Climate conflict: How to photograph climate change

  • Written by  Keith Wilson
  • Published in Geophoto
Climate conflict: How to photograph climate change Don Gutoski
15 Feb
An abstract concept such as climate change is actually easier to photograph than you may think. It just requires an awareness of your environment and the unique set of changes that are occurring to it

In October last year, the winning image of the world’s most prestigious nature photography competition was unveiled to the world. It was a simple, yet startling photograph of a red fox holding freshly caught prey in its jaws. Described like that, the top prize winner of the 51st Wildlife Photographer of the Year award doesn’t sound particularly remarkable, but a closer inspection soon revealed that something wasn’t quite right. The blood soaked carcass of the fox’s kill was that of an all-white Arctic fox. This was the first time that a red fox had been seen and photographed in the act of killing an Arctic fox. Only in recent years has the red fox encroached into the territory of its smaller polar-dwelling cousin, a direct result, according to Earth scientists and conservationists, of warming temperatures in Arctic climates.

The photographer, Canadian physician Don Gutoski, wasn’t aware of the significance of his image at the time; he was one of several tourists visiting the shores of Hudson Bay, near Churchill, in the Wapusk National Park intent on seeing polar bears. Gutoski said: ‘Seeing a natural red fox there was quite a surprise to many people but they are in the area, perhaps more so in recent years. The event that occurred was completely unexpected to anyone on the trip. There were stories about it happening but nobody, certainly as far as I know, had ever recorded it on film.’


Symbol of change

Gutoski and his fellow travellers spent several hours photographing the fox from a distance, but couldn’t tell exactly what it had killed: ‘We just stayed in the area, we didn’t get too close, and watched while it fed.’ After taking an estimated 2,000 images of the red fox eating and then burying its prey, Gutoski and his group turned back to their base. It wasn’t until that night when he looked at the pictures on his laptop that Gutoski thought he had ‘something special’. So special, in fact, that the competition judges saw this image as a powerful symbol of the realities of climate change and the havoc it is wreaking on the world’s ecosystems.

The picture illustrates how higher temperatures in the sub-Arctic environs around Wapusk National Park have resulted in an invasive species (the red fox) expanding its range and placing it in direct conflict with a resident species (the Arctic fox). ‘We just realised that the red fox is moving its range north into a habitat that it wouldn’t normally survive in. I think that’s really the message in the photo.’ But it’s not just the Arctic fox that could vanish. The polar bear – the prime attraction for photographers and tourists to this region – is also likely to disappear.

Reflecting on the reaction to his photo, Gutoski says: ‘Everybody mentioned that the changing climate was having an impact. People studying polar bears in Churchill, which has the southernmost population of polar bears in the world, say that if climate change continues at the rate it is going, they will be extinct there within 20 years.’


Extreme Ice Survey

While Gutoski had accidentally taken a photograph that illustrated a consequence of climate change on the behaviour of wildlife, another photographer has spent the past ten years consciously documenting the effects of global warming on a notable geographical feature.

In 2007, James Balog founded the Extreme Ice Survey (EIS), which uses time-lapse cameras to record the melting of glaciers. Balog established the survey after spending much of the previous two years photographing receding glaciers. The rapid rate of ice loss he witnessed together with the comments and observations of scientists he met, spurred him to adopt a more scientific approach to measure ice loss, using the visual documentation of photography.

Balog wasn’t the first person to use photography to show the extent of glacial retreat. In 1999, Gary Braasch, an Oregon-based environmental photographer, began his World View of Global Warming project by photographing a number of glaciers in Europe and North America and comparing them to old photographs – some taken nearly a century earlier – from the same viewpoint.

While more anecdotal than scientific, Braasch’s ‘before and after’ images nevertheless showed the historic reality of glaciers in retreat. For example, when his 2008 photograph of the Mendenhall Glacier, near Juneau, Alaska, was compared to a photograph taken from the same position in 1910, it revealed the glacier had retreated by nearly three kilometres over the century.


Time-lapse analysis

The EIS has been far more analytical in its methods and began in 2007 with the installation of 43 time-lapse cameras at glaciers in Iceland, Greenland, Canada and Alaska. The cameras are fixed to withstand winds of 240km/h and temperatures as low as -40°C. They are powered by custom-made solar panels and long-life batteries and programmed to shoot every 30 minutes during daylight hours all year long. The annual out-take of approximately 8,000 images per camera provides a time-lapse sequence of glacial calving and retreat. Balog has since extended the survey by installing cameras further afield in the Swiss and French Alps, Antarctica and the Khumbu Glacier beneath Everest.

In total, 24 of the world’s major glaciers are under constant surveillance by Balog’s EIS cameras. The photographs have been published in several books, exhibited around the world and edited into an award-winning film, Chasing Ice.


environmental changes

Of course, we can’t all photograph the effects of global warming and climate change in such an analytical way. If anything, the situation experienced by Gutoski is more likely to confront us. But nor does this mean you need to travel to the Arctic to photograph polar bears and Arctic foxes, or hike up to the edge of a glacier to find your subject. In fact, although subtle and often missed, the effects of climate change are more apparent than most of us realise. To notice these signs, photographers need to be keen observers of the changes in their local surroundings, looking out for the unfamiliar or unseasonal.

For example, if you live on the coast, the ferocity and frequency of sea storms are often cited as examples of our changing climate – they also make for spectacular images. Sea level rises only become noticeable when realised through the effects of higher tides and coastal erosion, causing landslides and structures such as sea walls, roads and buildings to slip into the water below.

In recent years, meteorologists consistently report that British summers are becoming wetter and winters milder. The effects of this on our seasons can be seen (and therefore photographed) by the earlier spring flowering times, longer autumns with later leaf fall and less frequent snowfalls.


Temperature and movement

If wildlife photography is your passion, a conversation with an experienced birdwatcher or Wildlife Trust volunteer in your local area can provide plenty of useful anecdotal information about changes in the behaviour and occurrence of common species. For example, milder winters have seen bird species such as robins, wrens and long-tailed tits flourish. Many species have also extended their range as food has become more abundant in the milder year-round temperatures. Some species that were once restricted to a handful of sites in southeast England, such as the Dartford warbler, have now expanded their range as far as Wales.

However, warmer temperatures have a detrimental effect on upland and mountain birds like the snow bunting and ptarmigan, which have been pushed further north and higher up mountains as they seek the cooler temperatures they require. Higher temperatures have also resulted in insects emerging earlier and extending their range. For example, the long-winged conehead cricket, once confined to the meadows of Dorset is now found as far north as the Midlands. Scientists also cite climate change as the reason behind the Brown Argos butterfly, bee orchid and several species of dragonfly expanding their range in the UK, while upland species such as the Mountain Ringlet butterfly have declined.

In conclusion, photographing climate change is not as abstract a concept as it may first seem. It merely requires you to become more attuned to your local environment and to look for the effects of our changing weather conditions. As the world strives to keep future global temperature rises beneath 2°C, the visual evidence to measure and document the impact of this change is best accessed through our photography.



Research the natural history and identity of your local environment: weather records, man-made changes to the landscape, native plants, resident and migratory species of wildlife. Knowing what is endemic to your surroundings will help you recognise any significant change.

Check the weather forecast. It sounds obvious when talking about climate change, but if extreme weather is forecast, such as high winds, torrential rain or driving snow, then you need to know exactly what to expect in order to plan how best to depict such weather conditions in a photograph.

Carry a range of lens options to cover most subjects and situations. A macro lens will help you photograph small insects that may be new to your location, while a telephoto zoom will enable you to frame more distant and elusive subjects such as exotic migrant birds.



Get your camera wet. This is easier said than done of course, particularly if you’re working in constant rain, sea spray on the coast or snow on the hills. Consider buying an underwater camera housing to be 100 per cent sure of keeping your camera and lenses dry.

Venture out to tidal zones like mud flats, estuaries and beaches without knowing the tide times. At certain times of year, tidal variations can be extreme, but also change very quickly, leading to the unwary being stranded.

Ignore your own impact on the environment. Photographers can do several things to reduce their carbon footprint such as: disposing of inkjet cartridges and used batteries at official recycling points; never keeping your computer on standby; or using a solar powered battery charger.



Ice: Portraits of Vanishing Glaciers by James Balog; Rizzoli; $50 (hardback)

The Atlas of Climate Change by Kristin Dow and Thomas E Downing; Routledge; £49.99 (softback)

Footprint: Our Landscape in Flux by Stuart Franklin and Heike Strelow; Thames & Hudson; £29.95 (hardback)



Lens option: Wideangle macro

It’s the plants, flowers and insects that react first to subtle differences in the climate. Here, photographers turn to the close focusing and life-size image reproduction of a macro lens. Venus Optics has produced the world’s first ultra wide-angle macro lens, the Laowa 15mm f/4 1:1 Macro (£420). Focus and exposures are adjusted manually, and it’s capable of very wide, close-up images.

Accessory option: Monopod

If a tripod is cumbersome to carry, a monopod can make all the difference, doubling up as a trekking pole, as well as adding extra support to reduce movement during slower exposures. The Vanguard VEO CM 264 (£100) is a lightweight carbon fibre model that extends to 160cm and folds down to 54cm. There are four leg sections and a rubber foot with adjustable spike to secure support on all types of surfaces.

Camera option: Waterproof camera

Although many cameras are designed to keep out dust and moisture, few are truly waterproof. The Nikon 1 AW1 (£650) is the world’s first waterproof and shockproof interchangeable lens digital camera. It is submersible to a depth of 15m and can be dropped from two metres without harm. It is also freeze proof to -10°C and is compatible with existing Nikon 1 system lenses.

This article was published in the February 2016 edition of Geographical magazine.

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