Outdoor Photography Ethics 101

 In Picture

Outdoor ethics and outdoor etiquette seem to receive only cursory treatment within the outdoor photography world, and it’s time to change that. The problem is as more people have discovered the joys of nature photography, the cursory treatment of ethics is failing to reach the people it needs to reach. As a result, more and more violations of what many photographers would call common sense are occurring. The problem with common sense in the outdoors is that it isn’t common to everyone. Particularly, if people that haven’t been exposed to the outdoor education world, they aren’t going to understand the ethics and etiquette that people who were raised in the outdoors innately understand.

Examples of Bad Behavior

illegal trail in the woods

A photographer created trail used to access a photo of pink lady slippers. The pink lady slippers were stolen from the park this spring.

An example of either common sense ethics or etiquette failing takes place often at Death Valley’s Race Track playa. The Race Track is the location where rocks seemly skid across the mud on their own. Those rocks leave tracks and the tracks contrast with the dried mud. When you add in a great sunset, you get an awesome picture. Photographers have been caught moving and removing rocks, walking on the mud when it’s wet or dragging wheeled camera bags across the dried mud. Even camping there when camping is against the law. Because it’s so dry, it can take decades for that sort of damage to disappear completely. (Read: First Time at the Race Track) Another example is when a nature photographer started a fire under Delicate Arch in Utah. He was eventually fined and forced to do community service work.

I can list a significant number of examples where an outdoor photographer has done something that I’d consider against common sense. These range from laying down among rare flowers, creating new trails, breaking live branches off of standing trees, baiting owls with mice connected to fishing poles, driving their vehicles where vehicles don’t go, to camping in illegal locations for night sky photography convenience and many more.

Those are just the examples of “violating” nature that I’ve seen. I’ve also witnessed photographers being rude to each other. During a Great Smoky Mountains National Park Photography Workshop I was teaching a couple of years ago, a big-name workshop instructor brought one of her students over to mine and intertwined her student’s camera legs with mine after she saw what we were photographing. That was downright rude. I’ve seen photographers walk into the shots of other photographers just to get to a better angle. I’ve seen photographers claim an entire beach as their own because they got there a few minutes earlier, and then I’ve seen them yell at other photographers who came onto the beach. Other photographers have noticed this as well.

twilight from Clingmans Dome

I made this image on the same night that about 40 photographers lined up to capture the sunset from a parking lot in the Smokies. No one got in anyone’s way and everyone got photos. To get this image, I had to get in front of a bunch of hikers hanging out at sunset. I asked permission to stand in front of them and that started an interesting conversation. We talked while I photographed and it made the night even better.

There’s anger building among photographers who understand outdoor ethics and show outdoor etiquette. Recently, one angry workshop instructor wrote a blog post proclaiming that “Face it: Your photo is not better. It’s not original” [so don’t go anywhere other than where we are standing, and if you do or if you get somewhere before us and take the best spot and aren’t willing to share then you’re a “jerk.”] While I think that kind of language is uncalled for, I can understand his anger. I suspect that some of these photographers just don’t understand outdoor ethics and outdoor etiquette. To most of us, it might seem like common sense, but to these photographers either it isn’t common sense or they are complete narcissists. I suspect it’s mainly the former and not the later.

An example from my sea kayak guiding life illustrates why I think it’s the former. I was guiding a trip at a remote location. We had crossed several miles from mainland to a small island with a “campsite” on it. When we arrived, I set up my tent on the sand but as close to the trees as possible to make room for another tent. The person setting up the tent was a great guy, loved sea kayaking and was just learning about back country camping. As he was setting up his tent, I watched him reach towards a sapling and attempt to pull it out of the ground to make more room for his tent. He had no idea — it wasn’t common sense to him — that he had violated a basic tenet of outdoor ethics. (See The Seven Principles of Leave No Trace)

Land Ethics

Teddy Roosevelt's cabin

President Teddy Roosevelt’s cabin at Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota.

Outdoor ethics have evolved over time and many outdoor philosophers ranging from John Muir, Sigurd F. Olson to Aldo Leopold to President Theodore Roosevelt (check out my 2016 Spring in Theodore Roosevelt National Park Photography Workshop) have weighed in on the issue. My favorite thoughts and some of the foundational ideas about outdoor ethics come from Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac [Amazon.com link].

Leopold called it a land ethic. It consists of two ideas. The first idea says that we need to experience the outdoors in order to form an ethic.

“An ethic presupposes the mental image of the land as a biotic mechanism. We can be ethical only in relation to something that we can see, feel, understand, love, or otherwise have faith in.”

The second idea is that our actions should work to preserve the ability of the land to self-renew.

“A land ethic, then, reflects the existence of an ecological conscience, and this in turn reflects a conviction of individual responsibility for the health of the land. Health is the capacity of the land for self-renewal. Conservation is our effort to understand and preserve this capacity.”

I always liked the Boy Scouts of America’s take on Leopold’s land ethic:

“A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”

That is the basis of outdoor ethics. It instructs our views on what is right and what is wrong when in the outdoors. And it’s required to preserve the outdoors for other people and for the entirety of unborn generations. President Roosevelt said it best:

“Our duty to the whole, including the unborn generations, bids us to restrain an unprincipled present-day minority from wasting the heritage of these unborn generations. The movement for the conservation of wildlife and the larger movement for the conservation of all our natural resources are essentially democratic in spirit, purpose, and method.”


photography workshop students

A group of photographers lined up and sharing a small opening in the woods. These photographers show common courtesy.

Etiquette is how we take the ideas given to us by outdoor ethics and apply them to our behavior. Outdoor etiquette also includes courtesy manners, often called “common courtesy.” I like Wikipedia’s definition of courtesy manners:

“Courtesy manners demonstrate one’s ability to put the interests of others before oneself; to display self‐control and good intent for the purposes of being trusted in social interactions. Courtesy manners help to maximize the benefits of group living by regulating social interaction.”

Various outdoor organizations have come up with sets of etiquette rules that take into account the land ethic and etiquette. For example, Tread Lightly’s guidelines for yielding in the outdoors goes like this:

  • Yield the right of way to those passing you from behind or traveling uphill.
  • Motorized vehicles yield to mountain bikes, runners, hikers and horses.
  • Mountain bikes yield to runners, hikers and horses.
  • Runners and hikers yield to horses.
canoe on the shore of Two Island Lake

The above photographers were able to make a shot similar to this one by sharing the location and staying out of each others way.

All these yielding rules of etiquette put the interests of others before oneself and maximize the benefits of all users while making sure that the trail doesn’t get wider. It’s well worth reviewing Tread Lightly’s Tips for Responsible Hiking. These transfer directly to hiking outside while photographing.

The North American Nature Photography Association has come up with a set of etiquette principles of ethical field practices. They say:

NANPA believes that following these practices promotes the well-being of the location, subject and photographer. Every place, plant, and animal, whether above or below water, is unique, and cumulative impacts occur over time. Therefore, one must always exercise good individual judgment. It is NANPA’s belief that these principles will encourage all who participate in the enjoyment of nature to do so in a way that best promotes good stewardship of the resource.

Environmental: knowledge of subject and place

  • Learn patterns of animal behavior–know when not to interfere with animals’ life cycles.
    Respect the routine needs of animals–remember that others will attempt to photograph them, too.
  • Use appropriate lenses to photograph wild animals–if an animal shows stress, move back and use a longer lens.
    Acquaint yourself with the fragility of the ecosystem–stay on trails that are intended to lessen impact.

Social: knowledge of rules and laws

  • When appropriate, inform managers or other authorities of your presence and purpose–help minimize cumulative impacts and maintain safety.
  • Learn the rules and laws of the location–if minimum distances exist for approaching wildlife, follow them.
  • In the absence of management authority, use good judgement–treat the wildlife, plants and places as if you were their guest.
  • Prepare yourself and your equipment for unexpected events–avoid exposing yourself and others to preventable mishaps.

Individual: expertise and responsibilities

  • Treat others courteously–ask before joining others already shooting in an area.
  • Tactfully inform others if you observe them engaging in inappropriate or harmful behavior–many people unknowingly endanger themselves and animals.
  • Report inappropriate behavior to proper authorities–don’t argue with those who don’t care; report them.
  • Be a good role model, both as a photographer and a citizen–educate others by your actions; enhance their understanding.

While I think that these rules of etiquette are great examples and I suggest you review all of Tread Lightly’s recreational tips  and Tread Lightly’s Principles as well as The Seven Principles of Leave No Trace. I think we can simplify a set of outdoor photography ethics and etiquette that allows us to extend the etiquette rules to more situations than those covered by bullet points.

Tread Lightly’s Principles:

  • Travel Responsibly
  • Respect the Rights of Others
  • Educate Yourself
  • Avoid Sensitive Areas
  • Do Your Part

Basic Outdoor Photography Ethics and Outdoor Photography Etiquette

hikers in the Smokies

Our photo group cleared out to let these two hikers take photos with their phones from one of the best angles for this waterfall. We considered their interests above ours.

Taking into account Leopold’s land ethic and courtesy manners, it’s easy to intuit simple rules for basic outdoor photography ethics and outdoor photography etiquette. Taken together they can inform our actions and interactions with both the outdoors and other outdoor photographers. Together they help inform outdoor photography common sense.

  • Only take an action when your action’s impact and anyone else doing the same won’t inhibit the ability of the land to heal itself.
  • Consider the interests of others above your selfish needs.
  • Only act in a way that benefits the group. The group defined as everyone in a location. Further, the group defined as future visitors to that location.

We can further subdivide these three principles if we like. For example, under the first bullet point we could say that you need to do the research to understand what your impact is. One prong of that research is to consult with the land managers that actually already evaluate our impact on public lands. They have established trails to minimize the impact and have come up with rules and regulations that help the land to heal itself and help minimize user impact and conflicts. When you learn the rules and regulations, you learn how to minimize your impact. It doesn’t stop there though. If you are going to take an action not covered in the rules and regulations, you need to learn how to do it correctly otherwise you might inhibit the ability of the land to heal itself. For example, in some areas the land managers allow off trail hiking. If you hike off trail, you need to spread out and not follow each other. If you follow the person in front of you by hiking off trail in a single row, you will create a trail that is difficult to heal.

If you meditate on each of these principles, you can drill down and discover that they cover almost every situation that you might encounter while practicing outdoor photography. Please, take the time to learn them and take them to heart. And, please, treat the land with respect and show common courtesy to others.

If you have questions, please, ask. If you have comments, please, leave one below.

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Showing 6 comments
  • mike kellogg

    I like your work, Bryan. You really have a talent for photography. Thanks for sharing it with the world.

  • Diane Sinclair

    Thank you for this wonderful and timely article. I really love that you not only share your wonderful photography talents with us, but your philosophy as well, Thank you!

  • Jeff Swett

    Great article. I’d add one more point. Wild animals are just that, wild. Even in a national park where they may be used to seeing people and having people around. Stay away from them, do not try to feed them, pat them or get a selfie with them. If you get hurt by them its your own fault.

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northern lights over Grand MaraisPaul Sundberg photographing Lake Superior