Conservation photography combines nature photography with the proactive, issue-oriented approach of documentary photography as an agent for protecting nature and improving the biosphere and natural environment. Conservation Photography furthers environmental conservation, wildlife conservation, habitat conservation or cultural conservation by expanding public awareness of issues and stimulating remedial action.
Photography has developed as a powerful medium to empower conservation. Photography has served this role since the 1860s, although not widely acknowledged as such. A notable example are the powerful images of Carleton Watkins which were successfully used to stimulate the establishment of Yosemite National Park in 1864 and William Henry Jackson and Ansel Adams who advocated for expansion and continued funding of the park.
Renewed emphasis on photography-for-conservation arose at the beginning of the 21st century, primarily in response to the human-caused environmental crisis, recognizing that the global pattern of ecosystem degradation was not sustainable.
The modern field of conservation photography was formalized in October 2005 with the founding of the International League of Conservation Photographers by photographer Cristina Mittermeier, during the 8th World Wilderness Congress in Anchorage, Alaska. Prior to 2005 "conservation photography" was not widely recognized as a discipline.
Conservation and photography appear as two distinct fields, but their combined impact can be profound. Simply put, conservation photography is photography that empowers or enables conservation.
According to the acclaimed photographer, Joel Sartore, “the typical nature photograph shows a butterfly on a pretty flower. The conservation photograph shows the same thing, but with a bulldozer coming at it in the background. This doesn’t mean there’s no room for beautiful pictures, in fact we need beautiful images just as much as the issues. It does mean that the images exist for a reason; to save the Earth while we still can.”
The serious conservation photographer brings to their work a deep empathy for the natural world. Proper use of the resulting images has the power to bring about positive change.
Conservation photographs fall into two broad categories, both of which are equally valuable:
- The snapshot: upon seeing a striking scene one pulls out a cell phone or point-and-shoot camera, and snaps some quick framed pictures without expending too much time or effort.
- The carefully crafted image:: One sees the same scene, but instead of quickly shooting it and moving on, they take a series of skillfully crafted, high-quality images that tell the story in a more powerful way. Dramatic framing enhances the influence of a picture.
Such photographs have a stronger impact on the audience. One may also proactively seek opportunities to take crafted conservation pictures. Determined effort can result in excellent photo stories that can move people’s hearts and minds.
In order to create an impact, conservation pictures should be put to work for specific causes. Though not every picture may find an immediate use, a carefully catalogued archive of conservation pictures can help increase impact of conservation related news stories, provide material for public awareness campaigns, including internet activism and sometimes serve as Investigative journalism evidence in court proceedings. Images of habitat destruction, especially in protected areas, can be important as legal evidence against the activity.
- Specialty fields
Several specialty fields benefit from their use of conservation photography, these include:
- Conservation movement, to protect animals, fungi, plants and their habitats
- Conservation biology, the science of the protection and management of biodiversity
- Conservation genetics - "an interdisciplinary science that aims to apply genetic methods to the conservation and restoration of biodiversity."
- Conservation (ethic), an ethic of resource use, allocation, and protection, especially of the natural environment
- Conservation organization typically an environmental organization
- Conservationist, a person who advocates for conservation of animals, fungi, plants and their habitats
- Energy conservation, the reduction of non-renewable energy consumption
- Habitat conservation, a land management practice that seeks to conserve, protect and restore, habitat areas for wild animals, fungi and plants
- Water conservation, reducing the use of water to protect the environment
- Wetland conservation, protecting wetlands to conserve their ecological processes
- Wildlife management, multidisciplinary practices, including conservation of species and their habitats
- Conservation authority (Canada)
- Marine conservation, the protection and preservation of ecosystems in oceans and seas
- Soil conservation, management strategies for prevention of soil being eroded from the earth’s surface or becoming chemically altered
- Conservation-restoration, the profession devoted to the preservation of cultural resources
Some subjects of conservation photography include:
- Destruction/construction activity inside a protected area.
- Commercial activity in ecologically sensitive zones (ESZs) – the areas immediately bordering national parks and reserves
- Habitat fragmentation or destruction, ranging from individual tree felling to land clearing for a large hydroelectric project.
- Cattle / goats inside protected areas.
- New roads inside or near a protected area.
- Wildlife kept as pets.
- Tourism and its impacts.
- Conservation Photography: Art Born of Environmental Ethic: "Creation of images that inspire and move people to change behaviors and take action requires an understanding of the issues necessary to tell the story; this is the job of a conservation photographer." by Cristina Mittermeier, ILCP.
- Witness: Defining Conservation Photography Video, 17:25, A contemporary account of the emerging genre of conservation photography is explored through the voices and imagery of some of the best environmental communicators working today. by Neil Ever Osborne, ILCP
There are many environmental organizations that effectively use conservation photography to help advocate their goals. Just a few are:
- ARKive is a global initiative with the mission of "promoting the conservation of the world's threatened species, through the power of wildlife imagery", which it does by locating and gathering films, photographs and audio recordings of the world's species into a centralised digital archive. Its current priority is the completion of audio-visual profiles for the c. 17,000 species on the IUCN Red List of threatened species.
- Blue Earth Alliance believes a dramatic image can change our perception and alter our understanding of a subject. This idea defines the mission of Blue Earth: to raise awareness about endangered cultures, threatened environments and social concerns through photography. By supporting the power of photographic storytelling, they motivate society to make positive change.
- Conservation India aims to facilitate wildlife and nature conservation by providing reliable information and the tools needed to campaign effectively. They recently published ' "Beyond The Pretty Picture — Giving Back To Nature Through Photography"
- International League of Conservation Photographers is a project-driven organization whose goal is to translate conservation science into compelling visual messages targeted to specific audiences. They work with leading scientists, policy makers, government leaders and conservation groups to produce the highest-quality documentary images of both the beauty and wonder of the natural world and the challenges facing it.
The ILCP conducts Rapid Assessment Visual Expeditions or RAVEs  to locations where threats to biodiversity are imminent. Teams of specialized ILCP photographers enter the region to produce a comprehensive set of pictures of the area in a short amount of time. The images collected are then used to stimulate public involvement in conservation issues.
- Legacy Institute for Nature & Culture (LINC) is a conservation communications organization designed to strengthen the message of our partner artists and storytellers to inspire the protection of Florida's cultural and natural heritage. LINC uses art to elevate scientific, academic, and policy-related communication about Florida’s natural and cultural heritage.
LINC’s projects often include modern communications tools, such as web-based multimedia, for cross-platform marketing. Printed components from LINC projects are exhibited and disseminated throughout Florida in books, traveling exhibits, shows and screenings.
- Sanctuary Asia is India's first and one of its leading environmental news magazines. It was founded in 1981 to raise awareness among Indian people of their disappearing natural heritage. The magazine is attractively packaged with colored photographs. The Sanctuary Photo Library' is a melting pot of natural history visuals, information and resources used to produce some of the finest wildlife and nature calendars, posters, slide shows, exhibitions and other products available in India.
- Sierra club maintains a publishing imprint, Sierra Club Books, publishing books on environmental issues, wilderness photographic essays, nature guides, and other related subjects. They publish the Sierra Club Calendars, perennial bestsellers, featuring photographs by well-known nature photographers such as Galen Rowell.
- Carleton Ward Jr. (2008), "Conservation Photography", Master of Science Thesis (University of Florida), retrieved 2012-02-27
- Shekar Dattatri and Ramki Sreenivasan (2011-12-13), "Beyond The Pretty Picture — Giving Back To Nature Through Photography", RESOURCES » TOOLKIT (Conservation India), retrieved 2012-02-27
- "About ARKive". ARKive. Retrieved 12 July 2011.
- About ILCP, International League of Conservation Photographers, 2011, retrieved 2012-02-28
- Various authors, India, pp. 76; Lonely Planet Publications, 2005
- Media related to Nature photography at Wikimedia Commons