Over the past couple decades, the internet has dramatically changed and indeed benefitted the outdoor world in many ways. However the long-term consequences of such instantaneous connectivity and information circulation are still being realized today, and in my opinion, when it comes to outdoor photography and the conservation of our beautiful planet, the internet has been a two-edged sword.

In short, here is the current issue: landscape and nature photographers have used social media to share exactly where their images were captured, sometimes down to the exact GPS coordinates on a map. Certain beautiful places and iconic images have become very famous, and other photographers now flock to those locations in far greater numbers than ever before.

Is this a good thing or a bad thing?

We can certainly all marvel at the innovations of technology that allow us to “geo-tag” our images, and use resources such as Google Earth and Sun Surveyor / The Photographer’s Ephemeris to plan our compositions with a great degree of accuracy. However all these amazing tools, plus the online circulation of images, locations, and condition reports have definitely also lead to another thing: An exponential increase in the amount of abuse, and general “wear and tear” of all those locations.

Screenshot 2014-02-06 09.44.29Yosemite National Park, Tunnel View at sunrise
Image copyright Sean Goebel, 2012

Screenshot 2014-02-06 09.48.02Yosemite National Park, The Firefalls at Sunset
Image copyright Sean Goebel, 2012

Screenshot 2014-02-06 09.46.31Yosemite National Park, The Firefalls at Sunset
Image copyright Sean Goebel, 2012

 One very good example of the effect that internet popularity has on a location is Yosemite’s now-famous “Firefalls”, an annual phenomenon in which the sun sets at a perfect angle to a seasonal waterfall, Horsetail Falls. Images of this fiery waterfall (not to be confused with the older, unnatural “firefall” of Glacier Point) have made their way around the internet for decades now, and each February innumerable photographers gather in the Park to view and photograph the phenomenon.

As you saw in the images above, the words “gaggle” and “horde” come to mind when attempting to describe just how many photographers show up for this event. Inevitably, this will affect the landscape. Of course shooting from a paved parking lot is one thing, and relatively harmless, (Yosemite’s “Tunnel View”, 1st image) however the best view of Horsetail Falls at sunset does indeed involve trampling through the forest and standing by the edge of a river. Even if every single photographer is very respectful and careful where they stand and place their tripod feet, their sheer number will still leave a mark.

Thankfully a forest floor is rather resilient and can recover from one week’s worth of extra foot traffic. I can only hope that the landscape photographers who show up to photograph this event are respectful of their environment, and the area will be preserved for generations to come.

What about the more delicate locations? Some natural phenomenon or locations are thousands or millions of years old, yet they can be destroyed or scarred by a few careless acts.

Keeping Delicate Locations Secret

Well-known members of online photography communities such as G Dan Mitchell wrote an article on the subject, and Ben Horne recorded a video. Both opinions received much criticism from fellow landscape photographers, and each has a slightly different opinion on the matter. However I believe they make numerous points that are worth reading and Ben Horne sums things up quite well when he says,

“If you receive something for free, you’re not going to respect it.”

This seems to be one of the biggest debates in our society today, actually. Free handouts can cause people to take things for granted. Of course there are many political debates along these lines too, but I have no interest in taking sides on those issues now!

I only wish to say that I personally believe a landscape photographer will indeed appreciate and respect a location much more if they have to work hard to figure out where it is. If internet communities and resources make it too easy for me to locate and travel to a very secluded or delicate location, I feel like it takes some of the fun out of it.

If increasingly higher traffic is seen at the more delicate, remote corners of our world, the bottom line is that significant damage will occur and will remain for generations to come.

slr-lounge-NPS-death-valley-racetrack-damage-2-650Death Valley Racetrack Playa, January 2014 – Image Courtesy of NPS
Footprints disrupt this unique phenomenon and scar the landscape for years.

 slr-lounge-death-valley-racetrack-rock-night-650Death Valley Racetrack Playa – January 2013

slr-lounge-death-valley-racetrack-rock-bw-650Death Valley Racetrack Playa, January 2013
Nikon D700, Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8, Giottos Tripod

Who Is Really To Blame?

How do I feel on the subject? Quite honestly, I have a hard time believing that any serious outdoor photographer would be so careless as to cause the destruction of a feature, or the scarring of a location, just for the sake of a photo. Maybe there are a few idiots out there, sure, but for the most part I like to believe and hope that we are indeed conservation-minded overall.

Personally, I blame common tourists far more than I blame dedicated landscape photographers.  Every time I have seen someone being disrespectful of a wilderness area or attraction, either littering or trampling flowers or generally disrupting the ecosystem, it was someone who was “just visiting”.  And at least 90% of the time those are the tourists, who treat every place they go as if it is Disneyland.

Take the Death Valley “Racetrack” for example.  Who in their right mind would go past the numerous signs that effectively say, “Please do not go out on the Playa if it is wet, your footprints will scar the landscape for many, many years!”  All of the serious landscape photographers I know would cringe at the photo above, and some may even shed a few tears.  (Hopefully the footprints photo, not my B&W image!)

Thus, I can only conclude that it is mostly naive and senseless tourists who cause most of the damage, not serious photographers.  Call it wishful thinking, if you want, and like I said there are probably a few idiots out there.  (Even a few famous ones.)  What then can we do?  Even if outdoor photographers are more secretive about the locations they visit, the damage has largely been done with respect to information circulation.  Plus, much of the natural world can now be reached by a tour bus and a short hike.

Speak Up And Leave No Trace

Hopefully, anybody who is conservation-minded and who appreciates the great outdoors can at least speak up about the need to preserve such delicate locations for future generations.  We can use our images to encourage others.  Whether or not you believe in an increase of secrecy regarding where images were captured, you can at least agree that the whole reason we capture and share our images is to showcase just how beautiful these places can be, if we leave no trace and/or maintain their condition.

Respect And Protect For Future Generations

Nowadays, the line between tourist and serious landscape photographer is getting blurry, unfortunately.  In fact plenty of tourists show up with high-end DSLRs and tripods.  So it comes down to this: If you claim to love the outdoors, then I would encourage you to, well, PROVE IT.  This doesn’t mean never telling anyone where you go.  It just means being  respectful of the places you visit, and leaving no trace.  Sometimes this means not trampling wildflowers in the spring, and sometimes this means simply having a little common sense.

slr-lounge-landscape-location-secrecy-3Nikon Df, Rokinion 24mm f/1.4, FotoPro C5i Tripod
Goblin Valley, December 2013

slr-lounge-landscape-location-secrecy-4Nikon D5300, Nikon 55mm f/1.2 Pre-AI, FotoPro C5C Tripod
Goblin Valley, December 2013
(SLR Lounge HDR Workshop DVD Techniques)

Respect For Fellow Photographers

Now, regarding the criticism that many adventure / landscape photographers receive when they refuse to fully disclose a location:

If you’re hating on people for being secretive, please understand their own passion for “leave no trace”, and respect their decisions.  They’re not trying to exclude you entirely, they’re just trying to encourage you to put in the same amount of effort that they put into their own adventures.  After all, the journey itself is at least half the fun!

Of course I’m sure that if you became close friends with any of these people, they would happily reveal a secret spot to you.  The fact that they wish to not reveal an exact location to thousands of other photographers, however, should come as no surprise.  Not because they wish to be the only person to ever click that photo.  Nor do they think they’re “elite” and are the only ones worthy of visiting a location.  They simply wish to restrict access to only those who are serious enough to hunt down a location themselves, and will therefore be far more likely to respect it.

I would say, “what ever happened to just getting out there and scouting your own locations?” …but that would be very short-sighted and I would be a hypocrite, as I’ve used internet condition reports etc. many, many times myself.

So I’m not here to frown on the use of online communities or resources to make it easier for me to determine, for example, the best time to visit the Eastern Sierras in order to experience the full force of all the beautiful fall colors.  I’m just saying that I understand.

1492333_10151829587589013_923335981_oNikon D5200, Nikon 50mm f/1.8 G, FotoPro C5i Tripod
1/80 sec @ f/8 & ISO 100, 2 sec. timer
(SLR Lounge Presets for Lightroom 5)

Use Discretion And Logic When You Do Share Locations

There is a time and place for sharing your secret spots with fellow photographers.  I am happy to share a location with another photographer, in private, if they take the time to ask me personally and if I am at least remotely acquainted with them.  A few thousand complete strangers, on the other hand?  Not so much…

The important thing is to find your balance, and use common sense.  You know whether or not a location is very delicate and susceptible to damage, so you make the call.

slr-lounge-landscape-location-secrecy-2Rhyolite Ghost Town, Death Valley National Park
(A location I have enjoyed visiting many, many times!)
Nikon D700, Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8, Giottos Tripod
SLR Lounge Adobe Camera Raw Preset System

Your Voice Matters

So, what do you think? How do you approach the issue of secrecy and preservation, versus being honest and helpful to other photographers?

I’m sure that there will be at least two groups of people who read this article.  The first will think, “Oh shut up, you don’t own the place, you didn’t find it first, don’t be a punk…” I understand this mindset, in fact I’d even understand a mindset that just dismissed all of this as tree-hugging hippie talk.  That’s fine!  However, hopefully there are at least a few others out there who understand the message I have attempted to convey here today.

Take care,