Nature First

It’s more important than ever for photographers to approach wild places with a sense of responsibility and stewardship

My favorite survival strategy to keep my life in balance is to seek out the beauty of nature. What better time to balance out the craziness by taking a walk in the woods or strolling along a quiet stretch of shoreline by a lake or the sea.

Landscape image taken in Zion National Park

National parks have become magnets for photographers, especially Zion National Park. To protect the natural resources and ensure the safety of visitors, Zion has implemented a tripod ban for workshop groups.

Hopefully you have a bit of nature that is accessible nearby, and if not, perhaps bring home some flowers from the grocery store. Don’t worry about making photographs, but maybe have your camera nearby, just in case inspiration hits. The key to getting into the creative flow is to absorb the experience without the pressure to perform, to click the shutter. But if you find a photograph to make, do it for your soul, not “likes.” I have two windows in my dining room that provide excellent, soft light for still life imagery.

One major “out of kilter” issue for planet Earth right now is our environment. As I’ve mentioned here before, my college degree is in environmental conservation from the University of Colorado way back in 1976. The issues I studied back then, such as climate change, species extinction, overpopulation and habit preservation, are more critical than ever. What can we do as individuals?

Image taken at sunset in Yosemite.

Yosemite has the blessing and curse of being a small mountain valley surrounded by massive cliffs. The popularity and commercial development, begun many decades back, make it a prime destination for domestic and international tourism. It is a mecca for landscape photographers, and our impact has damaged meadows and riverbanks in the great valley. The National Park Service has begun to close off popular meadows to protect them from severe overuse and implemented restoration projects designed to restore natural vegetation while still providing easy access to thousands of visitors.

First and foremost, we can take care of our impact on the earth. In my family, we try to minimize our carbon footprint by buying locally grown foods. We drive hybrid cars. When we built our home here in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, we used nontoxic paints and installed evaporative coolers instead of a high-impact air conditioner. We have solar panels as well. We certainly are not perfect, but we try hard.

For nature photographers, we have the responsibility to behave in ways that protect the environments where we photograph. Popular locations for landscape photography have become sites for overuse and abuse with the prevalence of people using social media, especially Instagram. Many years ago, the North American Nature Photography Association developed a recommended set of ethical standards to educate its members and nature photographers in general. Its web site provides a strong set of advocacy statements that are well worth reading.

More recently, a new organization, Nature First (naturefirstphotography.org), has started an international campaign to educate nature photographers so that all of us can enjoy and photograph our favorite locations. One of the founders and gifted nature photographer Sarah Marino shared an article with me that she wrote on the issue and Nature First’s goals.

Image of an oak and pine tree in Yosemite.

El Capitan Meadow is now closed mostly except for a couple of spots for “climber viewing.” Has overuse caused this drastic measure? It is good to remember that the National Park Service has multiple mandates: to provide a recreational and educational service to the public and also to protect the resource.

“Historically, nature photography has been a force for good,” Marino writes. “Conservation photographers have promoted the preservation of many ecologically sensitive and magnificently beautiful places.” Marino goes on to observe, however, “In recent years, this positive legacy has been upended. It is now easy to make the case that pursuing and sharing photographs of nature has much darker consequences. Nature photography has undergone a dramatic transformation in the last five years with the rise of platforms like Instagram, easy access to detailed location information online, and technology advancements that make photo-taking much easier. These trends are leading to the irreparable destruction of some special natural locations, overcrowding in places that can’t handle the volume of visitors, and a sharp increase in injuries and deaths from people seeking to ‘get the shot’ or see the view they saw featured in a super-popular Instagram post.”

Erik Stensland is co-managing director for Nature First. He states, “One of our primary goals is to see nature photographers once again become ambassadors for the protection of our natural and wild lands. Somewhere over the last decade or two we seem to have lost our way and become a liability for many of these places. If we who celebrate the beauty of our world can once again become caretakers and voices for these places, we stand a much better chance at preserving them.”

The Nature First Principles

  • 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.
Image taken in Baxter State Park.

Intimate scenes such as this photograph of a forest in Maine are “non-iconic.” Sharing the location, which is Baxter State Park, doesn’t threaten the resource, as it would be hard to find this exact place within the park.

In practice, no nature photographer is perfect. We need to police ourselves, to pass on valuable guidelines like the principles above to other photographers, and to be educated about the resources we photograph to better preserve them for future generations. I suggest supporting groups like Nature First and NANPA and becoming active if you are so inclined. Most importantly, whether you belong to an organization or not, don’t be one of those photographers who are trampling wild landscapes, ignoring regulations, damaging sensitive areas, disturbing wildlife, and implicitly or explicitly inviting the public to do the same.

Our images, and the places we cherish and share, can be a valuable source for healing and solace. We can control how we see the world, and all too easily, we can choose to see the darkness more than the beauty. My photography has grown out of the need to counterbalance the dark, the negative. I prefer to focus on nature’s beauty in my art, to give me visual respite, the sanctuary we all need.

And we can choose how we treat those sources of beauty, how we respect our environment. Leave no trace.

William Neill is a renowned nature and landscape photographer and a recipient of the Sierra Club's Ansel Adams Award for conservation photography. Neill's award-winning photography has been widely published in books, magazines, calendars and posters, and his limited-edition prints have been collected and exhibited in museums and galleries nationally, including the Museum of Fine Art Boston, Santa Barbara Museum of Art, The Vernon Collection and The Polaroid Collection. Neill's published credits include National Geographic, Smithsonian, Natural History, National Wildlife, Conde Nast Traveler, Gentlemen's Quarterly, Travel and Leisure, Wilderness, Sunset, Sierra and Outside magazines. He is also regular contributor to Outdoor Photographer with his column “On Landscape”.