Business + Marketing

Your Guide to Eco-Friendly Photography in the Great Outdoors

March 4, 2021

By Maddie Mae

Updated 2/1/23

Photographers rely on access to public lands. No, not every outdoor shoot occurs in a national park or forest, but the photography world would look very different without the widespread excitement over epic images. I’d be naive to argue Instagram doesn’t affect where people want to take photos and where couples choose to elope. The most widely shared images peppered with comments of, “I want to go there!” often showcase photography that took place in our most beautiful landscapes. There’s a reason the stunning, fragile features of our public lands were set aside for protection in the first place, and I believe those of us with careers that depend on access to these places must do our part to protect them. That’s where Leave No Trace comes in, a set of seven guidelines for eco-friendly photography that are meant to help us photographers know where to put that care and attention when we venture out in nature. By following the guidelines of Leave No Trace, we can create a sustainable relationship with our outdoor studio. If we don’t, we’re going to see our favorite places closed for restoration or damaged irreparably. 

[Read: A Photographer’s Guide to Creating All-Day Elopement Packages]

Leave No Trace sometimes gets a bad rap. Misunderstandings and misuse have created barriers for many who would otherwise be on board with the eco-friendly photography ideology. These guidelines aren’t meant to be policed like “rules,” but instead are written in such a way to be intentionally vague and adaptable to all environments. If you’ve ever heard the term, “Take nothing but pictures and leave nothing but footprints,” you’re aware of the intent behind Leave No Trace.

I saw this gap in photography education: Photographers were learning how to get out into nature, but they didn’t know exactly why Leave No Trace and eco-friendly photography ethics mattered. That’s why I teamed up with Brandon and Gabi Fox of The Foxes Photography, Anni Graham, and the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics to produce a course intended to teach relevant Leave No Trace guidelines that photographers can use every time they shoot outdoors. You can listen to four full-time elopement photographers share how they do their best to follow eco-friendly photography ethics while also getting the most epic photos. Plus, all of the proceeds from the course go to the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics.

[Read: What Does It Really Take to Photograph Adventure Elopements?]

The 7 Principles of Leave No Trace

While each guideline is meant to be applicable to all environments, it’s up to those who spend time out in nature to learn how each eco-friendly photography principle applies to each specific environment they are in. The rules are a little different depending on the fragility of the terrain, the local wildlife, groundcover conditions and remoteness of the area, but no matter where you go, the basic idea is to avoid any harm. Part of our job as photographers is to navigate some simple education with our subjects so we’re on the same page on how to treat a location.

The seven principles of Leave No Trace are:

  1. Plan ahead and prepare
  2. Travel and camp on durable surfaces
  3. Dispose of waste properly
  4. Leave what you find
  5. Minimize campfire impacts
  6. Respect wildlife
  7. Be considerate of other visitors

eco-friendly photography ethics leave no trace maddie mae adventure instead
I feel a deep connection to the Leave No Trace principles and eco-friendly photography efforts, having seen the negative effects social media has ushered in for viewers and the environment firsthand. © Adventure Instead

An Increased Urgency for Eco-Friendly Photography

The ways environmental conservation and sustainability efforts affect photographers will always be an important conversation because a healthy environment affects everyone on the most basic level. We rely on a world that is balanced, and every living thing benefits if we abide by eco-friendly photography principles. If we don’t do our part to clean up after ourselves and set a good example, we’re going to lose access.

[Read: Why the Destination Wedding Photography Scene is Not Sustainable]

In the last few years, we’ve been witnessing an exponential rise in outdoor photography sessions, but land stewards are catching on that not all photographers are doing their part to minimally impact the spaces they shoot. Rather than try the exhaustive work of finding the individuals who litter, go off trail and shoot without permits, land stewards are beginning to close off places to photographers completely.

In just the last couple of years, we’ve witnessed Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP) reduce the number of weddings by 95 percent, and they’ve gone further to say photography sessions are now only allowed in a small handful of sites. This is a warning to those of us who work in national parks; other parks are looking to RMNP as an example. If it works and RMNP begins to show major improvements while other places don’t, we’re likely to witness busy parks elsewhere reduce capacity for photo sessions.

The Problem with Sharing Outdoor Photography

The images we share inspire others to get out and see inspiring places, so the way we capture these fragile environments speaks volumes about what is okay to the next person who visits. I feel a deep connection to this because I personally witnessed the negative impact of my images.

[Read: My Rebranding Story—From Big, Traditional Wedding Ceremonies to Tiny, Remote Getaways]

I’ve been photographing elopements for years, and one of my first sessions was in RMNP. It was reposted everywhere. Soon, other photographers were taking couples to that same spot, not knowing that the trek I’d taken to reach it was the long way around to avoid a fragile alpine meadow. Now, social trails from others taking the easy route have done damage to this place that will take decades to regrow.

I feel guilty that I didn’t think once about the long-term effect of my images and assumed others who found their way there would know never to hike off trail. It was incredibly naive of me to offer inspiration without insight, and that is what prompted me to develop eco-friendly photography education for photographers.

Those of us who are seasoned outdoor enthusiasts all learned from someone else at one point. None of us perfectly follow Leave No Trace the first time we step outside, and that’s okay. I want to do my part to provide photographers with the tools to protect the places they love.

Why Eco-Friendly Photography Matters More in 2021

A year into the pandemic, more and more people are wanting to get outdoors, which I think is a great thing! But there’s this awkward transition period when places grow in popularity too quickly, and the improper use of a fragile landscape during this time can have negative impacts on the land for decades. If we want to continue exploring pristine wilderness, we need to navigate it with a sustainable long-term mindset now.

[Read: How to Price Elopement Photography and Determine Your Value (No Undercutting!)]

To account for the increased foot traffic, barriers are being put up at viewpoints, dirt trailheads are being widened and paved to discourage visitors from parking on the side of the roads, and permits to photograph shoots are becoming more expensive.

I believe the solution is inclusive and accessible eco-friendly photography education. In addition to following the rules of the individual places we visit, the Leave No Trace guidelines can help us understand why local rules matter so much and fill in the gaps so we know best practices when we end up in situations where there isn’t a sign telling us what to do.

Sharing is Caring & Shame Isn’t Helpful

We can have an exponentially greater impact by sharing what we know if we educate in a caring manner. When your goal is to influence behavior, responding lovingly goes a lot further than shaming someone for making a mistake. The Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics has spoken out about shaming in the past, and they unequivocally condemn it as a strategy for protecting our environment.

We partnered with them to teach Leave No Trace to photographers because we align with their anti-shaming approach. Our goal was to give photographers the tools to empathetically encourage their community and their clients to care, while also striving to do better themselves. In the course itself, we sit down with Ben Lawhon, director of education and research at the Leave No Trace Center, and he expresses his belief repeatedly that the goal of Leave No Trace is not perfection; the goal is betterment. Unequal access to gear, resources and time means that outdoor recreation looks different for everyone, when there is no single “right way” to enjoy being outside.

[Read: Book Your First Elopements with These Marketing Techniques]

It can be super uncomfortable to speak up, and that’s why leading by example is the most effective form of teaching eco-friendly photography. Each of us who took part in crafting the Leave No Trace course have made mistakes, and we own up to that. We’ve also taken the initiative to provide resources that will make it easier for you to explain Leave No Trace to your clients and ultimately craft a more enjoyable experience for your clients. 

eco-friendly photography maddie mae in national park for elopement photography
I like to keep my geotags vague, not only to help protect locations but to help educate viewers on the importance of Leave No Trace. Vague geotags like “Colorado” also make it easier for potential clients to find you via social media! © Adventure Instead

Geotagging: The Good, The Bad & The Ugly 

People point fingers at geotagging because Instagram and other platforms have prioritized it and incentivized the use of location information to share images. I’ll start with an admission: Yes, I use the geotagging features on Instagram. However, I do not post specific locations. Geotagging (the practice of tagging images with a GPS location) has negatively affected a handful of notable “Insta-worthy” destinations.

But the conversation around geotagging is so much more complex than simply whether or not you should do it. Judging the impact of your actions comes back to being intentional, which is what Leave No Trace is all about. It is absolutely possible to have a eco-friendly photography presence online while also abiding by Leave No Trace. Doing right by our nature studio simply takes a little more planning.

From a business standpoint, photographers are already working really hard to overcome the constantly evolving algorithms and shouldn’t have to limit themselves because they’re trying to be sustainable.

What if I told you a vague geotag is actually better for marketing? Think about it this way: If someone is looking for a photographer in Colorado, they aren’t looking at a specific trailhead tag. You’re more likely to connect with people searching for “Colorado photographers” or “Denver photographers,” and then you can showcase your location expertise with booked clients by helping them find a truly unique, off-the-beaten-path spot to get married.

Tips for Ethical Geotagging

  1. Be vague. If someone can click on the image and the location tag will bring them right to a fragile environment, it’s too specific. When we geotag posts on the Adventure Instead Instagram, we use the state or city. Sometimes we’ll tag a national park, but we never get more specific than that.
  2. Use disclaimers. Even if you aren’t geotagging the exact location, use your platform to share tips for responsible recreation and eco-friendly photography in the environment depicted.
  3. Avoid gatekeeping. Don’t use Leave No Trace as an excuse for trying to control a space by limiting access. This arrogance is called “gatekeeping,” and it’s a method used by those with resources to shut out those without.
  4. Post intentionally. Ask yourself whether the image depicted is a proper representation of responsible recreation. If it isn’t, don’t share it.

You can even use location-specific features for good. If you post images of a fragile environment and explain the needs of that location in the caption, you can offer eco-friendly photography tips to help others capture beautiful images while staying on trail, which is something we cover in the Leave No Trace course. By inviting people into nature while providing them the tools and information to recreate responsibly, we’ll find there is space for everyone outdoors.

Maddie Mae is an adventure elopement photographer through her business, Adventure Instead, based in Colorado. She was named one of Rangefinder’s 30 Rising Star of Wedding Photography in 2018. Join a community of adventurous wedding and elopement photographers and take your business to the next level with tons of free trainings, collaboration and genuine connections by Adventure Instead.