Using Photography to Protect the Environment

Martis Valley, Sierra Nevada, Calif. This image helped raise awareness and funds to save undeveloped land near Elizabeth Carmel’s home.


I’ve been reading Outdoor Photographer long before I ever entertained the dream of being a landscape photographer. This magazine has helped me learn valuable photographic techniques, develop an eye for good photography and inspire me to become a full-time nature photographer. I’m looking forward now to making my contribution to educating and, hopefully, inspiring readers of this iconic publication.

I’ve always enjoyed photography since my teenage years, and I became more devoted to photography when digital photography began to hit the mainstream about 12 years ago. My first digital camera was a 2-megapixel Nikon Coolpix (I don’t know what happened to it; I wish I still had it!). My husband Olof and I invested in a large-format Epson printer, almost on a whim, and lo and behold, people showed interest in buying our newly created prints. Fast-forward 11 years and many technological advances later, and we’re both full-time landscape photographers selling fine-art prints out of our own gallery in Truckee, California.

Through this column, I’ll share many of the insights and lessons I’ve learned on my rapidly developing and often intense climb to success along this difficult career path. My inaugural column focuses on my philosophy of photographing and protecting the beautiful places that can inspire us in our own communities. As I write this column, I’m thinking about my hometown of Tuscaloosa, Alabama, which was heavily damaged by a tornado on April 27, 2011. While most of my photographic career has evolved in the Western U.S., I have fond memories of the beautiful forests and rivers in Alabama. I’ve been meaning to take a trip to photograph the rare Cahaba lilies that bloom in a river near Tuscaloosa in the spring—I hope they still bloom after the devastation. While such a loss pales in comparison to the loss of human life, the recent tornado highlights for me how fragile these landscapes can be and how fleeting our time is to appreciate them.

Calling all photographers with a keen eye for beautiful landscape shots bathed in the glow of magic hour—your local landscapes need you!

In our increasingly crowded and developed world, the few remaining swaths of natural land are often under extreme pressure from encroaching urban development. That has been the case for many years in my own community of Truckee, which is located amidst the huge attractions of world-class ski resorts and scenic Lake Tahoe.

As landscape photographers, we’re in a unique position to bring attention to these threatened areas in our own backyards and to work with organizations that are working to protect the most ecologically sensitive areas in our communities. The general public sometimes isn’t aware of the natural treasures in its midst. Often, local nonprofit groups such as land trusts and environmental organizations are the only barrier between the long-term protection of a sensitive natural area and its conversion to suburbia.

A few years ago in my community, a 1,400-acre ranch full of biologically diverse high Sierra ecosystems was planned for a luxury home development, complete with a golf course in the wetlands and development up to the shores of the property’s small lake. Our local land trust, the Truckee Donner Land Trust, was working to raise the funds to purchase the land from the developers in order to preserve this pristine natural habitat. A pitched battle erupted between developers and conservationists. Eventually, the developers agreed to sell the property to the land trust if they could raise the $23.5 million purchase price.

The land trust contacted me, requesting that I photograph the area and provide photographs for their fundraising brochure. I jumped at the chance to help in whatever small way I could contribute to the effort. I was granted access to the property and was able to photograph it numerous times, which resulted in a collection of images I donated to the land trust. These images then were used in a large fundraising campaign that educated the public about the biological diversity of the ranch and its scenic values. My photographs of the ranch also were published in numerous newspapers, magazines and online stories about the effort. One of the images, “Summer Sunset, Martis Valley,” became a successful fine-art print that sells well at our gallery in Truckee. I’ve been rewarded many times over for my pro bono work for the land trust. The best part of this story is that the fundraising campaign was successful and the ranch is now permanently protected open space. This is an area that will be protected habitat for many species and will be an important recreational and scenic resource for future generations.

In our increasingly crowded and developed world, the few remaining swaths of natural land are often under extreme pressure from encroaching urban development. That has been the case for many years in my own community of Truckee, which is located amidst the huge attractions of world-class ski resorts and scenic Lake Tahoe.

I know there are many other scenarios like this playing out around our country, not to mention the rest of our planet. If you’re looking to develop an audience for your landscape photography, and to make a lasting contribution through your work, I encourage you to think local. Become familiar with the scenic landscapes unique to your community. If these aren’t publicly accessible, maybe you can arrange access with the property owners in exchange for giving them a framed print of the scenery you photograph. Contact your local land trust or environmental group and see if they need photographs of an area they’re working to preserve. You’ll be able to make an important contribution to their efforts in addition to developing an audience for your work and getting valuable exposure in publications. Make sure all published images are accompanied by your byline and website address.

When photographing a new area, look for interesting foreground elements that lead into a scenic backdrop. A great recipe for this is to use wildflowers or other natural features such as grasses or creeks in the foreground, and use the evening sunset or morning sunrise light to give color to the sky in the background. Always think in terms of making an image have depth—that’s what separates a snapshot from a photograph. Make the effort to get to these locations at the magic hours of dusk and dawn (with your split ND filters and tripod, of course!). Even if there are no “threatened landscapes” in your area, creating photographs of your local landscapes is a great way to share the beauty of your corner of the world with your community. They will appreciate it, and you will grow your audience.

Many landscape photographers want to focus only on the “big-game” locations—places such as the Tetons, Yosemite and the Grand Canyon. These are all wonderful and inspiring locations to photograph; however, don’t overlook the scenic treasures in your own communities. Your local landscapes need your photographic talents!


Elizabeth Carmel is one of the world’s premiere  landscape photographers. She and her husband Olof Carmel own and operate two art galleries in California, their Napa Valley Art Gallery in Calistoga and their Truckee Art Gallery . You can get more information about her landscape photographs to buy,landscape photography workshops and books at and For more information about her Video Art, visit  Her Video Art DVDS are available to purchase on her website.