When I’m not taking photos, I work for a natural resource agency as a scientist, and my office is located in a building that houses a nature center surrounded by a beautiful public park with natural areas, walking trails and fishing ponds. Having heard about some recent landscape damage caused by photographers at other parks, and because I rely on public areas for my own wildlife and portrait photography, I was particularly disappointed to recently witness a photographer breaking many common sense etiquette rules. A few google searches on the topic produced no real results for the kind of information I was looking to share – so I spoke with some fellow facilities and put together a few guidelines for using public areas for photography.
1.) Preserve the natural landscape. Work from established trails and do not trample or destroy vegetation. Do not cut or break branches from trees. Do not pick flowers.
2.) Observe fences or obvious boundaries and do not cross them. Areas labeled as “refuge” are off-limits to all activities. Restoration areas and wildlife habitat (such as nests of ground-nesting birds) can be fragile and easily damaged by foot traffic.
3.) Respect other users. If someone is in the spot you’re wanting to use, move on to a different location and come back later. If you must, ask politely if you may use that spot, work quickly and thank them for sharing the space. Be prepared to take “no” for an answer. Avoid setting up in high-traffic areas or during a crowded event. Others have just as much right to be there as you do.
4.) Using props is OK as long as they can be taken away after the session and do not damage the landscape or structures. Putting down a blanket or placing a chair is usually fine (see #1) but dumping a pile of sand for a “beach” theme or carving names in a tree for an engagement session is not.
5.) Save the cake smash photo for the studio. Leaving frosting and food scraps on the ground is gross and unhealthy for wildlife that may find and eat it.
6.) Wildlife may interrupt your session, especially if they’re used to human activity. Be patient, don’t try to chase wildlife away by shouting or clapping, and NEVER feed wildlife to encourage them to enter your frame.
7.) Check with the nature center, park or area so you are aware of specific rules for photographers before booking a location with your client. Make sure your client understands these etiquette guidelines as well as any special rules for that area.
8.) Buy a membership or make a donation if the nature center or park has such a program. This ensures you’ll be in the know for any special events – but most importantly, your membership dollars will be used to maintain the landscape and trails.
9.) Take care of your clients. Know how to avoid plants such as poison ivy and remind clients to check for ticks after entering heavily wooded areas.
10.) Remember that when you’re working as a photographer, you are representing not only yourself but other photographers. If you portray a negative image, particularly to a large number of people, you are also making the rest of us look bad. Be considerate, and treat the public area as you would your own private studio, leaving it clean and ready for the next session.