Nature Photography Safety

"Nature Photography Safety should never be ignored."

Safety Considerations for Outdoor Photographers

Nature photographers enjoy the worldly escape given by trekking through wilderness areas often a good distance from civilization. We look through the viewfinder encompassed in the act of perfecting a composition, often unaware of what is going on in our surroundings.

We bring with us thousands of dollars worth of photography equipment. Our vehicles can be parked unattended at the trailheads for hours. Most of us do not like to think about it, but we are prime targets for criminal activity.

As an avid nature photographer and a police officer, I take nature photography safety very serious and I use my law enforcement experience and training to make sure that every trip into the wilderness is as safe as it can be. I will share several tips in this article that will help keep you safe while you are enjoying your photographic journeys in the great outdoors.

A safe trip out begins with some planning. Remember some of the basic concepts of nature photography safety: always let someone know where you plan to go and what time they can expect you back. Find out what law enforcement agency holds jurisdiction over the area you will be in and provide their contact information to your family or friends.

Statistics show that criminals more often target people traveling alone. I know that we often go out there to escape being surrounded by other people, but it also makes us more vulnerable. If you take a friend with you, your survival odds increase dramatically.

Trailheads are known for vehicle burglaries due to their location and the length of time that they are often left unattended. There is really no way to prevent a break in, but there are ways to lessen the odds of it happening to you. Never leave anything valuable in plain site. If you cannot take it with you, toss it in the trunk (if you have one).

A tactic used by many thieves is to hang out and be a regular at the trailhead. They may act like another photographer or hiker and try to chat with you about your hiking plans. If you tell them your plans you are also telling tem how long you will be away from your vehicle. Look for things out of the ordinary when you approach the trailhead. Look for suspicious people or a window broken out of another car. Whether you are photographing a few feet or a few miles from your car, always lock it.

Studies show that police officers that are in good shape, have a neat appearance and act confidently are less likely to subjected to a physical attack. This actually works for everyone. When you hit the trail, make eye contact with the other hikers; walk tall to help project confidence. You will be less likely to be a target of a criminal looking for an easy score.

Be very aware of your surroundings at all times. Make a mental note of the people you see on the trail. How tall are they? What color and length is their hair? What are they wearing? Do they appear unusually nervous, fidgety or interested in you or your gear? Do they have anything on or around them that could be used as a weapon? Remember these things in the unlikely event that you may need to act defensively.

While it is normal for non-photographers to be interested in your gear and ask questions about it, you should be cautious about discussing the monetary value of your equipment with strangers. Someone asking odd questions or who appears to be sizing up you and the environment might only be interested in making your camera, his camera. I was photographing mountain goats on Mt. Evans with a 100-400mm lens when a vehicle stopped on the road below me. The driver exited and slowly moved toward me. I assumed he was interested in seeing the goats from my vantage point until he reached my position and immediately began to ask questions about my gear. He said, "I bet that’s an expensive lens." I shrugged it off,(keeping nature photography safety in mind) saying "not really, there are lenses that cost 20 times as much!" Something about the man didn’t sit right with me. I quickly packed up my equipment and walked back to my truck, all the while looking over my shoulder and listening for hurried footsteps behind me. Photo 1 was made before I had to unexpectedly depart. Was he viewing the goats and simply making small talk with me, or did he have other dubious intentions? I don’t know, but I felt the safest thing to do was forsake additional photos and return to my vehicle.

As photographers we often find ourselves peering through viewfinders or with our heads under a dark cloth, completely oblivious to that which is happening around us, often not considering nature photography safety. To a lion we would surely appear to be the weakest gazelle! Much of the joy I derive from photography comes from fine tuning compositions and losing myself in the moment. One need not forego this pleasure by constantly worrying about being attacked. Let your other senses pick up the slack while your eyes are busy. Listen for footsteps, be aware of changing odors and periodically lift your eye from the viewfinder to have a look around. You can quickly get back to the fun stuff once you determine there are no immediate threats.

For example, on a recent trip to photograph ice in the Colorado River north of Moab I discovered a homeless camp tucked into a thick stand of tamarisk. The camp appeared to be unoccupied but signs of recent activity were present. Patterns along the riverbank and towering cliffs reflecting in a thin layer of ice caught my attention. I set up my tripod and explored the photographic possibilities, all the while listening for any sounds of movement and occasionally lifting my eye from the viewfinder to survey my surroundings. Photo 2 was the result of this experience. I am not implying that all homeless are criminals. Nonetheless, many are mentally unstable and some are extremely territorial and have been known to attack "intruders." It is highly unlikely that you will ever find yourself in a situation that calls for physical retaliation against an attacker. However, you should be mentally and physically prepared to defend yourself should such a situation arise. Cops are hammered in the academy to develop a "survival attitude." This consists of playing through hypothetical situations in your mind and deciding how you would react to them before they happen. In every situation it is critical that YOU come out the winner.

Most of us carry a dynamite weapon every time we go out; our tripod! Even a lightweight carbon fiber tripod will inflict serious injury upon an attacker. Other weapons are readily available in the wilderness, i.e. large stones and fallen tree branches. Be aware of what you have at your disposal so that you are prepared and can act swiftly to combat an attacker. However, you should only resort to physical force to defend yourself or another person from serious bodily harm. Should someone rob or attempt to rob you of gear or money your safest course of action is to simply hand it over to them. Your gear can be replaced. Photography and outdoor gear is usually covered under renters or homeowner’s insurance. Lastly, using physical force to defend property is rarely justified and you could be found criminally and civilly liable.

Since you already took the time to locate the name and contact information of the local law enforcement, reporting suspicious activity will be easy. Officers cannot be everywhere at once. If a suspicious incident does not get reported, they have no idea that a situation even exists that requires our attention. Do not worry, you are not bothering us and your report save someone from becoming a victim.

Follow your instincts. If something does not look or feel right it's probably not.

This article is not intended to scare you or to make you think twice about venturing into the wilderness. Rather, I only hope to make you more aware of what you can do to keep yourself safe while continuing to enjoy the peace and tranquility we all find through photography. Go out and get some great shots, but please don't forget about nature photography safety.

This tip provided by Brett Edge. I would like to thank Brett for these tips on nature photography safety. After reading his article, I realize how lucky I am, not to have already been a victim. I was very oblivious to my surroundings.

Return to the top of Nature Photography Safety, Wildlife Photography Tips, or Photography Tips.

Learn Adobe Photoshop