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It is hardly questionable that landscape photography is both rewarding and fun. The whole process from planning and researching an outing, to making your way to a location during ideal conditions and, finally, producing a completed image of an exquisite vista can be so fulfilling it’s easy to see why it is such a popular genre.
Unfortunately, there are costs to this popularity. Even though most landscape photographers do identify as environmentally-minded, the sheer number of visitors to some locations can cause adverse effects despite the best of intentions.
There are a few things you can look out for and practices you can take up to help ensure that you nullify – or at least minimise – your environmental impact on your next photography trip.
Chances are you have heard the often-quoted, “Take only photographs, leave only footprints”. It’s a good starting point that simply means do not intentionally damage your surroundings and do not leave your litter. Sadly, it doesn’t go far enough.
Many ecosystems are extremely fragile and footsteps alone can cause catastrophic damage. Take Iceland’s mossy lava fields: that moss can take many decades to grow, but it can only handle being stepped on two or three times before it’s destroyed permanently.
There are countless other examples of fragility in the world, such as California’s Mono Lake and its Tufa formations. It is easy, however, to prevent this damage. Just adding a little bit of extra location research before you head out can reveal any extra care you should take to prevent any damage.
If you’re traveling abroad and find that obtaining the relevant information is difficult, don’t be afraid to ask local people or officials. I once listened to an impassioned Icelandic warden rant about a tourist who drove a rented 4×4 and devastated about a quarter mile of moss just to stand at the edge of a lake for five minutes. Just ask around, they will probably be grateful for your concern and may even be able to turn you on to lesser-known opportunities.
People failing to keep to required areas on marked hiking trails is one of the most commonly ignored regulations. Although taking a few steps off a trail can seem harmless enough, often those rules are put into place for safety reasons. Things like unstable terrain, sheer drop-offs and even wildlife can all cause danger to visitors.
While it can be rationalised that using common sense should negate most danger, you should consider that most of these regulations will be the product of insurance policies. If, for the sake of photos, these regulations are seen to be constantly ignored then it isn’t much of a stretch to imagine future access to these areas being limited or restricted to photographers.
Other concerns when it comes to local regulations involve the law as it relates to photography. While in most places you are well within your right to photograph whatever you see, that is not the case everywhere. Belgium and France are both examples of countries where Freedom of Panorama is limited in some way. For example, when the Eiffel Tower is lit up at night it is considered a copyrighted scene and images of it cannot be published without explicit consent.
Now, a quick search on Flickr reveals a huge number of images of the Eiffel Tower at night and further research reveals that the regulation is primarily concerned with commercial usages. As such, this aspect may not seem extreme and probably will not cause any aggravation while you’re travelling, but you should still pre-empt any possible clashes with local authorities by thoroughly researching relevant laws in the country that you’ll be photographing in.
Beyond legal and environmental implications, it is important to consider other people who are around you. Courtesy and tact go a long way towards this and will often prevent any conflict before there is even a need for resolution. Simple acts like working as quickly as possible to move out of a prime viewing spot in a crowded space and not blocking the passage of others are simple ways to help ensure that you’re not preventing someone else from enjoying a location. If in doubt, try to ask yourself if there’s any way you are being an imposition on others. If so, consider changing your behavior accordingly.
An incident I witnessed at the popular Svartifoss waterfall in Iceland should drive this point home. The waterfall is at the end of a moderately steep half-kilometre trail. As it’s so short a distance, and the waterfall is so spectacular, it gets very crowded. The closest you can get to the waterfall is a rocky outcrop big enough to fit three or four people. To the left, it’s possible to stand in the stream.
While a large crowd awaited their turn for the best views, a woman and her young daughter had commandeered a position in the stream. The girl was dressed in a leotard and was being directed by her mother to perform a variety of dance poses as the latter took photos on her phone. In the forty-five minutes they were doing this, it was obvious that the girl was extremely uncomfortable among the massive group of tourists, yet her mother’s only agitation was her daughter’s apprehension. With the tension between the pair and the presence of a young girl in a leotard dominating the only view of the waterfall, there was a palpable discomfort among the dozens of tourists.
I don’t believe there is anything wrong with what they were trying to achieve, but the whole situation could have been vastly different with a bit of forward planning. Had they known what they were doing beforehand, and then gotten it done in a few altercation-free minutes, they could have achieved their results and the experience wouldn’t have been tainted for everyone else present.
Landscape photography is a great pursuit. The rewards to the photographer and their audiences are many, but certain behaviors can be detrimental for both the landscape and the people in it. For the most part, common sense and thorough research will steer you in the right direction.