We’re all familiar with old adage “take only pictures, leave only footprints.” Taking photographs in the outdoors can be a fantastic way to help practice the seven Leave No Trace principles by allowing people to fill their memory cards rather than fill their pockets with souvenirs that are best left in nature.
For example, Instagram is an incredible social media app for inspiring outdoor recreationalists. Many photos help users decide where to go for their next vacation and help them discover new places around the globe. Often we’ll see a photo on Instagram and say, “we have to go there!”. These photos encourage visitation in areas which then increases the need and desire to protect these beautiful places.
But the flip side of posting these incredible photos is that some users may end up endangering themselves, wildlife, or sensitive eco-systems to generate like-worthy photos. Here, you’ll find some tips on how to take your best Leave No Trace photos.
Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces
This will be all too familiar for readers who learned about several visitors who walked off the raised boardwalk and onto Grand Prismatic Spring (a microbial mat of chlorophyll and carotenoids that produce the rich colors of the iconic spring) in Yellowstone National Park earlier this summer. An impassioned response from the general public questioned whether their picture was worth the hundreds of years the springs could take to revive, or worth their lives if they had fallen into a spring in the thermal area, with some springs reaching up to 459 degrees Fahrenheit.
This less than Leave No Trace incident reiterates the importance of staying on designated trails, even when attempting to snap that perfect photo. Staying on these designated, durable surfaces ensures that vegetation, biological and cultural resources, and your picture perfect shot all stay protected for years to come.
Staying on trails and in designated areas help protect vegetation and sensitive eco-systems.
Animals are awesome, it’s no wonder people want to get photos of some of the incredible species they see outside. When taking pictures of wildlife, it’s important to stay a safe distance to protect yourself and animals. In Yellowstone and many other parks, the National Park Service recommends visitors stay 100 yards from bears and wolves and 25 yards from all other animals. The Leave No Trace thumb trick is a great tool for calculating these difficult-to-eyeball distances.
Be sure to give animals extra space during Spring when they become more protective of their young. Animals who attack in order to protect themselves or their young are often euthanized. Keeping a safe distance will ensure your safety and the safety of the animals.
We recommend bringing a pair of binoculars or a zoom lens to see and capture photos of wildlife. In fact, a new slogan we observed in Yellowstone urged visitors to “Give animals room and use your zoom.”
Plan and Prepare, Leave What You Find, and Minimize Campfire Impacts
Photos of camping, campfires, and other outdoor activities that are less than Leave No Trace and sometimes against agency regulations can often be seen on Instagram. These practices not only hurt vegetation and can start wildfires, but they can also end in a hefty fine from enforcement agencies. In 2013, a man was sentenced to a $1,500 fine and one year of probation after posting a photo climbing a protected Giant Sequoia in Yosemite National Park. More recently, a graffiti artist was banned from all National Parks for vandalism after she posted photos of her work to social media sites like Instagram.
No one wants to be excluded from the outdoor spaces they love or fined for not being educated about the harms their actions can have in these protected places. Make sure you know the fire and camping restrictions in the area, any protected species laws, and special concerns for the area you plan to adventure in and photograph.
What YOU can do:
1. Stay on designated trails and travel on durable surfaces when taking photos.
2. Stay a safe distance from wildlife by bringing binoculars or a zoom lens for your camera.
3. Follow park rules to stay safe and protect resources. These photos are way cooler anyway, and show your commitment to the beautiful place you found so photo-worthy!
4. If you see a photo on Instagram that is less than Leave No Trace take the time to turn an Instagram post into a teachable moment by telling the person what it does to the environment and how it makes you feel knowing the person went somewhere unsafe and fragile to take the photo. Your views will be best received if you write respectful and compassionate comments.