Conservation Photography Through the Years

From the days of glass plates to today's digital images, photography has helped save wildlife

  • Lynne Warren
  • PhotoZone
  • Nov 28, 2016

PHOTOGRAPHIC TECHNOLOGY has changed dramatically since the first notable conservation photographers began making outdoor images in the 1800s. From huge, unwieldy boxes that had to be towed by mules, cameras have evolved into tiny, high-resolution digital devices that can fit in a back pocket or fly in clutch of a drone. Here’s a brief sampling of that technological evolution.


Mules and men hauled the hundreds of pounds of gear that pioneering photographer William Henry Jackson used to document the West. His large-format cameras made negatives on glass plates nearly 2 feet across.


Paired images, such as these of a blooming cactus in Arizona, were made for viewing through holders called stereoscopes. Popular in the late 1800s, they gave armchair travelers a 3-D view of the world.


George Shiras (at front of canoe) used a hunting technique called jacklighting to illuminate wildlife on the wooded shores of Michigan’s Whitefish Lake—and to make the first photographs of animals after dark.

1910: ON A ROLL

George Eastman introduced the first roll film on a transparent base in 1889. Here, an intrepid photographer washes his film in Yakutat Bay on the Gulf of Alaska, a bath that will yield an early peek at the exposures.


This hogfish became the first underwater creature photographed in color. To capture the image, huge charges of magnesium flash powder were detonated on the surface to light the sea 15 feet down off Florida’s Dry Tortugas.


A promising tool for studying and protecting wildlife populations, drones such as this octocopter take cameras into hard-to-reach areas, providing “eyes in the sky” with less cost and risk than small planes or helicopters.


Today, access to sophisticated digital cameras and social-media platforms gives even amateur shutterbugs—including many NWF members—the power to use photography to support conservation.

More from National Wildlife magazine and the National Wildlife Federation:

Nature's Witnesses »
Keeping the Wild in Wildlife Photography »
Learn more about the National Wildlife photo contest »

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