Leave No Trace // A Guide for Adventure Photographers

Leave No Trace

The other day I was talking with my friend Abbi Hearne who is a fellow adventure photographer about how often we see other photographers breaking Leave No Trace principles. Far too often, we see photographers doing things that could potentially damage the areas they're shooting in. I realize not all photographers have a background in backpacking or climbing and may not know the severity or importance of upholding Leave No Trace principles. We decided that instead of judging or calling out those who aren't aware, we would make a guide to educate others and to remind ourselves too that its not worth the epic shot if we're leaving a poor example for others to follow.

As adventure wedding photographers, most of the time we are the ones recommending locations, leading hikes, and suggesting ideas for photos with our clients. Our couples are trusting us to give them an awesome experience outside not just with photos, but with interacting with the environment. We are basically our couple's "outdoor guides". We are huge examples to our clients of how to treat the outdoors. And then we post things on social media and our websites for more people to see. Far too often I see photographers setting bad examples of how to treat beautiful outdoor spaces. And it’s becoming increasingly familiar to see popular hikes shut down, railings put up, and permits being put in places that are being threatened by overuse.

The essentials of the 7 LNT principles are usually the first thing you learn when going on a backpacking trip or camping, but as photographers there’s no one telling us how to act and treat the outdoors. I want to go over each principle and talk about how they pertain to photographing clients outdoors. These aren’t hard and fast rules, more like principles to uphold as best you can, using your best judgment to care for the environment you’re in and leave a good example for your client and others who may come after you.


1. Plan Ahead and Prepare

Research where you’re going, scout it out beforehand to know what risks you might come across, what permits you’ll need, and what weather conditions you might encounter. When traveling for a wedding or shoot, we always arrive a day or two early to scout locations. We always come up with an alternative location in case of extreme weather. It's never a good idea to put your clients in danger because you didn't research enough beforehand. For example, in Colorado in the summer we have notorious thunderstorms in the afternoon. Unless we know for sure the weather is clear, we try to avoid taking clients above tree line in the early afternoon in summer months because it can be an extreme risk for lightning. If we’re going above tree line, we recommend shooting at sunrise (or at a different time of year) with our clients.  Also, when going to a popular location, try to avoid going in high season or during times of high use. When we're shooting at places that tend to be touristy like Rocky Mountain National Park or Horseshoe Bend, we typically recommend to our clients to wake up early and shoot at sunrise to avoid crowds. This also minimizes damage to popular areas over time.


2. Travel & Camp on Durable Surfaces

This is probably the most important rule we photographers need to follow. All the time I see photographers shooting at Rocky Mountain National Park leading their clients around on the tundra. There are signs literally EVERYWHERE telling you not to walk on the tundra. Above treeline, the soil is extremely fragile and the plants that grow up there are so sensitive, walking on them tramples them and damages the soil. RMNP had over 4 million visitors last year and the number is only predicted to go up. If all of those people thought it was okay to walk on the tundra, the area would be trampled and the beautiful green alpine meadows we love would be gone. When you're in places that have sensitive soil like the tundra in RMNP, the hot springs pools in Yellowstone, or the crypto in Moab, stay on trails and durable rock, even if it means sacrificing an epic shot. There is always an alternative to damaging the soil. Like for the photo above, we scouted the day before the wedding to find a trail that we could stay on for photos, so we could avoid walking on the fragile alpine meadow. You can also wait to shoot in these places until winter when the meadows are covered in snow or ice. You're an artist, get creative and make awesome photos without having to damage the sensitive areas in the process.


3. Dispose of waste properly. 

This one’s an obvious one. Always pack out your trash. If you see trash on the ground, even if it isn't yours, use it as an opportunity to set a good example for your client, and pick up the trash and pack it out. Bring an extra ziploc bag with you to put trash in. It'll educate your client, make the place more beautiful, and make you feel good in the process. Also, avoid throwing confetti and if your couple wants to pop champagne, make sure to go find the cork once it flies off and pack that out!

And if you need to “go”, deposit human waste in catholes dug 6 to 8 inches deep, and pack out any toilet paper. If you are above treeline, it is standard to actually pack out solid waste. Sounds gross, but the soil above treeline lacks the nutrients to break down human waste. Its probably best to just go before you arrive on location for your shoot. ;)

4. Leave What You Find.

Don’t take rocks or plants or fossils or other cool things you find. Leave them for others to enjoy. Don't carve into trees or paint the rocks or anything like that.


5. Minimize Campfire Impacts.

This one goes back to planning ahead and preparing. We do campfire sessions all the time and I love the way they have such a warm & intimate feel to them. If your client asks to do a campfire, research ahead of time where a good location would be to do it, see if there are any fire restrictions, and check the weather to make sure there won’t be crazy high winds. Where campfires are allowed, only use established fire rings. Never have a fire above treeline. The plants up there are dry and it's so windy up there, forest fires can spread quickly. Some national parks such as Sequoia National Park don't allow campfires above 9,000 ft. Check with the national park you're in to see if they have special restrictions and to see where to buy approved firewood that won't bring in invasive species and destructive insects.

I never expect our clients to bring the proper supplies to have a safe campfire. We always bring a giant 10-gallon jug of water to completely drown the fire with after. Bring firewood that isn’t doused with chemicals and don’t use lighter fluid or charcoal bricks to start it. When putting it out, drown the fire completely until it is cool enough to touch and spread the ashes. 

Some places also require getting firewood locally to avoid invasive species bring brought into a new place.

6. Respect Wildlife

Recently we were in Yellowstone National Park. In the visitor center there was a whole video playing of just animal attacks that have happened in the park. It was sort of ridiculous, seeing people being chased around a parking lot by bison. Don't approach wildlife. This seems like such an obvious one, but I can't say how many times I've seen people approach bison for a photo, or try and LITERALLY place their own CHILD on an elk for a photo. This is not only for you & your client's safety, but for the safety of the wild animal. When they start getting used to humans, often times bears get killed or elk get taken from their home and relocated. Don't be the reason that happens.


7. Be Considerate of Other Visitors

Just because you're taking photos of your client, doesn't mean others don't have a right to enjoy the landscape too. I include this photo without the photoshopping to show that sometimes you have to share the landscape with others. Horseshoe Bend is extremely crowded, and its totally understandable why. It is absolutely beautiful. The guy on the left was taking a long timelapse of the sunset, I wasn't about to ask him to move. Respect other photographers and tourists and don't take away from other's experiences of the same places. I've found that usually other people are respectful and will keep their distance for you to get the shot you need. And if there are people around, it just gives you a chance to enhance your photoshop skills!


I don't mean to say that you can't interact with the environment. I strongly believe you should have a relationship with the outdoors; smell the flowers, touch the trees, and run wild in places that aren't at risk. In general, we try to steer our couples away from choosing the really touristy spots so that we can have more freedom to go off trail and experience a place that's truly wild. We have so many secret little hidden gems of places we like to shoot in. It's not just for original photos, but to reduce wear on the busy places and have a more intimate experience with our clients. Sure, Rocky Mountain National Park has some nice views, but I think Engineer Pass or the San Isabel National Forest have better ones that are less crowded and less in danger of being overrun. Also the more that we do this, the more I like to keep these locations private. Not necessarily as an exclusivity thing, but just so they don't turn into another Horseshoe Bend. Be creative, look at google earth, go drive down that random dirt road. Find locations that aren't in danger of shutting down due to overuse. 

As national park attendance increases and funding is being spread thinner and thinner in the places we love, we should be doing our best to care for wild places. As photographers, we have a lot of influence in how people view and treat these places, and sometimes it's our photos that inspire people to visit them. We need to hold ourselves to an extremely high standard of caring for the outdoors. We should take responsibility to uphold leave no trace principles and educate others to do the same! It's not worth your epic, instagram-worthy shot if it's going to damage the environment and set a poor example for others that come after you. Take responsibility for the places you're shooting and for the photos you're sharing.