Photo etiquette and overcrowding of the wilderness

Have you ever been to that amazing viewpoint you have always dreamed of photographing only to find it crowded with people who are in the way and ruining it for everyone else (youtubers)? Are national parks becoming too crowded and is it possible to still create unique images in popular locations? When does collecting “trophy” images get in the way of creativity?

This past April, I was in El Chalten Argentina for three weeks to photograph the fall colors and the dramatic mountains. In addition to timing our trip for fall, part of why we choose to spend so long in El Chalten was because the weather is notoriously bad and weeks can pass without clear views of the mountains and the winds can be so strong that it is nearly impossible to stand, let alone photograph from a tripod. Knowing how difficult it would be to have everything align for photography we decided to stay in El Chalten for the entire fall season if necessary in order to wait out the weather.

One of the locations I was most excited to shoot with peak fall color was a waterfall several miles hike into the mountains from town. Knowing I wanted to use a slow shutter speed to blur the water, I knew I was going to need a nearly windless sunrise, peak fall colors, and a clear view of Fitzroy. A tall order, but we were willing to wait for it if need be. On our very first morning in El Chalten with a forecast for clear skies but lots of wind, I woke up early and hiked into the mountains with a German photographer whom I had met a few days earlier in Bariloche. With neither of us knowing the exact location of the falls (which are off the main trail) we left town with plenty of time, and after a bit of searching and a few wrong turns we found the falls right as the sunrise was starting to light up Fitzroy. It turned out we weren’t the only photographers who had chosen to hike in via headlamp, and there were several other photographers with tripods already setup when we arrived. Being the late ones to the party, our options were somewhat limited without getting in the way of someone else’s shot. But, by scrambling down a small cliff I found a location somewhat protected from the raging wind and shot my first Patagonia sunrise. I knew that the beautiful fall trees wouldn’t be completely sharp with my slow shutter speeds in the howling wind, but I was beyond excited to have found the waterfall and gotten a clear view of Fitzroy on my very first morning.

Over the course of the next week, the wind only got worse, and the mountains were hidden by clouds for much of the time. Dutifully I woke each morning before sunrise, checked the sky, and hiked into the mountains if there was any possibility of success. After about a week with nothing to show for it, a weather window started appearing in the long-term Wind Guru forecast (a blog post for the future). Being we were staying the climber’s hostel (the one you only learn about via word of mouth because it is too cheap to have a website) there was a buzz of energy building among the few climbers who had remained late into the season. A southern cold front was on its way, bringing with it 5-6 days of cold temperatures, clear skies, and most importantly no wind. As the climbers began organizing their gear for attempts on Cerro Torre and Fitzroy, the excitement was palpable. A couple even offered to loan me some climbing gear so I could access a few off-trail locations they had recommended for unique angles of Cerro Torre.

When the weather window finally did arrive it was eerily quiet, the winds that had rattled our A frame cabin for the past 10 days were suddenly gone, the skies were clear, and our hostel was empty as every climber in town headed into the mountains. By this point I had scouted most of the locations I wanted to photograph so when the weather broke, I began working with a sort of check list, visiting the sites in order of importance and fall color condition. With the waterfall shot being my number one priority, I had already made several attempts, so I knew exactly how long it took to reach the falls and exactly where I wanted my tripod. Knowing the fall colors were at their peak, I wanted a slightly higher vantage point in order to include more fall trees between the falls and the mountains creating more depth in the image. On the very first day of the weather window, I was up extra early to make sure I was the first person to the falls and my tripod was in place before anyone else arrived. I sat in the dark next to my tripod for perhaps 30 minutes before a Danish photographer and his girlfriend arrived. Turns out he had also scouted the location several times and had a similar shot in mind that would include an expansive view of the fall leaves surrounding the falls. As we chatted and waited for sunrise, we talked of travel and photography.

Right as the sun was about to hit Fitzroy another group of three photographers arrived who sounded like they might be American. After the customary pleasantries in which they came up and looked at our view, they started scrambling down towards the river to make the falls larger in their foregrounds. For a while we lost sight of them until they climbed up on some rocks about 100ft in front of us, blocking our view. Thinking they were just checking the view we didn’t think much of it until all three set up their tripods and started shooting. Always being a team player, at first, I thought “ok let’s give them a moment and they will get their shot and then they will climb back down”. After a few minutes of them shooting seemingly unaware they were blocking us, I very nicely and respectfully said “excuse me, but you guys are blocking our shot”. I was blown away when rather than saying “sorry”, or “do you mind if we take one more quick shot”, one of the photographers turned and rudely yelled over his should that we didn’t “own” the falls and he was going to shoot from “right where I am”.

In all my years as a landscape photographer one thing I have always loved about the photography community is a feeling of kindness and teamwork. Often photographers offer up their locations to each other and are acutely aware of not setting up in front of someone else who was there first. It is sort of an unspoken rule that you never stand in front of another photographer’s tripod. Sure, it happens accidently but it is never something one does knowingly. Again, I tried to say as nicely and respectfully as possible that we had been setup for 30 minutes in our location before they had arrived, and they were blocking our shot… I even offered to make space for them if they wanted to join us in our location. But it was no use, they started yelling over their shoulder that theirs was the perfect and only location and that they had traveled halfway around the world to be there. Which of course made me laugh because so had everyone else, and from previous sunrises at the falls I knew there were plenty of other angles to choose from. Trying another tact, I agreed that we had all traveled to be there and that I had already been to the waterfall at least 5 times waiting for perfect conditions, and thus it was just as important to me as it was to them.

Interspersed during this conversation, my new Danish photographer friend was getting more and more frustrated and raising his voice to match those of the three photographers blocking our shot. Trying to keep the peace, I kept offering that we could all get great shots if we took turns and shared. But it was when the Danish photographer’s girlfriend stepped in that things got crazy. Some four-letter words were yelled back and forth, and she said that if they were going to block our shot, she was going to block theirs. The next thing I knew she was standing maybe 20 feet in front of them with her jacket held open trying to block the waterfall from their view.

How quickly things had digressed. Never in my entire photography career have I seen a sunrise shoot go so quickly off the rails. While I was mad that my composition was being ruined by these insensitive photographers, I am not one to push the confrontation and had assumed I would eventually just be forced to move forward to their spot giving up the angle I had worked so hard to find. But the Danish photographer and his girlfriend were not going to back down. After much yelling, swearing, and name calling the photographers finally picked up their tripods and moved out of the way right as Fitzroy began to glow with sunrise. Not knowing what would happen next, the second they stepped out of the way I shot furiously. With no wind, a slow shutter speed, a setting moon, and perfect fall colors splashed across the foreground it really was one of the most spectacular scenes I have ever witnessed... Everything in nature coming together perfectly in a single moment.

While there were plenty of other spots they could have shot from, I don’t think the other photographers ever took a single shot of the actual sunrise. Swearing like sailors they packed their bags and started hiking back towards town muttering how they had missed “the shot”. What had started as a solo hike into the mountains, had turned into a near fist fight over photography of all things! Had it not been for the Danish photographer’s girlfriend going to the mat and standing in front of them, I would have missed “my” shot as well. But was it really “my” shot in the first place? After the sunrise I chatted with the Danish couple for a few minutes before they departed, I chose to linger a while longer before heading back to town in order to avoid meeting the three angry photographers on the trail for safety.

Looking back now as I write this, I am struck by the need to discuss etiquette and the feeling that as nature photographers we should all be working together towards a common goal. While photos are important and sometimes, we go to great lengths for a single image (our families might call them “crazy” lengths), they are not life and death situations. While yes, by all reasonable accounts the Danish photographer and I had the right to “our” photo and the other photographers were not playing by the “rules”, they didn’t see it that way. Just as on my first morning when I had arrived in time to find several other photographers already setup in choice locations and was forced to find an alternative composition, these three photographers should have been willing to do the same or have gotten up earlier. The fact that we had given them a chance to shoot from in front of us, but in return they had no intention sharing the view with us was disrespectful. As frustrated as I was, I quickly recognized it was not a fight worth going to blows over. But it was the girlfriend who stepped over the line and pushed the issue to near blows.

Am I happy about my photo? Absolutely! Am I happy about the situation in which it was created? No! Could the situation have been resolved better so everyone got the shots they wanted? Yes! When shooting in a popular location simple etiquette says that “he who arrives first, gets first choice…” but it also says, “sharing is caring”. The problem was the three photographers were unwilling to share and believed that they had the only possible composition and the rest of the world be damned. Perhaps there is a danger in collecting “trophy” images vs. being creative in the landscape and finding one’s own compositions. When we go to a dream location for the first time it is easy to get trapped by the “classic” view, often at the expense of creativity and individuality. These photographers were there to shoot the “one” photo they had seen online and were unable to see any other possible compositions. They were trapped in their own previsualization and as a result missed one of the greatest moments in nature I have ever witnessed.

Thankfully I never saw the other photographers again and likely they will have a very different version of this story. But to me the lesson is that resources need to be shared and photography is supposed to be fun. After all landscape photography is not boxing!