Blurred Lines in the Audubon Magazine Photo Awards

Photograph by Matthew Studebaker
Photograph by Matthew Studebaker

Blurred Lines in the Audubon Magazine Photo Awards

An owl, a photographer, a contest, and a conundrum.

By Mark Jannot
Published: January-February 2014

This crazy thing happened on the way to the anointing of our annual Photo Awards winners. We received an image of a statuesque great horned owl, perched on an autumnal branch in a Spanish-mossy wood, vamping a self-possessed stare over its right shoulder. It was a calendar shot for the ages, ordinary beauty rendered extraordinary. The judges swooned. "The colors and composition were just perfect," Kenn Kaufman told me. "The image captured the character, or 'feel,' of a great horned owl, but it went beyond that." The image sailed onto the short list and, as part of the standard vetting, its creator, Matthew Studebaker, was asked to send in the original file. Upon inspection, the file revealed the same forest primeval, except here the branch was occupied by a hunched, squinty version of the regal owl the judges had fallen for--same bird, different pose. The image was clearly a composite. And thus, our presumptive Grand Prize honoree got slapped with a DQ.

Digital Manipulation. W8
Photographs by Andrew Geiger
From stitching together images to baiting wildlife subjects, what's acceptable when it comes to nature photography? Vote on these images.
Our contest rules are clear: "All photographs must . . . accurately reflect the subject matter as it appeared in the viewfinder. Photos that have been digitally or otherwise altered beyond standard optimization (including but not limited to removal of dust, cropping, and/or adjustments to color and contrast) will be disqualified." And can we even quibble with this? Here, after all, is what all photographic ethics, as it relates to manipulation, comes down to: What is your contract with your audience? What are they expecting? And based on that, are you deceiving them? "I think our readers take it for granted that all our photography is a real representation of nature," said Creative Director Kevin Fisher, who oversees the photo awards and has no qualms about the disqualification of Matthew Studebaker.

Nor, for that matter, does Matthew Studebaker. He was, in fact, genuinely apologetic when I caught up with him by phone. Sorry, he said, to have wasted the judges' time--though he wasn't sorry to have manipulated the photo in the first place. Would you be? What happened, he said, was that he'd captured that majestic pose in one of his earliest shots, in vertical orientation with the owl crowding the frame. Later he decided his horizontal compositions were more powerful. But the owl had only harrumphed at full height that once, when Studebaker had it suboptimally framed. (The red line on the photo below roughly marks the invisible boundary where the two images were joined into one.) "That's just using the tools you have available to help depict what you saw," Studebaker said. "And tools continue to evolve."

Photograph by Matthew Studebaker

And, as they do, maybe the "rules" for what's acceptable need to evolve, too. Or maybe not--I'll be very curious to hear what you think. Drop me a line at, and find all sorts of fascinating fuel for the conversation here, including an opportunity to tell us whether, and how, you think our contest rules should be altered.

I'll leave the last word, for now, to the ever-thoughtful Kenn Kaufman, who surprised me with his tolerance for Studebaker's deception. "I have to say," he said, "that even though it was rightly disqualified from the contest--and even though I'd be more impressed if it were an unaltered photo--I would still frame it and put it up on the wall. This is a different kind of image, and we as a community haven't yet figured out how to think about it."

From the official rules

All Photographs must depict "birdlife" and must therefore contain at least one bird, and accurately reflect the subject matter as it appeared in the viewfinder. Photos that have been digitally or otherwise altered beyond standard optimization (including but not limited to removal of dust, cropping, and/or adjustments to color and contrast) will be disqualified. Normal processing of RAW image files or minor adjustments to color and contrast are acceptable, as is minimal cropping. Stitched panoramas may be entered in any division.

Magazine Category

Author Profile

Mark Jannot

Mark Jannot is Audubon's Vice President for Content.

Type: Author | From: Audubon Magazine


I just read the readers'

I just read the readers' responses to this brouhaha. It seems quite silly to me as an avid and life long photographer. NO photograph EVER captures what our eyes see. The camera is a tool that creates it's own version of reality. Telephoto lenses capture things we cannot see without their amplification. The ways the colors, light and shadow are captured is dependent upon the type of equipment and it is never a capture of that moment in reality. Photography IS art and artificial, no matter how realistic the image.

Maybe good nature pictures

Maybe good nature pictures shouldn't be in the form of a contest. Or any rules in place should be made which favor the well-being of the subject, not how the picture is arrived at. Then if you want "natural" pictures vs. those that may be optimized in some way, categories would be necessary. I enjoy seeing pictures of wildlife in a natural state, even if they are not always "beautiful."

First, my condolences to

First, my condolences to Audubon Magazine, who simply wanted a contest that would encourage an interaction with Nature, only to see it erupt into an argument over just exactly what constitutes "manipulation," and how much is too much. So if nothing else, all of the conversation proves definitively the need for hard-and-fast rules. So next time, just read the rules first; if you don't like the rules move on - there are dozens of other photo contests yearning for your participation. But if you decide to stay in the contest, stay within the rules.

On a personal level - the thing that first attracted me to Nature in general and birds in particular was the un-manipulated beauty of each, so it is my opinion that we do a disservice to Nature when we manipulate it to make it fit our personal definition of beauty. To use a sports analogy - is a 500' home run by a juiced-up Barry Bonds more impressive than a 400' home run by a clean Roger Maris? Maybe to some, but not to me.

This is one man's opinion and I certainly do not begrudge the opinion of those who think otherwise. So it would seem that your readers who suggest separate categories have the right idea. It allows those who fancy themselves artists to display their creative wares while appeasing those of us who fancy ourselves purists. Regardless, I hope we never lose sight of the fact that Mother Nature can show herself quite well without our intervention.

Photography is a hobby for

Photography is a hobby for me. I use Photoshop Elements. I think this case shows that rules are being misinterpreted. The final image DOES show the owl in the place it was, in the pose it took. The red line shows that is true. The composite extended the background above and to the right to make a better balances horizontal composition of what REALLY was there. This picture is not an artistic creation. It does reflect the behavior of the animal. The only thing it wasn't was the result of one snap of the shutter. The key line from the rules appears to be "and accurately reflect the subject matter as it appeared in the viewfinder." So, what if the photographer shot the image in raw? Can he develop it to JPEG? Is he constrained from changing the exposure, pulling up shadows, adjusting vibrance and clarity or reducing noise? Is he forbidden to crop? If the image can be cropped then it is as much a violation of "as it appeared in the viewfinder" as this composite, which was done for the best of reasons, not to mislead at all but rather to better inform us about the environment. If you answer that the user can't crop, or can't develop from raw, or must accept all defaults when developing from raw (thus defeating part of the purpose of raw) then I think the goal of the rules needs to be reinterpreted. I strongly support rules that require showing us truth. The bird doing its real behavior, in the setting it actually happened. This composite did not violate that statement.

I think the picture of the

I think the picture of the bird looking squat is perfectly beautiful. i don't know why he felt the need to do this - but i guess if it was so important to him to do so, and he knew the rules, he should have just told the truth about what he did in the first place.

No, no, no no, no - do not

No, no, no no, no - do not allow this. The photo should have been disqualified and the rules should not be changed. Nature photos should show the world as it is, not how the photographer wishes it to be. This is especially true for an organization like Audubon. Allow manipulated photos in this instance, and how long before the subjects of Ted Williams's Incite articles use that to claim that those photos were manipulated to make things appear worse than they are?

Come on folks....he cheated

Come on folks....he cheated and was caught. Although I have admired some of his images, I now question whether they are all simply photoshop manipulations. All credibility has been destroyed, and I am disgusted that he has had the audacity to state that he "forgot" that the image was cloned. I guess pleading ignorance is a better option than admitting blatant disregard for the rules. I am in agreement that this photographer should be banned from ever submitting again.

First, I respect Matthew and

First, I respect Matthew and consider him a mentor and inspiration. I 100% believe he's one of the BEST bird photographers in the country.

I also agree with Audubon for DQing the image. If you don't play by the rules you can't expect to win.

So, the bigger question asked was should the rules be changed. Yes and no. Like many have said, split up the categories. Have a category much like the current one, and then have a separate category for more advanced/intricate uses of processing.

You must comply with the

You must comply with the rules. When you consider entering a contest, you choose images that comply with the rules, and if you don't you should be disqualified.

There are lots of contests for nature photography. Each contest develops its own rules. The issue of manipulation is quite clear in the major contests. In this case - it is not allowed so the image was rightly disqualified. There are other contests that would permit this image, but that does not mean Audubon should change the rules.

There are additional problems with submitting an altered image. There are photography ethical issues best stated by the North American Nature Photography Association. At the very least, the photo should follow the truth in captioning requirements with clear disclosure that the image is a composite image.

Now all this is not to say there is a problem with a composite image. There are situations where it is not only allowed but expected. For stock or fine art photography, it is expected that the image is optimized using whatever techniques are appropriate. But disclosure that it is a composite image may still be needed. In the case of PPA contests, extensive cloning, retouching, and editing may be permitted - and even expected. But unlike Audubon, there is no such limitation in the contest rules to restrict or prohibit extensive editing.

Matt is a very good photographer. It's obvious he made a mistake - which he readily admitted. It's a great image. But it is well outside the traditional rules for nature photography contests and violates the rules of this contest in particular. That provides an unfair advantage over other photographers, and violates the integrity of the image that is necessary for Audubon.

Now the unfortunate thing about one photographer violating the rules, is that it puts a question mark on all of his images - even those without any violation. And it can cloud the integrity of other winning images. Is an image that is "too perfect" going to be regarded with suspicion? And if this violation occurs, how about captive subjects, baited subjects, etc? Does the desire for action images force us to only photograph common subjects instead of rarities?

Thank you for introducing me

Thank you for introducing me to this amazing photographer.

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