Nature First: An Introduction to the Alliance for Responsible Nature Photography

“Our mission as photographers is to be the visual storytellers of nature. But, now more than ever we need to share stories about becoming better stewards to the places we visit, love and photograph. We need to unite and give a voice to the voiceless and stand up for the natural world. Together, we can make sure these wild places stay wild and beautiful so the next generation of photographers can share their future stories with the world.” -Jennifer Renwick

High alpine meadows are delicate environments. Care must be taken when photographing these beautiful high altitude destinations.

High alpine meadows are delicate environments. Care must be taken when photographing these beautiful high altitude destinations.

Today is Earth Day, and I'm very excited to bring to light a project that I have been working on with other passionate nature photographers with for over a year. As a group, we recognized the need to bring awareness to the impact that is happening to the natural world around us through photography. It is excellent photography has taken off and become a popular hobby, unfortunately in its wake, there have been unintentional (and sometimes intentional) repercussions happening to these wild and delicate areas. We've all seen the photographer population increase at some of our favorite locations and with the rise of social media, locations are being brought to attention, that ten years ago, no one wouldn't have thought twice to visit. Areas are getting damaged, new trails are being made in sensitive areas, signs and barricades are being ignored, trash and other waste products are being left behind, and location sharing is overrunning and damaging some of our unique and wild places. We've all seen the frustrations online and photo proof of each of these. But, as unfavorable as these things are, it's still a great time to be a photographer! Why? It's simple. Now, we all have the opportunity to put our good steward caps on and become ambassadors to these places we love. It's time to start educating ourselves and others about the places we photograph, and how we can limit our impact and keep these places wild while still enjoying photography. It's time to start taking the energy toward venting and frustrations and put it toward a more useful cause and positive energy. The more we can encourage better wilderness ethics, mindfulness, and practices, the more it will spread and catch on. From the everyday hobby photographer to the workshop leaders, to the professionals making a living from their work, we all have something to take away and pass on to others.

As a group, we designed seven principles that help communicate responsible photography. These are made with the idea in mind of simple concepts that give photographers a moment's pause to reflect on their actions and how it will potentially affect the environment around them. Here they are, with a short description of each.

1. Prioritize the well-being of nature over photography.

Every time we step out into nature with our camera gear, we are the guests in this uncivilized and beautiful world. We are the visitors in these beautiful lands, from the mossy covered tundras, down to the desert playas. We must take care of these areas, and just as we wouldn't leave a mess behind after being a house guest at someone's home, the same should apply to the environment. Footsteps, camera bags, trash, human waste, and tents can cause unintentional damage to these delicate and sensitive areas. Some of the organisms making up those environments can take hundreds of years to grow, and even one footstep, albeit not very dangerous in our eyes, can leave damage that won't repair in our lifetimes. Always put nature before the photo. Even if the sky is blowing up and unicorns are prancing around, take a minute to think before plopping the tripod down. Some mental questions to ask: Am I harming nature to get my shot? Is this a delicate area I'm in? Am I too close to this moose and causing stress? Many photo locations occur in these ecosystems and taking a moment to make sure damage or stress isn't happening to flora and fauna from the photography effort is a significant first step to putting nature before the photo.

2. Educate yourself about the places you photograph.

Hydrothermal basins are full of delicate bacteria and unstable ground. One step off the boardwalk could result in the destruction of millions of thermophiles, or bodily harm from hot water.

Hydrothermal basins are full of delicate bacteria and unstable ground. One step off the boardwalk could result in the destruction of millions of thermophiles, or bodily harm from hot water.

Learn about the different environments you'll be photographing. This may sound simple, but it's often overlooked. We get so excited about photographing, and we forget to slow down and learn. Each environment is dynamic and requires a different set of behaviors. For example, footprints in sand dunes don't leave a lasting impact, but walking on cryptobiotic soil, hydrothermal areas and tundra does. One right way to educate yourself about the flora and fauna and feature of a place is to visit a local bookstore around the location and read literature about it. A little knowledge goes a long way, and you might learn something new. For instance, you might learn and identify dangers previously unknown. Maybe there are rattlesnakes in the area. Perhaps its the season for poison ivy, you don't want to put your camera bag down (or your behind) in a patch of that. Getting to know an area by researching its flora and fauna and planning out how to lessen your impact is a great place to start before putting the tripod down.

3. Reflect on the possible impact of your actions.

While planning on the photo set up, taking the time to reflect on the actions of how that photo came about while out in nature is a good thought process to go practice. We've all been there. It's a beautiful morning. The first light is hitting the mountains, and there is a lovely meadow of wildflowers. You spot a composition, and run out and set up the tripod. Before you know it, you're in the middle of the flowers, and maybe (gasp!) you've caused a flower casualty. It's easy to think that one person walking through the wildflowers to grab that perfect sunrise may not do too much damage. But, what about other photographers that see your trail through the grass? The same applies to trail closures and barricades. When one person is spotted climbing over the closure sign to get the shot, others will follow. One photographer's actions can turn into three photographers doing it, then ten, and then a group of twenty. The evidence presents itself in trampled flowers, footprints, and tripod holes. All of these can be seen by others, and most of the time they follow suit. Taking a few minutes before lining up the photo to think about your current impact, but a future impact is a great way to think through certain situations to protect these scenes.

4. Use discretion if sharing locations.

Back in the day, we were able to share locations with others. There was no google earth, and word of mouth was all that was needed. In this age of social media, sharing with one person might lead to the location appearing on a website or other social media channel. I've seen locations that I've stumbled upon myself pop up on social media, and I've seen firsthand the resulting damage. Sharing locations, while innocuous, can sometimes have harmful and unintended consequences. Be aware that sharing can lead to an increase in visitation and damage to sensitive areas. Public places with established boardwalks and trails are better to share, versus more sensitive and biologically at-risk locations. I've been called an "elitist" because I no longer share my locations. This isn't about being a sharing snob. Some of these areas cannot handle the extra traffic, and severe damage is being done. I'm not an elitist or think I'm better than anyone. I care more about the well-being of a location than someone's task to grab the shot. It's a different day in age. We can no longer keep our cars or houses unlocked because of increasing crime. The same concept applies to these wild areas. I'm not saying to never share, as I still share some things with other close, like-minded friends and photographers. Be aware of who you share with, and think of the potential consequences. Always be respectful if others are unwilling to share a location. Remember, photography is an adventure, and sometimes the best part is stumbling upon something you have discovered yourself!

5. Know and follow the rules and regulations.

Know the rules and regulations for areas you'll be photographing. Following along with the rules and regulations in an area is always an excellent way to make sure nature's well-being is put first. The laws are not only there to protect fauna and flora, but they also protect us and keep us safe as photographers. Boardwalks and trails are there for a reason. Stay on them. For example, I've seen photographers in Yellowstone National Park go off the boardwalk to take photos. The park didn't design the boardwalks to restrict your photography or fun. They built them to keep you from scalding yourself and damaging the delicate thermophiles that make that treacherous ground beautiful. Respect closed areas and barricades at all times. Sometimes these closures are for the benefit of the wildlife and to help regions repair themselves from erosion or other environmental stresses. The more these rules and regulations are not followed, the more regulations and restrictions against photographers that will be put into place. Knowing and respecting the regulations in areas while photographing is a great way to be a good steward to these wild places.

6. Always follow Leave No Trace principles and strive to leave places better than you found them.

Many desert environments house cryptobiotic soils. These delicate soils take hundreds of years to grow, and one step or tripod hole can cause damage that will equally takes as long to heal.

Many desert environments house cryptobiotic soils. These delicate soils take hundreds of years to grow, and one step or tripod hole can cause damage that will equally takes as long to heal.

Leave No Trace principles are insurance that the areas that we visit and enjoy can be explored and photographed for the future generations of photographers to come. Simple acts such as packing out your trash, following proper wilderness bathroom etiquette when nature calls, reporting vandalism when you find it, and minimizing footprints can ensure that others will have the same impact-free experience. I always bring a garbage bag out with myself, and my workshop groups. When we find trash, we pick it up. We have a duty to keep these lands pristine. When visiting areas that have trash already, take the time to pick it up and carry it out. A little step like that goes a long way to protect these areas. While you're not responsible for the messes that others leave behind, you should take responsibility and help clean up the mess.

7. Actively promote and educate others about these principles.

This movement isn't about shaming others, policing certain areas or calling each other out. It's about educating and leading by example. We as photographers can influence others with our photos and art. Setting the example of how to be a good steward of the land will speak volumes to the future generations. Educating goes a long way. If you see someone not following the rules, point it out to them in a positive and polite manner. Sometimes, they have no idea and appreciate the head's up. Taking the time to think and educate others about these principles while photographing in places from Antarctica to the National Parks will ensure that these places are around for future nature photographers.

Joining as an alliance of responsible nature photographers will help continue to protect amazing and beautiful places such as this, so future generations can enjoy them.

Joining as an alliance of responsible nature photographers will help continue to protect amazing and beautiful places such as this, so future generations can enjoy them.

Change doesn't happen overnight, but little by little, we as photographers can make a difference. The solution starts with us. The more we follow these principles, not only will we be better photographers, but the environments we photograph will continue to flourish. As photography and the outdoors lifestyle rise in popularity, we find that everyone, including ourselves, is having an impact on the natural world that we photograph and find inspiration in. These new challenges have given us the chance to become not only visual storytellers to the rest of the world but also to become stewards and ambassadors to the wild places we love. So, on this Earth Day, let us come together as photographers in following and educating others on these principles. In the end, remember that we are the visitors to these lands and by putting the welfare of nature before the photo, will help ensure that these places continue to grow and flourish and remain the wild places that once called us to be photographers.

Please visit https://www.naturefirstphotography.org/ to learn more and to see how you can become part of the alliance to help protect the natural world and help to inspire other photographers to do the same.

A few thoughts about traveling...

What stirs the emotion in us to make us want to travel? For some, it's seeing loved ones or friends that they haven't seen for a long time. For others, it's an escape from the stresses of life and work. It's an excuse to leave your "normal" life for a few days, and pretend that you don't live that reality for the time being. Others travel for work, and it's far from what they would consider a "vacation." Some travel to find themselves, and take time for evaluating goals and self improvement. For me, I fall into all the above categories, with the exception of the last one. My current job doesn't really require me to travel, unless I attend a veterinary conference to earn continuing education credit. Some people are quite content to stay at home, and enjoy what is around them. Not me. I’ve always been the adventurous one. I always have to know what’s around the next bend, what lies over the next peak, and what’s on top of the summit.

As I write this, I'm currently flying 38,000 feet above the Rocky Mountains. A few years ago, this was way out of my comfort zone (stay tuned for a post about getting over fears later.) And now, travel has become a part of who I am, and also a part of my life that I'm falling in love with. I've always been adventurous, and I currently have a list a page long (and growing) of places that I would love to see and experience in person. Photography has helped feed that need. There are so many landscapes to experience and shoot, and so much nature to experience and share. But first, a brief history of my travels…

I was very fortunate to have a childhood full of travel. To this day, I’m thankful I had two parents that had the bug to travel in their blood.  Being the daughter of two parents who traveled a lot to go scuba diving, most of my childhood travel was centered around the Caribbean.. As soon as I turned 12, I became a certified scuba diver. The ocean was always a second home to me, and as other kids where playing on the beach building sand castles, I was out snorkeling, (usually out far enough to make my parents nervous). I spent my time watching sting rays, swimming with schools of fish, and finding any cute little invertebrate on the bottom that I could find. Our summers were spent diving, and I look back now and realize how fortunate I was to experience that lifestyle. Swimming with wild dolphins and sharks were the norm for me, and still some of my fondest memories. There is nothing like looking into the eyes of a wild dolphin that has chosen to swim with you, because it is as curious about you as your are of it. I spent time on the out islands where you don't find a tv or radio anywhere but the local restaurant (if you're lucky). I am forever grateful, because those experiences helped to sculpt who I am today. 

In college, I majored in geology and found my travels taking me out west. These trips gave me an eye opening experience to what the western part of the country had to offer. Up to this point, the only snow capped mountains that I had experienced were through my view master (haha, who remembers those !?)  that I had when I was a very young child. To see them in person was a life changing experience. I traveled to the southwest a few times, and spent time in Colorado, Wyoming, and South Dakota. My interest quickly turned the mountains, and I was determined to see them more frequently. As I like to say, I traded in my snorkel and fins for a backpack and hiking boots. 

Since then, I’ve traveled out west every chance that I can get. I feel at home out in nature and the mountains, and I find I do my best thinking when I am surrounded by both. One thing traveling out west has done for me, is to combine my love of geology and my love of animals. Even though my career path took me into veterinary medicine, I still enjoy some good geology. I find myself dusting off the knowledge in my head from my geology days as I hike over the rocks. I’ve always loved animals, and this has led to my love for encountering and photographing wildlife. One thing my career has taught me is how to read animals, and this carries over into the wildlife world as I’m photographing.  

I'm not really the type of person that wants to lay by a pool all day at a resort. Although very relaxing as it can be, it's just not my cup of tea. I need to feed the need in my soul to explore the landscapes around me. Hiking is very therapeutic for me, and listening to the sounds of nature around me, and feeling the elements really make you realize you are alive. I love when I can feel my heart beating in my ears after scaling some mountain side. I love those moments, because it’s these type of moments that give us clarity in our minds. When it's just you and your thoughts and no other distractions, you can truly get in touch with your inner feelings. With busy schedules and work, it can be hard to harness these moments. Everyone needs to find what makes them feel alive. For each person that's a unique experience.

According to travel website Skift, 42% of Americans didn’t take any vacation days in 2014. That blows my mind. That’s really a snapshot of how disturbing our society has become. 

I’m obsessed with using my vacation time. There have been times that I would rather get more vacation time than a raise. But that’s just me, and I’m not saying that everyone should feel like that. I just feel that everyone needs a healthy break to get away from their busy schedules at least once a year. 

As cliche as it sounds, (and I hate to use large companies as an example), but NorthFace's tagline “never stop exploring" really says it. Take time out of your busy life to go explore something. Visit a national park, another country or even experience another culture. It can be as simple as visiting an art gallery. Whatever makes you think outside the box, and listen to your inner workings. In the society of today, we tend to work harder and faster. We get bogged down and stressed. It makes me nauseous to see people that don’t use their vacation days. It's not healthy to not have an outlet from the stresses of everyday life. I often hear from others about how busy they are, or they have kids and a work schedule, and that makes it hard. Granted, I understand that. I just don’t like to see people use that as their excuse. It doesn't have to be a extensive, expensive getaway. Even though I’m using the word “travel,” it doesn’t have to require leaving far away to utilize the experience.Travel doesn’t always have to be a plane or a far distance. Take the family for a hike in your local state park or forest preserve. Go visit a museum or an art gallery.  Go try something you’ve never experienced. Spend the weekend somewhere. Make memories. Just make sure you're experiencing something that helps you think outside the box, and helps you to appreciate this world you live in. I feel people that travel are open to new experiences and make happier, more grounded, open minded people than those that don’t. 

 

I travel to hear an elk bugling on a cool autumn night while I'm shooting the night sky. I travel to hear a mountain stream running over rocks that are so perfectly polished from years of water. I travel to hear the wind quaking the aspen leaves above my head. These experiences call to me, and make me feel alive.

So whatever stirs up your desire for travel, get out there and explore something new and give your mind a break from life’s stresses. Life is to short to not get out there and see what the world has to offer. I wouldn’t be the person who I am today without my adventures in travel.  Don’t let excuses stop you from exploring. Just get out there!

Reflecting on the last 3 years...

3 years ago, I decided to start a website to share my photography with others. This journey into photography has been an incredible adventure, and I'm going to take some time as my first "official" blog post on here to introduce how this all came to be.

The first picture I took with my first DSLR camera.

 I have always had a passion for taking photos. I can remember camping up in northern Wisconsin with my family as a young girl. Now, that was back in the day when you loaded film into a camera, shot some photos, and hoped for the best when you developed them. In my case, my parents had given me control of the camera for the trip. We were on a fishing trip, and the intent was to use the camera to take pictures of the day's catch and people fishing. I had every intention of doing that, until I realized that there were a lot of cool creatures around our campsite. As an avid animal lover from a very young age, this was very exciting to me. I remember blowing through an entire roll of film photographing the resident chipmunk of the campsite, trying to get a perfect shot. (He was really cute, and I loved animals! What can I say? I was 10! ) I can still remember when my father came back from developing the pictures, and the expression on his face as he thumbed through them. Yep. 30 pictures of your common ground squirrel. Of course I thought some looked great, but not everyone agreed. I remember getting a lecture on the price of film, and "really, 30 pictures of 1 chipmunk?!" As my father still says to this day, "that's the most photographed chipmunk in the world." That story still gets a laugh.

In college, I had the opportunity to travel out west for the first time on a geology trip for my bachelor's degree. I had a point and shoot camera at the time (still before the digital age). I remember taking so many pictures of the landscape and mountains, and waiting on one hour photo developing (in whatever town we happened to be in) to see what I had captured. I can remember always thinking how pretty the pictures were, but also how disappointed I felt that they didn't seem to do justice to what my own eyes had seen.

Fast forward a few years later after that, and I was given my first DSLR as a gift. I was terrified of that camera. Coming from the land of point and shoot cameras, it was very scary looking. So many buttons and dials, how the heck was I to learn it all? I played with it for a few days, then got frustrated and forgot about it for awhile.

I had no formal photography training as I had never taken any classes in school. Finally, I decided I was going to learn this beast of a camera. I started traveling out west to take trips with my dad around this time, and figured now was the time to learn. I bought some books, learned from them, and did the best I could. The sound of the shutter being released and watching the LCD image pop up was amazing to me and I was hooked. Ironically, some of my first real shots with that camera were of a chipmunk in Rocky Mountain National park. Old habits die hard I guess!

I knew I wanted to capture mainly wildlife, landscapes and whatever unique nature I could find. My photography was limited to my trips out west whenever I could get out there. There was a learning curve, and it was painful at times. I found myself learning the balance between ISO, exposure, aperture and learning how to use the scary setting called "manual mode."

Sometimes I would capture what I thought was an amazing image, get all the way home to load it on the computer only to find out it was slightly out of focus, or the composition wasn't quite what I thought it had been. I would sigh and say, "maybe next trip."  There were many times I'd make it back to the same area a year later, and finally get the shot. I'd have a whole year to think about it in my mind to make sure I'd get it right.

Most of my traveling has been with my father. I don't get to see him too often, so the trips are great to reconnect.  He lives in Colorado, so it's a good central location for our journeys.  We've managed to hit many unique areas, and we've put almost 7000 miles on his FJ cruiser from our travels. He's been very patient with me as I've taken my shots. Up early for sunrise, shoot the morning light, wait for wildlife, shoot sunsets, and head out for stars. I've learned how to use new equipment, and every trip has taught me a different skill. I've learned how to read clouds and the weather, and properly stalk the light (at times.)

I've done some workshops and have met some amazing photographers and people. Along with that, I've also met very rude people and rude fellow photographers. I've learned so much from the kindness of other photographers who gave me 10 minutes of their time to help me with something, even when I hadn't asked. Some of the coolest things I've learned have been from a kind soul sharing advice on a shoot. I've also had the great experience of helping others learn something at times. Some of the best things I've learned on this journey have been in the early light of morning, or the dusk of sunset from other fellow photographers. There really is a great community out there. I've also learned a lot from the rude ones too (mostly how you don't conduct yourself on a shoot around others!) The more I've learned, the more obsessed I've gotten at getting out to shoot. I've come a long way from where I was 3 years ago, and it's been a wonderful journey that I feel is still just beginning. I don't by any means consider myself any sort of professional as I still have so much to learn.

I've always had a creative side, and photography is my outlet for that. My vision has been to share the best of what nature has to offer to others. Nature is where I go to heal, to think, and to feed my soul. Photos should stir up thoughts and emotions, while also sharing a vision.  I'm traveling more than ever now, and have so many more places that I want to shoot and see. It's an adventure every time I head out to shoot. Nothing makes me happier than sitting in a spot taking and taking in a scene. It's when I'm most relaxed, and have the most clarity in my brain. Surrounding myself in this wonderful world of Mother Nature is where I feel most at home.

Thanks to all that have been following on this journey with me! Your kind comments and support have been wonderful :)

I'll close with one of my favorite quotes...

"A great photograph is a full expression of what one feels about what is being photographed in the deepest sense and is, thereby, a true expression of what one feels about life in its entirety."

-Ansel Adams