How to photograph local environmental stories :: Digital Photo Secrets

How to photograph local environmental stories

by David Peterson 0 comments

There's really no way to sugarcoat it: human activities have an impact on the environment, sometimes a negative impact. Whether it's just a new housing development, the deforestation of a wooded area, or of closing of a local park, there's almost certainly something happening in your city or town that's going to have a negative impact on the environment.

Now, different people see these issues differently, and we're not here to discuss the merits of being pro-environment or pro-business. There are multiple sides to every environmental issue, and regardless of which side you happen to be on, you can still document these environmental issues with your camera.

What to photograph

Not every environmental issue is in the forefront of the public's attention, and sometimes it takes a photographer to find and expose the problems that are happening around us. If you've noticed, for example, that a favorite park or natural space has been used as a dumping ground for people's old mattresses and other junk, you can document what's happening and publicly display your photographs in such a way that the public's attention will be called to those problems.

Maybe you don't know of a local area that's been impacted by environmental issues, but you still want to make a difference. Try looking up local environmental groups and ask if you can get involved. Offer to lend your services as a photographer—I think your understanding of the less obvious but no less important environmental issues in your area is going to increase just by virtue of belonging to one of these conservation groups. No one knows the local environmental issues better then those local conservation groups do, so if you can volunteer your time (even if it's partly to take photos and partly to assist with cleanup and other conservation efforts), I think you'll find it a satisfying endeavor. There are also often seminars, lectures, and political meetings in which environmental issues will be raised, so if you have some time to attend these sorts of events they can be particularly enlightening and provide you with some great starting points for photographing environmental stories. Check websites, too—often there will be Facebook groups, Meetups and other informal organizations dedicated to important environmental areas issues in your local area, so find the most prolific ones and keep checking weekly to see what new problems or issues are in the spotlight. A constant flow of information is going to help you develop a constant flow of project ideas.

Telling the story

Remember that just because you're documenting the things that are happening doesn't mean that you don't need to think about composition, light and the other elements that go into making a great photo. Sometimes a beautiful photograph of junk in a natural space will call more attention to the problem than an ugly photograph of junk in a natural space. So think about the best way to capture, say, that rusty old car at the edge of your favorite hiking trail. Get close and capture the details and try to juxtapose the junk with the beauty of the area. Remember to follow the light — shooting photos like these at the beginning or end of the day is going to help bring out the detail and beauty of the scene, and beautiful junk may actually be more profoundly unsettling than ugly junk. Of course, if you want to capture the starkness of the problem, sometimes hard light is the way to go. Hard light and its associated blown out highlights and black shadows can create a sense of drama and urgency that a photograph shot with soft light may not. If in doubt, consider returning to the location multiple times—once in the middle of the day, once during the golden hour, and once on a stormy or cloudy day. Capture images of the scene in each lighting situation and then compare to see which one communicates the message better.

Remember to tell a story, and that means details as well as longer, wider shots of the environment that is being impacted by the issue. You want your photographs to show the diversity and the beauty of the landscape while also containing a sense of foreboding. In other words, you want people to look at that beauty and realize what the world might be like if that place were to suddenly vanish.

  • Nikon D5500
  • 400
  • f/8.0
  • 0.002 sec (1/640)
  • 42 mm

_EDD0050.jpg by Flickr user Eddy Vaudel

Of course remember not to get so caught up in the beauty of what might become lost that you forget to capture the ugliness that is the threat to that beautiful place. Photographs of pollution, factories, the trees, plants and waterways that are suffering—those image can all be really dramatic and hard to look at, but that doesn't mean that you should avoid them as a photographer. You don't want to sugarcoat the issue—if there is clearly a lot of danger or destruction, then it is your responsibility to capture and communicate that to your viewer.

Of course your photos don't always have to be ominous, nor do they have to be completely full of doom and gloom. There is hope in environmental issues, and that hope usually has a human element. Humans often caused the damage, but it's other humans who dedicate themselves to cleaning it up and trying to undo the negative impact that people can have on a habitat or open space. If there are people out there cleaning up the land, protesting, or trying to make things better make sure you include them in your photo series because they are an integral part of the story.

You don't even necessarily have to show people cleaning up the environment—sometimes it's enough just to show people enjoying those natural spaces. When you can demonstrate that people benefit directly from those open spaces, parks etc., then that plants a thought in the minds of most viewers — this place needs to be protected so that I might be able to experience it one day as well.

If you want to go one step further, seek out the people who are responsible for the mess—let's say your beautiful local park is being littered with beer bottles because it's become a haunt for local teenagers. Try to capture some pictures of those teenagers making the mess, but remember that you open up a whole can of worms and you do this. Environmental criminals, polluters, or even people who are behaving legally but not necessarily ethically don't want to be caught in the act, especially by a photographer. So definitely only do this if you can be sure of your own safety. If there is any doubt, leave that part of the documenting to the paid professionals.

Consider shooting "passage of time photos," if you have the means and the patience. If you know that an open space is due to be developed, for example, try to return there every day and take a photograph from the same spot to show the progression of the development, the destruction and what it does to that open space. Sometimes just a simple series of photographs showing the environmental impact of the project over time can do more to communicate a sense of loss then an image of what the site looks like on the last day of construction.

Displaying your photos

Of course after you shoot all these images, you can't then just stick them on your hard drive somewhere and share them only with your friends and family. The whole point of capturing environmental stories is to share them with the larger world—otherwise, there's not much point in getting out there with your camera at all. At the very least, start a Flickr account and post them publicly online. Make sure you join Flickr groups devoted to photographers in your region—sometimes just making other photographers aware of what's going on can be enough to spread the word. Also consider having your photographs displayed in small local galleries. Sometimes coffee shops or other private businesses will display the work of local photographers, and all you really need to do is ask. If the shop isn't taking any new work, ask them if they know of someone who is.

Displaying your work in local competitions such as the county fair is another great way to get the word out about the environmental issues that you're photographing. Try to enter your photographs as a series—they'll have more impact that way, and make sure you label them descriptively so that viewers will know what they're looking at.

What if you don't agree that new construction or the building of a dam, or whatever activity local environmentalists seem to be rallying against is actually a problem? You can still use your camera to communicate your feelings. Photograph the benefits of the project — for example, providing housing for low income people, or the many tangible benefits of a reservoir, including new habitat for local wildlife as well as a source of water that cities can turn to in times of drought.

And sometimes there's an economic impact to consider as well—there's no doubt that construction projects and timber operations, for example, create jobs, so shutting them down isn't necessarily a win-win for everyone. Consider photographing the construction workers, surveyors and timber industry workers in such a way that you can communicate to your viewer how environmental regulations might impact jobs and the economy. Like I said, environmental issues aren't always black-and-white, and regardless of what your feelings are, if you feel strongly about the subject you can use your camera to communicate that to the people in your community.


Remember that this is a very serious business and should not be approached halfheartedly. If you're going to set out to document environmental issues in your community and it's something you care very deeply out about, make sure to give it your all. This may mean getting down and dirty, volunteering your time, and exposing yourself to topics that may not be so easy to digest. And lastly, don't forget about your sense of aesthetics even when you're photographing the ugly truth. You want quality work that attracts the eye, even if it's a subject that sometimes repels. That can be a real challenge, to capture repelling subjects in a way that draws the eye and really makes people pay attention. Ultimately that is what's going to drive social and environmental change, so if you don't get it right the first time, keep on trying.


  1. Finding the story
    • Join a conservation group
    • Go to community meetings
    • Pay attention to your environment
  2. Telling the story
    • Juxtapose junk/pollution/destruction with natural beauty
    • Pay attention to the light
    • Include people
    • Take a series of images showing the passage of time
  3. Dispaly your photos
    • Post on Flickr
    • Display in local shops
    • Enter in local competitions
  4. Shoot the opposing viewpoint
    • Capture images of workers
    • Try to communicate the economic impact of regulation

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About David Peterson
David Peterson is the creator of Digital Photo Secrets, and the Photography Dash and loves teaching photography to fellow photographers all around the world. You can follow him on Twitter at @dphotosecrets or on Google+.