Because we, as photographers, so often use nature and the natural environment around us as subject matter in our work, it behooves us to try our best to preserve it. It’s very important when photographing in nature that we recognize our impact on the environment and do our best to minimize it.

In the Great Smoky Mountains this past week, I got a very personal introduction to one way our photography can greatly disturb the environment and so today I will talk about it.

This is my contribution to Blog Action Day, joining 15,000 fellow bloggers in raising awareness of environmental issues. (Yes, I know it was yesterday. Better late than never!)

National parks are truly environmental treasures. Not only does the National Park Service protect the land, geology, and flora of the parks, but it also studies and assists the indigenous creatures that live in each of its nearly 400 sites. Because these locations are more readily accessible and better documented than the untamed wilderness (of which there is very little remaining in America), and because they were preserved for their unique beauty and significance in the culture and history of this country, they are obvious destinations for outdoors photographers.

While photographing in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which straddles the line between Tennessee and North Carolina, I was made forcefully aware of some of the dangers these parks face and how important it is that we contribute to their protection.

Painting the Night

“Light painting,” or using flashlights to illuminate objects during long exposures in the dark, is one of the staples of outdoor photography, and I think it’s a fairly common practice; you’ll see it used by The Nocturnes and others who are into making images after dark. Having used the technique to to great effect in Death Valley and in Yosemite, it went without saying that my colleague Chris and I would find such opportunities in the Smokies.

Our plan was to enter Cades Cove after dark and scout out a location. Ideally, we wanted to hike down to the Primitive Baptist Church, which is 2.4 miles each way from the public parking lot. You can’t drive down the road because the gates leading into the Cades Cove loop are locked at sunset. After walking for some time, we decided to stop and set up along a barbed wire fence and get a feel for the night. The fence stood between the narrow road and a large field with a solitary tree standing a few hundred feet away. It seemed a good enough spot with a lot of visible sky, so we set up our gear.

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My composition placed the faraway tree front-and-center with the barbed wire fence in the foreground, which I thought would give a nice sense of depth to the image. After exposing for twenty minutes, occasionally yelling out “Hey bear!” to make sure any of the 1,600 black bears in the park would know we were there ((Black bears don’t want trouble, but they just hate surprises.)), we painted the fence with a headlamp and I decided I should paint the tree with one of our 1,000,000 candlepower lights.

We made two exposures this way when Chris saw bright lights at the top of the road by the gate. There are only two major fears photographers have in the woods at night: one is the fear of being mauled or eaten alive by hungry black bears preparing for hibernation, and two is the fear of someone spoiling your 45-minute exposure with a careless wave of their flashlight. The second fear, of course, is much more gripping. The lights proceeded toward us. Knowing that they had passed the locked gate, we could be sure it was a ranger. But what business might a ranger have in that dark place at that hour? Surely we were simply two benign photographers walking the trails and roads as any other visitors might.

Touched by a Ranger

“Step into the road where I can see you,” came the ranger’s commanding voice. The sound seemed to come from a tall, black void in the wall of pure, blinding whiteness pouring over us from the seven lights on the ranger’s car. We did as he asked. “I need you to empty your pockets. Take everything out and put it on the ground and turn your pockets out.” A strange request; perhaps they check random people to make sure they don’t have contraband or something. Yes, that’s it, and this ranger decided that the best place to look for tourist pranksters would be down this gated road in the inky black of night…

Before I knew it I was standing with my hands behind my head getting thoroughly and deeply frisked by a national park ranger. For those casual readers out there among you, I am not a man who has even once been suspected of anything by the Powers That Be, let alone deeply frisked. A minute later I’m sitting by a tree with my legs crossed watching the same fate befall my partner. What was to become of us?

“Are there any more flashlights here? Do you boys have more flashlights?”

“Yes sir, there is one there by our bags,” I replied. He fetched it. Turning now to my associate, he poised the question,

“Do you what’s going to happen if I shine this into your eyes?”

“I’ll be blinded,” my pal answered.

“That’s right. You’ll be blinded. Now how do you s'pose an animal is going to feel when you shine this at them?”

Thus the story began to unfold. The ranger explained that “spotlighting,” or shining bright lights into the woods and such, is frowned upon. Moreover, such behavior is indicative of poachers. He went on to say that using headlamps to walk and shining lights briefly into the woods if an animal might be approaching is OK, but shining one million candlepower flashlights across fields is more like what people do when they’re searching for some wild game to illegally sneak away with.

Why anyone would poach animals 500 yards from a ranger station (as we were) is beyond me, and the question of exactly how extraordinary a power trip that ranger was on still remains. Nevertheless, each national park in America is permitted to set their own rules of behavior governing the use of artificial light and the points made by the ranger that night were valid ones.

Take it from me, you do not want to be rigorously patted down by a ranger in the middle of the night, so be sure to ask the rangers at any park you’re visiting about applicable regulations. Remember also that you’re not alone out there. We all have a responsibility to remain mindful of our impact on indigenous wildlife and to respect the park as their home… Because that’s what it is.