Nature photography and landscape photography are becoming ever more popular. For some it is a way to reconnect with the natural world, for others it is an escape from a hectic daily life and for a few very lucky ones it is a way to make a living. Most photographers have a deep respect for the landscape and the plants and animals that live in and from it as well as a basic knowledge of natural processes and animal behaviour.
Unfortunately there are also a few for whom nature photography is a kind of trophy hunting and who lack all common sense, ignore all basic rules and do anything to get “the shot” and the subsequent social media likes. These photographers not only give all of us a bad reputation, they also contribute to the destruction of exactly the thing we all cherish and try to preserve.
Nature First originated in the USA with the aim to get photographers to commit to a few simple rules:
Prioritize the well-being of nature over photography.
Educate yourself about the places you photograph.
Reflect on the possible impact of your actions.
Use discretion if sharing locations.
Know and follow rules and regulations.
Always follow Leave No Trace principles and strive to leave places better than you found them.
Actively promote and educate others about these principles.
While all of those rules are straight forward and are pretty much self-explanatory here is my own a bit more detailed take on them:
Prioritize the well-being of nature over photography
Nature is chaotic and every photographer has been in the situation where a branch or rock is in the wrong place or that red deer refuses to take that last step to move into the sunlight. In these situations we are all tempted to remove the branch or rock and encourage the deer in some way to move into the light. Sometimes it is difficult to draw the line between what actions are acceptable and which are not. It is definitely not ok to break off a branch and force the deer to move (not only for the deer’s sake but also for your own…) but moving the rock…? For myself I have decided a good while ago that apart from maybe bending a few blades of grass no interference is acceptable. I see myself a s a guest and it doesn’t leave a good impression if I start breaking things in my host’s living room. Sometimes it is the right thing to walk away from an image… even if it is potentially that one in a million shot.
This lakeshore is an important wildflower habitat so it was necessary to carefully check where I put my own feet as well as the tripod legs.
Educate yourself about the places (and plants & animals) you photograph
For me this is one of the most important rules. Knowing how a landscape was made, what preferences a certain flower has and understanding the life style of a particular animal makes it not only easier to get the image I have in mind, I also have a deeper understanding of what is going on in front of my camera and therefor I am able to appreciate it even more. Most importantly however this knowledge keeps both my subject and myself safe. Knowing how close I can get before an animal takes to flight or attacks, which plants are poisonous or have other for me uncomfortable defence mechanisms or where and when the tide will come back in can be lifesaving. You should also keep in mind that you need permission from the authorities (in Ireland this is the National Parks and Wildlife Service) to photograph certain protected species.
This image of horseshoe bats was made with permission of the NPWS and in presence of a wildlife ranger. The animals were in hibernation and waking them up could have had fatal consequences.
Reflect on the possible impact of your actions
This goes hand in hand with the previous point. Only when you know your subject you are able to consider the impact of your behaviour. These considerations not only include the obvious, e.g. how to approach an animal, it is often the very basic question where do I walk. You can cause substantial damage if you mindlessly trot through certain habitats, e.g. wildflower meadows or peatlands. Being considerate also not only applies to what you do in the field, it also includes how you behave afterwards which brings us to the next point.
Use discretion if sharing locations
I generally enjoy sending colleagues to good photography spots but there are certain circumstances where it is better to keep the mouth shut. This goes especially for fragile environments and rare or vulnerable plants and animals. One educated and considerate photographer might have no impact but ten equally educated and considerate photographers very likely would have, not to mention the damage one ignorant photographer could do. This is especially important if you lead workshops. Some places are just not suitable to host large groups.
During the autumn rut red deer stags are testosterone filled love machines and the "Stay on the Path" signs are mainly for the visitors safety.
Know and follow rules and regulations
This doesn’t require further explanation I hope. If the sign says “Do not Enter” you don’t enter and if it says “Stay on the Path” you stay on the path. These signs, especially if they the stand in protected areas like national parks or nature reserves, are there for a reason. If you feel you really have to an restricted are contact the authorities. In my experience national park rangers are very helpful and supportive and if possible will get you to the spot you want to be in.
Always follow Leave No Trace principles and strive to leave places better than you found them
This doesn’t only mean not to leave any rubbish behind, it also means be careful where you step, where you put your bag and where you place your tripod. I remember the story of a colleague who was in a rush to set up for a sunrise shoot. He didn’t check the ground and placed one tripod foot firmly into a snipe’s nest only millimetres away from an egg. Leave no trace also means tidying up after the idiots who dropped their rubbish and I have made it a habit to always carry a bin bag with me.
Actively promote and educate others about these principles
… which is what I am doing here and if I have to I also do it in the field. The latter got me into trouble a few times – most people don’t like being told what to do – but in the end it is the right thing to do.
For more information visit the Nature First website where you can also sign up and join the movement.
Carsten Krieger, September 2020