Man Standing Near Water

Leave No Trace Guide for Photographers

The concept of Leave No Trace has been around in the outdoor industry for many years. But as increasing numbers of people head into outdoor spaces, it’s becoming more important than ever to enjoy these areas responsibly, and to use our influence as photographers and content creators to inspire and educate others to do the same.

The “Leave No Trace” way of responsible outdoor recreation follows these Leave No Trace Seven Principles:

  1. Plan Ahead & Prepare
  2. Travel & 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 Others

So let’s take a look at each of these seven principles in more detail. We’ll break down what they mean, and how they might apply to you as a photographer.

Plus size guy with photo camera and black young bearded man with backpack and tourist mat standing near tent and looking up
Photo by Kamaji Ogino. Source: Pexels

Plan Ahead and Prepare

Before you go anywhere, it’s important to research where you’re going. This is important not only to ensure that you’re not unintentionally causing damage to an area but also that you’re able to keep yourself (and anyone traveling with you) safe.

When planning ahead, you’re going to want to research the following:

  • Permits, access restrictions, or local regulations
    Visiting a national park or other protected area may require you to apply for a permit, and if you’re there taking photos or filming commercially, you may need to apply for additional permits. Other regulations might include tripod and drone restrictions and restricted opening hours or restricted access to certain sites.
  • Weather and trail conditions
    Before you head out, make sure to check the weather forecast and get an update on the trail conditions. In winter you’ll need to know about whether there is snow and ice on the trails, and if there’s avalanche danger. In the summertime, you’ll need to check the forecast for summer storms, especially if you’re planning on shooting around sunset and golden hour.
  • Understanding the terrain and flora and fauna of the region
    Get to know the area you are traveling in. Know what kind of landscape you’ll be traveling through and what types of plants and animals you might encounter. Check if there are particular areas of concern, such as fragile ground or breeding animals that you need to stay away from.
  • What gear you’ll need – including navigation and safety equipment
    Yes, of course, you want to plan what photography gear you’re taking with you but don’t leave out important items from your backpack to make space for your camera gear. Depending on how long you plan to be out, the weather, and the trail conditions make sure that you dress and pack your bag appropriately. Make sure you’re wearing suitable footwear, sun protection and layers to help keep you warm or dry if the weather changes. You’ll also want to pack your essential safety equipment as required, such as a first aid kid, bear spray, navigation tools, and a torch or headlamp in case you’re out after dark.
  • How much food and water to take
    When you’re planning your adventure, work out how much food and water you’ll need. Some of the most preventable emergency callouts come from hikers who ran out of water too soon. Yes, water is heavy but don’t scrimp just to save a few pounds of weight.
  • Avoiding peak times
    As photographers, we generally want to avoid crowds anyway, but visiting a location outside of peak times can also help reduce the strain on the natural environment.

Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces

Damage mostly occurs when areas are trampled beyond recovery. To not contribute to further damage it’s important to stick to durable surfaces and marked trails when there are ones (even when it’s wet and muddy). Durable surfaces include established trails, campsites, rock, gravel, and dry grasses or snow.

As photographers, sometimes sticking to trails can be frustrating, especially when you can see spots off-trail that look nicer for photos. However, it’s important to avoid following “unofficial” trails to photo spots, especially if the impacts of ground erosion are starting to show.

If you happen to be camping, you should follow the rules of the area as well as common LNT practices such as:

  • Camp in designated campsites when they are available
  • Keep wild campsites small and stay in areas where there isn’t vegetation
  • Camp at least 200ft from water
Camping Place
Photo by Murray Hemingway. Source: Pexels

Dispose of Waste Properly

What goes in must come out – not just into your body, but all of your waste. Unless you’re hiking somewhere where there are trash bins along the trails (which isn’t in many places), all waste – including food waste – should be brought home and disposed of. Even waste that’s biodegradable should be taken home as it can be eaten by wildlife or take months or years to decompose by itself (if it doesn’t grow there, it doesn’t go there). And when it comes to those human bodily functions we all have, it’s important to know what you need to do if you’ve got to answer nature’s call. Nobody wants to carry around used toilet paper or a bag of their own poop, but sometimes that’s what you need to do.

Leave What You Find

It goes without saying (we hope) that doing anything to damage nature is a big NO. And whilst we would like to hope most people don’t take pieces of nature home as souvenirs, the principle of “leave what you find” also includes not altering the natural landscape in any way – even for photos. That includes not picking wildflowers, moving rocks, leaves or pieces of wood.

Minimize Campfire Impacts 

With the invention of superlight camping stoves, the need for building campfires has greatly reduced. Should the need arise check local regulations (especially fire warnings) and only build campfires where permitted. Keep fires small and make sure they are fully extinguished and the cold ashes are scattered before leaving.

Magic light of Forest
Photo by Shoyab Khan. Source: Pexels

Respect Wildlife

Wildlife encounters can be a wonderful experience – especially if you’ve got your camera ready. But it’s important to remember that most of the time, you are in their home.

  • Keep Your Distance
    Whether it’s wild animals or farm animals, it’s important to keep your distance, even when animals seem to be curious and approach you. When you’re planning your trip, check what animals you might encounter and be especially diligent if it’s mating season or if there are likely to be animals raising their young.
  • Don’t Feed Them
    Feeding animals food that isn’t part of their diet can make them sick, but that’s just one of the problems it causes. Animals have been documented to alter their natural behaviors and rely on humans for food, which might seem harmless, but if tourists stop coming (like in the pandemic), they are no longer able to fend for themselves.
  • Store Food Safely
    In some areas, you might need to think about how you’re going to store your food so that wildlife cannot get access to it, whether that’s bears in North America or monkeys in Southeast Asia.
  • Be Extra Mindful in Winter
    The winter months can be extra critical for many wild animals. Because food is scarce, many animals must try to conserve energy. All it can take is an unexpected encounter with people to scare them away from their nests or feeding grounds, which many don’t survive. To be mindful of wildlife, try to plan your trips outside of their main feeding times (usually dawn and dusk) and stick to more heavily trafficked trails.
  • Follow all guidelines regarding pets
    If you are planning on taking a furry friend with you, make sure you check what the local regulations are.

Be Considerate of Others

This is another one of the principles that should be a given. Just be a respectful human being. However, sadly I’ve had many encounters personally, and heard of countless more from others where this hasn’t been the case.

Especially when it comes to photography, it can be super annoying if you’ve got to a location, set up a tripod for a timelapse and loads of people walk right through it. But everyone has the same right to enjoy a location, whether they are there as a professional on assignment or they are a tourist with a smartphone. Respect gets respect.

Other ways to be considerate of others (whether you’re a photographer or not) include:

  • Keeping noise to a minimum. Speak quietly and don’t play music from your phone or speakers.
  • Don’t block trails or viewpoints
  • Greet others as you pass them

But being considerate also extends to respecting the local communities and indigenous cultures too. This includes being mindful of culturally sensitive areas or practices and also respecting private property.

If you’d like to learn more about Leave No Trace, and dig into these topics in more detail, I highly recommending visiting where they have some amazing free courses and resources all around being a responsible outdoor user.

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