My social media feeds are full of awesome photographs at epic locations taken by talented photographers. So, why don’t any of them want to tell the Internet where they got the shot?
More than a few times a day I see beginning photographers asking the most unimportant question in the photography world: “What were your camera settings?” This is followed closely on my post-o-meter gauge by another question that is significantly more important and yet it typically goes unanswered: “Where’d you take that shot?” When I first started out in photography, I often wondered why there was generally no response to that question. But, as I’ve gained more experience and knowledge the answer has become clearer. So, if you have been perplexed why many photographers hit the ignore button when you ask them that dreaded question, here’s what I’ve figured out.
Protecting Their Shot
Many photographers seem to be worried that anyone can easily come along and replicate their exact location, composition, lighting, and processing, and so they won’t disclose where they were, or they’ll speak about it in very vague terms. Or, perhaps it isn’t quite that specific, and they just don’t want an area or composition that they “discovered” being used in someone else’s photograph. Whatever the answer is, from my vantage point, I really don’t care if someone wants to go to the exact same spot as I was and take a flyer at duplicating my photograph. I am confident in my composition skills and the capabilities of my gear to know that it would be challenging for someone to flat out copy my imagery. More than that, I am extremely aware that Mother Nature is fickle, and another photographer will have a hard time matching the exact same environmental conditions that I experienced. If they can pull it off, more power to them. If they can produce something even better, good on them. I think photographers should consider it flattering to be mimicked.
Being Good Stewards of the Land
There has been a lot of chatter lately about the use of public lands and especially about the number of visitors flocking to relatively easy to access locations. Even some of the more difficult to reach areas are seeing rapidly growing levels of vehicle and foot traffic, to the point that the limited infrastructure that is in place simply can’t support it. Now that is an excellent reason for photographers not to share location information! I am hesitant to even write about a few of these locations as examples since it has the potential to bring some amount of awareness to them that they probably don’t need. The two cases I’ll use are in northern Arizona and both are already popular with photographers so, at the end of the day, I suppose I am really not giving away too much.
The first is Horseshoe Bend in the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area just outside of Page, Arizona. This picturesque looping bend in the Colorado River, about a mile and a half round trip hike from the parking lot, used to be only known to locals. It was a sandy slog, leading you right up to the edge of the 1,000-foot high cliffs and the river below. That has now all changed.
With the increase in traffic over recent years, over a million people visit annually, the decision was made to improve the accessibility and safety for all visitors. Included in the phase one projects are expansion of the parking area, construction of a larger shade pavilion and level viewing platform (with railing), grading of a lower-elevation route to the overlook for Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) compliance, restroom upgrades, and increased trash receptacles. The beginning of this work got underway in November of 2017. Beyond these, proposals are on the table for a visitor’s center, water fountains, and a $10 entrance fee.
With these modifications, photographers are still free to go around the fencing at their own risk. Of course, if you choose to avoid the viewing area, it will alter the vantage point and probably cause you to have some nice fencing in your shot that will have to be photoshopped out later. Horseshoe Bend is an excellent real-world scenario of what happens when a public location, that is literally just off the side off the road, gets over-exposed on Facebook and Instagram. By the way, not that I have the largest social media following on the planet, but I am guilty of contributing to over-exposing it too.
The second case is White Pocket, located on the remote Paria Plateau within the Vermilion Cliffs National Monument. This other-worldly exposed Navajo sandstone region, with its formation dating back to the Jurassic period, consists of mostly grayish-white “cauliflower rock” with swirling, stratified red, white, and other colored formations within. White Pocket was more or less unknown as a must-shoot location for landscape photographers until National Geographic ran a feature on it back in 2012.
Even though getting in to White Pocket is a major challenge with sharp rocks, deep sand, and confusing intersecting trails, visitor traffic continues to surge. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) brochure for the site has this to say about the situation: “The popularity of White Pocket is leading to impacts in the form of exposed human waste and toilet paper, excessive campfire rings, and vegetation damage.” I have personally been told by BLM officials that there are many options being considered to better manage the flow of people and to minimize the impact on the fragile environment. One solution likely being discussed is a lottery system for permitted entry into the area, very similar to the nearby North Coyote Butte, also known as “The Wave.” Getting into “The Wave” via the lottery is notoriously difficult and we could expect the same thing for White Pocket down the line if treatment of the area does not improve.
These are just two examples among countless other sites that have come under intense tourist and photographer traffic with the explosion of social media. Unfortunately, as more people trade “things” for “experiences,” I don’t see the number of visitors and the resulting imagery slowing down anytime soon. If anything, it appears that it will likely grow at accelerated rates. With that in mind, I would like to leave you with something that I believe we all need to be mindful of whether you happen to find yourself at an epic new spot or an old overshot location. That is, do everything in your power to follow the seven principles of Leave No Trace and do your part to protect public lands as much as possible. While you’re out there, if you see someone else not following these principles, let them know that we are all watching and encourage them to do the right thing. And, maybe consider concealing your locations in your social media posts: it’s a start.