The Ethics of Landscape Photography

I know no one will believe me, but I found the leaves like this... (© Kevin D. Jordan Photography)

I know no one will believe me, but I found the leaves like this… (© Kevin D. Jordan Photography)

As high quality digital cameras have become more and more accessible in the recent years, the number of people who consider themselves to be serious landscape photographers—whether they be hobbyists, professionals, or somewhere in between—has steadily grown. With this increased interest and participation in landscape photography, as well as the ease with which photographers can get their work seen by others, competition is also at an all-time high. This competition not only causes inevitable harm to the landscapes we photograph, but can also drive us too far to try to capture a unique image in hopes of giving our work an extra boost over others.

The ethics which apply to landscape photography, as with many philosophies, are far from widely accepted. Regardless, there are a few topics every landscape photographer should remember to consider each time they visit a location to capture their next shot.

Altering Nature

This one seems like it should be a no-brainer. Without beautiful landscapes, many of us wouldn’t be attempting to take landscape photos at all. In the search to capture the perfect composition, many of us (myself included) are faced with the temptation to alter the landscape in ways that will lead to a better shot. This could be as simple as placing a leaf in the foreground of a shot to add an interesting element to the composition (…I plead the Fifth), or as aggressive as cutting or trampling native flora that may stand in our way of a better photo.

In general, I can’t express any concern with altering nature in a way that is reversible and non-destructive. That fallen leaf I collected from the forest floor and placed in my shot likely won’t mar the landscape, nor will arranging stones on the beach in a way that makes a stronger composition for the photo I hope to take. And as far as I know, no one has lost sleep over the fact that I’ve dragged fallen branches a few feet to the left to remove them from my shot. When we move past non-destructive tactics, however, and begin snapping branches, chopping down trees, setting fires to pristine meadows, harpooning wildlife that brazenly dared to ruin our composition, or whatever other unscrupulous madness people can think up these days, we simultaneously cheapen the resulting photo and damage the landscape for not only other photographers, but for those planning to the visit the location for their own enjoyment. “Leave No Trace” is the obvious mantra to follow, but photographers must also do so with the understanding that, even by virtue of being in a landscape at all, we are all leaving some kind of mark.

Sharing the Landscape

As landscape photographers, our time is extremely valuable. Part of that stems from the fact that we’re often sleeping odd hours in order to shoot at sunrise or under a starry sky; however, our shortage of time can also be depleted because many landscape photographers have families, additional jobs, or other obligations that claim some of the hours in our days. This leads to an intensified need to make the most of our photography excursions, and we put pressure on ourselves not only to get the shot, but to also get a unique shot.

At any popular photography location, it’s inevitable that there will be tourists and other photographers to contend with, which can be a direct obstacle to landscape photographers getting the shot they hope for in the short window of time they may have available. For many, this can result in jockeying for position with other photographers or slipping into a blind rage as tourists obliviously walk in front of the camera.

Personally, my favorite photography location is the one I have to myself, but if I don’t end up being so lucky, I try my best to work alongside other photographers and view them as friends rather than enemies. I’d rather talk shop with fellow photographers and take turns getting the shots we want than being the guy everyone needs to clone out of their image in Photoshop when they get home. Likewise, while it’s tempting to throw devastatingly meaningful glares (or, you know, rocks) at tourists wandering into our frames, doing so could be a missed opportunity to network and gain a potential client. It could also be a felony if you decide to go with the throwing rocks thing. Chances are the photo you take will be more impressive than the ones they quickly snap with their iPad, and taking a few moments to strike up a conversation, take a photo of them and their family in front of a popular vista, and exchange contact information could be the difference between growing your business or brand and missing an opportunity.

On the other hand, there are many photographers who choose to put “getting the shot” above all else. They are the ones who try to pretend they didn’t realize they were walking in front of a row of tripods during the perfect light because they got to a location later than everyone else. They are the ones walking into a placid lake and ruining the perfect reflection as others stand along the shore. Coincidentally, they are also the ones whom I generally hope drop their cameras off cliffs…

Trespassing

In New England where I spend most of my time, it’s sometimes tough to find locations I can drive to that don’t have some kind of access limitation. Especially with regard to night photography, I find myself searching for locations on Google Earth and then trying to figure out what my chances are of actually having access to those locations. In my area, most public parks close at dusk simply to keep people from injuring themselves in the darkness or partaking in some kind of shenanigans that could damage the location itself. In reality, those signs that say “Park Closed Sunset to Sunrise” are a bane for night photography, but they often mean very little for someone like me who understands I enter at my own risk. Regardless, I normally try to reach out to those that operate the locations I’m hoping to visit before I actually visit them.

I’m normally driving multiple hours during the night to reach any given spot and taking exposures up to 10 minutes long that could be ruined by a single set of headlights, so it’s far easier for me to try to find out on the front end if someone is going to ruin my shot and force me to leave. With that said, however, whenever I’ve asked for permission to visit a location to photograph it, I’ve never been turned down. Just like with talking with those oblivious tourists as a way of networking, you never know when the owner of a property may want to purchase and display a photo you come away with.

Conclusion

Mantras such as “Leave No Trace” and “Treat Others as Your Want to be Treated” are the obvious rules to abide by when conducting yourself during landscape photography shoots. However, in case these phrases aren’t enough to deter you from trampling either a good landscape or on the plans of other photographers, you can also ask yourself a more modern question the next time you find yourself out shooting landscapes: Would you want a video of how you conduct yourself out on location to go viral with your personal and/or business name attached to it? If the answer is yes, carry on. If the answer is no, take a good hard look at yourself in that placid lake reflection you just ruined for everyone, put down the ax, and step away from the defenseless sapling blocking your shot.


KevinDJordanPhoto

 

Kevin D. Jordan is a landscape and night sky photographer based in Boston, Massachusetts.  You can follow his work on Facebook, Instagram, and at www.kevindjordan.com.

 

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