Clear Evidence To Stop Geotagging Specific Locations Of Your Nature Photographs On Social Media

I recently wrote an article asking photographers to stop tagging locations of outdoor photographs. Here's a follow-up to that piece, with a great supplemental video from Vox. 

After writing the initial article asking photographers to stop tagging specific locations on social media, I was honestly stunned while reading the comments. First, this isn't a new idea or proposal: Leave No Trace, a center for outdoor ethics, recently released social media guidelines as a framework for helping to protect the great outdoors. Additionally, there seemed to be about a 70/30 split of opinion within those who commented on the original article, the majority leaning toward the idea that this is a made-up issue and that not tagging locations won't do anything to help the issue of overcrowding and misuse of natural and public spaces. 

As landscape and nature photographers, I was honestly surprised that most people didn't view geotagging as an issue. With so many of us constantly outside photographing the natural world, I'm genuinely in awe that more people don't notice the effect we have on public lands. I was especially shocked that most people didn't see a correlation between posting locations on social media and the amount of people that subsequently visit said locations. 

One general consensus within the majority of people who disagreed was that myself and others who withhold specific locations on social media are elitists or even arrogant, entitled, or condescending. But this is far from the truth. As someone who has spent and spends more time in my life between the pines than on city streets, I feel an innate sense of duty to help protect the natural world, because it means so much to me. I've hiked for my entire life in the Adirondack Mountains in upstate New York, and have worked on a professional trail crew for two summers in the very same park to help give back to the place that has given me so much. Further, I've traveled to many national parks and public lands in the United States, including but not limited to Yosemite, Yellowstone, the Great Smoky Mountains, the Rocky Mountains, and Acadia National Park. Throughout all of this, I've seen firsthand the effect we've had on the land in a rather short period of time.

I do realize and can understand why others are mad or annoyed at the idea of not having a location handed to them. Everyone should be able to visit a location and get the pictures they have in mind, especially places on public lands. All myself and others that share my mindset are asking is that we think twice before sharing exact locations because this can have detrimental impacts on the land and can forever negatively change and shape landscapes. Besides, in order to find a spot, many of us have had to pull out a map, do our own research, or just serendipitously stumble upon a location. Many of us also did not have the exact coordinates of the locations handed to us. 

This video created by Vox showing what happens when nature goes viral does a fantastic job explaining the negative effects that geotagging specific locations on social media can have. Vox uses Horseshoe Bend as its prime example, explaining how geotagging on social media has forever changed the visitor experience and the landscape at this particular location. Vox interviews locals at and near this location to get firsthand accounts of how the explosion in popularity due to social media geotagging has affected the landscape. 

trail-widening-leave-no-trace

Sometimes, the final destination isn't the only part misused. Here is an example of trail widening and erosion in the Adirondacks. The original trail is in the center. Educating others and sharing Leave No Trace principles, such as staying on marked trails, can help alleviate damage in the woods.

Another aspect to this video that is worth discussing is the fact that in order to compensate for an increasing number of visitors, the Park Service and city officials near Horseshoe Bend are planning to build a large parking lot and welcome center. They're also planning to build a new trail and safety railings to help protect the natural landscape. While the building of new trails and barriers is commendable, I wonder what the effect of this will be. If more people continue to visit the area, will the Park Service and other officials continue to build more parking spaces to accommodate these guests? Or will a permitting system appear? How many people and footprints can the land realistically handle? As a park official states in the video, this is a difficult balance. 

Being a photographer who shares work on Instagram and other social media platforms, I'm always conscious of the catch-22: how do we promote people to have their own outdoor experiences, which will hopefully lead them to become future stewards of the land, while also not loving natural and public places to death? Hence, Leave No Trace's social media guidelines. When I do post locations on Facebook, Instagram, or any number of online apps, I'm sure not to tag a specific location, but rather the park or state, if one at all. Further, I do my best to share Leave No Trace principles, such as packing in what you pack out, staying on a hiking trail, respecting wildlife, etc. It sounds like a miniscule effort and change, but just like if every individual person stopped throwing their one piece of trash on the ground, this change can have lasting consequences.

As Leave No Trace states: "social media, if used the right way, is a powerful tool that can motivate a nation of outdoor advocates to enthusiastically and collectively take care of the places we share and cherish." Please take a few minutes to watch this informative video that further explains why we shouldn't be geotagging our nature photographs. 

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Tim Behuniak's picture

If it's that easy to find out the location of a photo via a Google search, I'm genuinely curious if you can tell me where is the cover photo of this article from?

Tim I am with you 100%. I have seen it first hand here in Massachusets in relation to a FORMER snowy owl habitat and in other areas of New England. If people would do a bit of proper research before they go out shooting in wildlands they might just stay wild a little longer. Like you I want to see people experience the great outdoors, I just don't want to see them rape it for the sake of a simple photograph. Unfortunately we live in an instant gratification society and many people don't seem to want to put in the effort to do the right thing. Thanks for taking the time to get the word out.

Tim Behuniak's picture

Keep fighting the good fight!

Chad D's picture

yeah its a problem but reckon for the new generation of ME its all about ME
I found it its MINE

this happened some time ago on Maui where I am from (moved to mainland a while ago sadly) and some places said no more where you had to cross private land but people did not care and do not care then wonder why they get beat up or their car vandalized ?

but its hard to stop really and trust me the ONLY reason most of you new folks went to this place cause YOU saw it somewhere else

I do agree its out of hand but its the fault of the very trendy people that are trying to stop it ironic huh !

Jonathon Rusnak's picture

We live in a world where we are constantly shown evidence why we shouldn't do this or that. People don't care. People still smoke cigarettes, we still drive gas guzzling cars, junkies still shoot heroin. You think people will ever stop abusing the environment? Enjoy it while it lasts.

cameramanDop Shanghai Hong Kong's picture

I always geotag my picture to the closest garbage landfill or nuclear plant...

user-208255's picture

I posted a screenshot of our PM.

Feel free to just keep making up stuff.

I agree with this article, I tag the general area (ie park name type of thing). I wandered about and found something cool, you do the same. It’s not that I want the hidden gem to be “mine”, it’s because I want the hidden gem to stay a gem and not become yet another parking lot. Too many people take shit for granted and leave trash all over the place or break down an old tree / epic rock ledge because they this angle will be slightly better looking. That’s just how people are.

Maximilian Sulzer's picture

That's the thing that was suggested last time.
But does it really change anything?
Let's say you tag "Zion National Park" instead of "Angles Landing" (randomly chosen), people will still go to Zion and then start walking around. Potentially causing more harm to nature than if it was tagged the exact location and they would just straight go there.

Why are you/we tagging in the first place? So that our picture can be found more easily?

The only logical solution would be not to tag at all.

Tim Keagy's picture

Comments on this article is really something to see. Some of you folks are a ray of sunshine on a cloudy day. Ego much?? If someone wants to know where I took a photo, I will tell them, however, I will not tell them how I got there. There are some places I deem secret, mainly for historical reasons, and because of these reasons not to let the wrong crowd in with their spray paint writing Dave loves Jane or some other stupid shit. Where I understand what Tim is trying to convey in this article, I do not understand why so many in this comment section is so disrespectful to his concerns.

Tim Behuniak's picture

Thank you. I think that's a solid philosophy to follow regarding this topic.

Tim Keagy's picture

Some of the photos I take are a no brainer when it comes to location on the coast of California. But there is some areas along the coast I deem secret. The reaction from some people when they ask and I don't tell them can be a little testy. Mainly because of the historical aspect but also for the wildlife. Not to mention, I have spent years studying the coast. The tide, waves, current ect. I have been washed out twice. I really do not want to send any Tom, Dick and Mary to some of these locations by telling them where when they really do not know what they are getting themselves into. It is more of a conscious decision. I liked your article Tim. Keep writing them.

Tim Behuniak's picture

I agree in that the topic goes beyond environmental concerns and can even extend to others' safety. Even the most experienced in a location can have life-threatening moments, not to mention the inexperienced or those unfamiliar with the terrain. I think that people should be able to go where they want to go, but don't think anyone on social media who is posting photos of locations owes anyone a free pass to that place. I think you have a good mindset for it and a good thing going. Thanks for the comment and insight!

Well those comments sure escalated quickly.

I think the issue is of geotagging is overblown personally. Its not likely that many people will ever look at a geotag and take the time to actually go to that place, let alone destroy it. The ratio of people who say "cool picture" and keep swiping to those that go there (solely based on a geotagged pic) and do any real harm is probably 1:1,000,000. So if you feel personally better about not tagging, fine go ahead and leave the tags off, but it's not something you'll convince many people is worthy of a discussion, let alone 2 published articles.

Matthew Saville's picture

Yes, statistically speaking, the ratio of bad apples to "neat pic!" commenters is astronomical.

However, the whole point of this recent trend is that social media is in fact spreading word about specific spots at an extremely rapid pace, and these places are indeed being over-trafficked, often by people who simply don't respect the outdoors.

Large format film photographer Ben Horne recently shared a snapshot of this type of disrespect, which I think is very telling indeed: https://www.instagram.com/p/BpVxQYJFGdW/

Tim Behuniak's picture

Comments definitely did escalate, haha. But did you watch the video? It essentially proves there's a direct correlation between posting a location and crowds visiting said location..

William Howell's picture

Geo-tagging, what’s that?

Interesting article... unfortunately geotagging is not the problem.

The reality is that it has become too easy to find and visit these places regardless of how they discover it, geotagging or other. In doing so it opens these places up to the average visitors among who are people who really don't give a sh*t and will indiscriminately trample and trash whatever they touch.

The options are that either controls are put into place (paved walkways, designated areas, limited numbers, etc.) or the site is off-limits completely or we just complacently let it be destroyed.

Tim Behuniak's picture

The video does show that geotagging, in fact, is part of the problem..

Matthew Saville's picture

ARGH. I don't understand why people don't understand this.

Let me break it down for you very simply, folks:

Nobody's stopping you from going anywhere. That's what actual laws, fences, permit fees. etc. are for.

Social media is not a barrier, nor does it owe you anything. So it isn't at all "elitist" for someone to withold the location of a beautiful landscape, or anything else.

This "secret-keeper" is merely leaving in place the SAME barrier for entry that they themselves had to overcome.

If anything, that's the definition of equality and fairness, NOT elitism or exclusivity.

So, get that silver spoon out of your mouth, and stop begging for a handout. It makes you sound entitled, and smells a lot like victimism.

Go do the work to find cool places on your own. Most are easy enough to find. And when you do find them, practice Leave No Trace, and only share the location with those you can personally trust to do the same.

Tim Behuniak's picture

Thanks for the comment and insight, Matt. I'm sharing the same frustration! Keep fighting the good fight.

Simon Patterson's picture

That's great that so many more people are getting out and seeing such natural wonders, and that the National Parks people and others have good plans and resourcing to manage these things well.

I've never geotagged a photo before, but if geotagging is assisting with both those things, then I'm all for it.

Matthew Saville's picture

The point is, Simon, that many of the most popular National Parks do NOT have strong enough infrastructure to handle the crowds, and pick up their mess afterwards.

In places like Yosemite and Zion, it is getting absolutely out of control. Yes, increased visitation means increased revenue, however, the timetable for maintenance and improvements simply isn't able to keep up with the pace of social media and the general popularity of getting outdoors. That, plus the fact that as visitation increases, inevitably with it come more bad apples who leave trash everywhere, trample off-trail into delicate areas, and even worse, get themselves into trouble which often costs SAR etc. tons of money.

So, yes, share your images and encourage people to get outside. However, whenever you do this, be sure to also remind everyone to practice LNT principles, and to make sure their total impact is never so great that it will cause future generations to be unable to see the same thing you did.

Simon Patterson's picture

Well the main example shown in the video was at Horseshoe Bend, where the huge increase in visitor numbers has resulted in great resourcing, to enable a lot more people to visit, and for the environment to be maintained well. The video attributed this successful outcome to the rise of social media and to geotagging.

When visitor numbers rose sufficiently at Horseshoe Bend, it justified much better resourcing. It seems that in other places we should also be encouraging more visitation, not less, to enable this successful resourcing to be replicated elsewhere.

And so, if geotagging aids this end, surely we should be encouraging geotagging rather than discouraging it.

Tim Behuniak's picture

I don't think the infrastructure at Horseshoe bend should entirely be seen as a positive thing. Yes, it's helping an increasing number of people access the location, but it's also changing the nature of the place entirely.

Simon Patterson's picture

Yeah, it definitely changes the nature of the experience there, although clearly it is still a naturally beautiful place after the changes.

But one thing is for sure - the fact that so many more people are enjoying the beautiful location, and the fact that the environment there is much better protected now, does not constitute "clear evidence" that we should stop geotagging such places. The presented evidence indicates that geotagging clearly has great upsides, which arguably overwhelmingly outweigh the downsides.

Matthew Saville's picture

The added infrastructure at Horseshoe Bend is largely because people are idiots and can't stay on an official trail, can't stay away from sheer cliffs, and can't help throwing litter on the ground, etc.

Yes, the visitation has spiked at Horseshoe, however the pathway and railings etc. might not have been necessary if human beings could have refrained from behaving badly. All you /really/ needed was a slightly bigger parking lot and a few more toilets & trash cans at the trailhead, with regular service.

Having said that, it's still a lot better at Horseshoe than in other places, indeed. There are examples of other places which are truly suffering because they can't keep up with the increased traffic.

Simon Patterson's picture

It is a sad fact that some people are negligently destructive idiots. That's the real problem here.

It’s fine if Tim doesn’t want to geotag but I think it’s fine if others do. It’s Tims photograph and not the Geotag that’s drawing people to the location. If the area is sensitive maybe he shouldn’t post the photo. Once one person finds it , a second one does and then a third and then there is a path. The guided photography tours find it and they all advertise then the general public is interested. It starts with Tims first photo but of course he will publish as he needs to put food on the table. He’s not going to risk some other photographer doing it first.

Tim Behuniak's picture

You're right, perhaps myself and others should reconsider posting a photo at all. It's definitely a catch-22.

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