Are Photographers Destroying Nature?

Are Photographers Destroying Nature?

As nature photography has grown, so has its critics. Wardens, legislators, and police officers have begun to push for laws that would better protect animals in nature and create more concrete boundaries by which a potential shooter would follow. Are we, as photographers, the new law-breaching intruders, à la poachers? Are we destroying nature?

The Issue

With the advances in technology over the last decade, such as social media and digital cameras, has come a growing popularity in nature photography. Nature photography can be anything from animals in their natural habitat, insects, natural phenomenon (such as waterfalls), and sometimes includes landscape photography as well. The issue is when photographers push the boundaries and inflict their own vision onto nature, or when they disturb nature with their presence. Some photographers are doing things like moving a nest for better framing, cutting down a tree or branch for a better view, and approaching animals (ePhotoZine). In other cases it's simply an overload of photographers, as was the situation in Florida's Fort De Soto Park recently. A pair of Great Horned Owls nested in the park near a popular picnic area. When news of this reached Twitter, "[Photographers] were coming by the bus load" to capture the pair (Jim Wilson, Audubon). Often, 50 plus photographers will group in one area, disturbing the species for hours, in an attempt to snap the perfect shot. 

Natural Reserve Wardens are patrolling the areas of popular photography spots to ensure that photographers aren't disturbing nature. Wardens these days are without the necessary power to police those who are intrusive. Their only moves are to call the local police or to "appeal to the better nature of people" (Anna Paul, Audubon). Without specific laws in place or the authority to enforce them, those who seek to protect a natural environment are left unarmed.

Photo by Stephen Young on Whidbey Island

Are More Laws the Solution?

Some species are specifically protected, as is the case with snail kites. A recent survey suggests their population has diminished from 3,000 to 700 in the last decade, making them a very rare and endangered species. In 2014 a Florida man pled guilty to violating the Endangered Species Act. The judge ordered him to pay a $9,000 fee, complete 25 hours of community service, and write a formal apology in an ornithological publication. The Florida man, Jim Neiger, had been leading tour groups of photographers onto Lake Tohopekaliga with promises of seeing this endangered species. This wasn't what got him into trouble though. In his quest for photos of the endangered species, he would ignore signs which clearly stated that humans were not allowed past a certain point, breaching the 500-foot legal boundary. He repeatedly did this even when confronted and was once spotted harassing a bird for a couple of hours to get a shot (Audubon).

Many individuals are pushing for more laws in place to strictly define what's legal. With the snail kites, they were protected because of their endangered status and the laws that come with that classification. Specifically, a 500-foot boundary area. Should there be more strict laws in place for all animals, not just the endangered ones? There are grey areas as well. What about baiting? The idea being that a photographer would place food somewhere they felt was a good spot to photograph in an attempt to lure the animal to it. This is already against the law in many National Parks but what about everywhere else? How about yelling, yelping, using bird calls, and making quick movements in an attempt to capture the targeted species attention?


This is the policy that I think would be the best fit for nature photographers. With photographers, the issue is rarely a disrespect for the species we're attempting to photograph. It's quite the contrary: we love nature and would happily do whatever is necessary to preserve it. We often see ourselves as the heroes of nature preservation. Jim Wilson, Park Supervisor for Florida's Fort De Soto Park, admitted that "ninety-nine percent of photographers are well behaved; we just don't want that one percent to ruin it for the rest of them." Many organizations, such as the National Parks Board, are hosting workshops and writing pamphlets to help guide photographers in what is acceptable behavior (Today). Some publications are keeping a special eye out for suspicious photographs. Photos where the bird, or any other species, appears stressed, as if he may have been harassed (Audubon).

If you're a nature photographer, let's be courteous. In fact, take it one step further. If you see one of your nature photographer comrades breaching into what would be considered unacceptable behavior, kindly and respectfully ask them to refrain. The access and freedom we have now to pursue a passion we love is incredible. Let's not screw it up for everyone by pushing the limits just to get a shot. Preservation of wildlife comes first, the shot comes second.

Photo by Stephen Young in forest near Seattle, Washington

What do you think? Do we need more laws? Do you think this is as big of a problem as many officials do? If so, what's the best solution?

Stephen Atohi's picture

Stephen Atohi is a film and fine art digital photographer based in Charleston, SC. His specialities are in portraits, weddings, and travel photography.

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As a nature lover, this kind of behavior pisses me off and it is definitely worth a lengthy discussion. Living in Florida, we see a fair number of people trying to interact with dolphins and manatees, sometimes to get a picture, sometimes just for the experience. People will go to great lengths to get pictures of some birds and their nests as well. I have missed out on some pretty amazing shots because taking those shots would have meant I was doing something unethical for sure and possibly illegal. I'm quite certain the people who destroy the landscape and freak out the animals are only concerned about their shots and don't care about the animals. And the sad thing is we would never in a million years treat our human models with such disrespect.

We have a responsibility when we shoot nature. Distressing the animals is detrimental to their survival. Some animals will abandon their young. Having hoards of people trample through their habitat can prevent others from procreating at all because it is stressful. Relying on food from photographers can prevent animals from hunting for themselves, particularly younger animals who are learning. Certainly these consequences are not worth a few good shots. I mean, we take pictures of nature in part to show it to the world so the world will want to protect it. Knowing your subject is so important here. The better you know your subject, the less you will have to intrude on them to get your shots in the first place and the better your shots will be. Of course some will just not be possible but it's a trade off for future generations being able to see them in the wild instead of just our pictures.

There is also the added possibility (and we discuss this in my local fossil hunting club) of making contributions to science that do make a difference in conservation. As someone who isn't a professional scientist and can bankroll my equipment rather than relying on state/federal funds or universities, I might have better gear that allows me to keep my distance and capture completely natural behavior. I might be able to capture things on camera that no one has ever seen and changes commonly accepted theories about diet or behavior or habitat. Those pictures may never go viral or be worth much money, but they would certainly make a worthy contribution.

I don't really know what a good solution would be on a legislative level. Endangered animals have a certain amount of protection because you cannot go so close to them, but common animals don't have that protection. A number of things have crossed my mind but they would be either taking away our rights as photographers which isn't acceptable or would be too expensive or impossible to implement and monitor. MAYBE if the NPS allowed a certain amount of phototourism with contracted guides (for the serious amateurs who just want pretty vacation pictures) they might have more control over it but there are issues with that idea too.

As a nature photographer I think this is total crap.....I dont disturb the environment and animals I photograph

I don't think it's nature lovers that are the issue. It's people who just want to get cool stuff on camera that are the problem. Just last year I remember Fstoppers posting a drone video of a ram that got pissed at a drone and took it down... inside a national park where drones are not allowed (and he was I believe fined a fair amount). Even Nat Geo photographers will tell you that on occasion their photographers have been known to interfere with animals and/or plant life to get a good shot. Not always in a dangerous or harmful way, but how much is too much is a great debate.

Not a large population base in my city and region so there isn't a lot of issue like this. I am still surprised though, at the amount of times I have to say something to someone who is in a sensitive area just running all over the place trying to get the perfect shot. There is one area in town that is off limits past a certain point. I was out with friends taking photos and this guy just hops the fence likes its not there. He told me that he was going further because closer photos to the animals in the area would get him more likes on his Facebook.

I love nature and hence have a desire to photograph it. I also agree that something needs doing to keep nature, well, natural and un disturbed. However, whenever more legislation is mentioned, regardless the subject, I get a cold shudder. Why? Because drawing a definitive line in the sand means that someone can ignore common sense and find a 'legal' way around the line. Laws, like lines, have ends, I.e. operate within a finite set of parameters. And the more we legislate, the more complex it becomes, the less common sense prevails and the more loopholes to circumvent the laws are created. It's up to all of us to THINK in a less selfish way and apply a little of the old school common sense. We don't need more lawyers, we need teachers.

We are currently in the fastest rate of species extinction of earths history. It is without question at the hands of man and when it's all said and done I fear the toll will take millions of years to recover from. Not to sound too facetious or cynical but a few dozen people trampling around in "nature" that happen to have little techno scanners with intention of enjoyment hardly qualify as a factor in our earths suffering. I liked the article and would have loved it had it not had "destroying" in its title. Everyone with a camera or a phone is a "photographer" now.

So to change the title simply: "are people destroying nature." Yes

It is interesting to note that hunters and fishermen invest huge amounts of money supporting nature. Photographers as a group don't.

I'm Surprise by that in my country Portugal if all photographer help to protect/help nature, as a fire spotter alert for hunters, preserve the places in witch we like to photograph etc, that destructive behavior dont make any sense to me

Just like everything else there are enough laws on the books, what is lacking is ethical behavior which cannot be legislated. New laws will only hurt the people that are following the existing laws, making life more difficult for them but still not impending the unethical.
As for man causing extinctions nothing says extinction level event like an asteroid strike and the planet has survived them, it will survive us.

Are journalists environmentally irresponsible for generating too much hot air, and therefore directly affecting global warming?

In July, I will be in Alaska, camping with bears. I will certainly show them much respect.