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Picturing Climate Change: How to Photograph Your Environment

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We’ve used photography to aid in conservation for many years. The landscape photographer Ansel Adams, for example, was a famously passionate advocate for Yosemite National Park, and he used his photography effectively to forward his conservation aims. With our modern means and culture of sharing, it’s easier than ever to get photographs out there and seen, so why not use your own creative eye to do some good for your environment?

Photo by Ansel Adams via Wiki Commons, of Yosemite Half Dome, Apple Orchard, trees with snow on branches in April 1933

Chances are, you’ve probably visited one of your local sites already, so let’s look at how you, and your photography, can help.

Broadening Our Visual Context

As well as documenting what has gone before, photography gives us a near real-time representation of what is happening in local environements. Even in an era of global climate crisis, where 40% of the population has access to the internet, there is often still an attitude of 'it's happening somewhere else' when it comes to real-life environmental impacts.

‘Change is the measure of time.’—Rebecca Solnit

Photography can bring environmental issues of all kinds to a wider audience, in a way that is easier to engage with than facts and figures alone. Can you visualise thousands migratory birds on the move? Or the bleaching of Australia's reefs? Photographs help us contextualise and understand complex natural phenomena more completely.

For example, Everyday Climate Change is an Instagram feed made up of photographers around the world, focused on demonstrating visual evidence of climate change. Not only do they share their images but they provide context and even offer potential solutions.

Photograph Locally

Look closer, and you’ll possibly be surprised at the opportunities available close by. When we think conservation, we tend to think big, but even a nearby creek or the park down the road is a potential site for photography. Here in the UK, the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust (WWT) and the Forestry Commission are two of the biggest conservation charities; both have sites dotted up and down the country.

When you visit and take your camera, documenting your picutres have an impact. Whether they’re snaps of birds, macro photographs of flora or a rare bird nesting, all pictures are important. You could be playing a part in the history of the place you’re visiting.

‘Photographs (and therefore photographers) play a vital part in helping to illustrate and tell the story of conservation.’—Leanne McCormella, WWT Washington

Wherever you are, you are relevant. It sounds cliché but we all live on the same planet, and you don't have to be documenting the melting of the ice caps to contribute to documenting our environment. Images you provide could be shocking to someone on the opposite side of the world, or maybe they'd provide a good comparison elsewhere—you just never know. It's important that we don't dismiss our surroundings, wherever we are.

What Photographs?

A snapshot is still a great way of showing a place or a problem, but when you start to craft images, you’re thinking about telling a story. That’s where you really get into photojournalism. Remember to tell both sides of the story through your images and consider things like your framing, background and impact of every shot. 

This kind of project can result in amazing stories that make a real impression on people. At the very least they make great blogs, and you may even find that local websites or newspapers might be interested in publishing it too.

What should we be photographing? I've already mentioned that you don't have to be photographing the 'headlines' like the melting icecaps. If you do, then of course it all helps raise awareness, but maybe there's something you could be photographing closer to home that isn't as well documented (and doesn't require a plane to get to).

"Ideally, climate change photography should focus on all aspects of climate change – causes, impacts, mitigation and adaptation".—Joan Sullivan

I recently did a small photo-blog on an abandoned mine site not far from where I live. When I shared this with a Facebook group for locals, I soon discovered that they could add more context to my limited knowledge of the area. From this, I learned there was actually a plan in action to get the site listed as protected, as it was the only mine of its type left in an area that was once littered with them. I had no idea of most of this when I photographed the site, so it was an education for me but also sparked conversation, which, in turn, informed others.

Documentary Approaches

Traditional Documentary Techniques

When we see charitable adverts on the television, they don't throw statistics at you, because people can't fully comprehend human suffering or environmental impact from facts and figures. Instead, we are asked to broaden our view of the world to and to feel compassion for the people directly affected by the crisis at hand. This storytelling technique is as old as the hills, because it works. When you're telling your own stories through photographs it's important to make them relatable.

"People care about people. If your readers can’t relate to what you’re telling them, if it’s not tangible, they’re not going to pay attention. So if you want to make a difference, you can’t just provide information – you have to frame it in human terms.”—Joan Sullivan

Just showing something bad isn't enough to motivate anyone into action or even into caring. Mostly, people don't like to be made to feel guilty, it's a negative feeling that rarely pushes us to 'do'. Instead, consider offering solutions. For example, we show a picture of a beach full of litter but focus on tangible ideas like local litter picks or better recycling methods. Environmental change undoubtedly has an affect on people; so tell their story, whether that's through pictures or accompanying text.

New Documentary Techniques

Sometimes narrative storytelling isn't enough. Particularly if a certain issue is becoming over-saturated in the media; an audience will start to skip right over it. In these cases, trying new methods of documentation can have a better impact.

Balloon and kite mapping has been used to map larger areas that have been impacted in some way, like the loss of coastal wetlands along the Atlantic, Pacific, Gulf of Mexico and the Great Lakes, which are disappearing by an average of 80,000 acres per year. We also see a lot more drone footage lately, which can very successfully show large areas of geography and environmental impact in places where it might not be safe to have someone physically present. Recently, this was demonstrated with the devastating and gigantic Fort McMurry fire in Alberta, Canada.

Geographic Information Systems can capture, analyse, understand and present all kinds of interesting data about the earth. While it's important for this information to be collected, used and shared in order to give us a better understanding of what it is we're seeing, I think that, coming back to a local level, this is something for much further down the line—you don't want to overwhelm your audience with information. However, the better you understand the information that is available the better able you are to share and educate, visually.

Images, of course, don't have to be used alone. I've talked about giving your images context with some explanation or suggested solutions but that can also be flipped on its head. If you're writing an article and conducting historical or social research then collecting images is a great way to evidence what it is you're saying. Pictures also help to add interest and break-points in articles, which makes reading more accessible.

Start With Small, Manageable Issues

Whether it be an honest pictorial account of a vandalised pond or a stylised series of unusual wildlife shots, all photography can contribute and support local areas of conservation in its own way. If you see something that looks damaged or vandalised in your local spot then make a note of where it is and be sure to tell someone. Taking a picture can highlight the problems an area has and make people more aware.

forest fireforest fireforest fire
Forest Fire [CC0 via Pixabay]


I hope you’re never caught near a forest fire, but they can become dangerous in a very short time. These can often be caused by people carelessly throwing a cigarette or not putting out a camp fire properly. Photographs of the awful consequences of these mistakes can help highlight what can happen and encourage people to act appropriately when in surroundings with a fire risk.


Litter is often a real problem, particularly if the conservation area is a popular one. People visit, which is great, but sometimes they drop litter, which is terrible. Just this week I was at a local beauty spot and a group had been there that day or the day before. They'd left behind a disposable BBQ (complete with sausages), pizza boxes, beer cans and an old tarp they'd sat on. Not only is this environmentally irresponsible and dangerous, but they're ruining the fun for everyone else too. 

People may think that with a managed or well maintained site, someone will come and pick up the rubbish or they use the excuse that they couldn’t find a bin. Bins are often avoided as they attract wildlife and cause all sorts of problems, so visitors should be taking their litter back to the visitor's centre bin or failing that, home. You can help document if there’s a litter problem where you visit.

Just some of the litter found in my local forest on a walk. Photo: Marie Gardiner

Soft Paths: Documenting Responsibly

As well as documenting the good and the bad a site has to offer, you should also be aware of your own conduct whilst photographing. Each place of conservation will have its own rules and regulations and you should check these and adhere to them for your own safety as well as the continued preservation of flora and fauna.

Wherever you are, it makes sense to tread lightly. The book Soft Paths, by Bruce Hampton and David Cole, is a great guide for nature and conservation photographers.

Follow the Rules

If a site asks you to stick to the marked footpaths then don’t go romping off into the woods. There could be a really important reason why you’re not supposed to and you could disturb things in a way you’d never have guessed. There could be a rare bird nesting site nearby, or there could be a tree disease that they’re trying to prevent the spread of.

Stay Quiet

For photographing animals and birds, Leanne from WWT recommends settling yourself in one place and being quiet and patient.

Clothing and Footwear

Avoid wearing bright colours as the animals can spot them easily and be spooked. Remember your camera bag too, mine is bright orange! Think about your footwear and the type of terrain you’re visiting. Consider walking boots for most of these types of places. Basically something sturdy that supports your ankles and is waterproof, not just water resistant.

Dress appropriately for the surroundings. Photo: Marie Gardiner

There’s a popular saying among urban explorers, ‘Take only pictures, leave only footprints’. These are wise words for any photographic situation, so keep them in mind.

Get Loud

If your photos sit in a folder on your computer then chances are, they won’t be good for much. Seek out the social media accounts of your site and share your pictures with them – as Leanne mentions, they’re a great way to get people engaged with what a site has to offer; something you can really help with.
‘WWT Washington’s Twitter feed and Facebook page are full of fantastic images shared by photographers of all levels and they are a great engagement tool for showcasing our incredible wetland wildlife to new audiences.’—Leanne McCormella

Get involved with any hashtag trends too, and actively encourage people to share your pictures. Not only is it good exposure for you if they do, but you’re doing good for the upkeep of the place too by encouraging people to visit.

Create blogs or online articles to encourage people to see, read, interact—even share their own stuff. Facebook groups are great for this too because they encourage like-minded individuals to join. If you post regularly and reply to comments or questions then you might be surprised at how quickly you create a ground swell. Remember, it's not just about your content, show interest in others' work too and maybe even share that on your page or blog.

Final Thoughts

We’re lucky to have some beautiful sites around us that are being preserved for future generations to enjoy. Our role in this can seem small, but if even one person sees, for example, a picture of litter in their local forest and decides to litter pick there, or educates their child that they shouldn’t drop rubbish, then even that seemingly small thing will have made an important impact. The more of us who do this and the more we do this; the better.

The fact you’ve decided to use your camera to highlight environmental issues or impacts is a great first step. Things to think about:

  • Start locally, what is close to you and what issues can you highlight?
  • Will you be taking snapshots or crafting images with the view of telling a story?
  • Who cares? Think about your audience—give them context and solutions, not guilt
  • Think about whether you'll tell a story or simply document
  • Don't be too biased: You may care strongly about an issue but remember to set out your stall in a balanced way
  • Photograph responsibly, following the rules set out by the place you’re visiting; Don't be part of the problem
  • Wear the correct clothes and footwear for your environment
  • Think about how you’ll share your images and what platforms work best, and try to get other like-minded people involve and share their stuff too

None of us are going to change the world on our own, but everyone has to start somewhere. A large part of the problem is lack of awareness and few practical solutions for change. If we can start small, on a local level, then we have a real chance of making some difference, whether that's raising awareness of a local site and campaigning for conservation or simply having someone pick up after themselves rather than dump their litter. Change comes one step at a time.

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