Should There Be a Pecking Order for Photographers on Location?

Should There Be a Pecking Order for Photographers on Location?

With famous locations getting so crowded, working photographers often fall by the wayside. So should there be a pecking order?

In the surfing world, old timers who have been surfing at the same spot for as long as anyone can remember have first priority on any waves that come though. Once they’ve caught their waves, the pro and semi-pro surfers are next in line. Right at the bottom are the groms (young beginners). By the time it should be their turn to catch a wave, the old timers have paddled back out again. It is a universally accepted pecking order. At popular surf spots, groms never get a chance at the primary location, so they have to learn at an inferior wave.

Surfing sunrise

At most surfing locations, getting uncrowded waves means getting out there at sunrise.

If you’re not a surfer, this probably sounds ridiculous and unfair, but this pecking order has done wonders for removing aggression from the surfing world.

Ironically, I was thinking about all of this while photographing surfers in San Diego. I was trying to create compelling images of a beach for a tourism guide, when I inadvertently set up in front of a photographer who looked like he was camped out there for the day. I must have taken at maximum of 20 seconds before moving on, but not quick enough for this irate photographer.

Later that day, at a pier, I had set up to take what is an admittedly stereotypical image. While waiting for people to clear, at least 4 different couples stepped in front of me with their mobile phones and asked if they could “quickly get a shot”. To bring back my surfing analogy, I was both the grom and the old timer that day. It got me wondering: should there be some sort of priority system in photography circles?

In certain situations, there is a clear pecking order: the wedding photographer is the ultimate don on the day. Similarly, photojournalists hired to photograph an event feel nothing (and rightly so) about stepping in front of other photographers


Large events require a priority system to ensure photographers don't get out of hand. Photograph by Michael DeStefano

It is less clear in situations like landscape photography. Popular locations such as Mesa Arch at sunrise or Horseshoe Bend at sunset  look more like a media scrum than rural wilderness.

Historically, a priority system was not necessary in photography; there were many locations and few photographers. Now that just about every person in the world has a camera, there are places and situations where crowds are a problem. At the moment, whoever is most aggressive and obnoxious wins. People are also taking unnecessary risks to get good views as we saw in Episode 1: Photographing the World 4 Behind the Scenes.

Surely a pecking order for photographers starts to make sense? If so, what should the pecking order be based on? Some ideas are:

  • Age – can it be argued that it can be more difficult to get to the prime positions for the elderly? Also, many parts of the world believe in honoring the elderly, so it would not be much of a stretch to give them priority.
  • Local knowledge – The local photographer carefully watches the light and has their favorite spots which they keep returning to. Can it be argued that they deserve priority for their persistence?
  • Skill level – This would be a tricky one to implement, but should the highly skilled photographer have priority over someone who is snapping away with little regard to technique?
  • Work vs pleasure – Should the photographer who is commissioned have priority over the photographers who are having fun? For example, at Mesa Arch, if the photographer is commissioned by the National Parks, can they claim the best position? Similarly, when I work on travel shoots, I always pay for permits for commercial photography at the locations I visit. Should this give me priority over photographers who are not expected to deliver to a client?

Have you experienced frustrations dealing with crowds of photographers? I’d love to hear how you navigated through these situations.

Log in or register to post comments


Christian Lainesse's picture

I do a lot of concert photography in small venues, and while I have never talked much to whoever else shows up with a camera, I find that we switch spots often almost naturally. I've never felt any conflict brewing in this type of situation, or the need for a pecking order. That might be different for "the pit" in front of bigger acts though, I would not know.

Jonathan Reid's picture

In the few times that I attempted to photograph concerts, I was placed with other “official” photographers in the front of the crowd. There were about 10 of us, a manageable number. Now imagine if the entire crowd had cameras and there was no crowd control. Certain locations are getting like that.

Mark James's picture

Haha, this MML. Getting a couple hundred surfers to agree on a process is nothing like trying to tell millions with their phones, they need to wait because they are less important. I say stop whining and stop shooting photos from paparazzi locations that get photographed thousands of times a day and do something creative, or just deal with it. I for one will not be bowing to your superiority, or asking anyone to bow to mine.

Jonathan Reid's picture

Mark, I agree with your senitiment to an extent and like I mentioned in the article, I’ve been at both ends of the scale. Superiority is a fair comment if I were referring to skill level only, but I specifically mentioned situations that have nothing to do with skill, like age.

Again, I agree with your statement of finding less popular locations, but if you’re commissioned to shoot something, most often, it is the crowded locations you’re referring to.

Christian Lainesse's picture

I hear you. On more than one occasion, I wanted to take a photo of a location, but instead I went into "street photography" mode. If people won't move out of my frame, might as well make the best of the situation...

Jonathan Reid's picture

I did the same at Skogafoss in Iceland about 10 years ago. I used the other people for scale and thought the photo looked way better because of it. With Instagram, it is now an "insta repeat" subject, but back in the day I considered myself clever for taking that shot.

Jon Winkleman's picture

A couple of years ago I camped out on the Liberty City Park boardwalk in NJ with a number of other photographers with tripods, pro cameras and very large lenses to shoot an August supermoon rising behind the Statue of Liberty. We had all planned out the location and even the place on the boardwalk to shoot well in advance. Though we were all mindful and respectful of each other, during the 15 minute window the moon was where we wanted it, idiots with cell phones kept jumping in front of us without even asking. You cannot explain to them that when you shoot the largest full moon with a wide angle cell phone lens, it will look tiny. We began to simply tell them in an authoritative voice to stand behind us to get their cell phone pictures. On other occasions when I have a large pro looking lense and am doing street photography, very rude tourists with cell phones will constantly jump in front of me and shoot at the same angle with the presumption that I am shooting something worthwhile that they haven't noticed. I do not support the concept of a pecking order for real photographers with decent real camera systems. However I also have no problem telling people with cell phones to get out of the way.

Jonathan Reid's picture

Beautiful photo! I think my fear of confrontation works against me in these situations. What would you do if the mobile phone photographer either ignored you or aggressively confronted you? That’s the situation that a priority system would help to avoid.

Jon Winkleman's picture

i was not angry or rudely confrontational but we all simply stated with polite authority that they were in front of our cameras and asked if they would move to the side.

Maximilian Sulzer's picture

How silly of them, it's universally known that the one with the bigger "lens" is always right.

Seriously though this has nothing to do with photography. It's just that people are selfish, unaware of their surroundings and have bad manners.
Nobody but some enthusiasts will ever care about a photography code of conduct, we had that discussion with the whole geo tagging issue.

If we're talking about other photographers it is usually no problem to ask them nicely to take a step aside so that you can take your shot of the scene. Unless they are wedding photographers, these guys think they own the place (sorry for the generalization) .

I have had that problem in this location in Istanbul several times.
I usually show up early, set my tripod up in the corner where i want to take my shot from (space is a bit limited). Then people start showing up and set up their gear on that little platform. When they see me they usually ask if they are blocking my shot.
If a wedding party shows up you're screwed, they don't care if anyone else is there, walz in the platform and stay there, even if asked nicely to give others a chance.

Christopher Eaton's picture

This is why it is good to always have a very bright flashlight. If the wedding people setup in your shot, turn on the flashlight and highlight them. If they complain, tell them that since they setup in your shot you wanted to make sure you exposed them properly for that beer ad you'll sell it to.

David Penner's picture

So you are saying just because someone has a "real camera" they are more important than the person with a cell phone? I know lots of photographers with thousands of dollars worth of gear that are taking worse pictures than I am with my cell phone. I'm sure I'm not the only one that sometimes goes out with just my phone and leaves the camera at home.

Jon Winkleman's picture

I am saying that there was media hype about the large "super-moon" which is what people wanted to capture. As a matter of optical physics not ego, smart phones which universally had wide angle lenses at the time (around 28mm full frame equivalent) and even today smartphone telephoto lenses are a 50mm equivalent which is a normal lens, all reduce the apparent size of the moon in relation to landmarks on earth while a telephoto lens, especially a super telephoto lens, will draw the moon very large in relation to earthbound landmarks. So yes for this subject the people who have cameras that are capable of actually capturing a supermoon (including those with super telephoto point and click cameras, should have priority over those with smartphones that can't capture the event.
Also those of us with large heavy lenses on tripods and bags of heavy pro gear are a little less mobile and cannot simply step a foot or two to the side.

Not a matter of someone being more important but that people with even the best cell phones cannot take pro telephoto photos. So yes they should step aside so the people who can actually photograph the event can do so.

David Penner's picture

I know how a telephoto lens works. Still doesn't change the fact that the person with a cell phone has just as much right to be there and take pictures of the event as you with your expensive gear. Really what is the difference between a super moon and a regular moon anyways. If you take a photo of a regular full moon and say it's the super moon nobody would know the difference.

Rui Bandeira's picture

I do lots of concert photography, and most of the time the photographers move around so the others can use the free space, but some times we find new photographers that still dont know how to move on the PIT, so they tend to stay on the same spot, in those cases the older photographers just say them to move.
When the stage is very hi and the pit is limited its the same, we manage to move around so all can get the shot.
The only photographer that is always on top of the pecking order is the official photographer.

Jonathan Reid's picture

So would you say that this is a good example of the effectiveness of the priority system?

Rui Bandeira's picture

i dont think so...
For concerts i do think that there should be the official photographer with no limitations, that is usually the case.
Then there should be the firs 3 songs for the Media, newspapers magazines...
And, last, one more song for the freelancers and online magazines.

michaeljin's picture

First come, first serve...

Jonathan Reid's picture

That’s kind of how it is right now. But what do you do if someone sets up directly in front of you? What happens of you’re not strong and aggressive enough to hold your position?

Bryan Rossi's picture

It's no different then your analogy of surfing. A grom can drop in on a local anytime they want but they would most likely get heckled and kicked out of the lineup next time they paddle out. If you don't want to confront someone that steps in front of you after you've been waiting for a shot there isn't much you can do. There are a lot of people who just dont care, they know exactly what they are doing. Last year I shot Key Hole arch at Pfeiffer beach twice. It gets a massive crowd of photographers all wanting the shot just like Mesa Arch, but with more room. I showed up 3 hrs before , set up my tripod and waited. When the light got good there were people trying to crawl through my legs or stick their tripod between mine and my buddies. It's as simple as just saying "No". It isn't like surfing where the confrontations end up leading to someone breaking your board or a fight on the beach.

Bryan Rossi's picture

Yet what? ...I don't get this article. There is a pecking order in photography and its better than the one in surfing. Multiple people have already mentioned it. It's whoever gets to the spot first, simple as that and by far the most fair. But like anything there will always be people who feel that the rules don't apply to them or just don't care.

Jonathan Reid's picture

Yet as in, there hasn’t been a fight on the beach yet. First come first serve works until things get out of control. Then the location imposes it’s own system, sometimes banning photography. Wouldn’t it be better if the photography community could actually pull together and crest a give and take system that works?

Bryan Rossi's picture

Ya I just think its confusing because you chose to use surfing as an example and I grew up in Santa Cruz, CA. It's a huge surf town and in my opinion not a good example to follow. Personally I feel that photography is far more respectful and fair. I just don't see a better option than first come first served. All of the options could potentially get out of hand. I've had other photographers yell at me for getting in their shot on accident when I didn't realize they were behind me but some people are just rude and no "rules" are going to change those people. As for tourists and then general public they are always going to be there and as a photographer you just have to work around them or don't go to a popular tourist spot.

Jonathan Reid's picture

Yeah, in a perfect world, we’d all be well mannered and considerate of others and photographers wouldn’t have to take unnessary risks to get the shot. For the most part, photographers are like this, but when the light is perfect and the location is crowded, it’s like someone flips a switch and everyone goes into the “get the shot at all costs mode”.

Realistically, a pecking order will never be established, but it’s worth the thought excercise as it may get us as the photo community to be a little more considerate.

michaeljin's picture

There is no "photography community"—at least not in that sense. The vast majority of people that you're going to run into in a crowded photo location are not the type of people that are visiting sites like this or reading these articles.

A priority system is only effective if it is universally accepted and/or forcefully imposed. Given the lack of any governing body within photography to do such a thing, we're essentially in a position where we have to attempt to self-police in a manner. It's difficult enough to get people to stop doing obviously stupid things like spinning steel wool around wood or dangling off the sides of skyscrapers. Do you really think that it's practical to try to get people to memorize a complex "pecking order" where certain photographers get priority over others? How would the photographers higher on the priority list unequivocally prove on-location that they deserve priority? Do we start issuing membership cards with rank numbers?

Just try not to be a jackass if you don't have to, but beyond that, it's a dog-eat-dog world.

Mr Hogwallop's picture

Maybe photographer gangs will develop to "protect" their turf. ;^)

michaeljin's picture

Then tough luck. Try again another day. There's no sensible way to determine a "pecking order" that everyone can agree to on the spot. You can ask people not to be jackasses to each other, but that's about it.

If it bugs someone that much, then perhaps they're better off looking for photo spots and genres where such a thing isn't an issue.

Jonathan Reid's picture

This is how I responded to another commenter, but I think it is relevant to your reply too:

"In a perfect world, we’d all be well mannered and considerate of others and photographers wouldn’t have to take unnessary risks to get the shot. For the most part, photographers are like this, but when the light is perfect and the location is crowded, it’s like someone flips a switch and everyone goes into the “get the shot at all costs mode”.

Realistically, a pecking order will never be established, but it’s worth the thought excercise as it may get us as the photo community to be a little more considerate."

What this mean practically for me for example, is that if I'm first at a location and some elderly person arrives later and there is no spot for them, I will consider taking turns at my spot.

michaeljin's picture

So you are first at a location and some elderly person arrives later. You're going to move for him? Maybe the elderly person is a professional photographer that shoots there everyday and has a thousand nearly identical photographs already fromt he same spot. Maybe the elderly person is a complete amateur without a clue how to use the equipment. Maybe the elderly person is just a tourist on vacation. Maybe the elderly person has no intention of taking turns and just wants you to move and keep the spot for himself for the whole time. Maybe the elderly person is a Vietnam Veteran. Maybe the elderly person is a convicted murderer out on parole. What do you really know about the person and what are you basing your in-the-moment decision to move on? The fact that he happens to be old?

Of the criteria you mentioned, age is about the only thing that you can even guess at on-location. Everything else that you suggest is something that you can't reasonably verify so even as a thought experiment, things quickly break down.

More comments