Disclosing Photo Locations: How Much Information is Too Much?

Posted on 03 July 2010

In the summer of 2010 I had the good fortune to join a several other photographers (Charlie Cramer, Mike Osborne, and Karl Kroeber) for a few days of shooting in the Tuolumne/Tioga Pass area of Yosemite National Park. Getting to spend time with photographers who have so much experience and knowledge of Yosemite was inspiring, and I was grateful for the chance to join them.

While sitting around during the “boring light” hours one afternoon – waiting for early dinner before travel to a shooting location for the good light – Mike mentioned that they were going to a place that was best not publicized, and he joked that he “might have to blindfold” me if I were to accompany them. Mike was a Yosemite ranger for decades before he retired and it is clear that he loves and cares for the place deeply. He mentioned posts on this blog in which I had named photo locations and given, in his opinion, a bit too much information about where they are located. This concerns him because he has seen first hand the damage caused by publicity of certain special locations. He also feels that it is often better to gain information about these places the old fashioned way – by word of mouth from an acquaintance or by sleuthing it out yourself. In addition, he also points out – correctly, I think – that many of the photographs I post are not so much about the specific location as they are about some thing I saw there, and that it might make sense to title photographs in a more generalized way with that in mind.

Mike’s comments caused me to think quite a bit about this issue. First, a few words of self-defense, but then some changes that I decided to make here at the blog and in other places where I share my photographs.

As we sat around the motel room talking about this, my first thought was, more or less, “How can my little photography blog have any serious effect!?” Meanwhile, Charlie was on his laptop looking up web rankings for various photography web sites and blogs. No site like this one is going to get hundreds of thousands of hits*, but it surprised me quite a bit when he pointed out that I get more traffic than some fairly well-known photographers. So perhaps it was possible that what I post could have a larger effect than I had imagined. This was a new realization.

*Actually, and somewhat to my surprise, it has!

Another response was that these places are not “just photographs” for me – in my mind they are almost always connected to stories. While another person might look at the photographs purely as images of subjects and places, for me they are also associated very specifically with the situations and conditions in which the photographs were made, who was there with me, and more. When I look at the black and white photograph of trees along the shoreline of a lake that I posted recently, I recall the choice to be there at this time on this morning, the recognition that the sound in the cold early morning air suggested autumn, running into a ranger who thought that I had illegally camped overnight at this spot, and the process of slowly considering how to compose a photograph of this scene. And I want to tell those stories.

But Mike is right. Or at least partially right. OK, he’s mostly right.

Several times during the weeks before I wrote this, people contacted me to ask about photographing a location shown in one of my photographs. Several weeks ago one person asked about a particular photograph and seemed to want some pretty specific details about the location – and the follow-up messages sounded to me like a request for information about “where to put the tripod” in order to re-create my photograph. (I don’t have a problem with people using the photographs of others as a learning tool or for inspiration, but in the end the goal is to photograph the subject in your own personal way. And even with your tripod in the same spot, you and I should and will produce different photographs.)

With all of this in mind, I started to think more carefully about how I’ll identify and describe my photographs. Careful readers may have already noticed a change when some photographs were given titles that reflect a more general identification  (e.g. “lake” without the name of the lake) and when descriptions of how and where have become a bit more general. I can’t say that I will never offer specific location information. For some photographs the location still provides the most appropriate title for the photograph and revealing it creates little risk to the subject, but I’m going to try to refrain from needlessly letting my inclination to “tell stories” about the photographs lead me to offer inappropriate details, especially when the area is fragile and/or already too accessible.

Thanks for your understanding. And thanks, Mike, for encouraging me to think about this.

Addendum – February 2014

After recently viewing a photograph of wanton destruction of a special place in Death Valley, almost certainly by photographers, I would like to add some explanation of the nature of “the problem” and how it has changed in the last few years – and how these changes suggest that we have to think differently about what we write, about the things we describe, and where we share.

During a time not that long ago, barely more than a decade or two ago, it was common to share information about how to find locations we had photographed. Perhaps we had photographer friends that we knew and trusted – if we heard they were traveling near such a place we might say to them personally, “Hey, check out this spot.” Or perhaps we might meet with a group of fellow photographers and mention such things to them. Such information was occasionally shared in printed newsletters. Some books even spoke of such places, though they often tended to be a bit circumspect. In general, such information did not travel far, and finding it on our own was not all that easy.

The internet has changed everything. In our personal lives we now must be careful to not reveal things about ourselves on social media that we might freely speak of in personal conversation – because we know that what we say lives well beyond our immediate utterance and can come back to haunt us or reveal facts about us that are better not out there in a world of information that is cataloged and searchable and bought and sold.

Knowing this, we can no longer ignore the fact that what we used to share with a few friends about special, endangered, and fragile places cannot be shared in this new networked world without consequences that are potentially far-reaching and ultimately out of our control. In the past, it was virtually impossible that telling one person how to get to Location X would end up revealing that place to thousands or millions of people. Today, it is almost a certainty. The information we share will be captured, archived, tagged, cataloged, and rendered searchable in the context of every other mention of that subject. And know that those who search for it and use it will not all share your/our concern for places of great beauty, fragility, and solitude.

The first story about this that I distinctly remember occurred some years ago when folks realized that they could quickly share “conditions reports” about spring wildflowers on bulletin boards. In the past, finding the flowers was a matter of getting to know the natural patterns of the land, learning a few special places, and perhaps reading and studying – and then going off and looking around. As the internet conditions reports flourished, all of a sudden hundreds or thousands of people would show up at a few spots announced to be “best” or “perfect” on these bulletin boards, and eventually there were horror stories of the “nature lovers” showing up in such numbers and with such abandon that they trampled plant life and created instant use trails. (Meanwhile, folks who had followed the spring flowers for years knew that the “best spot!” hyperbole was largely just that.)

Today when you/I share specific details about a location, the consequences of our sharing are tremendously amplified by the networked world we live in. I’ve been shocked more than once to discover that someone had found some bit of information in and obscure post of mine. In one case I had shared a photograph of a fragile geological feature and its location, only to have it linked to a photograph of some damned fool climbing on the thing in a way that might destroy it.

It is time to rethink what we write and where we write it, with the goal of reducing the specificity of information that can risk the very things that we love so much. Such, go ahead and identify Half Dome as “Half Dome” in your photographs – there is little or no danger at this point in being specific about a thing that is so well known. But if you travel to a seldom-visited location in the outback somewhere, or you know of a petroglyph site that is thus far not well known, or if you spend time at a beautiful high-country lake, or do similar things in similar places… consider not offering up details about location or how to get there.

In the end, your photograph is not about proving that you went to a place. It is about making a thing of beauty the expresses something about your own experience with and orientation toward this world. If your photographs have power, it does not come from your special knowledge of a place but from the visual power of your image. Offer it as an image and let it speak for itself – you don’t have to tell us where it is.

Every time I share this idea, I expect to hear two sorts of objections, so rather than waiting to hear them, let me take them on directly.

  • “The bad guys will still get to those places and you cannot save them by keeping them secret.” Yes, this is ultimately true. There is no perfect protection for any of these places or resources. But the fact that some bad things might still happen does not excuse us from doing what we can to reduce the opportunities for harm. As the old saying goes, “The perfect is the enemy of the good.” Inability to offer a perfect solution does not negate the value of acting in ways that do good.
  • “You are just trying to keep your own special locations for yourself – you are selfish!” No, that is not at all what I want to do, and that most certainly does not drive my choice to say less about places. In fact, I also no longer press my friends and acquaintances to tell me about such places. If they trust me, they will. If their concern for these places is great enough they won’t, and I’m fine with that. Fortunately, the world is contains a sufficient number of beautiful places that I’ll find others!

So, please, out of your love and concern for these places, say no more about where they are or how to  find them than absolutely necessary.

(This article has been edited since it was originally posted in the summer of 2010.)

G Dan Mitchell is a California photographer whose subjects include the Pacific coast, redwood forests, central California oak/grasslands, the Sierra Nevada, California deserts, urban landscapes, night photography, and more.
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Text, photographs, and other media are © Copyright G Dan Mitchell (or others when indicated) and are not in the public domain and may not be used on websites, blogs, or in other media without advance permission from G Dan Mitchell.


39 comments to Disclosing Photo Locations: How Much Information is Too Much?

  • ErikNo Gravatar says:

    Interesting ideas. I tend to agree with your final conclusion, but I would love to be able to travel to far away places, as Yosemite is to me, and have some good places off the beaten path to photograph. Perhaps information disseminated in book form isn’t so dangerous- those who seek it out will more likely respect the places they find, but it won’t be found by google.

    • I’ve considered that question for a number of years, following the advice of some well regarded landscape photography guide books, and at first everything was going fine. I could arrive at spots and find them intact, with enough elbow room to work on composition. As digital photography took off in the 2005-2010 time frame and online photo sharing and social media took off in the same time period, reports from those same sites noted throngs of photographers lining up.

      While the guide books themselves distributed in the thousands of copies seemed not to create high traffic, a single photo shared online can have that same or greater distribution, and the photographers who then follow often also share their photos, creating exponential growth in visibility for a site previously not possible with print sharing such as in a book.

      The problem these days is that what’s in a book doesn’t stay in the book… people share those locations online as if there were no impact from their actions. So even though a book isn’t directly responsible for resulting impact, it can become the catalyst which sets the ball in motion.

      People have argued that through technology, all sites will be disclosed, and there’s no way to stop it. I don’t think that’s necessarily true, but even if it were, that’s not a valid argument for accelerating or increasing the impact.

      Some photographers reason that their fellow photographers pursue images of nature out of a love for it, and will be better than average stewards when they arrive at locations. Sadly I have to say that assigning such idealistic virtue to photographers is misplaced. They all see themselves as virtuous, but there are a number of conflicting human traits such as ego, pride or greed which can often cause the same photographers to act in damaging ways.

      Ironically I’m now completing a landscape photography guide book. It was going to get done regardless (I’m not the first person contracted to write it), and it covers a lot of territory which I value very much, so I might as well have editorial control over what goes in or stays out.

      John Muir had a great comment about guide books:
      “Most people who travel look only at what they are directed to look at. Great is the power of the guidebook maker, however ignorant.” – Travels in Alaska (1915)

      Perhaps a reasonable compromise can be reached, a less ignorant or careless type of guide book, in which sites are disclosed but only when photographers can be directed to places and features where they’ll have minimal impact.

  • GaryNo Gravatar says:

    Dan,

    I have had many of the same thoughts you’ve expressed here.

    My concern is that in taking this approach, we may be sending the message:

    “It’s OK for me, as a member of an elite class, to visit these places, take pictures and bring them to you less fortunate souls–but don’t you come here, you can’t be trusted to love it like I do.”

    Obviously not the message you are sending, but could that be the message people receive?

    I’d rather see photographers take the tone of:

    “I am very privileged to have seen this place and captured its beauty. Please view my photographs as evidence of the special nature of this place and do all you can to preserve it so that others may see it, just as I have, 100 and 200 years from now.”

    Nature photographers, as we have since the earliest days of photography, have a special role to play in showing people rare beauty and encouraging them to enjoy it and treasure it at the same time. It is my belief that we can balance the two.

    Thank you & have a happy Independence Day :-)
    Gary

    • Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Gary. I agree with you that this isn’t a simple question. (That’s reflected in this line about my friend Mike’s position: “But Mike is right. Or at least partially right. OK, mostly right. :-)

      I certainly don’t feel that I’m a member of an “elite class” granted special privileges regarding these places, and I would regret it if my thoughts created such an impression. In reality, I think that experiencing these places is one of the most free sorts of experiences one can have. While recognizing that financial and other limitations can make it more difficult for some to reach them, they are the sorts of places that almost anyone can visit – and there are no (significant) entrance fees, no advertising, no need to join a club. What is required includes the dedication of some time (little opportunity for instant gratification here!), some effort, and a willingness to step away from some of the distractions in our lives.

      You also touch on another very important point in your “tone” paragraph near the end of your post. Among the valuable things that photographs and photographers have accomplished, they have increased the awareness and respect for beautiful places and the commitment to preserve them. In fact, we can point to the work of certain specific photographers as being central to the preservation of certain parks and other wonderful landscapes. To the extent that my photographs might do this for some viewers, I think that I can try to find a balance between sharing the subjects and places and not necessarily making it too easy to locate my tripod holes!

      Thanks for posting, and take care.

      Dan

  • ErnieNo Gravatar says:

    As always, when things are not black and white (and I’m not talking about photographs ;-) ), this causes us to make difficult choices.

    For example, there is a free standing arch in Yosemite. For the longest time I did not know about it until one day when researching a backpacking trip. Has it been impacted since people visit it? Yes. There is a use trail to it, people climb over it, etc. It is however really nice to see.

    Should I tell people about it? In this case yes, and partly because it is identified on various maps already.

    On the other hand, if I ran across a cave such as in Spain and France with paintings, would I want to tell everyone about them? No, and not ever unless they are carefully protected. I guess you would say that I don’t trust the general public to take care of them well enough, they are very fragile, and the risk of losing such art is too high in my opinion.

    Where to draw the line between telling or not is the difficult choice we have to make…..

    ==========
    And kidding Dan – tripod holes?????? WWWwwwwwaaaaaaa, what about “Leave No Trace”?????

    Just kidding. ;-)

  • John WallNo Gravatar says:

    Dan, what I appreciate about your Yosemite photos is being inspired to explore there. I’m all for maintaining the mystique. I don’t think it will come off as elitist to leave information out. My only concern is what you will title your images. There’s going to be a lot of “Lake, Yosemite High Country” and “Peak, Yosemite High Country”. ;)

  • Thanks for the comments folks. And John, we think alike. One of the first practical concerns that came to mind was precisely the one you mentioned. I think that titles like “Lake and Tree #42″ are going to get old eventually. ;-)

    My thinking has been to go with a tradition used by other landscape photographers – e.g. to have a two-part title with the first part typically identifying the subject (“Alpine Lake”) and the second the broader location (“Yosemite National Park”), but even this poses some problems.

    Dan

  • Edie HoweNo Gravatar says:

    As a photographer with extremely limited time and travel resources, I rely on the willingness of my photographer friends to share locations with me. I have also relied on the willingness of utter strangers to share the locations of their images in their titles and comments. I feel a responsibility to earnest photographers to likewise share good locations with them.

    I think that as photographers we also have a duty to live and preach the Leave No Trace ethic. I already live it, and now it’s time to preach it from my own blog.

    Thanks for making me think carefully about this topic, Dan.

    Seriously, you get folks badgering you for precise location (“tripod holes”) of your shots? I’ve never had that problem. Either you’ve got some really unoriginal wannabe-photographer readers, or my pictures don’t inspire that sort of mimicry.

  • Hi Edie:

    Believe it or not, I’ve had several requests of that type in the past few weeks. I get them from time to time, though it certainly isn’t an every day thing.

    Although I can’t speak for him, I think Mike’s idea and yours are pretty similar. As you say, you rely on photographer friends to share locations with you – and I know that you’ll share them with your friends. That is a different thing that sharing them with just anyone and everyone. Mike pointed out that he likes the “old school” way of discovering these special places – both by figuring them out (or stumbling upon them) yourself and by the very type of sharing you describe. In fact, Mike shared a place with me last week that I swore not to speak about. Of course, once we got there I realized that it wasn’t completely unknown to me, but I probably would not have gone there if it hadn’t been for him. And given the nature of the place and what is involved in getting there (on several levels) it is not the kind of location that I’m going to advertise.

    And, Edie, there is no doubt in my mind about how much you value these places. I’ve read your blog, seen your work, and photographed with you.

    Take care,

    Dan

  • Edie HoweNo Gravatar says:

    Dan, I’m taking this idea and running with it on my blog: In fact, I came back to see if I could link to one of your commentors and saw your response. Thank you for your kind words. Yes, I do value these places deeply. When I do share “secret” locations, it’s only with folks I know will respect it, and won’t go blabbing about it. Which reminds me–next time you come to Yosemite, I’ve got a place in mind for you. Look me up, send me an email.

  • Thanks, Edie. I’m looking forward to seeing what you write… and to that place you have in mind!

    Dan

  • […] My friend G. Dan Mitchell has an interesting article up on his blog: In a nutshell, he is working through a photographer’s conundrum: How much location information is too much? […]

  • Jim MaherNo Gravatar says:

    Dan,

    Great blog! This is kind of a touchy subject. In the past I posted a daily photo on flickr and a blog but it to to the point it was too much with responding to e-mails on where these secret spots are. Then about 3 years ago I came to the conclusion that only the city or vague area was all I ever listed for locations and that kind of slowed down the e-mails. Now I’m at a point where I just run a website and that made my life a lot easier.

    Honestly if someone ever asked me for a specific location it would have to be someone I know and respect. Most of my work is done by scouting locations during the mid-day sun and then going back to the good spots. It takes hard work and lots of time to get specific shots and if someone really wants a to take a specific shot that I took, they can scout it like I did or they can buy my print. Believe me, my prints are a lot cheaper then what it would cost someone to shoot it themselves.

    Jim

    • Thanks for visiting the blog and posting, Jim!

      Your post reminds me of something I was thinking about earlier today, namely that there are multiple reasons that one might consider how much information to reveal about locations – and not all are necessarily equally important to all photographers or in all situations.

      My original post was mainly based on my friend Mike’s concern about the effect on the locations that might result from too much information. He pointed out that some of the places that I photograph are valuable in part because of the fact that they are not overrun by visitors – the solitude is part of their character – and that providing too much information about how to get to them, especially when combined with attractive photographs of the places might lead to damage to these very spots. He pointed out a few specific examples that he knew of. In other words, one reason is to protect the very thing that is the subject of the photograph.

      A second idea that Mike reminded me of is that there is value in passing some of this information on in a less indiscriminate way. In other words, while it might not be such a great idea for me to just share it with the entire world, it can be a wonderful thing to share it with a few people I know and trust. (In fact, this was all done in the context of Mike showing me a location that I hadn’t visited before despite his concerns that I might reveal too much about it. I promised him that I wouldn’t and I won’t.)

      Another element of this is somewhat related, though it is a bit more complex. There is a dynamic at work that makes some think that the photograph is primarily about “capturing” the place that is its subject. Taken too far this leads aspiring photographers to think along the lines of “if I could figure out where Ansel put his tripod I could make a photograph just like Ansel’s! photograph!” In one way, this is a good part of the learning process – we must recognize that much of what constitutes learning in an art is the attempt to emulate the artists who have come before. Another truth is that, of course, this hypothetical photographer will almost certainly not create an equivalent of the image created by the master who preceded him/her. (I like to imagine that in most cases if you and I stood shoulder to shoulder photographing the same scene that we would not end up with indistinguishable photographs.) In any case, this third issue is different from the first two – it is more about whether or not the photographer wants to share subjects or not for photographic reasons, and I can understand going either way. In fact, I do. I’ll be happy to tell someone who plans to shoot Tunnel View in Yosemite Valley a few things that might help them produce a more effective image. On the other hand, if someone wants to know exactly where to set up their camera (down to the foot!) to recreate a photograph of mine I’m likely to suddenly (but usually politely) begin to speak in generalities. :-)

      For me, in the end, it is mostly about the first two issues that I was writing: protecting the subjects and encouraging individual photographers (and outdoor enthusiasts) to share the gift of knowledge of special places with those friends and acquaintances who share their love of photography and the places themselves.

      Dan

  • I can see good intentions from your concern and wanting to protect the environment but I just wonder if your audience and other readers of photography sites that disclose their secrets really will unleash a herd of grass stomping, location wrecking hordes with cameras around their necks. It is my feeling that photographers by nature constitute an environmentally aware portion of the population and if we can provide evidence of the natural beauty around us with our photography it might persuade others to want to protect it as well. Any information that I can get when I travel to a location is immensely valuable and your previous generosity with your techniques and travelogues has been greatly appreciated. Be careful that your desire to do good may have unforeseen consequences. Perhaps one day in the future a photographer brought to a location by your blog just happens to be there at the right time, on the right day, with the right light to capture a moment that will never be again and that image becomes an iconic photograph that will affect millions. Far fetched I know but I am always of the mind that we need to share the beauty around us and to pass on our knowledge to others especially the young.

    • Thanks for your comment, Floyd. I have to agree with you that the issue is not black and white. While my own feeling is that my previous posts have probably not brought that “herd of grass stomping, location wrecking” photographers to areas that were subsequently damaged, I’ve heard a few real stories from folks I believe and trust in which something close to that has happened. (The two stories I’m thinking of involved some special wildflower locations that have since acquired “use trails” and one that was ultimately closed to photographers.)

      Rather than “shutting off the tap” completely, I’m currently leaning more towards thinking carefully about the context of the shot and the location. If I look back at my previous posts, in many cases I don’t think I would change anything. In some cases either the place is already so well-known or so easy to find that my posts aren’t likely to make any difference. In other cases, I may just be a bit more discreet – while I may not offer specific instructions to finding the place or even identify it in the title of the photograph, I might include the location in the EXIF data. There will be some where I name the place generally but avoid nailing down the location precisely. For example, I might have an upcoming photograph of a volcanic ridge in Mono County that should appear soon. I could offer an exact description of where I stopped to make the shot, but I didn’t. However, I think that I included sufficient hints that someone who really wanted to find the place could do so. Finally, there are some locations that are too fragile, too accessible, or for some other reason must be kept “anonymous.”

      Personal and direct sharing with people I know and trust – what you speak of in your post, I think – is something that I think is fine. I think we all do that. The thing that requires me to think a bit more carefully about the disclosure issue here in the blog is that I don’t know all of the folks who read the blog. I’m certain that the majority of them share your and my respect and love for these places, and that they are people I might share the locations with if I spoke to them personally. However, the internet being what it is, I have to be somewhat aware that information from a source like this one can end up in places I might not have intended.

      Finally, in the end I think of a John Svarkovsky quotation that I read in Susan Sontag’s book on photography in which he points out that there are an infinite number of subjects to photograph in the world. Beyond that, this infinite range of subjects is, itself, constantly in flux. There is no shortage of things to photograph! Lucky us!

      Take care,

      Dan

  • Ben GundyNo Gravatar says:

    Dan, it has been 41 hours since I first read your blog “Disclosing Photo Locations”. At first I was pretty upset about what you were stating, so as always, I waited 24 hours to respond in a civil, intelligent way. I then reread your blog and went, oh!, I now understand what you were trying to say.

    I still think Mike is still a little over the top on this subject but I am sure he has seen a lot of destruction of his favorite places by the general public and picture takers throughout the years as a ranger in Yosemite. A perfect example of this, as you know, is the Race Track in Death Valley with people, throughout the years, taking or moving the rocks. Anyway, I wasn’t in the original conversation with you folks so I will chill.

    Being a film landscape and nature photographer for over 30 years, with some teaching thrown in, I have been asked plenty of times where did I take that photograph. To the photographer or student photographer I didn’t, and still don’t, mind giving out the information. Because they are photographers, not picture takers, I trust they will be responsible people out in the field and hope that they take a better photograph than I did of that special place. However, if they ask for the exact spot where I setup my tripod, well, that is another matter and will only give them a general location. So I guess we are not that far apart on the subject…

    Thanks again for your help locating where you took the “Cascade Creek, Spring” photograph. Again, I have gone by that spot hundreds of times in the past 30+ years but have always seen picture takers or the general public there so I just blew by the spot. Next year I will stop and check it out and leave as I found it.

    Ben

  • […] Disclosing Photo Locations: How Much Information is Too Much? | G Dan Mitchell Photography: […]

  • Great story Dan. I think disclosing such info is always on a case-by-case basis. I would never tell someone where to stand but general location info is not a big deal to me much like a photo caption. Bridalveil creek, Yosemite NP, CA seems sufficient to me rather than bridalveil creek just past the parking lot off to the left before the waterfall.

    • Thanks, Richard. I’m sort of with you on the idea that the context matters. I certainly don’t think that telling people where to stand (unless we are talking about some very generic sort of touristy shot) is called for. I think it also depends on the nature of the photograph. Obviously a photograph of Mt. Adams is likely to get a caption that includes the words “Mount Adams.” But a photograph of, say, some logs floating in a lake may or may not need to name the lake.

      For me, the general take-away from my recent re-thinking of this issue has not been to never name locations – it has been more about backing off from automatically being overly specific when that isn’t necessary.

      BTW: I always enjoy your blog posts, and I subscribe to your news feed.

      Take care,

      Dan

  • […] about how much information you share with others and with whom you share it. This has become an important issue for me recently, since a friend pointed out that sharing too much information about fragile places on the […]

  • […] the factors that we might want to consider as we share such things. With that in mind, here is a link to something I posted on this topic after a conversation with a photographer friend who is a retired Yosemite ranger. Share: […]

  • “A photo taken but not shared might just as well have never been taken.” Suppressing location information about a picture means you are not sharing to the fullest. Remember, your legacy will only be the various bits you leave behind on the Net, so I recommend sharing to the fullest practicable…. using good sense of course… For example, my host instructor asked me not to disclose the exact GPS location of a rare Petroglyph http://www.flickr.com/photos/mikebaird/6280385469/ at Zzyzx so I only gave enough information so that responsible people could further investigate and learn. And I left enough information so help academics, photographers, etc . “Geotag location intentionally disturbed in EXIF to hide exact location.
    Contact Zzyzx Desert Studies Center management/instructor for supervised exploration.”

    • Thanks for sharing our perspective, Mike. I agree with part of what you write, but I don’t agree with all of it.

      I think your point about not revealing the location of rare petroglyphs is right in line with my main point. While some might argue that revealing the location would allow more people to experience the wonder than viewing them can evoke, it is quite possible that the “more people” might create enough damage – to the petroglyphs themselves and to the access to them – that the experience could be impaired for many more people in the future who might find that the earlier visitors had damaged them. And despite the best intentions by ethical people like you, too easy access does encourage those who regard such things as trivialities to treat such treasures poorly. There are plenty of examples of that. So, the short story is that I think we’re in agreement here.

      “A photo taken but not shared might just a well never have been taken.” That quote makes a lot of sense in the context of sharing photographs, and I think that is its main point. It encourages people to share their work – and I have no disagreement with that at all! However, to extrapolate from that very valid point about photographs to explain why location information should also be shared seems a non sequitur to me, as does the concern about sharing to preserve one’s legacy on the net. These ideas (sharing photographs versus sharing information about location) are quite different, I think. I share photographs – a lot! – but that doesn’t mean that I need to share GPS coordinates for them.

      Take care,

      Dan

  • Here I go “rank amature” shooting off his mouth but I got to just disagree with the conclusions you have drawn.

    These are not a professional sites that will deteriorate like say GPS coordinates for a hot fishing spot. These are generally landscapes of enormous appeal, in open parkland or BLM land. If so, these locations really do not belong to you but to all of us.

    My opinion on this is that you are doing more harm than good. Here is an analogy, what would the canyon be like if there was not that nasty but thank god its there, communal highway called Bright Angel Trail. People would still want to get to the bottom and they would find a way. All of your pictures would have scars down the sides of the canyon walls where people bushwacked trails. With Bright Angel you satisfy all the 1st standard deviation crowds photo ops.The two deviation folks have several less popular due to diffulculty of getting there sites to make them feel that they have had the unique experience. The three sigma folks are going to get where they want to go anyhow and you give them that special coordinate and you prevent a ton of tourist type damage to the site by concentrating it.

    What about Yosmite. You have the Point and Shoot army dragging strollers to pristine views of El Cap and doesn’t seem to hurt the view and concentrating people in these spots is better for the environment than to let them bushwhack the site on their own.

    If someone does their homework enough to find you and ask about a location, well, they probably are serious about their craft and are not going to be carrying Rattle Paint Cans to scrawl florescent Doctor Dre crap on the vista. Give them the location and tell them its a pack-in/pack-out location and you are letting them in to the club.

    Any other approach is just elitism. “Nah Nah Nah I know and my friends know the best sites but you aren’t cool enough.”

    One mans opinion.

    • Thanks for your post, Mark. I don’t think we’re necessarily that far apart. I don’t have any qualms about being specific when it comes to well-known and popular locations like, say, Yosemite Valley. (Though I would resist being specific about some relatively quiet spots in Valley that remain.)

      The old school method of sharing info on more sensitive areas had a much lower likelihood of leading to “bad stuff” I think. “Back in the day” (and still today in many cases) photographers did share location information – with friends, perhaps with their local camera club, or maybe in written form in a magazine or newsletter. The impact of those forms of sharing was much lower – the friends represented a small number of people and usually those that the photographer personally knew to be trustworthy and respectful, the camera club members were close to the same sort of group, and even the article reached a smaller number of people and did so over a longer period of time. So a type of sharing that was completely appropriate in the old pre-web world had a much smaller effect than the same level of sharing has in the contemporary world. If I were to share the exact same sort of info on the web today:

      it travels much faster.
      many more people will read it.
      often they are looking for the info right now and will go to the place in short order.
      they may or may not share respect for these locations.
      the effect is amplified when it gets into search engines.

      So the effect of sharing what was fine to share 20 years ago is much different today. I don’t think we can ignore that.

      And finally, the “Nah Nah Nah I know and my friends know the best sites but you aren’t cool enough” thought is totally not my way of thinking. I love to share the stories and experiences that I have – I think my blog is pretty good evidence of that ! :-)

      Take care,

      Dan

  • Ben GundyNo Gravatar says:

    In keeping with the subject that Mike has brought up today, I have seen, this year, ancient Indian ruins destroyed and petroglyph’s vandalized by artifact hunters and uncaring ignorant people. Sensitive archaeological sights should be protected from this type of people and believe me, the BLM is keeping their mouths shut on a lot of sites you will never hear of. As Dan has mentioned, news travels very fast these days reaching many people at one time. I for one tend to keep some sites quiet but will gladly help someone find these sensitive sites if I think they can be respectful of the site.

  • We can safely assume that in the not-to-distant future, most cameras will have GPS built in (like on my iPhone’s camera today, that I find myself using more and more, for those “non-gallery” shots), and that this information will be “sticky” in the EXIF, and exposed on the majority of photos published on the Net. Sure, the EXIF can be cleaned, or opted-out, etc., but society probably will continue the trend of exposing more and more of everything, everywhere, at anytime. “Google and Wiki will know everything.”

  • Ben GundyNo Gravatar says:

    That is so true Mike. I use my iPhone in the same way. My Canon cameras lack, at this time, a GPS device.

  • great insight, sir. when i started with my photography and searched online for places to shoot, i realized that photographers are a bit selfish sharing their shooting locations… compared to the travel blogs (i also have a travel blog) who furnish every detail imaginable during their trip that’s there no need for another person to look through another blog. so, yes, we did ask around to find more shooting places. some websites / blogs have a bit of information, but the rest, my friends and i just have to figure it out. reading through your post made me realize that maybe, or sometimes, it’s okay not to post too much information about our shooting locations. great read, sir :)

  • Fo TolleryNo Gravatar says:

    I am utterly stunned at a couple of the comments posted in this thread today.

    The choice to share, or not, much location info is purely a personal decision. And I respect whatever choice each individual photographer’s decides to make on the subject.

    That said, there is absolutely NO obligation to do so, and choosing to not share has absolutely nothing to do with ‘elitism’.

    Personally, I agree wholeheartedly with Ranger Mike and choose to share little information. But the decision to do that has utterly nothing to do with a “It’s ok for me to be here and photograph this location, but nobody else should have that opportunity” mindset. If another shooter chooses to seek out the same location and create an image presenting their own ‘take’ on the location, I think that’s great. More power to ‘em.

    None of the locations I shoot are remotely remote, nor that difficult to find, and any shooter with just a modicum of adventurous curiosity will find them fairly easily. But to imply that I am under some sort of photographic variation of the Hippocratic Oath to share all my location info is as bizarre to me as the notion that any of us have an obligation to share our next meal with the out of work homeless person standing on the next corner.

    How others choose to ‘receive’ this message is each individual’s responsibility. I’ve tried to present “one man’s opinion” in as non-confrontational a manner as possible. If someone chooses to think of me as ‘elitist’ for my views on the subject, I can live with that…..easily.

  • Hi Dan, I have been involved with photography for many years, I have always considered and still consider, photography as an art, and as such I think it’s common domain.
    I live in Australia, so I do not think I will ever have the chance to photograph places that you have the good fortune to have at your disposal, despite everything, I do not agree with what your friend Mike says regarding sharing information, perhaps having been the ranger Yosemite National Park for many years, has developed a sense of overprotection for the place. I also could see the state of degradation that many people are left behind, mostly from weekend tourists, but I find it hard to believe that if a photographer following your directions to find a location that you photographed, do so with the aim to ruin or alter the beauty of the place.
    I’ve never been jealous of sharing if I was lucky enough to find a special place to photograph, but this is my only opinion.
    By the way I like your work and I find most of your photos absolutely fantastic.
    Cheers
    Giancarlo

    • Hi Giancario:

      Thanks for commenting and for your kind words about my photography.

      It isn’t the photographers (mostly*) that I worry about for the most part and I’m not really thinking about that rare and almost unimaginable photographer who has “the aim to ruin or alter the beauty of the place.” Few photographers would set out with such an onerous and offensive purpose. But photography is not done in a vacuum. For example, my own previous overly-enthusiastic sharing was not done with any intent of bringing harm to places – but it inadvertently had the potential to produce that effect. It is precisely because I don’t “win to ruin or alter the beauty of the place” that I choose to behave in ways that will protect it – and in some cases that means not encouraging too many people to go there, but perhaps instead to enjoy it via the photographs.

      And even with such places, I’m not saying that I won’t share at all. It is not the act of sharing, per se, that is the issue. It is how the act of sharing now plays out in bigger ways and with a larger potential impact than it did in the past. So, for the most part, when it comes to such places I’ll share in essentially the same way I would have then – with people who I know I can trust and probably directly on essentially a one-to-one basis.

      Take care,

      Dan

      * On the other hand, there are a few stories I could tell that might shake our trust that photographers will always do the right thing.

  • By the way… this topic seems to generate some rather heated emotions, along with some misunderstanding of my position. I’ve gotten some direct emails in response.

    In general, I will avoid having offline debates about the topic via direct email. However, if you would like to discuss the issue more or have me clarify my position, please do post something here where I can respond as part of an ongoing dialog about the issue.

    While I won’t generally offer detailed responses to personal emails on the subject of my post, I may quote from some emails if I think the issues are important enough. If you prefer that I not attribute the quotes, be sure to say so in the email*, and I’ll try to respect that in one way or another.

    Thanks,

    Dan

    *But, again, the best way to have a discussion about this issue is, I think, to post a comment here or elsewhere in a public discussion.

  • […]  For instance, how much information should a photographer share about the location of a site (see here and here for great discussions on this subject)?  Much unlike the Mona Lisa, these works of art do […]

  • […] about an occasion on which some friends and fellow photographers called me out on this (“Disclosing Photo Locations: How Much Information is Too Much?”), causing me to re-think how and what I write about my photographs and the places in which I make […]

  • Gale PerryNo Gravatar says:

    I have been leading tours to Death Valley for 16 years. Being conscious of the environment is what I stress the most to my groups. That means that on the dunes, if possible we walk in someone else’s footprints instead of tracking new ones. When we go to Badwater, we step over the salt ridges so not to destroy them. I personally have advised people who got off the boardwalk that it was not allowed and that there was a rare endangered snail that lived in this area. We take only photos and leave nothing behind. A few years ago they fenced in the bottle house in Rhyolite as “tourists” we’re taking pieces of it and trashing the structure. They can no longer afford a docent to protect it. I personally picked up 12 empty drink containers lying around the depot with a trash container in clear sight.

    So in response to Mr. Wong’s comment, and due to the fact that as tour leaders we are required to be far more sensitive to the environment and if not are subject to fine, imprisonment, and losing a our permit privilege, we especially are more conscientious in a group. The solo photographers are typically the least informed.

    I am also reminded of a Bay Area photographer, who now leads tours, that bragged on FB of photographing from an illegal spot on Treasure Island by climbing a fence and then talking the local Island police when he got busted, into letting him stay because he was a pro. He actually named the person. The result was that all the spots that were popular have been closed permanently and I sincerely hope it did not result in this man losing his job.

    My motto is that we don’t own any spot in the environment. Hopefully we take turns, respect any one we encounter, and share the beauty of our world. And, we don’ t need to exploit the fragile and endangered areas by posting locations. One of the joys of photography is exploring and discovering our own locations.

    • Gale, your statement of ethics is one that I can agree with, with its implications for both the behavior of individual photographers and workshop leaders and others who make it their business to lead people into these places. If we could be certain that everyone who goes to these places followed principals like these, there would be little to worry about – and it is clearly important to hold and promote such values.

      My points are a bit different than this and go beyond the simpler issue of how we behave as individuals when we go to such places. I need to think about how I can articulate this set of concerns more clearly and perhaps write something the separates these other points from those that you mention.

      There was a time when ethical individual behavior was likely to be enough. The rate at which information spread and the ability for literally anyone to find it – including a lot of folks who have not been exposed to ethical notions about the natural world – was very limited. Only a few decades ago, very few people knew about the place pictured in the post that you and I both saw yesterday, and even fewer could figure out where to find the place, how to get there, or the details of what they might encounter along the way. There we essentially no paid tours or workshops to such places, and getting there took a great deal of effort and a bit of daring.

      But that has changed, and not just for this location. Today heroic stories of visits to this place (and I’ve indulged in these stories myself in the past) are incredibly easy to find on the web sites, in photography forums, in the tour descriptions of photography workshops, and in personal posts by those who have been there and share their stories and photos. Individually, none of these people are doing anything that much different from what individuals did back in that earlier era… but the problem now, and the thing that fundamentally changes the circumstances and how we respond to them, is the sum total of all of this has been amplified by orders of magnitude, and it feeds upon itself. As a person who leads workshops into this and similar places, I’m sure you must be painfully aware of the dramatic increase in the numbers of visitors and that among them there are more and more who are unprepared to understand and respect what they are visiting.

      We can blame those visitors individually for this, but that doesn’t address the issue. Among people who go to such places, despite our best efforts to promote thoughtful care of these places and good behavior, there will be those who don’t get it and who don’t understand their responsibilities or the long term effects of their thoughtlessness. If we could somehow wave a wand and make that problem go away we could continue as we did in the past – but we can’t. And as people who profess a deep love and care for these places and the solitude that is found among them, we have a responsibility, as uncomfortable as it may be, to change our own practices in ways that recognize how the world has changed.

      I often hear from workshop teachers who take their charges to such places that they take care to teach awareness of the responsibility to care for these places, and I cannot fault their/your good motives in this regard. But, again, the problem remains and is amplified. Each of those people who has been brought into these places now tells their story in pictures and words on the Internet and their stories become part of the larger community story, one that often presents the experience as a “heroic” one… and which adds more to the sum collection of information and advice about these places. And neither you nor the workshop students have any control over the preparation that those who see this information will have for their visits.

      Like it or not, this brings more and more pressure on these places. And it brings a new responsibility to each of us, individually and collectively, to change how we act in these places and how we share what we know of them. We can share a photograph of a miraculous rock that has slid across the surface of a desert playa without the need to list the specifics of how to get there or encourage people to find this rock – the power of the photograph is there without that information, and we can simply use it as a tool to encourage viewers to think about their world in a more general sense. When we find and photograph a petroglyph, left in a remote canyon by people gone so long ago that no one really knows who they were or what the symbols mean, we do not need to name the location or tell how to get their in order to use the photograph as a powerful way to encourage people to think about their connections to the lives of these ancient people. We can travel to a beautiful back-country lake and find beautiful light to photograph on a quiet early fall morning, but when we share the photograph (which could, frankly, come from any of thousands of such lakes) there is no need to present this lake as being any more special than any other, and instead we can speak of the specialness of all such places and times.

      Dan

  • I do not think where you took a great photo is a secret. Nor do I think you should do the work for others by telling them the exact location. I can study Ansel Adams, drive into Yosemite, look for a similar location and shoot away.

    In my short time of taking pictures,I think finding my own great scene makes the best photograph.

    Thanks

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