Stephen Bay's Photography Blog

Landscape Photographers: Travel Less

Landscape photography often involves significant travel. If you’re like me, you live in the middle of a big city and there are very few opportunities to photograph the natural environment without getting into a car or boarding an airplane. I’m luckier than most – I live in San Diego and have the coast within a 20-30 minute drive of my home. But before I moved here, getting to a location meant driving for at least a few hours or boarding an airplane.

In the past, I didn’t think twice about traveling for my photography. I would go on long road trips and explore the Pacific Northwest or fly to Europe, Asia, really anywhere I wanted to visit. But I’ve slowly become more aware of the negative impact of my photography. Traveling means burning fossil fuels and that results in CO2 emissions which are a primary driver of climate change. My rational mind always knew this but I never factored that into my decision making.

Carbon dioxide is invisible. You can’t see it coming out of your exhaust and it doesn’t leave any direct trace you can detect. I guess out of sight out of mind applies. I would never consider taking my garbage and dumping it out in a field, but that’s exactly what I was doing with my driving which dumped my CO2 emissions straight into the atmosphere.

A few months ago, I was pumping gas and I had just filled my tank with 12 gallons of gasoline. I did the mental math in my head and realized I put 80 lbs of fuel in my car to replace the gas I used from my last trip. Where did those 80 lbs of hydrocarbons go? Straight into the atmosphere as waste.

When I got home I looked up how much CO2 is produced by burning a gallon of gasoline. I was horrified. It’s way more than I imagined. Each gallon of gas burned results in nearly 20 lbs of CO2 released. So my consumption of 12 gallons really means I threw out 240 lbs of CO2 into the atmosphere.

What is the CO2 footprint of a landscape photographer?

Lets do some back of the napkin calculations for driving and flying.

Driving

Burning a gallon of gasoline results in 19.6 lbs of CO2 [1]. However that’s not the complete story because there’s also a cost involved with producing the gas and transporting it to the gas station for distribution. Estimates of this latter amount vary but could be anywhere from 3.4 to 6.7 lbs of CO2 per gallon [2]. For simplicity, we can use an overall value of 25 lbs of CO2 per gallon.

Lets also assume the average landscape photographer:

  • Has 100 shooting days a year (this might be low, in 2018 I shot over 140 days).
  • Drives an average of 50 miles per day.
  • Owns a vehicle with 20 mpg fuel efficiency (photographers tend to drive bigger SUVs with 4WD).

Doing the math, this results in 5,000 miles driven, 250 gallons burned, and 6,250 lbs of CO2 released.

Flying

Flying is more complicated because the carbon footprint of an airplane has to be apportioned amongst all the travelers on the plane and shorter flights are generally less efficient. However there are carbon footprint calculators available online where you can get an approximate impact of your flight based on origin, destination, and passenger class.

Plugging in some domestic trips I might take yields the following results (in US tons = 2000lbs):

  • San Diego to Denver 0.580 t
  • San Diego to Chicago 1.070 t
  • San Diego to San Francisco 0.388 t

These are based on a round-trip flight in economy class. I also put in some international destinations that are photography hotspots:

  • San Diego to Iceland (Reykjavik) 2.5 t
  • San Diego to Patagonia (Buenos Aires) 3.5 t
  • San Diego to Dolomites (Venice) 3.6 t

Flying business class doubles the footprint (you take up more space on the airplane and thus your portion of the fuel burned is greater). Flying direct is also better than breaking the flight up into segments.

Between driving and taking a few flights, a landscape photographer could easily add an additional 5 to 10 tons of carbon dioxide (or more) to the atmosphere in a single year. That’s 10,000 to 20,000 lbs.

To put these numbers into perspective, the average annual per capita carbon footprint in the US is 15.7 tons [3]. But the US is one of the highest polluters per capita (and in overall emissions). There are many other countries with lower emissions like France with a per capita footprint of 5 tons of CO2 per a year or the UK at 5.7 tons.

Alternatively, we can think about how many trees would need to be planted to offset the pollution from traveling. A typical mature hardwood tree absorbs about 48 lbs of CO2 per year [4,5]. And that tree will take 40 years to sequester 1 ton of carbon dioxide not including the time to mature. This also assumes that the tree isn’t harvested or burned when grown releasing the CO2 back into the atmosphere.

Finally, we can compare this to the average amount of household garbage produced. According to the EPA, the average American produces 4.4 lbs of household trash per day [6]. The amount of CO2 pollution we calculated would be equivalent to throwing out 30-60 lbs of garbage per day!

So how can I reduce my impact?

There’s really no way around it but to travel less. Skip that trip to Iceland and prevent an extra 5,000 lbs of CO2 going into the air.

Probably your initial thought as a landscape photographer is that traveling less is going to limit your growth as an artist. We see many great images of far away places on social media so it seems natural that an aspiring photographer should also want to travel there and photograph those locations as well.

But I believe chasing locations is a distraction that will actually make it harder to grow. How can you develop your own vision of a place that you only spend a few days visiting? Especially when you are photographing the same icons from the same locations that everybody else shoots? You simply won’t come up with anything that is uniquely you.

Here’s an alternative: instead of traveling all over the world (or country) and just spending a few days in each spot, find a few locations that are close to home and focus on them. You can then make repeated trips and spend extended time exploring and photographing the area with a lower carbon cost. The photography world is over-saturated with photos and to stand out from the crowd, you need to create exceptional and unique work which only comes when you have intimate knowledge of the area.

However, if you must travel, here are some things than can reduce your impact:

Driving

  • Carpool with fellow photographers.
  • Avoid separate scouting trips and do as much research as possible online.
  • Prefer longer trips with more days at your destination (to reduce the travel cost per day of photography).
  • Drive the speed limit. Driving slower can be 7-14% more fuel efficient [7].
  • When it comes time to replace you vehicle, purchase a more fuel efficient model.

Flying

  • Choose closer destinations over farther ones.
  • Fly coach instead of business or first class.
  • Choose direct instead of connecting flights if possible.
  • Prefer longer trips with more days at your destination (to reduce the travel cost per day of photography).

Another alternative is to pursue a slow travel lifestyle. This is where you travel to a location and spend an extended period (weeks or months) living there and photographing it. Then you move on to the next nearby location. By traveling slow, you give yourself more time at each location which will yield better pictures, you are not criss-crossing the world with travel, and you also spread out the carbon costs over many more days.

Slow travel may be impossible if you have a regular job that requires time in the office. But there are photographers that have explicitly chosen jobs where they can work remotely to facilitate this lifestyle. I couldn’t work remotely so instead my wife and I quit our jobs in 2014 (sold our home and everything except what would fit in our car) and spent a year traveling around the US moving from state to state. If quiting is too extreme, you may be able to take a sabbatical or a leave of absence.

Carbon offsets are not a solution

Purchasing carbon offsets is based on the idea that you can remain carbon neutral by paying for a reduction in CO2 emissions elsewhere in the world. For example, to offset your 10 tons of CO2 emissions from traveling, you can pay to plant trees in some far away place or pay to fund a wind farm that results in an equivalent reduction of emissions because otherwise a coal plant would have been built instead.

I am not a fan of the idea. First it encourages people to pollute guilt free. I can throw as much trash out as I want and if I just pay a bit, it won’t be a problem. This entire mindset is wrong, everybody needs to do their part reduce emissions. It’s better not to make a mess in the first place than trying to clean it up afterwords. Second, it creates a divide where wealthy people are allowed to pollute and poorer people have to do without. Finally, and most importantly, carbon offsets are unregulated and hard to verify. Many of the projects are in developing nations (makes auditing difficult) and the carbon offsets may only be a hypothetical reduction in future pollution instead of actually removing CO2 from the atmosphere. A little research sadly confirms my fear that it’s ripe for fraud, abuse, and creative accounting:

Conclusions

Landscape photographers are heavy travelers, we need to drive and fly to get to our destinations. But this type of travel produces a large amount of C02 pollution that is sent straight into the atmosphere. Even though we can’t see the pollution with our eyes and it doesn’t directly deface a sensitive site, it is incompatible with putting nature first and following a leave no trace philosophy. As heavy polluters, landscape photographers should be the first to reduce their CO2 emissions.

I don’t believe reducing travel is incompatible with landscape photography. We just have to be more selective about the trips we take and focus on closer locations instead of far away places. I think this local focus is ultimately better for one’s growth as an artist. Taking outstanding photos requires being intimately familiar with the land and that can only happen when you live close by and spend significant time in a location.

I’m eating my own dog food and have cut back on my travel for photography. I used to do many more international trips and have mostly eliminated those and now try to photograph locally. Even with my road trips, I generally pick closer locations over ones further away and I try to minimize impact by carpooling and spending multiple days at the destination.

References

[1] Carbon Dioxide Emission Coefficients. US Energy Information Administration.

[2] Hey Mr. Green! How much CO2 is generated by producing and transporting a gallon of gas?. Sierra Club Magazine.

[3] List of countries by carbon dioxide emissions, Wikipedia.

[4] Tree Facts. NC State University.

[5] Trees Improve Our Air Quality. Urban Forestry Network.

[6] Municipal Solid Waste. EPA.

[7] Carbon Footprint Factsheet. Center for Sustainable Systems, University of Michigan.