay at home for his safety, as well as the other animals. I’m sure that some of you are scratching your heads right now and exclaiming how well-behaved your dog is, but seriously… I’ve been out there on the range photographing wild horses when someone shows up with their “amazing dog.” The horses’ behaviors always change as they become aware of the dog.

Low Impact Nature Photography - alert wild stallion

This stallion has just sighted a hiker and her two dogs on the river bank. He’s alert and ready to protect his family. Canon 5DIII, 100-400 @ 241mm, ISO 500, f/4.5, 1/3000th.

Your dog might be cool with wild animals but the wild animals are immediately on alert. Remember, dogs are instinctually predatory animals and other animals recognize that. The behavior dynamic shifts when you bring your dog, no matter how amazing he is. Yell at me all you want, but please, leave Fido at home. Your dog impacts the environment and not in a good way for photography.

Reduce nature’s impact on yourself

I was in North Carolina a few weeks ago hiking on Shackleford Banks and photographing the wild horses. The first thing I did when I got back to my rental house was to shower off the sweat, sand, sunscreen and bug spray. As I toweled my hair dry, I kept itching my ear. That’s when I discovered the tick. Thankfully it wasn’t attached yet and I could just pick it off my skin but, ugh, so gross.

Low Impact Nature Photography - wear protective clothes

Photo Credit: Eden Halbert. Here I am in on Shackleford Banks in 80F+ degree weather, covered head-to-toe in UPF 50 quick dry clothing. Depending on your environment, wear a hat, sun- and bug-protective clothing, sunscreen and bug spray. Don’t forget to bring and drink plenty of water.

To reduce nature’s impact on you, my recommendation is to wear a hat, sun- and bug-protective clothing, sunscreen, and bug spray. Plus, remember to do what I forgot to do. After your photography hike and before you get into your car, check yourself, your clothes and your camera bag for ticks, burs and other clinging critters.

Teach others

Finally, set yourself up as a good example for your fellow photographers. More often than not, when another photographer crashes around like King Kong, it’s not with the intent to be destructive. It’s usually because he/she doesn’t know any better. If you model more appropriate behaviors, and explain why all these strategies are so important to preserving nature, your friends will follow your lead.

What strategies do you use to lower your impact on the nature and wildlife you photograph? Please share your thoughts in the comments. The dPS community would love to hear from you.

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Lara Joy Brynildssen
Lara Joy Brynildssen

is an avid equine, wildlife, nature and travel photographer. She is crazy about her cats, loves her Canon 5D Mark IV, and never refuses a sip of limoncello. More seriously, LJ is working on several series of wild horse images, writes about and teaches photography and exhibits her work in the Chicagoland area. Follow her at www.LaraJoy.us.

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