Keep it Secret, Keep it Safe: Locations

Keep it Secret, Keep it Safe: Locations

Once you find a great location, do you share it or keep it secret? If you keep it secret, why? Are you doing it to protect a fragile location or to protect your investment in searching it out? Do you have other reasons?

Thomas Heaton's recent vlog recap of his early morning landscape hike above the valley of Glen Coe in Scotland is a fantastic trip and so is worth a viewing for that reason alone. Watch both the hike and the recap for the best scenery. I'm a big admirer of Heaton's work. On a YouTube full of talking heads, Heaton's videos are full of both practical advice and beautiful landscapes (and recently soundscapes).

However, what really got my attention was Heaton's off-topic comments about keeping locations secret. He touches briefly on his thoughts about sharing locations with other photographers and the internet as a whole. Intrigued, I reached out to Heaton who responded with a series of even more interesting comments.

If you've been following along with Fstoppers recently, I'm sure you'll have noted the recent debate about revealing locations through geotagging. Check out:

  1. Jack Alexander's article on geo-tagging newly discovered caves
  2. Tim Behuniak's articles outlining his opinion on geotragging
  3. Behuniak's related article providing some results to back his opinion, and 
  4. Alex Coleman's recent article discussing Jackson Hole's request to stop geotagging specific locations

All caught up?

In our correspondence, Heaton explained that if his locations are close to roads or are long-time secret local spots he won't share them. This makes sense to me, at least in part. If a place is susceptible to being overrun, publishing its location is likely to have only one outcome: destruction. I also have no issue with keeping a location secret if it took me hours or weeks of research to find it. It's my sweat equity.

Sharing / not sharing locations is a complex issue.

I have to stress that I'm not a fan of the idea of being a self-appointed steward. I'm barely a fan of private property if it keeps me away from something beautiful. For example, having recently traveled to Oregon, I jumped up and down in excitement when I found out that the entire coastline had to have public access. Even on the few areas of private coast, the law requires a public easement for access. This was far different than my experiences at some coastline castles in Scotland that required hours of hiking just to run into fences. I've been following this debate on Fstoppers closely. I've had a really hard time coming down on one side or the other.

Heaton agrees that sharing or not sharing locations is a complex issue. Heaton explained that, in his opinion, small, hidden, sensitive locations should not be shared because of increased footfall.

. . . small, hidden, sensitive locations should not be shared because of increased footfall.

Heaton's approach isn't strictly protectionist (which, for the record, I don't entirely disagree with). Heaton went on to explain that he will often share just enough information so that photographers who wish to put in the effort and do some research should be able to find his locations. To me, if your concerns are environmental fragility, this is way to go. 

In my opinion, if something is too easy to find or to get to, it will mean larger crowds. Larger crowds will mean that there is an increased chance that the location will be overrun. There is also a greater chance that more people, or at least someone, will not take proper care.

On the other hand, if you require that others put in an effort to find your location, it's likely that they will develop some kind of commitment to the location. And, in my opinion, that will mean that they are more likely to respect it. If someone respects something, to me, it's likely they will take proper care.

As Heaton puts it,

I'm usually torn. I want to share and help others, but I have learned over the years that it's not a good idea to give everything away . . . I will usually give my general location such as the national park I am in, but not necessarily give the GPS of where I parked my car.

I'm also torn. I want to share. I generally don't feel that the natural would should be kept private based on stewardship principles. Good stewards educate and then share. But, increasingly, I'm bearing witness to the destruction of some easily accessible wonders. I'm even seeing some really hard to get to wonders get trampled down. I think Heaton has helped me to finally come down on one side. Share, but share in a way that requires the recipient to educate themselves and, hopefully, as they become educated, to want to protect the location.

I'm likely to tell you exactly where I was standing to get:

Monastery clinging to the edge of a cliff.

Paro Taktsang, or, Tiger's Nest, just outside Paro, Bhutan.

You won't even have to buy me a drink. It was after all only a few steps off the path; on the way to the biggest attraction in Bhutan (keeping in mind that not that many people are willing to make the trip all the way to Bhutan).

I'm happy to tell you that this next shot was taken in Phobjika Valley, but, I'm unlikely to tell you where. The valley's Black Neck Cranes live in a very delicate balance. If you really want to see the prayer flags, you're going to have to put in some work. I'm assuming most won't and this means the cranes will get a break.

Prayer flags along a ridge

Phobjika Valley prayer flags

Last, I'm almost positive I wouldn't share the location of:

Prayer flags over a lush green valley

Prayer flags over valley

It's certainly not my best photo. The sky certainly didn't cooperate. But, it took several days of driving to get there. Several days of dusty, bumpy, winding roads that clung to the edge of 700 foot cliffs. It was in Eastern Bhutan, I'll give you that. It took a lot of effort to get guides and drivers this far from the west / central. I'm not sure I want to share. Call me selfish if you want. But I put in the work, that's my prerogative. For a few drinks and some decent conversation I'm likely to tell you the name of our driver and guide though. 

Of course, I'm still firmly in the camp of refusing to share for selfish work product reasons. That's each individual's choice. I just don't want to see them clothe themselves in the garb or self-righteous, err, self-appointed stewards.

Where do you come down? I'd love to hear why you agree or disagree.

Video from Thomas Heaton. Images used with permission of let us go photo

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19 Comments

imagecolorado's picture

I've always had a strict personal/professional policy that I not tell anyone where I take photographs and that the only people who know where I work are people who are with me or meet me on location. The reason for this policy is that once the cat is out of the bag, the photographers will swarm to the subject until it becomes destroyed or cliche. I've seen this affect wildlife and landscape locations.

I had a woman once vehemently criticize me for not disclosing where I took certain photos of moose. Her argument was that the moose were public property and that I should not hide their locations from the public. I pointed out to her that my knowledge is not public property and if she ever wanted to know where I photographed moose, she would have to stumble upon me while she herself was learning how to find them.

I have no patience for photographers who like to brag and spout locations for the purpose of impressing people. I assume that anything I tell anyone will eventually be told to someone else.

Mark Dunsmuir's picture

I understand where you're coming from. You put in the effort, they are your locations. As you said, your knowledge isn't public.
I am firmly of the opinion that the moose are for all to enjoy. I do agree though that sometimes they, or their ilk, need protection. If there are those that can help protect them, sharing might help protect the moose after all. MAY.
It's a really tough call, and I think, one that has to be made on a case by case basis.
Thanks for weighing in.

michaeljin's picture

"If you've been following along with Fstoppers recently, I'm sure you'll have noted the recent debate about revealing locations through geotagging. Check out:

Jack Alexander's article on geo-tagging newly discovered caves,
Tim Behuniak's articles outlining his opinion on geotragging,
Behuniak's related article providing some results to back his opinion, and
Alex Coleman's recent article discussing Jackson Hole's request to stop geotagging specific locations.

All caught up?"

Now here's me rehashing the same argument...

Mark Dunsmuir's picture

It's certainly an interesting topic that a lot of people have felt the need to weigh in on.

I thought that my (and Heaton's) approach was a little different than the other articles to date.

Does anything I've written about in this article change your mind, or make you rethink your earlier positions, at all?

michaeljin's picture

Not really. If you've read/watched everything already posted on the matter and read the ensuing comments going back and forth each time it comes up, I don't think that there's much that anyone can add at this point. It's a fairly polarizing topic and it seems that most people are rather set in their positions at this point.

I think it was interesting when it was first brought up, but at this point, it's about as tired a topic as "Blend If" or "Orange and Teal". Doesn't mean it's a bad topic and it's useful to post something about it once in a while (every comic book is somebody's first comic book) for the benefit of those who are just starting to visit, but I feel like it's come up a lot in recent months.

Wade Shanley's picture

In general Im agreement about not sharing specific locations, but that begs the question, how do developing photographers find great locations? I've always been told it's good practice to learn and model off of other great photographers, but you also need those great scenes, so I think some of us developing photographers start with obvious locations to develop our skills. I'd like to learn more of the techniques others use to find good locations that aren't over run or are unique in some way. I've seen some study google maps, talking to locals when on location etc. but Im sure there is much more to it.

Mark Dunsmuir's picture

Talking to and REALLY engaging locals is key. I think there has to be an authenticity to the interaction.

When I was travelling the US Southwest a few years ago (like 15), we had a hard time finding locations that weren't cliched. At one of the motels we stayed at, the motel had a Navajo Code Talker 'museum.' We actually spent an hour talking with the Navajo man who was sitting with the display. I was much more interested in talking about his experiences than finding out where to talk photos. However, at the end of the conversation, he wanted to talk about our cameras and then he provided us with a few locations. To this day I still haven't seen these locations photographed again. They weren't arches or slot canyons, but they were spectacular nonetheless.

Xander Cesari's picture

No matter where you are there are bound to be a few very well known and documented locations for practice. It's not like every photo spot will be a secret. And for everything else, finding good spots is one of the skills landscape/nature photographers develop. I'm no pro but I use Flickr's world map, outdoors activity databases like AllTrails/The Outbound, and some Instagram hashtags. But I'm not looking for specific coordinates to exact compositions. I just want a good hike or experience that will have a variety of photogenic spots.

The photos I'm proudest of are trying to capture a moment I experienced so without a good experience I'm probably not gonna take a very good photo, even if I can nail a solid composition that some other photographer came up with. Maybe it'll be objective quality but I won't be that proud of it. That's my argument against specific geotagging. People should be able to experience the beauty of nature. In the US they have a right to experience our public lands. But I don't really qualify following GPS to an Insta-worthy snapshot then hightailing back to the car part of that.

Mark Dunsmuir's picture

I like the effort required argument.

Robert Teague's picture

The age old question. I willingly share locations, unless they it's a particularly sensitive site that isn't protected and could easily be destroyed by people with no concern for the natural world.

Mark Dunsmuir's picture

If people were able to demonstrate concern would you share?

Mr Hogwallop's picture

While a little different but similar. I do mostly automotive work in the Los Angeles area. I have a few lists of "my" locations that I want to use or have used.Those locations I pretty much keep to myself. On the other hand there are what we call the "Seven Most Worn Out Car Locations in Los Angeles". Those I will gladly share with almost anyone who asks, they're pretty obvious, we have all seen them a million times and I have used six out of seven.
So I share some and don't share others...

Mark Dunsmuir's picture

I feel that’s the sweat equity argument. I’m 100% okay with that. No debate. I searched. I worked. Find it for yourself.
In one of my previous lives I was a wedding photographer. We were approached constantly by other photogs asking for the locations of our shoots. Our response was always the same. I’m sorry, you’ll have to search “x” to find it. It took us time. We can’t give it away for free.

Duane Klipping's picture

I shoot a lot of abandoned farm sites in my area and never devulge their locations. Too many people will not respect that even though abandoned it is still owned and is private property. Too many would break into the buildings and steal or vandalize and in some cases in my area arson has occured.

I have a lot of time vested in finding the places I shoot and my knowledge and experiance in locating them is not free for me so why should it be for them.

I do the same with nature preserves I visit. Hiking through woods with wood nettles and poison ivy and oak, biting flies and pesky mosquitoes, going through all this alone to get a shot, why do people feel they have a right to know the exact location and not have any time invested in it?

Mark Dunsmuir's picture

I’m with you on the idea of protecting your finds from a “my sweat equity point of view.”
Do you have to get permission to shoot these abandoned farm buildings?

Duane Klipping's picture

I get permission if I need to go on the property most of the time I do not need to do that and get what I can from public property.

Ignacio Balbuena's picture

I totally understand the debate of share or keep it secret. At the long time ago I didn't have any issue sharing a locations, being from the west of Argentina is easy to travel to Patagonia and find wonderful places to shot however one time I returned to a fantastic spot at the very south only to find that a group of asians taking pictures and destroying the places throwing trash and taking plants from the place. I cannot avoid to feel guilt, most of the places that my group and me found was changed significantly and not for good. So from that moment we dont share locs if is not a fellow photographer.
Some places must stay wild or untouched to enjoy it completely.

stir photos's picture

cool article; great share.

i dunno, it's a great question for sure tho, there's a part of me that's pretty sure this goes deeper than just photography. for example, just the concept of a location that's associated to any group of respective people goes to the core of "us", as humans... i'm from los angeles and there's a lot of examples, like...

but yeah, to also try and put it in a photography perspective, there's folks who simply don't tell just anybody about a beach access point, for example... and it doesn't matter how ppl find out about it either (gps, word of mouth, apps, etc.); once it's out, it's out, period. and if you don't believe me look what happened to culver city.... haha... but yeah, sometimes it's just like grandpa use to say, "it's helpful to know a realtor, or better yet, be friends with one."

Mark Dunsmuir's picture

Interesting point, that we define ourselves by where we are from. So, if we share a location, perhaps we're sharing a bit of ourselves, which we may not want to do. Good point.