Watch your step

Reflection, El Capitan winter morning, Yosemite

Trouble brewing

I have many “favorite” photo locations in Yosemite Valley–some, like Tunnel View, are known to all; others, like this location along the Merced River, aren’t exactly secrets, but they’re far enough off the beaten path to be overlooked by the vacationing masses. While I used to count on being alone here, as often as not lately I share this shoreline with other photographers. While it’s nice to have a location to myself (so far I can still find a few of those spots in Yosemite Valley), I’m usually happy to share prime photographic real estate with a kindred spirit.

But. In recent years I’ve noticed more photographers abusing nature in ways that at best betrays their ignorance, and at worst reveals their indifference to the fragility of the very subjects that inspire them to click their shutters in the first place. Of course it’s impossible to have zero impact on the natural world: Starting from the time we leave home we consume energy that directly or indirectly pollutes the atmosphere and contributes greenhouse gases. Once we arrive at our  destination, every footfall alters the world in ways ranging from subtle to dramatic–not only do our shoes crush rocks, plants, and small creatures, our noise clashes with the natural sounds that comfort humans and communicate to animals, and our vehicles and clothing scatter microscopic, non-indiginous flora and fauna.

For example

A certain amount of damage is an unavoidable consequence of keeping the natural world accessible to all who would like to appreciate it, a tightrope our National Park Service does an excellent job navigating. It’s even easy to believe that we’re not the problem–I mean, who’d have thought merely walking on “dirt” could impact the ecosystem for tens or hundreds of years? But before straying off the trail for that unique perspective of Delicate Arch, check out this admonition from Arches National Park.

Hawaii’s black sand beaches may appear unique and enduring, but the next time you consider scooping a sample to share with friends back on the mainland, know that Hawaii’s black sand is a finite, ephemeral phenomenon that will be replaced with “conventional” white sand as soon as its volcanic source is tapped–as evidenced by the direct correlation between the islands with the most black sands beaches and the islands with the most recent volcanic activity.

While Yosemite’s durable granite may lull photographers into environmental complacency, its meadows and wetlands are quite fragile, hosting many plants and insects that are an integral part of the natural balance that makes Yosemite unique. Not only that, they’re also home to, and nesting places of, native mammals, birds, and reptiles that so many enjoy photographing. Despite all this, I can’t tell you how often I see people in Yosemite (photographers in particular) unnecessarily trampling meadows, either to get in position for a shot or as a shortcut.

Don’t be this person

Still not convinced? If I can’t appeal to your environmental conscience, consider that simply wandering about with a camera and/or tripod labels you, “Photographer.” In that role you represent the entire photography community: when you do harm as Photographer, most observers (the general public and decision makers) go no farther than applying the Photographer label and lumping all of us into the same offending group.

Like it or not, one photographer’s indiscretion affects the way every photographer is perceived, and potentially brings about restrictions that directly or indirectly impact all of us. If you like fences, permits, and rules, just keep going wherever you want to go, whenever you want to go there.

It’s not that difficult

Environmental responsibility doesn’t require joining Greenpeace or dropping off the grid (not that there’s anything wrong with that). Simply taking a few minutes to understand natural concerns specific to whatever area you visit is a good place to start. Most public lands have websites with information they’d love you to read before visiting. And most park officials are more than happy to share literature on the topic (you might in fact find useful information right there in that stack of papers you jammed into the center console as you drove away from the entrance station).

When you’re in the field, think before advancing. Train yourself to anticipate each future step with the understanding of its impact–believe it or not, this isn’t a particularly difficult habit to form. Whenever you see trash, please pick it up even if it isn’t yours. And don’t be shy about reminding other photographers whose actions risk soiling the reputation for all of us.


A few years ago, as a condition of my Death Valley workshop permit, I was guided to The Center for Outdoor Ethics and their “Leave No Trace” initiative. There’s great information here–much of it is just plain common sense, but I guarantee you’ll learn things too.

Now go out and enjoy nature–and please save it for the rest of us.


A few words about this image

I captured this image while guiding a customer on a private workshop the day before last week’s Yosemite winter workshop. After months of clear skies, the sun rose on two inches of fresh snow in Yosemite Valley. As I did two days later when my workshop group was greeted with another dose of overnight snow, I shifted into hurry-up mode to get to as many spots as possible in the couple of hours we had before the snow would be gone–once the sun hits the trees, the snow disappears like magic.

After watching the storm clear from Tunnel View, we arrived here just in time to watch the day’s first light descend the surrounding granite walls. Our timing was ideal, as reflections are never better than when the reflective subject is in sun and the reflective surface in shade.

Shooting on a tripod (always!) enabled me to be at my camera’s ideal ISO 100 and select the f-stop the scene called for, without worrying about the resulting shutter speed. In this case I opted for a wide composition to include all of El Capitan and its reflection, which gave me lots of depth of field. Since the focus point for a reflection is the focus point of the reflective subject, not the reflective surface (that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t focus on the reflection, it just means you should take care not to focus on something floating on or resting beneath the reflection), at 20mm everything in my frame was at infinity. With depth of field not a concern, I dialed in f11, my lens’s sharpest f-stop (lenses tend to be sharper in their middle f-stops). F11 brought the added benefit of reducing image-softening diffraction that happens at smaller f-stops–I’ll go smaller than f11 only when the composition calls for it (or if I forget to change it from a previous shot).

The dynamic range (the range of light from darkest shadow to brightest highlight) was too much for my camera to handle, but a two-stop hard-transition graduated neutral density filter subdued the brilliant sunlight, enabling enough exposure to reveal detail in the foreground shadows. Hiding the GND transition in the linear band of shoreline trees was easy, and simple dodging and burning in Photoshop brought out shadow detail and ensured that the sunlit El Capitan was brighter than its reflection (as it should be). Also in Photoshop I applied a light touch with Topaz noise reduction, desaturated the sky slightly to prevent it from overpowering the scene, and did selective sharpening (selecting only the areas containing detail).

(While I do take my groups to this quiet spot beside the Merced River, the fragile riverside setting that requires crossing a small meadow makes me reluctant to share it with the general public.)

7 Comments on “Watch your step

  1. I agree with your words about taking care of where and how we make or way in sensitive areas. I thank you for having the strength to remind all of us of how simple it is to destroy the beauty that we seek to preserve through our photos.
    (P.S. And the image is absolutely beautiful)

  2. Great advice, walking around Yosemite or any other place, I see trash that should not be. “Leave No Trace” should be on everyone’s minds. As the crowds leave Horsetail Fall, they also leave their trash. We should be watchful of what we leave behind, but not only that, we should care a small bag to pickup other’s trash. Nothing is worse then taking a picture of something beautiful , like the picture above, and seeing trash in the frame.

  3. Gary – I think you are right to be worried. One need only look at the Tufas at Mono Lake to know that you are right. The last time I was there, I was apalled at how much damage had been done since the previous time I was there. Your words really resonate with me, and I have been thinking along the same lines for some months now. The more people that realize the damage they are doing the better. Unfortunately there is always a small majority of people who don’t care. That really makes me sad.

    • Yeah, Chris, Mono Lake’s tufa in particular is is the victim of abuse by ignorant photographers. It’s a rare visit that I don’t see someone with their camera and tripod perched atop the tufa. I’ve started shooing them down and hope others will do the same.

  4. We are definitely “loving nature to death.” We face the same issues underwater both as divers and underwater photographers. I recently noticed one of the world’s top u/w photographers literally with his huge camera rig perched on top of a delicate coral head. Each little touch adds up to big damage. In fact, I think I’ll go blog about it as well!

  5. Pingback: Profile of a Responsible Dive Guide « « Adventure Life Design | Scuba Diving Adventures | Live Adventurously Adventure Life Design | Scuba Diving Adventures | Live Adventurously

  6. Hi Gary – I will leave as quick as possible of a note re your wonderful image and then move on to your primary discourse which has really touched a nerve (i.e. I am on your side). Thanks so much for your explanation about the hard edged filters..I can really see the wonderful effect, esp. on the water-laden reflection. The trees above the water, by the same token, just blow my mind. The swirling mist around them and the snow in them just mesmerizing. Almost an ethereal environment down there 🙂 I do so love this image…..As for the ungracious ones who abuse: I’m not sure if it is because I am getting older or what, but I see so many inconsiderate actions going on, and you are right, if they have a camera, tripod and gear, they brand themselves to others and, actually, I actually look upon abusive folks carrying camera gear with a LOT more disdain if they are abusive to nature, than I would those who are just out there, becasue, to me, photags are SUPPOSED to know better! But I guess with the ever-increasing numbers of them / us, it is inevitable that there will be those who just don’t care about anything but themselves…This is a “don’t get me started” moment , so I will stop. But I always try to really be careful about where, how, and when I take a shot and how I get into position..if it is smashing across a fragile spot, forget it, I don’t do it. It is simple common sense. Wow now I need to calm down. An excellent piece that really needs to be broadcast even more. Thanks for the links too – I am signing up with Leave No Trace. I wish you all the best, Gary 🙂

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