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Ethics and Responsibilities for Landscape Photographers

How to be an ethical landscape photographer

It is hardly questionable that landscape photography is both rewarding and fun. The whole process – from planning and researching an outing to 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. Though most landscape photographers identify as environmentally minded, the sheer number of visitors to some locations can cause adverse effects – even despite the best intentions.

That said, 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 minimize – a negative environmental impact on your next landscape photography trip. I don’t have all the answers, but here are some simple guidelines to get you started:

1. Watch your step

Chances are you have heard the often-quoted, “Take only photographs, leave only footprints.” It means you should not intentionally damage your surroundings and that you should not leave your litter. But while it’s a decent starting point, it doesn’t go far enough.

You see, 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.

Moss in Iceland takes decades to grow but moments to permanently destroy.
Moss in Iceland takes decades to grow, but it can be permanently destroyed in moments.

There are countless other examples of fragility in the world, such as California’s Mono Lake and its Tufa formations.

However, preventing this damage is easy. You just need to do a little bit of extra location research before you head out, where you specifically determine whether there’s any extra care you should take to prevent damage.


If you’re traveling abroad and find that obtaining relevant information about ecosystem fragility 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.

2. Follow local regulations

In areas that you're required to stay on marked trails, the rule is usually to keep you safe.
In areas where you’re required to stay on marked trails, the rule is usually there to keep you safe.

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, such rules are often 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 rationalized 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.

Note: In certain cases, marked trails are designed to prevent damage to the environment (see the previous section!), and so obeying such regulations is essential.

Large rock formations, boulders and cliffs all pose a danger to hikers.
Large rock formations, boulders, and cliffs all pose a danger to hikers.

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 usage. As such, this regulation may not seem extreme and probably will not cause any aggravation while you’re traveling, but you should still preempt any possible clashes with local authorities by thoroughly researching relevant laws in the area that you’ll be photographing.

3. Be considerate of others

Sheep worrying causes a significant loss of livestock annually and it can cause farmers to revoke access to their land.
Sheep worrying causes a significant loss of livestock annually, and it can cause farmers to revoke access to their land.

Beyond legal and environmental implications, it is important to consider the people around you. Courtesy and tact go a long way and will often prevent any conflict before there is even a need for resolution. Considerate behavior – 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 – can 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 imposing. If the answer is “Yes,” 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-kilometer trail. As the distance to the waterfall is relatively short and the waterfall is so spectacular, the area 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 mother 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 was only agitated by 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 also a palpable sense of discomfort among the dozens of tourists.

I don’t believe there is anything wrong with what the mother was 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.

Take landscape photos, but be responsible and ethical

Landscape photography is a great pursuit. The rewards to the photographer and their audiences are many, but certain behaviors can be detrimental to both the landscape and the people in it. For the most part, common sense and thorough research will steer you in the right direction.

Hopefully, the advice I shared today can help you be a more ethical landscape photographer. Of course, there’s plenty more to be said on this topic, so just because I didn’t mention it doesn’t make it a good idea. And when in doubt, ask for a second opinion. Don’t risk your own safety, the safety of others, or the safety of the environment just to get a photo!

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John McIntire
John McIntire

is a portrait photographer currently living in the UK. He studied commercial photography and is always looking to improve. Admittedly a lighting nerd through and through, John offers lighting workshops and one-to-one tuition to photographers of all skill levels in Yorkshire.

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