For my last post I asked travel bloggers for their best sustainable travel tips, and it turned out to be an amazing guide to be a more responsible traveler. I was writing about sustainable travel photography as a part of that post, but it I decided to publish it separately to emphasize the importance of the matter.
Travel photography is one of my biggest passions, and in a world where Instagram rules, I suffer seeing what people are capable to do to get “the perfect shot”. As I think it’s important to follow some basic guidelines for eco-friendly photography, I’ll leave you my best guidelines on how to be a sustainable travel photographer.
Sustainable travel photography tips
Ask the people you wish to photograph and avoid sneaking shots
Landscapes can be gorgeous, but I think that the best travel shots are portraits. When you can capture the essence of a place through the facial expression of a local, you know you have an amazing photograph in your hands. But the way you get it is just as important as the result.
Sneaking a shot is always disrespectful (for sure you wouldn’t want it to be done to you), but in some cases it can be even against the local culture. There are some tribes that believe that being photographed will steal their souls. For some you might be making a circus out of their lives. So, as a rule of thumb, always ask. Language is not a barrier –show your camera and point at them, almost everyone will understand what you mean. Some people will say no, some will ask for money, but most will be happy to pose for you.
Bear in mind that if you photograph children you must have their parents’ consent, including their permission to exhibit your work (even if you only plan on posting on social media).
If you offer people to send the shot, make sure you do. While traveling you will meet hundreds of people, so it might not be your number one priority, but they will be waiting because probably you were the only tourist that asked for a photo. You get a nice souvenir, they get a nice picture taken. Win-win. But only if you follow through with your promise.
Don’t destroy nature
I’ve seen quite a few people cutting flowers from fields (or even worse, rolling down the field) only to take a photo and then throwing them away; going into lakes or waterfalls where it’s prohibited to go –and contaminating the water in the process– to get a pic of their feet in the transparent water; or cutting a tree’s branch because it was in their frame. I always approach them and explain that a photo is not worth the damage they’re causing. Usually the answers is “it’s just a couple of flowers” or “it’s only a little branch” (the best one was “don’t worry, I took a shower in the morning”). What they fail to see is that if every one of us cut a few flowers, then there are no more flowers.
The popular saying “leave nothing but footprints, take nothing but memories” should always be a mantra. If your memory is not so good, a photo will do, but make sure you leave everything exactly the way you found it.
The NGO Leave No Trace has a set of guidelines “to sustain healthy, vibrant natural lands for all people to enjoy, now and into the future”. They explain that the Seven Principles of Leave No Trace provide an easily understood framework of minimum impact practices for anyone visiting the outdoors. They even point out a worrying statistic: 9 out of 10 people in the outdoors are uninformed about their impacts. If we like outdoors photography, it should mean we love nature, so it’s up to us to set a good example!
The Seven Principles of Leave No Trace
Plan ahead and prepare
Travel and camp on durable surfaces
Dispose of waste properly
Leave what you find
Minimize campfire impacts
Be considerate of other visitors
Don’t disturb the wild animals
One of the things I enjoy the most about traveling is coming across wild animals. There’s little in life that makes me happier than seeing a furry friend in its natural environment. So, when I have the opportunity to capture the moment in a picture, I’m even happier. But I’m conscious that there’s a line no one should cross. If you’re photographing wild animals follow these simple rules: let them come to you, don’t disturb their environment, reflect on the possible impact of your actions, and remember that you are a visitor in their land.
We all saw the footage of a drone recording a bear cub falling down a snowy slope while its mother was doing everything in her power to help her little one. And read the many stories of dolphins being dehydrated to death while being passed around people taking selfies with them. There’re many more stories like these: a woman killed a swan after dragging it out of a lake, a couple of men injured a shark taking it out of the sea (that most likely died later on), a turtle was stepped on and beaten after being pulled from the ocean. The stories go on and on.
That should be enough to discourage you, but there’s much more. Some birds might abandon their young if the nest is disturbed, slow lories will die if taken out of their natural environment, lifting a starfish will probably kill it because we carry bacteria in our hands that’re lethal for them. There’re even some species that feel in danger every time they’re approached.
If you are really into wildlife photography, get a better zoom and shoot from the distance. If your camera skills are rather limited, just enjoy the wonders of the creature you’re witnessing –I’m sure you’ll find a much better photo online than the one you could take anyways.
Make sure that you always follow the regulations (there’s a reason behind off-limits signs), abstain if you’re not sure, and whatever you do, don’t jeopardize the wildlife you’re trying to capture.
Obey the rules around historical sites
It’s simple. It says “don’t trespass” for a reason. If an area is fenced off, most likely it’s because there’s growing vegetation, or there’s an excavation site. Even if there’s no obvious reason and you feel like you know better, let me tell you, you don’t. I understand, the shot could be much better just two steps beyond the barrier, but instead of getting frustrated use your creativity –you might end up with a unique photo from an unexpected angle. Just make sure you do it from the permitted area.
Same goes for the places where the use of flash is prohibited. The “it’s just one photo” excuse is a horrible one. Just one multiplied by the thousands of people that visit the site does, in fact, hurt. We’re able to enjoy art that’s centuries old because of the “annoying” signs. Make sure future generations get to enjoy it too.
When a hidden gem gets discovered, people arrive by the busloads. It’s bad when it happens to cities (ask the people that live in Venice or Dubrovnik if you don’t believe me), but it can have catastrophic consequences when it happens to nature. The wilder the places are, the worse. These places have no infrastructure to receive the approaching crowds –which translate into people destroying flora only walking by, human pee and poop spoiling the soil, trash being left behind altering the ecosystem, and animals losing part of their natural habitat.
For that reason, it’s better to simply mention a general location, like a region or a state, but not post or share GPS coordinates.
Don’t get me wrong, if you fell in love with a place you saw in a photo, by all means go visit it. The problem arises when people travel to these places because they’re trendy, not because they particularly care about seeing them. Think about this: Indonesia has over 17.000 islands and The Philippines another 7000. Why everybody goes to Bali and Boracay?
When it comes to the location of wildlife, the not-geotagging suggestion becomes a must. Even in national parks, where obviously hunting is prohibited, there have been many reports of people doing so because they found the specific location of an animal through social media. Sherwin Banda, the president of Africa Travel Inc, said in an interview that “poachers are now using unsuspecting tourists to hunt their prey […] While on safari, tourists post photos of animals to social media sites, not realizing that embedded within the post or the photo is a geo-tag containing the GPS location of the photo. This allows poachers to track animals of value”. A simple label can endanger the life of the animals, so be extremely careful with sharing this info.
We were talking before about leaving no trace. Think of this as leaving no digital trace.
Don’t be afraid to stand up to others
If you see someone doing something wrong, tell them! It’s not always easy to approach a stranger to correct their actions, but if we know better, we need to take the responsibility of educating other. Most people won’t even be aware that what they’re doing is inappropriate, nor about the consequences of their actions, so if they hear advice from someone that seems to know what he/she is taking about and that approaches them in a polite way, most likely they will have a positive reaction.
Don’t only take pretty pictures
We all love to see photos with beautiful aesthetics and of picturesque places (to the point that insta tourism became a thing!), but we know that in numerous occasions that’s not how reality looks like. So don’t be afraid to shoot the ugly. Your photo will capture the truth about a place, and will do much more to inform your audience than another perfect shot. You’ll also gain points for originality (check this guide on how to take better travel photos for inspiration).
If you think about it, the more known photographs in history have been those depicting the ugly truth, whether that’s a starving child, an abused animal, or a polluted sight. They hurt, but they serve the important purpose of creating consciousness about the issue.
Mind your equipment
Photography is not a sustainable activity per se. There’re tons of batteries that need to be disposed and a lot of electronic waste, especially nowadays that there’s new technology being launched more and more rapidly. Because of this, we need to be particularly conscious about the decisions we make.
A simple way to be a more sustainable photographer is by using rechargeable batteries. You can even get a portable solar panel to charge them. Also, when buying new equipment, get items of good quality so they last longer, this way you won´t need to replace them too often. And be conscious about the weight of what you get. Not only it’ll be uncomfortable to carry many kilos of equipment, but every extra gram will increase your carbon footprint while on the road. For instance, I chose to get a mirrorless camera for traveling instead of a DSLR. I get all the functionality I need with less than half the weight.
Buying second-hand products helps a lot as well. You won’t risk getting a used memory card, I get it, but maybe a gently used lens or tripod could be a great way of contributing to the environment (and your pocket too!).
When it comes to sharing your work, think about whether you really need to print it. If you love scrapbooks and will show them to anyone that expresses the sightless interest in seeing them, then go for it (but look for an eco-friendly company!). If you know that all those prints will end up in a drawer collecting dust, then think again.
Bonus – Get a sustainable photographer
It has become very popular to hire a local photographer to get professional pics taken while traveling. It’s a great way to make sure you have beautiful photos of yourself in your destination, and a fun way to spend a few hours going around the place with someone that knows where the best spots are.
If you’re hiring a photographer (heads up, I’m available, just send me a message to coordinate!), look for one that cares about sustainability. In order to get a good shot (and justify their fees) many photographers will ignore every one of the aforementioned tips. But one can get great quality pictures without compromising one’s principles –just do some research to get a hold of one of the many ethical photographers out there.