What Is Conservation Photography?

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  • Written By: Alan Rankin
  • Edited By: Melissa Wiley
  • Last Modified Date: 24 October 2019
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Conservation photography is photography that portrays the natural world and emphasizes the importance of efforts to preserve it. It does this by documenting plants and animals in the wild and the effects of encroaching human civilization on their environments. The term “conservation” has been used since the 19th century to describe the movement now known as environmentalism. Since the movement’s origins, environmental activists have employed conservation photography to bring their message to audiences around the world. In modern times, it is featured in magazines, websites, and nature documentaries on television and film.

The conservation movement began in the late 1800s. At that time, the effects of the Industrial Revolution and increasing human populations on the natural world were first becoming apparent. Early environmental activists like Aldo Leopold and John Muir found support from national leaders such as U.S. president Theodore Roosevelt. This led to the creation of national parks and conservation groups like the Sierra Club. Nature photographers Ansel Adams, Eliot Porter, and Philip Hyde were among the pioneers of conservation photography.

In 1888, the non-profit National Geographic Society was founded by U.S. conservationists and scientists. The group launched its famous yellow-bordered magazine the same year. Ever since, the magazine has remained a primary vehicle for conservation photography from around the world. Its reputation for high-quality work makes it one of the most prestigious outlets for conservation photography. The society also produces nature documentary films for broadcast and cable television.


Photography is a powerful tool for conveying environmental issues to the general public. Vivid images document natural life in remote parts of the world that many people will never visit. It brings the reality of otherwise abstract concepts and distant regions to those who might have trouble imagining them, such as children. Photographic evidence of pollution and environmental catastrophes has historically swayed public opinion and led to laws designed to protect the environment.

Nature documentaries have been an important form of conservation photography since the early days of the motion picture. These films feature footage painstakingly captured in the wild by nature cinematographers. With the advent of television, shows such as Wild Kingdom regularly offered images of the natural world to millions of viewers. Numerous cable channels now feature nature documentaries around the clock. In the early 21st century, theatrical documentaries such as March of the Penguins, An Inconvenient Truth, and The Cove won worldwide acclaim and gave audiences new perspectives on environmental issues.


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