Natural Art: The Photography of Brad Hill


Commentary: Nature Photography as a Resource Extraction Industry

When we use the term "resource extraction industry" many people think of activities like logging, commercial fishing, mining or the production of fossil fuels. Nature photography would likely be one of the last things that would come to mind. But perhaps it should. And, as nature photographers, we have a responsibility to ensure that we operate our industry in a sustainable fashion!

Decades of Cogitation

I believe that nature photography is best thought of as a resource extraction industry. While many may immediately cringe at this thought and think I'm being overly pessimistic or negative, I believe there is positive value to this characterization - it almost begs us to ask the question "How can we manage our resource sustainably?" How did I come to take such a position? Well, it was decades in the making...

The Myth of the Non-consumptive User

Back in the late '70's, while I was still an eager undergraduate in Biology, I ran into a journal article entitled "The Myth of the Non-consumptive User" (full bibliographic reference at the end of this commentary). While I don't recall all the subtle details, the author argued that no outdoor recreational activity is truly non-consumptive - they all have some impact on vegetation, or on wildlife, or on the overall quality of the environment. The author went on to argue for various user restrictions and presented a rationale for dedicating some wilderness areas as "non-use" areas.

Like a bad song that you can't get out of your head, this concept of the impossibility of non-consumptive use came back to haunt me when I least wanted it to. Sometimes it was when I was out snowshoeing - I'd stop moving forward and look back at my trail and wonder what impact the snow compression had on the subnivian ecosystem (that community of organisms that lives in the thin layer between the bottom of the snowpack and the surface of the soil). Certainly I had less impact than a snowmobile, but I had made an impact nonetheless. Or, to make matters worse, I'd follow a trail I established in the snow weeks before and notice that, in order to save energy, all the deer and elk were following my trails. And, by the next week coyotes, the occasional wolf, and even cougars were using my snowshoe trails! Here I thought I was being environmentally conscientious in choosing a non-motorized means of backcountry travel, while in reality I was having a major impact on the distribution and movement patterns of all the local large wildlife!

Other times I'd quietly approach an isolated pond in the woods just to have a flock of ducks explode upwards the minute they detected me. Every time I turned around in the outdoors I was hit in the face with another example of an impact I was making just by being there! Eventually, I just accepted the premise of that cursed journal article and admitted to myself that I was a consumptive user, albeit a careful one!

Years of Observation as a Nature Photographer

I've been a nature photographer for decades, and, like most nature photographers, I've spent a lot of time in the out-of-doors and often in very remote locations. And, much to my dismay, I've seen first-hand that individually, collectively and cumulatively, we, as nature photographers DO have a significant impact on what we photograph. I don't mean that our presence immediately dooms our subjects to imminent demise, but unintentionally we can have subtle and almost invisible - yet very significant- effects.

As an example, over the past couple of years I've spent several weeks in the Great Bear Rainforest along the northern British Columbia coast. Our major photographic "prey" on these trips have been coastal Brown (or Grizzly) Bears. I have always gone in with excellent guides and all members of our party were extremely careful not to unduly disturb the bears (if they didn't our guide would have had them on the next floatplane out of the area!). Yet, we did, over time, approach the bears very closely. And, they came to accept our presence and go about their activities as though we weren't there. But, you argue, these bears were in a no-hunting zone and couldn't possibly be hurt simply by becoming tolerant of close approach by humans. Where's the harm? Well...bears wander. A lot. What happened to these bears after we left? Had the bears learned that humans were harmless, and did this cause any of them to wander into places where they normally wouldn't (like into a local village or hamlet) and end up dead? The possibility bothers me.

Besides these vague and arguably obscure effects, I have seen some very visible direct negative effects on the environment caused by nature photographers. The first type is accidental - anyone who has photographed any of the "charismatic megafauna" of North America (or Africa) can probably recall situations where photographers were climbing over one another - and vegetation and wildflowers - to get a better shot of that _______ (bear, lion, elephant or whatever). They didn't mean to trample that rare and endangered orchid, but they still did it. And, unfortunately, I've also seen examples of intentional negative impact - I've actually watched a photographer painstakingly line up a shot of a flower and then, after getting his shot, promptly pluck the flower - presumably to keep anyone else from getting the shot! It would appear that some of us are no more immune to petty jealousies and infantile behaviour than the rest of the human population. And why would we be?

Keeping it in Perspective

It would be really easy at this point to say "Whoa!" and point out how insignificant the impact of a nature photography is on our subjects compared to...say...hunting. Or compared to clear-cut logging. Or open-pit mining. get the picture. If our natural world was infinitely renewable I would tend to agree. But it isn't - what's left of our natural world is growing smaller every day. And our impact isn't mutually exclusive of the other more impactful resource extraction industries, it's being done IN ADDITION TO all the other resource extraction industries. So let's just accept the fact that we DO impact negatively on the environment and decide to do something about it!

Towards Sustainability

Why should a nature photographer really concern him/herself with minimizing their relatively "trivial" impact on nature? To begin with, presumably any nature photographer has chosen nature as their subject because they care about it (I doubt they chose it as a way to make a quick million)! So, you'd expect an emotional tie to protecting the environment an to sustainable behaviour. But, if you're making part of all of your income from photographing nature, then I would argue that it is not only logical that you treat "your" resource sustainably (you do want to have something to photograph next year, don't you?) but also that it's your RESPONSIBILITY to do so. After all, logging companies operating on public land in Canada have to pay stumpage fees for using the forest - why shouldn't nature photographers contribute equally? does a nature photographer "act sustainably?" A good place to start is to look at the North American Nature Photography Association's (or NANPA) website. NANPA publishes a code of ethics for nature photographers, and they now have a downloadable Environmental Statement that encourages nature photographers to get involved in conservation issues. It's a start point.

Is "Creating Awareness" Enough?

Enough mister nice-guy - now it's time to ruffle a few feathers. If you ask several nature photographers what they're doing to help sustain their discipline and what they're doing in support of conservation, one answer you'll often hear is that they're "creating awareness". It may be true. But is it enough? It's obvious that the creation of awareness (of some problem) is the necessary first step in driving any social change. But, in itself, creation of awareness does nothing. It must be followed by tangible action (e.g., changes in government policy, society's behaviour, etc.) before anything comes of it. I've spent a lot of time working with (and even for) environmental organizations whose sole goal was "conservation through research and public education" and I have to admit I rarely saw any real changes on the ground. The wolves still got trapped. The bears still got shot. The open-pit mines still opened up. Yet I have seen other conservation organizations, such as the Raincoast Conservation Society or Wildsight, that are amazingly effective. They "create awareness" as a first step, but then take concrete action that makes a true difference on the ground!

Another problem I have with the concept of just "creating awareness" is that it's pretty hard to measure - just how much awareness have you actually created? And, how much is needed before anything happens on the ground? It's tough to judge.

And, even if you're extremely good at creating awareness, the new owner of the awareness often (and very understandably) doesn't have a clue how to convert that awareness into action. It can take a LOT of work to find the effective conservation organizations relevant to any environmental issue, including those that someone has just become "aware" of.

So, for me, "creating awareness" alone doesn't cut it - I feel compelled to do more, and especially to do something that has a tangible effect (please note that I'm NOT saying that YOU should do more - perhaps the awareness you create is so far beyond what I can create that it DOES do a lot of tangible good!).

What Works for Me?

When I decided to make the plunge into full-time nature photography, I decided it had to be done with a strong emphasis on conservation. My experience with various conservation groups has taught me mainly two things: 1) I wouldn't be satisfied with "creating awareness" alone, and 2) that not all conservation groups are created equal - some are WAY more effective than others. My direct involvement with conservation is described elsewhere on this website (see Bio: Conservation), but, in short, I spent time researching various conservation groups (by attending AGM's, viewing their publications, talking to them, etc.) and then jumped in with both feet. It worked for me.

What should you do? It's not for me to say, but if you started thinking about nature photography as a resource extraction industry that must manage itself sustainably, it might be a good start. And checking out what NANPA recommends in it's Environmental Statement would be another step. And, the next really big step (and involving more effort) may be to spend a little time researching the conservation or environmental organizations relevant to the subject of your photography. Then, when you've made that important first step of creating awareness with your images you can follow it up by saying "and, if you'd like to find a way make a difference, check out Raincoast (or Wildsight, or whoever). Create awareness, and then take that next step or two. It's important.

February 22, 2007.


Wilkes, B. 1977. The myth of the non-consumptive user. Canadian Field Naturalist 91: 343-349.


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August 10, 2010. Steve Fletcher - an ex-pat Canadian now living in Los Angeles, CA responds:


I appreciate the sentiment behind your essay, which I see as a desire to conserve and protect our remaining natural spaces. Unfortunately, I think the position you take, shared by most pro wildlife photographers these days, presents some real problems.

For years the status quo in both the print and online worlds has been for pro nature shooters to assume the role of self-appointed wilderness guardian, a goal that certainly seems heartfelt and reasonable on first inspection. Alongside every how-to book or article comes the inevitable "first do no harm" side bullet informing us that, in essence, to be a nature photographer is to be part of the problem confronting wild places today. We are treated to tales of ignorant, greedy photographers trampling rare plants or subnivian organisms and stressing animals beyond reasonable limits as they jockey to get the shot. And, while I've seen many variations on this theme, your essay was perhaps the most explicit I've read recently.

The effectiveness of these lectures has been evident to me in observing two decades of scolds brow-beating fellow photographers endlessly on this subject in online forums and in the letters columns of nature magazines. I suppose people love a chance to jump on a self-righteous bandwagon. This attitude is so automatic now, I fear we've reached a point where many educated, well-meaning people (those with the money to act) have begun to see outdoor recreation and animal photography as suspect.

And I think that's a crime, because the problem is that biologically these impacts are trivial and in fact perfectly natural. Biologists know that fire, flood, drought, competition, and predation are routine stresses on animal communities and essential for a healthy ecosystem. Further, humans aren't "apart from" the environment, a special case on a pedestal, but should be seen for what we are, just another mammal with our role to play (in terms of these personal impacts). Once a conservation zone has been established, the impact of even the most abusive photographer, hunter, or casual partier is minuscule in the grand scheme, whereas without these folks, there won't be a conservation zone. Unfortunately, most of these pro shooters dispensing advice are not trained in earth sciences, and both they and the lay public still struggle to understand these complexities.

And this is damaging indeed. By focusing on these trivial personal impacts, photo pros miss the real danger to wilderness: large-scale habitat destruction. Of course they invariably give lip-service to the subject, but they seem to much prefer dispensing unscientific feel-good advice about trampling plants to confronting the fundamental challenge of our time: how we can assign a monetary value to intact ecosystems and the creatures inhabiting them before it's too late.

Because the real story here is that humanity the world over sees land only in terms of extractable resources. They remove timber, topsoil, and usable animals (bush meat, etc), mine the subsurface resources (oil, minerals), and adapt the denuded remains for sustained agriculture or human habitation. In this equation, no monetary value is currently placed on living wild creatures or lands. And despite the jaded sense we westerners often have that our worst environmental demons are behind us, human populations are rising fast globally, along with the appetite for land. The truth is that lots of currently intact ecosystems are going to be wiped out in the next decades, and the environmental lobby is not going to be able to prevent it. The coming additional billions must be fed, clothed, and housed.

Given the way economies operate, action to limit these impacts must be on as large a scale as possible if we want to save some of the biodiversity already on the chopping block. It won't be enough to encourage people to buy books of pretty animals and occasionally visit their local park. Somehow humanity must be energized on a large scale to put money into wild creatures and places the way they currently put money into turning land into agriculture or new development.

The only option I currently see for this is ecotourism on a much bigger scale than exists today. If we want to preserve jungles or elephants or expand the range of wolves and grizzlies, we have to put our money where our mouths are. Photographers have to GET OUT and PHOTOGRAPH, shoot everything, everywhere, hire local guides and pay private landowners to use and maintain their lands as intact ecosystems. In the near term, if a reserve has 100 photographers on the trail together vying for the bird shot, this is SUCCESS, not abuse, because the reserve where only a single photographer enjoys meditative solitude is a commercially failed reserve at risk of being converted to agricultural use. We must seek to increase the density of visitors and aggregate cash flow generated from wilderness to eventually permit its expansion. And, these efforts can't overlook developed nations, most of whom have already done more damage to their large fauna than developing nations (damage done so long ago, it's been accepted as status quo).

I can see where westerners may be uncomfortable with this notion, but we can't let our hearts overwhelm our heads to tragic effect. In several centuries, human populations will likely stabilize at lower than present levels, and the value of pre-agricultural ecosystems will be recognized. Before then, we may lose a lot of biodiversity. Photographers and ecotourists can lead the way, but they must be made to see the bigger picture (habitat loss is appalling and accelerating) and not be tripped up by feel-good unscientific wishful thinking about personal impact. The only certainty I've seen over the years is that if nature lovers aren't out there, developers will be. The ivory tower fantasy propagated increasingly over the past 30 years that wilderness should be off-limits as penance for our past deeds has only resulted in confusion and inaction while more wilderness disappeared. Time and tide wait for no one.

I don't see us turning a corner on this until a substantial proportion of humanity has some appreciation for the full range of wild things, from bison to plants to eastern diamondback rattlesnakes. What better place to start that change of mindset than with amateur photographers, who already share this view? Can photographers and recreational land users ever really equal the power of ranchers and resource extractors? It's difficult to see how we can anytime soon, but I have detected a distinctly increased reluctance on our part to even throw our hats into the ring thanks to these self-righteous "eat our own young" messages from the environmental movement in recent decades. Pros like you, if serious about conservation, need to be advocates. Tell everyone to pick up a camera and seek out your local wildlife, place a real dollar value on it before it's gone.

Other Commentaries

Reality in the Age of Digital PhotographyDigital Manipulation vs. Digital CorrectionNature Photography as a Resource Extraction Industry
My Top 3 Reasons for Shooting in the RAWOn the Value of a WolfOn the Cost of a Wolf
The Challenge of Being a Green Nature Photographer

DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in this section are solely those of Brad Hill and do not necessarily represent those of any other group, organization, or corporation. In fact, it is possible they do not represent the views of anyone else on the planet - yet!