Secret locations (and why they should stay that way)

Gary Hart Photography: Wildflowers and Mt. Adams, Washington

Wildflowers and Mt. Adams, Columbia River Gorge
Sony a7R II
Sony/Zeiss 16-35 f4
1/25 second
F/18
ISO 3200

As a professional photographer with a pretty large social media following, I get a lot of questions from complete strangers. What camera (or lens, or tripod, or whatever) should I buy? What were your settings for this picture? Did you use a filter? What’s the best time to photograph such-and-such a location? Because I don’t believe there should be secrets in photography, I do my best to answer these questions as quickly and completely as my time permits (though it seems that the time I have to answer questions decreases at about the rate the volume of questions increases).

Among the most frequently asked questions is, “Where did you take this picture, and how do I get there?” But, despite my “no secrets” policy, I’m no longer as free with location information as I once was. I can cite (at least) three reasons, none of which is a desire to prevent others from duplicating my shot (the best photography requires far more than location knowledge anyway).

First

I’m disappointed by the laziness of many photographers who simply want to duplicate an image they’ve admired. (No, I don’t think that simply asking for a location automatically makes you lazy, and in fact have been known to ask for location details when something about a spot interests me—but identifying a location should be the photographer’s starting point, not the goal.) I’ve seen enough duplicate images to know that I don’t want to perpetuate the epidemic.

Second

Sadly, the quickest way to ruin a location is to invite photographers. It seems that as soon as the word is out about a new spot, it becomes impossible to visit in peace, and even worse, to enjoy it without having to face the damage done by photographers who preceded you. You’d think that people who photograph nature would take better care of it, but that doesn’t appear to be the case, at least not for everyone.

It’s unfortunate that the actions of a few can ruin things for everyone, but these disrespectful few are far more visible than the respectful majority. The more photographers try to squeeze into spaces too small to accommodate them, spilling into fragile areas, crowding out tourists with just as much right to be there (“Hey, you’re in my shot!”), the more fences and rules are installed to keep us out.

And finally

I’d love to be wealthy enough to make myself available as a fount of photography information to all who ask. But because photography is my livelihood, I have to balance the time I spend against the income it generates.

When people pay me for a photo workshop, not only do I like to guide them to all the locations they’ve seen in the pictures, I also like to be able to give them perspectives a little off the beaten path and less heavily photographed. For that reason (and the fact that I just plain enjoy doing it), I spend a lot of time researching: Scouring maps, studying books, and googling before I visit for sure, but more importantly, polling locals and exploring independently (Hmmm, this road looks interesting…) once I arrive. This takes time, sometimes a lot of time.

About this image

I bring all this up because the image today was captured at a location that Don Smith and I “discovered” (it’s not as if we’re Lewis and Clark, but you get the point) while scouting before this year’s Columbia River Gorge workshops (back-to-back, collaborative workshops organized by Don and me). Despite our familiarity with any location, Don and I always allow time to explore for more spots on every visit. Which is how we found ourselves bouncing along dirt roads and traipsing up and down remote hillsides on both sides of the gorge earlier this spring.

When we found this spot, Don and I immediately agreed on two points: 1) We have to take the workshop groups here 2) Too many photographers would destroy this place. And since the surest way to invite a trampling hoard of photographers is to share directions to a location, I won’t do that. But here’s a tip: some of my favorite photo spots have been found while searching for other spots.

So, after cautioning our groups to treat each destination with care, we did take them to this new spot. The first group had to contend with 30 MPH winds—we made those shots work by bumping our ISOs and concentrating more on views wide and distant enough to minimize motion blur. The second group landed here in a gentle breeze that ranged from slight to nonexistent, allowing us to get up close and personal with the flowers.

The image I’m sharing today came right at the end of the second group’s visit. The sun had been down for about ten minutes, but because the light was so nice, and the color seemed to linger in the sky above Mt. Adams, I just couldn’t bring myself to leave. With my lens just inches from the flowers, even at 16mm and f18, complete front-to-back sharpness was impossible. Forced to choose between foreground or background sharpness, I opted to make the trio of yellow balsam root in my foreground sharp, and let the background go a little soft. By this time it was dark enough that I bumped my ISO to 3200 to ensure a shutter speed fast enough to avoid motion blur.

Off the beaten path (20 feet to 20 miles from the crowd)

Click an image for a closer look, and a slide show. Refresh the screen to reorder the display.
 

8 Comments on “Secret locations (and why they should stay that way)

  1. Great shot, Gary. Clean, crisp, wonderful, like I’m standing in the meadow. Just love it.

  2. Beautiful, Gary. I agree with Jan, makes me feel as if I standing in the meadow. Also, I agree with your decision to keep certain locations secret. Altho, I still enjoying shooting at locations you have told me about.

  3. I certainly respect your opinion on this issue, I just disagree. If someone is inspired to ask about a location so they too can visit, why not give a general area instead of specifics? For instance, the image of Mount Adams could just be “The Columbia River Gorge area”. And why shouldn’t others be able to go photograph the same area, whether or not they duplicate an existing image? If a photographer is aiming to photograph and represent a landscape, the image should aim to stand out regardless if others have visited the same spot. If the image isn’t about the location, then don’t mention it. Also, sharing images on social media opens the photographer up to these questions. I think choosing to withhold locations can create a disconnect with viewers because the photographer becomes a bit of an elitist instead of a source of inspiration. Just my thoughts on this topic and nothing personal about your decisions to do so.

    • Thanks for your comments Eric, but I’m a little confused—it’s almost as if you didn’t read my post, and haven’t followed me very long (or at all?). Citing your example, did you see the title label beneath the image (where it says, “Columbia River Gorge”)? In fact, if you can show me a single image on my blog, website, or Facebook page that doesn’t include at least a general location, I’ll immediately correct the oversight. And regarding your social media comment, I acknowledged in my very first sentence that my social media presence pretty much ensures that I’ll get many questions, which I’m happy to answer.

      I didn’t go into a lot of detail in the blog post (I really do try to keep things here as positive as possible), but I’ve found that the most demanding queries tend to come from strangers who start with a simple question about a location, and pretty soon are demanding directions, GPS coordinates, and the times to be there. Once they get the information they want, I don’t hear from them again (no thank you, no acknowledgement of my assistance when they post their image) until their next location demand. So part of my reluctance to share location specifics, and my frustration with photographers too lazy to do the work I’ve already done, stems from this attitude of ungrateful entitlement. I also can’t help inferring from their attitude that these are most likely the photographers who commit the offenses I cite in my second point.

      Guiding and teaching photographers for many years, my philosophy has always been to give people the tools to get great images rather than simply handing them locations. I try to help everyone, paying customers or complete strangers, but my time is limited, so the strangers who solicit me for information won’t get quite the same attention my paying customers get. On the other hand, my website, blog, and Facebook page are chock-full of photography tips and location information that I share with everyone who visits.

      Thanks again for your comments, Eric. While I take issue with them, I do appreciate your respectful tone that encourages dialogue rather than vitriol—if only all internet exchange could be so civil.

  4. Thanks for the response, your point makes more sense now and I can see why you’re frustrated with the lack of gratitude once you do share the information. Also, I thoroughly read your posts, have followed your work for quite some time and sincerely appreciate what you do share:) EE

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