The Dark Side of Nature Photography


Dear EarthTalk: Is nature photography good or bad for the environment? – Cal Moss, Camden, ME

Nature photography is a wonderful way to share the beauty and wonder of the natural world with others who don’t have the opportunity to see a given subject first-hand. An obvious benefit of the art is raising awareness about and generating empathy for special landscapes and species. But too much love can be a bad thing if landscapes are trampled and wildlife is frightened—all in the name of leaving only footprints.

The use of photography as a conservation tool dates back as far as photography itself. William Henry Jackson’s photos from his travels with the Hayden Expedition of the 1860s to survey the American West helped convince Congress to create Yellowstone National Park in 1872—and as such played a role in the birth of the worldwide movement to set aside special places as national parks. Ansel Adams carried this torch forward a century later; opening up millions of viewers’ eyes to the splendor of many an iconic western landscape. And more recently wildlife photographers have gotten up close and personal to wild animals large and small so the rest of us can appreciate their beauty out of harm’s way.

But some say there is a dark side to all this exposure of the wild and the natural. In a provocative essay in the Fall 1997 issue of DoubleTake magazine, activist and author Bill McKibben argued that the world has enough wildlife photography and that continuing to invade the lives of animal subjects—given the vast oversupply of images already available—is counterproductive to the goals of preserving biodiversity. He also decried the idealized view of the world that wildlife photography portrays. “How can there really be a shortage of whooping cranes when you’ve seen a thousand images of them—seen ten times more images than there are actually whooping cranes left in the wild?” he asked.

Most wildlife photographers bristle at McKibben’s stance. “The real problem with wildlife photography is not that there is too much of it but that photographers…are failing to reflect natural diversity,” argues UKbased nature photographer Niall Benvie. “Far from inhibiting productivity, it needs to be expanded greatly, telling the story of species and locations unknown to readers and viewers.”

But today when the average vacationer with a $500 high resolution digital SLR may just want to capture his own version of that iconic photo he has seen so many times in magazines, it might be folly to hope people won’t love a spot or a species to death. In the U.S., some national parks have begun to limit visitorship at specific photo-friendly spots to make sure that trails don’t get inadvertently widened and native vegetation trampled. And a recent news story about the Kani people of southern India cutting trees and using bright lights and scare tactics to capture wild slender lorises—charismatic wide-eyed primates endemic to the region yet endangered and highly elusive—for “managed” photo shoots with well-heeled visiting photographers only further illustrates how invasive wildlife photography can get.

What the nature photographers of the world, amateurs and pros alike, can agree on is that they want their subject matter to live on. Being respectful of landscapes and wildlife in the quest to “get the shot” is all that’s needed to keep nature photography from becoming a scourge on the environment.

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CONTACTS: Niall Benvie; “Photographers Threatening the Already-Maligned Slender Loris”

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Photo Credit: Sean Molin Photography

Starre Vartan is founder and editor-in-chief of and the author of the Eco-Chick Guide to Life. She's also a freelance science and environment writer who has published in National Geographic, CNN, Scientific American, Mental Floss, Pacific Standard, the NRDC, and many more. She lives on an island in Puget Sound with her partner and black cat. She was a geologist in her first career, and still picks up rocks wherever she goes.