On photography etiquette and choosing your location

The Rocky Mountains, near sunset
The Rocky Mountains, near sunset, with light clouds around. Taken from the roof of the west parking garage at Cherry Creek Mall in Denver. (Daniel J. Schneider)

As more and more people are drawn into photography by the digital camera revolution, some sort of photographers’ social contract seems increasingly necessary.

This post is in part a response to a somewhat viral post last week entitled, “An ‘Open Letter’ to Landscape Photographers: It’s Time for an Etiquette Check.”

Just like you’ll see more and more photographers on the streets in the walking malls and markets in town, crowds are beginning to gather at popular landscape sites.

Photographers are getting in each other’s frames, bumping tripod legs and yelling at each other.

Direct Responses

In Michael Mariant’s open letter, he specifically complains about other photographers, and sometimes their footprints, ruining his frame. I’m not sure I agree with all his points, though.

He describes a scene in which he and dozens of other photographers crowded a viewing point in Death Valley to take sunset photographs, while a lone photographer hiked down to a different spot where she would be in everyone else’s frame.

“Her shot wasn’t better than everyone else’s. It was just different,” Mariant writes. But so what? That was her shot. Assuming she wasn’t breaking any park rules by hiking out to that spot, she had every right to be there. It appears I am not alone in thinking this.

Mariant says she ignored yelling from photographers at the viewing point and that everyone else was “planning the post-production cloning to remove the photographer.” Why were they yelling? If removing her in post-production was acceptable, why not move straight to that plan? If not, you still have two choices: reframe your shot, or come back another day.

Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep
A Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep browses in the snow for things to nibble. Taken on the side of the road outside of Estes Park, Colo., with trucks grinding by behind me. (Daniel J. Schneider)

Yeah, that’s right — come back. The mountains aren’t going anywhere, and the sun will rise in the east again tomorrow. And the day after. This is a shot that is reproducible later. In fact, if the spot is well-known enough to attract 40 photographers on a single morning, they are already all just reproducing someone else’s shot.

Mariant goes on to rail about footprints, both on sand dunes and in the Racetrack area of Death Valley. “Everyone is free to hike or ride horses throughout the wilderness,” according to the park’s website. And while the National Park Service asks visitors to avoid walking on the Racetrack playa when the surface is wet, as footprints left in the mud may remain for years due to the area’s low rainfall, walking is not otherwise restricted.

Again, in the case of the sand dunes, Mariant describes taking a workshop group out and another photographer getting in his students’ way, the students subsequently yelling and presumably being ignored. Again, why are they yelling at someone doing something perfectly legal?

Look, I know it sucks if you’re after a specific shot, but the other guy is finding his specific shot, too. And if he’s not breaking any laws, then he’s really just inconveniencing you. You may think he’s being rude by leaving prints in the dunes you’re photographing, but you’re being no better by yelling at him for it.

As for moving or stealing the sailing rocks, Mariant is right — they should be left where they are. Not only is it illegal to remove anything from a National Park, it’s just plain rude. Worst of all is the idea that someone would tamper with the rocks to get their photo, and then again to prevent others from getting the same shot. And that’s just the beginning of the frustrations of photographing on the Racetrack.

Later, Mariant complains about people who arrive early and camp out looking for a particular shot. He’s right when he points out that it costs us nothing to share the spot, but that has its limits. And frankly, the guy who got there first probably does deserve some courtesy and deference from those arriving later. But the early bird shouldn’t be a jerk about it, either.

On etiquette

Surprisingly little has been written on photography etiquette. Sure, you’ll get some hits on Google, but most are specific to wedding photography, or street photography, or whatever. I imagine this is due to both the relatively recent explosion of aspiring photographers, and the Internet and social media.

Western History room rotunda
The skylight in the rotunda in the Western History room on the fourth floor of the Denver Public Library’s Central branch at 13th Avenue and Broadway in Denver. (Daniel J. Schneider)

Not that long ago, photographers saw each other as competition and wouldn’t share locations or exposure information with each other. Outside of widely-known photo spots like Colorado’s Maroon Bells and National Parks, two photographers might never meet while they were out working.

Cheap DLSRs and every phone having a camera built in have made photographers of millions more people than ever before, though. The overwhelming majority of this new generation of photographers are sharing every detail on Instagram or Facebook, and even writing blog posts about the best times to photograph certain spots.

There are two sides to photography etiquette, I think. Three if you count etiquette for photo subjects. Photographers need etiquette guidelines for interacting with the general public, and for interacting with one another.

Etiquette for dealing with the public includes when to use a flash or not to, how to deal with camera noise, how to select gear and set up to avoid being in the way, and so on. Several good posts have outlined things to watch out for.

Etiquette for dealing with other photographers is more complex. Nature Photo Guides’ Sarah Marino wrote a detailed post, explaining some of the troubles she’s seen and how they could be avoided, which I recommend reading.

A general accounting of my take on the best etiquette tips, based on previously-mentioned posts and my own experiences:

  • General courtesy. There’s no reason to get uppity about anything in photography. There’s no reason to encroach other photographers’ frame or personal space. Find another perspective if someone else is using the spot that your first instinct drew you to. Or wait. There’s a lot of waiting in photography — if you’re not already good at that, you’d better learn fast.
  • Peace and quiet. If you’re out in nature someplace, you’re probably there at least in part for the solitude and distance from the city. Everyone else is, too. So respect that — don’t be yelling or making a fuss.
  • Space. Don’t crowd other people. Find your own spot if someone’s there. You can ask if they’re open to sharing, but even then, don’t be crossing tripod legs and the like. Maintain whatever distance you can.
  • Field of vision. This goes both ways. Try to stay out of other people’s frames. If you’re not sure whether you’re interfering with their frame, ask. And if someone is in your field of view and you can’t politely (and quietly) ask them to move for a moment, either re-frame your shot to exclude (or even include) them, or plan on post-processing.
  • First come, first served. In general, if you want to stake out the best place it’s your responsibility to show up first. If someone is in a spot before you, respect that and consider it theirs.
  • Share. If someone else can share your spot without interfering with you, let them. Don’t be a jerk. There’s just no reason.
  • Nuisance factor. Some people are willing to talk, some aren’t. Some may discuss all the details of their gear and exposure with you, some may not want to. Same goes for the other way — some people may ask endless questions. Don’t be the pest, and if someone else is, don’t be completely rude. Be clear that you’re not interested in talking, or even walk away if you have to.
  • Keep nature natural. Leave it alone. Throwing food to bring birds closer, dropping rocks in lakes to make ripples, moving things or removing things are all not only dishonest in your own photos (my opinion) but potentially spoil others’ photos, too. If you’re okay with altering the scene before you press the shutter release, you should be fine with doing it after.

Just avoid it all

Just don’t be a part of the whole thing and you won’t have to worry about all this. That’s my thinking, anyway.

Eastern Colorado near Keota
Clouds rolling in over eastern Colorado near Keota. That far east, you can no longer see the Rocky Mountains. Taken from the side of a packed-earth county road. (Daniel J. Schneider)

If you’re someplace that a bunch of other photographers are also camped out at, then you’re all just competing to make the same frame. Why?

I’m not saying there’s no value in recreating the work of others who came before you, especially as a learning experience. Heck, that’s how John Lennon and Paul McCartney learned to play the guitar — listening to Elmore James, Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry records until the grooves were smooth, and copying their chops.

But as a purely educational exercise, someone else being in your frame, or waiting a while, isn’t going to reduce the value of the experience.

But here’s the thing: It’s not even your photo. Some even have argued that there are no original photographs left to be made. The common response to that is, “but I haven’t done it!”

I totally agree, making that photo yourself does make it new. But why bother? Find your own road. I also disagree that every photo has been made. There’s just too much earth and too many variables. Color or black-and-white? Long or short exposure? Shallow or expansive depth of field? Filter? Angle? Sunny or cloudy? And that’s just the tip of the iceberg…

So go, find your own frames. Beat the crowds and go somewhere they aren’t. Sometimes you don’t see what you want, and then you don’t have to make a picture. But sometimes you’ll see something that’s just what you want.

You won’t have to worry about any of that etiquette stuff if you find your own way (but always be sure to leave no trace, wherever you go), and you’ll know that any photo you make is all yours.

Storm over Tarryall Reservoir
An afternoon storm brews over Tarryall Reservoir south of Jefferson, Colo., in the fall of 2013. Taken from a muddy spot on the banks of the lake with an annoyed beaver chattering at me from the reeds and not another soul around. (Daniel J. Schneider)