Monday, May 16, 2011

Do No Harm and Leave No Trace

© Rick Sammon

We as photographers are extremely fortunate to experience, tour, and capture many unique and interesting places around the world.  There are myriad benefits to both photographer and the local area/environment associated with our travels and shoots.  On the flip side, we must be cognizant of any damage we could do to the location.  In and of itself, photography is not a destructive process; we are normally not going to harm anyone or anything with the depression of our shutter release.  With that said, we know there is more to the process of making a great image.  We must consider how to structure our visits and use techniques and habit patterns that do no harm and leave little to no trace of our presence.

 © Lawrence Coleman

 As with all photography, it pays to research our subject. This is not just the subject itself, but also the environment in which the subject is found, the habits, patterns, rituals, etc. With full knowledge we are able to capture more effectively and make a compelling image while at the same time minimizing impact. If we consider the possible consequences of our visit we will be forced to look at things such as destruction or damage to native species, unkowing introduction of non-native species, pack it in/pack it out principles, waste management, how to appreciate, capture, and preserve vice removal and disturbance, and respect/standoff from wildlife.  This is just a quick list of things we should consider when entering any environment but especially those that might be sensitive. 

The largest impact we often have as photographers is based on our overland travel habits and what equipment we set up on location.  The simple act of walking to a desired shooting spot with gear and then setting down our bags, setting up our tripods, and remaining in one spot could cause problems.

© Diana Lewis Coleman

Of course, any impact is magnified when a group is involved.  Precautions must be taken to minimize the impact of more than one person.  For example, if there is a trail, all should stay on trail.  If there is not a trail, is it better to each take a different path to minimize repeated impact to the same area or does it make sense to limit our impact and follow in each others footprints.  There will probably never be one right answer but if we are educated and plan each trip properly we will, hopefully, choose the correct course of action.  Of course, sometimes the right answer is a place that is perfect for you might not be the best place to take your 50 person strong MeetUp or tour group.

We were fortunate to visit an amazing and sensitive area in south east Alaska a few weeks ago.  After a quick RHIB (rigid hull inflatable boat) ride we landed on a rolling ground moraine from a retreating glacier.  At first glance, it seemed to be just rocks.  Fortunately, our local guide prepared us with additional knowledge.  We understood the area was nesting habitat for migratory birds (made even more complicated as the nests looked like groups of rocks and the eggs look just like small rocks) and was also an emergent area (a place where local species were just taking hold.  Think of the initial reforesting process after a fire or after the deposit of volcanic ash.)  With this knowledge we soon saw that we needed to apply leave no trace principles in everything we did while ashore.

For those curious, Canon 1D Mk III, EF 800mm f/5.6L, and RRS PG-02

The Arctic Tern nests on the ground in some very sensitive locations.

The images in this post were captured by our group as they toured this amazing location.  It was an incredible experience to photograph this environment and I feel confident we did the best we could to minimize our impact. 

For more images of this awesome place check out Rick Sammon's blog at Chasing the Light with Light.

Fiat Lux!


  1. My particular credo has always been: "Take nothing but photo's and leave nothing but footprints"

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