Matt Payne Photography Blog: Nature First - Principle #2 - Educate Yourself About The Places You Photograph - April 23, 2019

Yesterday I introduced you to the Nature First Photography Alliance - a project I have been involved in for about two years now. Nature Photographers have been growing restless and upset over the past several years by how people are treating the natural world we all love to photograph. We have seen a sharp increase in the number of people visiting locations as photographers, some drawn by the allure of social media attention and "influencer" status. This sharp increase in visitation, paired with the fact that many of these individuals lack the education, knowledge, and ethics that have been long promoted by some nature photographers, and a crisis has begun to emerge. Evidence of this crisis is everywhere: from the trampled poppy fields of California to the over-run waterfalls of Iceland, all over our planet we are seeing the ever-growing impact of photography and social media. 

A small but mighty group of photographers, including myself, have banded together to tackle this problem once and for all. Our group met and followed an incredible process to really define the problem we were seeing and to outline potential solutions to solve the problem. This process took many meetings and a couple of years to hammer out, and the result was the creation of seven principles for photographers to follow. Individuals, brands, and organizations wishing to adhere to these principles are further known as "The Alliance."


The Alliance is based on a set of best practices for nature photographers centered on the idea of putting the well-being of nature ahead of one’s photography. The hub of this new initiative is the Nature First website.

For this article, I wish to expound upon and go into more detail around the 2nd Principle of Nature First.

Principle #2: Educate yourself about the places you photograph

This particular principle may not seem intuitive to some people, especially if you are already a steward of nature but generally only photograph or visit similar climates such as mountains and forests; however, this may be one of the most important principles and hardest to follow. 

Different landscapes require different kinds of stewardship practices, so in order to best care for these places, we need to be knowledgeable about them. For example, while walking cross-country in some places (over sand dunes, for example) will cause no harm, walking cross-country in other areas could significantly damage an ecosystems (for example, cryptobiotic soils in deserts, or slow-growing mosses in less arid places). Knowledge about the environments we photograph is essential to effective stewardship.

I recently visited the American Southwest desert for the first time for a photography trip and was very mindful about educating myself on what to look out for. For example, some locations have very thin sandstone layers that protrude from the rocks and soil. Stepping on these thin layers can completely destroy them. This may not seem like a huge deal if one person does it, but imagine a location getting thousands of visitors per year and each of those visitors steps on the sandstone fins. It does not take long for that impact to make a huge difference and completely change the essence of a place and ruin it for future generations. I don't think we are asking for much here - just be mindful and thoughtful about the places you photograph and learn how to best interact with that environment, keeping in mind that even small things can have a huge, lasting impact. 

Color Waves
This view of the awesome sandstone formations at White Pockets showcases some delicate find in the sandstone (lower left) that I had to be very careful not to disturb on my recent visit there

This was quite evident in the recent poppy field blooms in California. These blooms attracted thousands if not millions of visitors over a short period of time, many of them looking for a way to capitalize on this rare event to increase their follower count on Instagram, sell products as an influencer (how else are you going to sell those aztec blankets and fedoras). Others just wanted to visit to see how amazing it was, but also wanted to make sure their social network saw how awesome it was (the dreaded selfie army). Over the course of just 7 days, one area was so over-visited and trampled, that the flowers completely disappeared altogether. This is a huge problem for wildflowers, as areas that are trampled like this do not grow flowers in that spot the following year. Its unfortunate that these visitors did not educate themselves on this before visiting. 

Taken on April 2nd, 2019 - photo used by permission from Marti Lindsey
Taken April 9, 2019 - Photo used by permission from Marti Lindsey

There are countless other examples from the recent super-bloom that showcase just how big of a problem this has become. We need to do more to prevent this from happening all over the world. As nature photographers, we are the first line of defense - we have a duty to educate workshop attendees (if we teach workshops), talk to people we see in the field, and write about this topic. We should demand more from humanity. I also think that if major brands that hire these "influencers" demanded they follow these principles, it would go a long way to get people to start thinking about it. 

What can you do?

I know it may seem overwhelming to consider this particular principle. We are not expecting everyone to become experts on every possible climate, every possible biome, every possible plant, or every type of location; however, with some natural curiosity and a thirst for knowledge, you can learn quite a lot in a short amount of time. Here are some resources for you to start your knowledge journey:

If this article resonates with you, I encourage you to join a growing number of nature and landscape photographers who feel the same way.

Have other suggestions on resources or ideas? Please leave a comment below!

Posted in Articles and tagged Nature First.