It’s early, very early and still quite dark. You step carefully and slowly as your weary eyes struggle to adjust to the dim light until you finally manage to find the spot you are looking for. You set up your tripod and camera, find the perfect composition, and adjust your settings, making sure you are ready for the light show that is sure to come. Then you wait for the sun to rise.
The morning is calm, the air still save for a gentle breeze that brings the sweet scent of the nearby ocean to your nostrils. You hear the song of gulls crying out through the darkness, over the soothing woosh of the waves, as you lick the salt from your lips. Already, you can feel the stickiness of the air. All of these sensations combined touch something in your spirit. Despite the darkness and how tired you are, there is no place else you’d rather be.
And then the peace is broken. From behind you, you hear something, and it is not the call of the gulls or the woosh of the waves or even the pad-footed trot of a murderous feral cat. Instead it is the unwelcome sound of another human being.
From here the story can go a number of ways. Despite the trepidation you initially feel in your heart, the newcomer might be just a passerby, or possibly another photographer that stays well out of your way. If you are lucky, which you probably are on most days, the arrival of another person won’t interfere much with your sunrise shoot. But if you aren’t, which happens to most of us at one point or another, your pleasant morning can completely ruined by the intruder.
I have been both the first person at a spot and a latecomer, but I have yet to have had a negative interaction with another photographer in the field. I have heard many sorry stories however. From photographers maliciously bumping one another’s tripods to tour groups crowding single photographers out of tight spots and shouting matches between workshop leaders, the type of behavior shown by some photographers in the field is downright appalling. Childish tantrums and bullying have no place in nature. I don’t care whether you are the Kanye West of nature photographers or not, don’t be a jerk.
Nature is a sacred place. I’m not religious, but the closest I have ever gotten to feeling a spiritual connection to anything has been when I am out in nature. Screaming hissyfits destroy the sanctity of these most serene and peaceful places.
Just a few weeks ago, I was at Sparks Lane, a very popular photo spot in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The sun had not yet risen and at least a dozen or so photographers were standing shoulder to shoulder on the narrow dirt road, composing the same shot of trees forming a canopy over the path, waiting for the light to get good. Everything was pretty much fine until a couple with a dog in a beat up rusted out sedan wanted to get through. The photographers parted ways to let the car down the road and then resumed position, only for the car to stop just a short way down the road in a spot that was quite plainly obviously ruining everything! The passengers, oblivious or uncaring to anything other than their own desires, just stayed there, and a few of the photographers in the group started to whistle and yell at them to move. Because I can’t stand hooping and hollering on a peaceful spring morning, I walked down the road towards the car to quietly explain to the passengers that they were in our way, but they drove off right as I reached them. Just a short while later, they came back in the opposite direction and again parked in the road. This time, I got all the way up to the car and very kindly explained the situation to them: photographers had been waiting all morning for this shot – it was a beautiful morning, wasn’t it? – and the light was getting gorgeous. They were in the way, and would they please consider moving? I even invited them to join us and see what a beautiful photograph they could get from our vantage point, and made sure to compliment them on how cute their dog was. While the couple in the car seemed to lack the graces of civilized society, they indeed moved on without a fuss and the photographers were able to get their shots. Instead of having to hear each other shouting and complaining, we listened to turkeys gobble as they strutted in the fields, the toms displaying for their ladies, over the hushed whispers of happy photographers and muted sounds of many camera shutters.
In the past, I have met and befriended photographers simply by walking up to them and introducing myself while in the field. I often go out in nature to be alone, so I hate when another photographer shows up on a day I’ve intended to shoot solo, because then I’m suddenly concerned about them – and whether I’ll get in their way or they’ll get in my way – instead of focused on creating images. The worst is when a big group shows up and it goes from being just me on the beach to me and ten strangers on the beach, all with cameras. I know how awful that feels, and the resentment and frustration that goes along with it. So I’ve resolved this problem by introducing myself to anyone I’m sharing space with and putting the situation out there early. I often say something along the lines of “Hey, I want to get good shots here and I know you do too, so I’ll try to stay out of your way and I’d appreciate if you could do the same for me. I think we can both get the shots we want if we just communicate with each other – that way everyone can be happy.” I do this whether it’s just me or I’m leading a whole group. If I am leading a group, I make it clear to my group that the other photographer has every right to be there as we do, and if the other photographer got there before we did, I make sure they get the priority spot. I’d hate to be somewhere early, all set up, and then have a workshop show up and crowd me out, so I make sure that I don’t do that to anyone else.
I’ve heard so many horror stories of photographers setting up right in the way of others, of workshop leaders bullying out other photographers so they and their clients can get the best shots, and of photographers with big egos just doing whatever the heck they please regardless of how it affects anyone or anything else. In some cases, bigger name tour operators have brought groups to areas where local photographers, workshop leaders, and guides have invested their whole careers and think that because of “who they are” they can do whatever they want wherever and whenever they want. They show no respect to the people who really truly know certain areas best, including sometimes their own ground agents. Etiquette, it would seem, has gone right out the door.
Nature is not a war zone. It is no place for battle, at least not between egos and a-holes. Let predator and prey clash, not us against ourselves. As photographers and people, I hope we can learn to respect one another and treat each other with kindness. If that is too much to ask, at least respect nature and keep the peace.