Sustainable Ways to Travel on Photography Assignments


We spoke with nine travel photographers about the steps they take — small and large — toward promoting a more sustainable future. Here’s their advice.

Sustainable Ways to Travel on Photography Assignments — Sustaining the Environment
World travel should begin with sustainability. Image by Austin Sylvest.

Thanks in part to the work of the young environmental activist Greta Thunberg, world travel in 2020 will be all about sustainability. Among its travel trends for the new year, Condé Nast Traveller has listed environmental-friendly initiatives — like climate-neutral trips, electric planes, and vegan hotels.

For many travel photographers, this focus on sustainable travel is long overdue.

“It’s so easy to see how quickly locations that were not responsibly cared for become fragments of what they once were,” Boulder-based photographer Austin Sylvest tells us. “In my home state of Colorado, I’ve seen popular locations go from unknown to overrun, in the course of a year, due to overuse, waste that wasn’t properly disposed of, and excessive vehicle emissions from the millions of tourists that travel to the area.

“With the power of social media in 2020, it’s so important for photographers to not only share their support of sustainability, but also give simple and reasonable solutions that everyone can get behind, while also making a massive impact.”

We spoke with nine travel photographers. These are their top tips.

Sustainable Ways to Travel on Photography Assignments — Take a Road Trip
Avoiding air travel can facilitate impromptu shoots along the way. Image by Charlie Blacker.

Skip the Plane…

“I try to avoid air travel where I can,” photographer and surfer Charlie Blacker tells us. “Instead, I drive and make a trip out of it — incorporating some shoots in other locations along the way. These days, I travel and live from a fully-converted camper van. All of our power comes from solar panels on the roof.

“Even if you don’t have a camper van, it is quite easy to set up a small solar system, mounted on a roof rack. That way, you can use an inverter to charge your equipment. It is both sustainable and very handy for keeping equipment charged while you’re on the go.”

Sustainable Ways to Travel on Photography Assignments — Minimize Your Footprint
Hitting the road lends to unexpected, picturesque photo opportunities. Image by Stephanie Braconnier.

… or Fly Direct

If air travel is inevitable, take steps to minimize your footprint. “The first thing I do is think about whether the trip is absolutely necessary for the success of the project,” photographer and landscape architect Stephanie Braconnier tells us. “If I end up flying, for any reason, I always book direct flights. The most fuel is wasted during take-off and landing. So, if you can minimize the number of flights — even though it might be more expensive — it’s better in the long-run.

“Also, I only pack carry-on bags. The more luggage you have, the higher your carbon footprint. Do I really need my gimbal (just in case), drone, and four different lenses? Probably not. I rent equipment that I need on a per-project basis, instead of lugging around heavy camera gear that I just have to worry about getting lost or damaged. If that’s not possible due to the location, I try to be realistic about the equipment I’ll actually need, to get the job done.”

Some airlines have better fuel efficiency than others, so it’s worth checking recent reports and supporting one that ranks higher in efficiency.

Sustainable Ways to Travel on Photography Assignments — Walk Instead of Drive
Walking to a location allows for unforeseen photo opportunities along the way. Image by Luca Lorenzelli.

Walk as Much as Possible

“The first thing I would suggest if you’d like to minimize your environmental footprint is to use your feet,” Italian photographer Luca Lorenzelli explains. “Walking benefits the environment, but beyond that, it benefits your photography — especially if you’re shooting for stock.

“By leaving the car at the hotel, you will almost certainly find interesting places along the way, including local landmarks that you would never have seen otherwise. When you plan this kind of trip, be sure to take into account the amount of time you’ll spend on these long walks. Give yourself extra time to stop and take photos.”

Using public transportation and carpooling are also good options if you’re traveling long distance. If you have to drive, keep it as energy-efficient as possible.

“Unfortunately, it is not always possible to travel on foot, especially when you’re visiting rural areas full of little towns and villages,” Lorenzelli adds. “In situations where I can’t walk and where public transport is non-existent, I use my hybrid car. I would have preferred to have a completely electric car, but I don’t have a way of recharging it without access to a garage.”

Sustainable Ways to Travel on Photography Assignments — Protect Wildlife
When visiting wildlife sanctuaries, make sure the establishment is aiding in conservation, rather than entertainment. Image by Enrico Pescantini.

Do Your Research

If you’re planning on seeing animals, read up on ethical practices. Make sure any parks or sanctuaries you visit have a clean record and treat their animals humanely.

“These days, it is extremely important for any photographer to be aware of tourist attractions that exploit animals and wildlife, in general,” travel and aerial photographer Enrico Pescantini explains. “Too often, these places lure us with the temptation of getting beautiful photographs, but these photos are taken at the expense of the animals.”

These days, popular tourist attractions can center around wild animals, but some — including those that encourage the petting of tiger cubs or the riding of elephants — are cruel, unethical, and unsustainable. “There are many “photographer-friendly” wildlife attractions where you can get very close to the animals. But, in some cases, their lives are often put in danger just for the sake of tourists,” Pescantini adds.

“Avoid zoos and places where animals are used for entertainment. Instead, visit wildlife rescue centers, where you can see wild animals who have been saved and are recovering before being released back into their environment. You can also visit parks that aid in conservation, where the price you pay for admission goes back into helping and protecting wildlife.”

Sustainable Ways to Travel on Photography Assignments — Support Local Communities
Give back to the community that’s accommodating you. Image by Mathias Sunke.

Support Local Communities

“I mostly travel throughout the African continent, and I embark on road trips through different countries,” German nature and travel photographer Mathias Sunke explains. “Sustainable travel starts whenever I plan a trip. I don’t use any travel agencies, so I always decide where I spend my money as I travel.

“I do my research and choose local car rental companies, accommodations, and activities. It’s important to me that the profit goes back to the local people. They depend on tourists like us and need our money more than any foreign travel agency or foreign lodge owner.

“In addition, I also conduct further research into the specific accommodations and activities I support. I look for information about how eco-friendly a business is and what they do to protect and support the environment. This takes some time, but it’s worth it.”

Sustainable Ways to Travel on Photography Assignments — Give Back to the Community
Engaging with locals affords you the ability to learn more about their culture and customs. Image by Lukas Hodon.

Slovakian videographer and photographer Lukas Hodon agrees. “I try to stay away from the all-inclusive hotels and prefer to stay with locals,” he tells us. “That’s how I avoid wasting food and resources. Another benefit of this approach is that I get to know the local culture better and enjoy their delicious homemade cuisine.” Another tip from Hodon? Steer clear of palm oil, a product that often carries a devastating environmental toll.

If you’re having trouble finding accommodations, visit the Global Sustainable Tourism Council and the Rainforest Alliance for resources.

Sustainable Ways to Travel on Photography Assignments — Avoid Tourist Attractions
By avoiding tourist attractions, you eliminate the inevitability of exploiting that location. Image by Jon Chica.

Avoid Contributing to Mass Tourism

“This summer, I visited some lavender fields in Valensole, France, and I was disappointed to see that there were around thirty people gathered at the same spot, waiting to snap and share photos on their social networks,” Spanish photographer Jon Chica tells us. “Several bushes had been trodden by footsteps. Sadly, this is a common occurrence in popular spots around the world.

“My number one piece of advice to any photographer is to choose the road less traveled, rather than flocking to the places that are trending on social networks. Mass tourism is on the rise, but I’ve also noticed a real effort these days towards getting to know more remote, inaccessible places. These places are harder to get to, but they aren’t exploited and ruined by mass tourism. Often, they will also make your photographs better because they are different.”

If you’re worried about a particularly wild or vulnerable spot being overtaken by tourists, take steps to protect it. Charlie Blacker tells us, “As a landscape and nature photographer, I try not to disclose the locations that I shoot at, especially if it is a lesser-known place. This helps to keep the pressure off of the environment.”

Sustainable Ways to Travel on Photography Assignments — Protect the Environment's Vulnerability
Protect the environment by not divulging the location of your shoot. Image by Austin Sylvest.

Skip the Plastic

Plastic waste is a topic covered by several of the photographers we interviewed, including Austin Sylvest. “I wish that I had been more conscious about my use of plastics when I started traveling,” he tells us. “When you’re on the go, it’s so easy to keep going through bags, water
bottles, etc.

“Since they’re usually thrown away fairly quickly, we forget about how many of these products we are actually using. We often end up throwing them away in remote locations, where recycling options usually aren’t as established. To combat this, I make sure to pack many reusable containers, water bottles, and larger containers to eliminate excessive use.”

Sustainable Ways to Travel on Photography Assignments — Protect the Environment
Be mindful of whether or not the products you carry with you are gentle on the environment. Image by Antonio Salaverry.

Leave the Environment Cleaner than You Found It

Like a few of the artists we spoke to, Brazilian photographer Antonio Salaverry doesn’t just watch his own plastic use. He also cleans up after fellow travelers when he’s on the road. “Being invisible to nature is my goal,” he tells us. “That means leaving no signs of my presence, and it also includes removing garbage left behind by other people — even if I had nothing to do with it.

“Doing our share alone isn’t enough, we also have to expand this concept and compensate for other travelers who weren’t so cautious. Encourage everyone else to be more conscious and help clean the environment, too. Plastics are horrible for the environment, but so are other types of waste. Even discarded food can be damaging to an ecosystem, if it doesn’t belong there.”

Sustainable Ways to Travel on Photography Assignments — Advocate for the Environment
Encourage a more sustainable environment by sharing your concerns with others. Image by Stephanie Braconnier.

Advocate for Positive Change

Up until now, we’ve discussed steps you can take to travel more sustainably on photography assignments, but we haven’t touched directly on the content of the photos themselves. Consider using your talent to cover and illuminate the issues affecting the environment, spread awareness, and spark change.

“I recently saw a talk by National Geographic photographer Cristina Mittermeier, whose images have had a super-sized impact on inspiring people to support causes for global sustainability and resilience,” Stephanie Braconnier tells us. “Her message was that images are what hold power in our culture.

“The recording, observation, and distribution of imagery is often what inspires people to act. Breaking down the complex — almost Herculean — scale of climate change into small, digestible pieces so that people feel they can take direct action is one path leading to change. That’s a path I’m happy to be a small part of.”

Cover image by Jon Chica.

Want more tips on shooting with conservation in mind? Check these out.


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