The ethics of disclosing where photographs were taken


I spend a lot of time on public lands and waters, where I see many amazing and delightful things. I photograph them and share them with others. It is not uncommon for people to say, “Wow, where was this taken?” In some cases, I might be very specific or give a general locale, but there are times when I might be loath to announce exactly where I have taken a photograph. Some of the reasons are ethical, some a sense of preservation, and some… a little more selfish.

Wildlife

I won’t disclose the location of bird nests or animal dens that I come across. This, for me, is an ethical one. If people learn of these sites, they may get drawn- with no harm intended- to try and catch a peek of these animals and they’re young. Even with the best of intentions, this can drive adults away, causing them to abandon eggs or young.

Spending too much time near these areas where young animals are, can get the young too used to people, can make them less cautious than they should be. Part of the beauty of wild creatures is that they are wild.

I will give general locations of animals, where people can come across them while they are out and about, but I try not to reveal specific locations that are important to their life needs. I might say “I often see Bobcats while kayaking on Tomales Bay.” I won’t say, “If you paddle to the second cove past the big rock (I’m making up these directions), you’ll find an otter den with several pups.”

20130208-134546.jpg

I won’t reveal where I came across this mother weasel hunting for its young. Sorry.

Landscapes

Some locations I proudly announce the name of when I display my photographs. In fact, I would say this is the norm rather than the exception, especially with landscapes. People will often feel more of a connection with a picture, if it is of a place they are familiar with. It’s good PR and business sense to tell locations, because it offers that connection. If someone wants to go to the same spot and take one’s own version, fine. It won’t be the exact same picture, because of differences in composition, weather, and lighting. We all see things differently, and our photographs will often show those differences. If someone goes to the area, and they just aren’t satisfied with their own images after seeing yours, that’s fantastic. You’ve just reinforced in their minds what a good photographer you are. If you’re afraid of competition, then perhaps you’re not doing everything you could to make the images you want.

I’ll also tell or display where landscapes were taken because I want to inspire people to go out and visit their local parks. They are there for all of us, and the more we use them and show our support of them, the more likely it is that more parks will be created, preserving more habitat and beauty, whether it is on the municipal, county, state, or federal level. Also, the more attention our parks get, the more likely it is that they will continue to get funded. Here in California, when the budget has problems, it is often the parks that get hit first. Some of my favorite parks have been shut down, and others are now only open on weekends.

What will stop me from disclosing an exact location, is when an influx of people will change the character of a place, threatening the habitat or environment. Part of taking pictures of beautiful places is preserving them. While I want to promote my parks, I don’t want them to become over run.

Finally, there are a few areas I don’t share, simply because I know they are places where I know I can find a quiet spot to rest and get away from it all when I need to- places that are special to me. I have spots I’ve been going to for years, where I’ve never come across another person, even though they are on public land. I don’t want that to change.

Sometimes it can be tricky balancing the sharing of a place with protecting it. Sometimes I feel somewhat selfish, but I feel it is the wise choice to err towards protecting important places in the end.

20130208-134644.jpg I’ll happily let everyone know that I photographed this old railroad bed just north of the town of Point Reyes, on Highway 1. Stop at the first dirt turnout when the bay comes fully into view, and you’ll find a trail leading down the hillside. With this photo, I help give people a sense of the history and nature of the place. When I give more information, it gives the photograph more meaning.

About Galen Leeds Photography

Nature and wildlife photographer, exploring the world on his feet and from his kayak. Among other genres, he is one of the leading kayak photographers in Northern California. To learn more about him, visit him on his website- www.galenleeds.net
This entry was posted in ethics, Location, nature photography, photography, wildlife photography and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

23 Responses to The ethics of disclosing where photographs were taken

  1. chbo1 says:

    You have a lot of stunning photos on your blog and we would love to make you an author or at least feature some of your photos on our blog. If you are interested please email wp.wildlifepic@aol.com and check out our blog wildlifepic.wordpress.com .

  2. janechese says:

    I shared the location of a nest with one other photographer but declined to share it publicly for the sake of the young. Good points you made especially about keeping a preferred quit spot for yourself.

    • I can understand sharing it with one other person that you trust, and whom you know will respect the animal and its space. It is more the wholesale sharing and turning loose too many people and unknown factors into an area that should be respected and protected that we have to watch out for.

      My quiet spots are so pleasant I enjoy visiting them with and without my camera. They’re nice just for laying out in the sun… I like not hearing other peoples shutters clicking at those times.

  3. Mike Powell says:

    There’s a lot to ponder in your posting. So far I haven’t gone too far in the wild or found the kind of subjects that require the special care that you describe, but if I continue along the trajectory in photography that I am pursuing, I can see this issue surfacing. Thanks for prompting me to think about this, so I can be ready to give an appropriate answer when someone asks me a simple question about where I took a photo.

    • It’s always nice when I can give someone a little food for thought. In my early days, before I learned to ponder such things, I mentioned innocently where I had seen a nest, and when I saw the person’s eyes light up and their shutter finger starting to twitch, it made me start to consider all of this. When explained in terms of the animals safety, people are usually very understanding about why you won’t tell them exactly where you photographed something.

  4. I so agree with you Galen. I would never report on a nesting site either. You kinda read my mind because on my other blog, I am posting a Egret rookery and made the point to say, “These nesting sites are an excellent opportunity for photographers to photograph nests, but it is important to avoid disturbing the birds by keeping one’s distance.” I did not have a telephoto lens, so I sacrificed my image for the sake of the birds. I am neither a pro photographer or a naturalist, yet I know about keeping my distance for the sake of the animals. Some animals abandon nests while other won’t. Knowing which is important. Your post is a good warning to people how important a safe environment is to these creatures. Love that weasel. The photo was really tiny (like icon size) when I uploaded the post. Then I clicked and it grew!

    • I’m not surprised that you agree Donna. With the care and consideration you seem to show not only with your own photography, but also in how you make a haven of your garden for all of your winged visitors, I am not surprised at all. I also think that most people will agree with it when they stop to think about it. And it’s very true how different birds and animals can react so differently to our presence. I notice it so often when I head out for a walk. Some species of birds dart into the bushes at great distances, while others allow a fairly close approach along a trail. Still others will be curious, and come closer before darting off.

      Part of why I posted this, is that there has been some controversy in my area lately. Some “photographers” have been heading to a marsh area twenty miles from me, because there are a lot of interesting birds to see, including several Short-eared Owls… which are sort of hard to see (and therefor photograph), unless you spook them into the air. Some of these spooked owls have then been caught, killed, and eaten by Red-tailed Hawks, which while very exciting and interesting to photograph, isn’t the best way to photograph and explore nature. So it’s been on my mind lately. It’s gotten many of the local birders up in arms against photographers in general (although they are accepting of the ones that they know are conscientious). It has brought an increase in rangers and tension.

      I’m hoping that weasel will have her den in the same area again. She was a delight to photograph. (I tried to be respectful of them, and there seemed to be several nests of them in the area, so my chances are good.) I’m glad the weasel got bigger when you clicked on it. I did this post on my phone, and I never quite know how those will turn out.

  5. I agree with you 100%. I even think hard at times about what to include in posts to my blog, I publish nothing unless it has become common knowledge in this area.

    • Yes, sometimes I will wait a while between when I took a photograph and when I post it, if I think the image could have adverse affects when posted right away, but it’s an image that I think others would enjoy.

  6. lylekrahn says:

    All of that makes good sense to me.

    • It’s all pretty common sense stuff, but it sometimes amazes me how for some of the people I see out there common sense seems to have taken a vacation.

      • lylekrahn says:

        I sometimes think there is no such thing as common sense, it all has to be acquired.

      • There’s a lot of good sense in that thawt. Sense is definitely a subjective thing. Spending time in cultures other than our own makes it apparent, that what makes sense to one person was learned from our own cultures… Actually just spending time in other areas of the same country it can become evident.

  7. EhkStream says:

    Well written address to an important issue. Thanks!

  8. dogear6 says:

    I agree with your points about protecting the environment and your privacy. Another point for me too though is the work I did to find the places where I take my pictures. Other people have the same access I do and can spend their own weekends scouting out the places to take pictures. Why should I do all the work so someone else can rush in at the end? I’m tired of wannabe photographers who say I want to take pictures but I don’t know what of! Point me in the right direction so I can take pictures too. Umm. . . no. It doesn’t work that way.

    Nancy

  9. beachmama says:

    I am intimately familiar with the trail from your last photo. When my son was 4 he went to a co-op preschool in Tomales three days a week. After school we went for a hike and this was one of our favorite places to go. I’d pack a picnic and we’d often stay until the light was fading. On this trail I remember a big pond where we’d sometimes picnic and then nap. My son is now nearly 17 years-old and won’t hike with me unless I bribe him big time.

    Sometimes I sort of hesitate to name places I’ve photographed fearing a deluge of hikers but it never happens. Most people stick close to their cars and won’t bother hiking as far as I’m willing to go. I’m baffled when I hike in a beautiful setting and never see a single soul . . .

    • I was the same way growing up. Went on all sorts of hikes, picnics and adventures when I was a kid. When I became a teenager my priorities changed and I spent much less time out in nature. Then in my twenties I rediscovered it, and finally understood what my parents had been doing and enjoying when I was a kid. Now I can’t get enough of it, and I think it’s in due in a fairly large part to that early exposure as a youngster. Give it a few years and maybe you won’t have to bribe him, but instead be racing to keep up.

      It’s amazing how, with so many people around we can find such empty trails so regularly, especially if we can make it out on mid-week hikes.

  10. ingrid says:

    Galen, I couldn’t agree more with this post. Excellent. Those are my general guidelines as well, especially about nesting sites. I don’t often photograph nests, either, because of disturbance concerns and also possibility of leaving a scent trail for a predator to follow. (I realize there are birds, like Ospreys, which tend to tolerate human presence more than other species.)

    Recently, I photographed Snowy Owls in a location that’s well known by nearly everyone in the area. I went against my own policy by captioning the general location, thinking it was already so well known. But, I flashed back to last year, when I witnessed some pretty bad photographer behavior in the field, and decided I couldn’t abide by my decision to name the location. I subsequently removed it from my descriptions. Like you, I want to promote parks and wildlife areas that need people to care about them. But I recognize there’s a critical balance to strike between promotion and protection.

    • I believe it was some of your photos of Snowies that originally drew me to your pages. Some beautiful images. I generally stay away from nests also. It’s just not worth the risk to the animal and its young. I can also understand your dilemma about discussing where the Snowy Owl was. I think in general, it is best to be a little overprotective as you were by removing the location. Best to play it safe for the animal before all else, when finding that balance between promotion and preservation.

      • ingrid says:

        Yes, I sort of broke my own rule with that one and won’t again. Not that anything untoward happened in this instance. I like your personal assessment about landscape locations, too.

        There is one obvious exception I make: there are times when nests or wild animals are in a spot where human harassment is an issue. (I’ve encountered that several times). In that case, I clue local people in to the location, to keep an eye on the other humans, actually. In those instances, the more eyes and lens keeping a lookout, the better.

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