Conservation Photography in the Digital Age

Conservation photographers play a critical role in world of conservation.  They combine nature photography, photojournalism, and advocacy to draw the public’s attention to the most critical environmental issues in today’s world.  Unfortunately, it’s getting harder for conservation photographers to make a living.  That could have serious consequences, especially in light of the growing urbanization of the general public.

Conservation photography can be a lonely profession, but plays a critical role in conservation.  Ty Smedes at The Nature Conservancy's Broken Kettle Grasslands - Northwest Iowa.

Conservation photography can be a lonely profession, but plays a critical role in conservation. Ty Smedes at The Nature Conservancy’s Broken Kettle Grasslands – Northwest Iowa.

In some ways, photography is getting easier, and it’s certainly accessible to more people than it used to be.  Today’s cheap digital cameras have many features that, just a few decades ago, were found only on very expensive high end cameras.  As a result, novice photographers can often capture great photos from situations that used to flummox the most veteran of photographers.  In addition, of course, nearly everyone carries a camera with them, nowadays – most often in their phone – so being in the right place at the right time (with a camera) is a much more common occurrence than it used to be. 

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Using Photography to Catalyze Prairie Conservation

I’ve written several times about the challenge of getting people excited enough about prairies that they take conservation action.  My latest attempt was back in January.  In addition, I posted an essay from Doug Ladd in April that expressed the importance of prairies in extraordinary prose.

It’s hard to describe the beauty and complexity of prairies and the need for conservation without using photographs. This photo shows several insects on a single flowering stem of pitcher sage, and is both interesting and beautiful. Photos like this can help tell a story, but can also be the trigger that gets someone to start thinking about natural systems and conservation.

This Spring, Mark Godfrey, The Nature Conservancy’s Director of Photography came out and shot some video of me in our Platte River Prairies as part of a project to encourage scientists to use photography more (and more effectively) in their work.  The video also talks about how photography can help energize people about conservation – something I feel very strongly about.  You can view that four minute video here.

I do what I can with photography, but I’m primarily an ecologist and land manager.  Fortunately, Nebraska has a number of excellent outdoor photographers, including the staff at NEBRASKAland magazine.  In addition, two full-time professional photographers are particularly good at using photography to promote conservation.  If you’re not familiar with their work, I’d encourage you to track it down.

1. Michael Forsberg is brilliant at building an emotional connection between viewers of his terrific photographs (and his in-person presentations) and the natural world he loves.  He draws you in gently, but before you know it you’re hooked and can’t wait to go do something to save the earth – particularly the Great Plains of North America.

2. Joel Sartore is a National Geographic photographer based in Lincoln, Nebraska, who uses a somewhat different approach than Mike -he gets right in your face and challenges you.  Frequently his message is essentially, “Come on, people, wake up and save this planet!”

Both photographers have fantastic images and strong messages of conservation.  We need many more like them.  However, you don’t have to be a professional to be effective.  If you can take the time to capture the reasons you think conservation are important through photography – and share the photos and stories with others – you can make a difference too.