In the old days, not only did we have to walk through two feet of snow on our way to school (which was really tough for me because I lived in Tucson), but we didn’t have access to all the species and landscapes that photographers do today. If one has the money, there is now almost no place on Earth that cannot be reached and photographed with only a couple of days travel. Nature photography has indeed changed over the last 30 years, and I’m not just talking about technological advances in photo gear. I’m also referring to our subjects, our relationships with them, and our access to them. Most, if not all, of these changes have resulted from an exploding human population and the fact that we are increasingly mobile. Have these changes been good or bad? The answer is yes. The immediate conclusion most of us jump to is that a hordes of people are bad for the natural world, and this conclusion is not wrong. But, and this is a big but, lots of people can make nature photography better.
There is no doubt that, as the number of photographers increases, it becomes more and more difficult to shoot the icons. Mesa Arch at sunrise has become a zoo for most of the year. The classic fall view of the Maroon Bells is now so crowded the Forest Service has blocked access to the shore of Maroon Lake. The autumn of 2018 will be the first one with no photographers capturing the famous peaks and their reflection in the lake. However, lots of photographs can also have a positive impact on our shooting. For one thing, when the icons become crowded, it forces us to look for new subjects. Cathy and I took some of our best fall images when we explored new locations, places where we never even saw another photographer, and it was all because the famous sites were crowded. Because the traditional spots in Northern Arizona were full of tripods, we photographed slot canyons that were, with the exception of our small group, totally empty.
As the number of photographers increases, photo tourism becomes economically viable in places where it never existed before, places like Patagonia, the Falklands, the Pantanal, and Svalbard. Photo tourism is directly responsible for the national parks in Costa Rica, Africa and just about every other country that has them. Nature photographers are a force for the protection of wild landscapes, and the more photographers there are, the stronger that force. We can’t have too many nature photographers, even if that means some of the iconic spots are now too crowded.
A burgeoning human population is a big reason so many species are in such dire straits. The blue or Spix’s macaw was just officially classified as extinct in the wild, mostly because of habitat loss. But humans, especially nature photographers, are part of the reason there is still hope. California condors are making a comeback after being extinct in the wild. Wolves can once again be photographed south of the 49th parallel. It was not that long ago that nearly every published photo of wolves, mountain lions, bobcats, snow leopards and quite a few other species was taken at a game farm. Today lots of great images of these animals are being captured in the wild. A photographer may have to travel to Patagonia or Ladakh to get them, but it can be done. Grizzlies in the lower 48 are at their highest numbers since the bad old days when visitors were allowed to feed them, and things would be looking even better for them if only Idaho, Montana and Wyoming would reject the idiotic idea of allowing these bears to be hunted. We definitely need more nature photographers.
A multitude of people is a two-edged sword. Standing in a crowd certainly detracts from the aesthetics when you’re pointing your lens at a beautiful subject. However, it is the number of visitors that makes inherently nervous creatures more tolerant. We have the crowds to thank for the close-up wading bird photography in Florida, for the oblivious battling and bugling elk in Yellowstone, and the campground javelina in Big Bend. As fewer people go hunting, game animals are become less fearful nearly everywhere, not just in national parks. There are bighorns on the edge of Denver that pay no attention to people, and there are deer in people’s yards all over the country. Some of our best compositions were successful only because our subjects see lots and lots of people.
Where does NANPA fit into this ongoing change? First and foremost, NANPA is part of that force for the protection of the wild places we so enjoy photographing. Second, there is the inspiration. Just seeing the creatures and the scenery in the contests, the blogs, the webinars and the presentations at Summits, Regional Events and Celebrations makes me long to get out there, composing my own interpretations of the natural world. NANPA also has a wealth of information on Workshops and Photo Tours. There’s an incredible potential for new subjects as well as instruction on creating new images of over-photographed landscapes and species. As nature photography continues to change, NANPA will only become more and more relevant.