Editors Note: Photographing on public lands is a favorite location choice for many Milky Way and Nightscape photographers. As such, we at MilkyWayPhotographers.com think it is important to discuss the issue of photography ethics as it relates to public lands.

A perfect storm has arisen in the photography world regarding ethics. Like a lot of things, this storm did not pop up overnight. This storm has been brewing for a while. The popularity and easy access to digital photography, social media, and our public lands have come together to form this storm.

We, as photographers, should respect lands, public and private. It does not matter if we are professional or amateur. This guideline includes both public and private. Our images reflect who we are. If we are to retain the use of public locations such as Mesa Arch, then we have to be respectful and ethical.

How do we go about photographing the lands ethically? This article should hopefully serve as a guideline to assist you if you are new to the world of photography. This article is U.S. centric. I do not have the background to speak of other countries. For those readers in other countries, hopefully, this article will help you understand how things are here in America regarding land use.


I think I can bypass writing about the history of social media and photography. Social media is ever-present, and photography is all around us these days. The third component for this “perfect storm,” public lands though might be a mystery to some.

What are public lands? Simply put, they are lands that are owned by all Americans which are managed by a government agency. These could include Civil War battlefields, museums, state parks, national parks, and so on. Agencies that oversee these locations include the United States Forest Service, National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, state wildlife agencies, etc.

I think most of us are familiar with a location that falls under the definition of public lands. When it comes to photography, it can go unsaid that we are well aware of what a beacon the American Southwest is to photographers. Locations such as Mesa Arch, Horseshoe Bend, Yosemite, and the Grand Canyon draw photographers from all corners of the planet.

The American West is unique in the fact that the federal government manages at least a quarter of the land in each state, excluding Hawaii. Washington is on the bottom of this list with only 28.5% of the land falling under the purview of the federal government. Nevada tops the chart at 85%.

Red areas denote Federal public lands. The Federal Government manages more than 25% of the American West.
The Federal Government manages more than 25% of the American West. Red areas denote both surface and subsurface Federal public lands. Note that this map includes as “federal lands” land held “in trust” for Native Americans, which are not generally considered “federal lands” in other contexts.


It is impossible to write about a topic that concerns public lands in America without mentioning how political the issue is. When I joined the 4×4 community back in the 90s, I quickly learned how political the public lands debate was. There are off roaders fighting to keep access to trails, ranchers fighting to keep grazing rights, environmentalists fighting to preserve locations in their natural state. All of these special interests collide at times.

Only in existence for a little over 20 years, Grand Staircase has been highly controversial.
Only in existence for a little over 20 years, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument has been highly controversial.

How heated does this public lands debate get? Simple. There have been armed standoffs between citizens and authorities over access. That might sound crazy to a lot of people, but world history is littered with examples of humans fighting over land.


Theodore Roosevelt, U.S. President, Cavalryman Extradoire; is credited with bringing attention to land conservation in America. After laying his eyes on the American West, Roosevelt understood that we needed to work to preserve the most scenic lands for future generations. Even back then, this topic was controversial with politicians fighting Roosevelt.

President Theodore Roosevelt stands at Glacier Point overlooking Yosemite Valley in May 1903. Three years after witnessing the beauty and grandeur of Yosemite, Roosevelt signed a bill designating it as a National Park.

Since Roosevelt’s time, the government has exerted power by declaring additional national monuments and parks. With the advent of the Internet, more people have become aware of the public lands issue.


I want to think that most of us already possess at least a little bit of decorum or etiquette when it comes to practicing our art. I would say that our understanding is engrained in us as we sit in front of our computers studying the work of others and reading about it. Most of you probably shy away from portrait photography, so chances of you messing up for the sake of attention is minimal.

If you are a portrait photographer, I am not singling you out, but there seems to be a trend within the community that is affecting all of us; photographing at railroad tracks, abandoned buildings, culturally sensitive, and fragile ecosystems. If there is outrage in the photography community at any moment, it involves a portrait photographer. Well, the incident that finally lit my fire to write this article was started by a portrait photographer.


Where I live here in the Central Valley of California, is just a few minutes from the foothills of the Sierra. A few more minutes and I am in the land of mountain meadows, huge trees, and looming mountains. Just a couple hours down the road is Yosemite. Yosemite is not only a haven of landscape photographers, but there are local portrait photographers who cater to people who want photo sessions in the park.

All in all, there is a lot of public lands within a short drive from my house. All of these locations have rules and regulations. Even outside of the parks, a lot of the lands that border the park fall under the purview of the United States Forest Service.


I think it is important to detail a real-world situation to show how to do things the wrong way. This situation played out in a local photography Facebook group, which I am a member. Names have been changed to protect the guilty.


  • PHOTOGRAPHER A – The person responsible for taking and posting the picture.
  • PHOTOGRAPHER B – The person who saw the picture and sent a message to Photographer A.

Photographer A makes a post on their Instagram account, showing a pickup parked in a meadow. Photographer B messages A about the photo. After no response, B posts in a local group calling out A regarding the picture. B states that the vehicle in the image parked in a mountain meadow is in a restricted area. Several other photographers quickly chime in, stating that they know the location well and that “NO VEHICLE” signs are visible. B says that the reason that they posted about it in a group is that they attempted to communicate with A privately, but A appears to have ignored the message.

Land Use and Photography Ethics - The initial post by Photographer B and A.
The initial posts.

Sometime later, Photographer A finally responds – via Instagram Story. They claim there were no signs and that the pickup was “right off the road.” Photographer A claims they are not encouraging other photographers to destroy public property.

Now Photographer B never responded to the initial callout in the Facebook group. They were not a member, although they have friends in the group, they were supplied with screenshots. According to a moderator, B was invited to join the group to respond.


The circus in the group continued throughout the day. The vast majority of responses were on point; Photographer A was in the wrong. While I have never met either photographer, I do know that B comes across as someone who stays abreast of the rules and regulations.

In fact, due to a recent post by B in the group, I did my own research and learned that I needed a permit to photograph in Yosemite. A runs a separate photography group that has regular meetups. Both photographers seem to have a pretty steady portrait business in this area.

Land Use and Photography Ethics - Markers like this are used to clearly denote areas with restricted access.
Markers like this are used to clearly denote areas with restricted access.

Later in the article, I will cover how I think this situation could have been easily resolved.


The term social media influencer has become a hot term lately. It is not hard to find one. It’s the account that has a pretty wall of images and selfies taken in stunning locations and has thousands of followers. A lot of these influencers have sponsors or receive a product to promote.

Nothing wrong with any of that. The free market is the free market, and if a person can make a living in such a way, more freedom to them. I follow several of them because they create content that I like. There are those influencers out there though that will cross lines.


I recall a conversation I had some time back with some other photographers. A particular photographer, who is a big name in the same genre, was brought up. Even though I knew the person by name, I did not know the reputation. Unfortunately, it is not good as this person had built a reputation of flaunting the rules that covered photographers at the event we were attending. Then again, most of us in our little group has perhaps 1000 followers on average, while the photographer being spoken of has thousands and thousands of followers. Yup, makes sense.


I think where the train leaves the tracks in the case of Photographer B, or the one who flaunts the sanctioning body’s rules, is they do not understand the power that an image can hold.

Some historians argue that the course of the War in the Pacific changed when “Dead Americans at Buna Beach” was published by Life Magazine. Fast forward a couple of decades and the image of a naked Vietnamese child running down the road after being wounded in a napalm strike certainly influenced the course of that war. Heck, I have an image in my portfolio I’ve been informed could kickstart a lawsuit. Yeah, it is an image that contains that much power.

A little more down to Earth, an image can get you into trouble with the law. The agency that has jurisdiction over the land in the image can very well use the photo as a foundation to take enforcement action against the photographer and the client.

As you can see by the following screenshot, Photographer A does not believe they are encouraging other photographers with this image. Yet, this particular photographer has their own photography group that holds regular educational meetings. Perhaps a good option would be for this photographer to reach out to someone very familiar with land use issues and have them speak at an upcoming meet.

Land Use and Photography Ethics - A response from Photographer A.
A response from Photographer A.


I recently came across a group of images that were on social media. One of the photos depicted a person standing on an arch. What does that say to groups who strive to protect these locations? Simple, humans cannot be trusted. The agency that oversees the area can enact stricter regulations, more expensive permits, or close the site off altogether.

There have been other images in public that have been used by special interest groups to have areas closed off, or restrictions enacted. It is just not worth it. I have seen the destruction of photogenic structures with some justification given that they were becoming too popular with photographers.


As you can see by the screenshots, the photographer responsible for the pickup in the meadow image does not “get it.” As a leader of their own local photography group, by publicizing this image, they are setting the example of what is “right.” And responding the way they did, they are telling other photographers that it is okay to “get the shot” no matter the consequences.

Posted by Stanley Harper on Wednesday, August 22, 2018
This location became an icon in Oklahoma drawing photographers from around the state. The owner used that as partial justification for demolishing it.

Your Actions Affect the Community

I believe that within the photography communities who work more with nature, such as landscape, wildlife, and astrophotography; there is a greater understanding of “your actions affect the community” as compared to other photography genre communities. If I say “raise your hand if you have to had to answer for the actions of another photographer,” and you raise your hand, you will get it. Even if you do not raise your hand, you probably get it.

Land Use and Photography Ethics - This barn was located down the road from the one in the video. While easily photographed from the road, the day that I shot this, we watched a photographer walk out into the wheat field.  Just a few months later, I saw that the barn and windmill had been demolished. Through third-hand information, the same reasoning was given; it was getting too popular with photographers.
This barn was down the road from the one in the video linked to above. While easily photographed from the side of the field, the day that I shot this, we watched a photographer walk out into the wheat. Just a few months later, I saw that the barn and windmill were demolished. Through third-hand information, it was the same reason as above; it was getting too popular with photographers.

Even though the owner of the lifted pickup in the picture doesn’t appear to be a member of my “4×4 world” of responsible owners, opponents of the OHV crowd could use the image as a tool to state their case that the entire 4×4 community is dangerous to the environment.

Land Use and Photography Ethics - Bad behaviour by a minority can have effects for all of us.
Bad behaviour by a minority can have effects for all of us.

Several months ago, I attempted to photograph the Milky Way at a local lake. Unbeknownst to me, several locations that I had chosen were gated shut at night. I found out later that this was not always the case. Does the agency in charge of these locations close them at night because of bad apples? I do not know for sure, but if I was a betting man, the answer is “yes.” Why? Because that is the way the world works.


The realist part of me says the horse has already left the barn. Human nature is we are selfish to the core. Even ancient religious texts like the story of Eve and the Garden reflect this trait. Just the sheer numbers of people with cameras these days and the ability to publish an image immediately tells me that we will continue to have issues that should not be.

At some point, each one of us will mess up. It will happen. We do not have to be perfect. What we can do is strive to do better. We need to go to a location with the mindset that we want to create beautiful imagery first, and we have to do so responsibly.

Mentor other photographers. A key component of being a leader is having the ability and motivation to mentor folks who look to you as a leader.


Going back to the “pickup in the mountain meadow” image. I believe Photographer A handled that entire situation wrong. A should have responded to B privately. A is supposed to be a professional photographer. Part of professionalism is communicating with people in a manner that is respectful, tactful, and listens to what the other participants have to say.

Land Use and Photography Ethics - A bit more of the discussion from Photographer A.
A bit more of the discussion with Photographer A.

Others things you can do is pack your trash out. Carry extra trash bags with you and haul out other trash if you come across it. Do not cross closed gates. Respect the hours of operation.

A couple of years ago, while storm chasing, my group and myself watched a photographer set his gear up in the middle of a cornfield to shoot an antique barn. Even if there is not a fence, use some common sense – respect property rights.


Since coming back out West, I have seen outrageous permit fees in several locations. There is a permit call the Interagency Annual Pass. With a cost of $80, this permit allows you to enter areas managed by several different federal agencies. On my third trip to a National Park, this pass will have paid for itself.

One Pass to rule them all - The America The Beautiful Interagency Pass.
One Pass to rule them all – The America The Beautiful Interagency Pass.

Check with the location to see if you need a permit to do “commercial” photography. I will admit, the federal agencies in this aspect are more of a hindrance than a help. Federal land management agencies are notorious for having unclear rules. They are also well-known for unanswered and unreturned phone calls. In the one inquiry that I made that resulted in an answer, it took several emails between myself and the park representative before I received it. The agencies should have the rules clearly written on their websites.


Going back to the “pickup in the meadow” image, I saw that the client who owns the pickup suggested parking in the meadow. Since the pickup truck is a “4×4,” it affects that community also. I belong to two groups that can be adversely affected by this photographer’s actions – photography and 4×4.

First things first, stay on established trails and roads. If you want to pull off the way, wait until there is an established pull off unless it is an emergency. Founded by USFS, the Tread Lightly program was established to promote outdoor ethics. If you have a 4×4, go here to read a list of tips from Tread Lightly.


When Francisco Coronado was exploring America in the 1540, he stopped off at a little known place in the Oklahoma Panhandle and left his mark in the stone.

There are other places throughout America where this was normal. In fact, back in the 1980s, I left my name etched in sandstone somewhere in the Southwest. I knew no better as a kid. I just followed the hundreds, perhaps thousands that had visited the hole in the rock before me.

In this day and age, etching your name in sandstone is a “no go.” Don’t do it. The same goes for picnic tables and other wooden objects scattered throughout our public lands.

Land Use and Photography Ethics - Not anyone I know of, not to mention it would be over a century later before my people inhabited the area where this is etched.
Not anyone I know of, not to mention it would be over a century later before my people inhabited the area where this is etched.


Although I am not real familiar with rock stacking outside the realm of 4×4 trail riding, it appears to be a thing these days. There has been backlash though.

Land Use and Photography Ethics - Random Cairns - public art or public nuisense?
Random Cairns – public art or public nuisense?


Earlier this year, social media was a fire with people flocking to poppy fields over California. Because crowds flooded into some areas, they had to close them to the public.

Orchard blooms are another popular location that photographers flock. In the Midwest, photographers are in search of cotton fields and sunflowers so they can create their own versions of the other 10 million similar portrait photos that have already been done.


Now, this is a revolutionary thought, embrace your creativity. We here at MWP are devoting to coming up with new ways to express ourselves. We go out at all hours of the night. Fighting off mosquitoes, man-eating beasts, and the sleep monster; we challenge ourselves to show the world the night sky.

What I am getting at is we need to step away from “keeping up with the Jones” by going to the same locations everyone else does. Ask yourself, “Do I really need an image of Mesa Arch?” A little of me cries inside when I hear the phrase “the popular locations sell” and “I go to other locations for myself.” I get it, and I understand – money talks.


One of the goals in my “Chase The Milky Way” venture this year is to go to locations that are not that popular. This mindset is not constant. Trona Pinnacles is somewhat popular. I have been there.

But my next trip is going to cover some real popular locations. But one of the reasons I chose northern Arizona was because it does not seem to be a popular location, as of yet.

Am I shooting myself in the foot by doing that? I do not know, but I did sell two prints from that shoot within a week of returning. One of those prints is a 20″ x 30″ that went to Montana. I have another image in my portfolio that sold almost $1000 worth of prints within weeks of creating it.

Photography is not about driving straight to a location, pushing a shutter, and going home. It is a journey. It is an adventure. Put some work in at home with Google Maps. Find out of the way locations. The more work you put into an image, the more adventure involved will allow you to become more emotionally attached to an image.


There has been discussion in photography groups about advertising locations. Do we hurt or help? I started my night photography adventure in the Kenton, OK area way back in 2013.

Kenton, Oklahoma, even though it hosts an annual “star party,” was not on the radar of night photographers. It is the middle of nowhere, and it is a harsh but scenic land. A month after that first trip, I “led” my first group for a night photography trip to the area.

A couple of us from that group went on to promote Kenton the best we could. We have seen the popularity of the area as a night sky photography location grow.

Sometimes I feel guilty about it. Not because of the small group I know that frequents the area. They are all very respectful of anywhere they go. It’s the professionals not from the area who have no attachment to the area that will try to wear it out while chasing the dollar through workshops and their unabashed promotion.


I refrained from using location specific hashtags when I posted my Arizona images to Instagram. I have almost the same emotional attachment to the location as I do to the Kenton area. The difference between the two is that the Arizona location sees a lot more human traffic.

Before I left, I thought about the ramifications of posting the locations of my images. Although the area is a popular tourist destination, I could not find many astrophotography images. I decided to refrain from publicizing the photos. It is not like the location is a State Secret; it will take someone just a few seconds to Google the spot.

I did not hide the location, and anyone familiar with the area will know exactly where it was. I just did not openly advertise. Yes, I am selfish by doing that, but it is what it is. There is no telling what the impact would be.


For those of us that have a photography business, we have a duty to not only protect but to educate our clients. Just because they are paying you does not give them carte blanche in choosing locations. The owner of the pickup in the example above chimed in, accepting responsibility for it being in the meadow.

Perhaps it can go unsaid that if you are doing portrait photography, you should have a contract. The language in it should state that you reserve the right to refuse to shoot at a location.


In the example I wrote about above, both photographers run Facebook groups. Photographer A also has an Instagram account related to the group. They have monthly educational meetings. Do you believe that Photographer A is an effective educator and leader in the photography community if they are creating and posting images that are unethical in nature? Will that behavior filter to their group? Will their toxic filled responses rub off on those that they are mentoring?

Leaders of social media groups can be anyone. Therefore their ethical makeup can be wide-ranging. If you run a photography group on social media, then you have a duty to showcase your work responsibly and to squash irresponsible photography.


Similar to Tread Lightly, Leave No Trace also focuses on ethical behavior in the outdoors. The focus of Leave No Trace is on the non-motorized use of public lands.


The phrase “Community over competition” is used by a lot of people in the photography community these days. Unfortunately, too many use this phrase as a shield when discussing photography ethics. A shield to protect themselves from any negative criticism in the way they do business.

When you purchased your camera, even if you do not realize it; you also accepted an awesome responsibility. The images you create can very well change minds not only at the local level but on the global one too.

“Community over competition” means that we have an absolute responsibility to treat our public lands with respect. Respect the restrictions in place, even if you do not agree with them. And accept that your images and actions are a reflection of the photography community as a whole.

“The nation behaves well if it treats the natural resources as assets which it must turn over to the next generation increased and not impaired in value.”

-Theodore Roosevelt


  1. Excellent read!
    If it brings awareness to even one photographer, 4×4 enthusiast other public land user it has been a success.
    Thank you ,


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