Nature Photography: Objectivity, Manipulation, and Ethics

Photograph by Andrew Geiger

Nature Photography: Objectivity, Manipulation, and Ethics

From stitching together images to baiting wildlife subjects, what's acceptable when it comes to nature photography?

By The Editors
Published: 01/30/2014

The Grand Prize winner for the 2013 Audubon Magazine Photo Awards seemed to be a lock. But when the original file came in, the judges quickly realized that the photo of a majestic great horned owl that they'd fallen for was a composite. As Mark Jannot, Audubon vice president of content, notes in his editor's letter, the photographer had broken the contest rules and was therefore disqualified.

We're inviting readers to weigh in on whether our contest rules need to evolve, as the tools of photography have. We want to know: When it comes to nature photography, how much manipulation is acceptable?

We're not just talking about Photoshop; we also want your take on shooting captive animals, baiting wildlife, and more. So tell us: Do the images below pass your ethical test? Cast your vote beneath each photograph.

Feel free to continue the conversation in the Comments section below. And remember: Play nice. Our goal is not to slam the photographers whose work is shown below but rather to foster a robust, considered conversation.

Photograph by Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust/CORBIS

Ansel Adams is an icon of nature photography. But even he partook in some creative re-interpretation of reality. Above is his most famous photograph, Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico (1941), in which he played with the exposure to make the clouds in the upper half of the image disappear.

Photograph by Matthew Studebaker

The reason our presumed Grand Prize honoree was slapped with a DQ: The red line on the photo on the left above roughly marks the invisible boundary where the two images were joined into one. The image on the right is the original file—same background, but a hunched version of the owl in the photo submitted to the contest. From the rules: "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."

Photograph by Gordon Gahan, 1982 National Geographic

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Sorry to be a contrarian to

Sorry to be a contrarian to the majority. I agree that rules should be enforced.
But for the people who think "if you cant get something usable without photo shop then I guess you need to find another hobby" or " Nature photography should present nature as it is", I would like to say that taking a picture with a camera, a lens, under certain conditions of light & choosing a certain frame is already an alteration of the reality. You decide what you want to show & what it is your interpretation of the reality when you select all these parameters. If you think you "shoot the reality" because you don't use photoshop, you are delusional. & please stop the bashing about photoshop. It was the same discourse from the painters when the photography was discovered.

I did not use photo shop when

I did not use photo shop when I used a film camera and I sure don't need it now. You can take 1000s of pics on one card ,if you cant get something usable without photo shop then I guess you need to find another hobby.

In general I found the

In general I found the comments illuminating. My responses to the voting generally matched the consensus vote.
One thing to remember is all commercial software, Adobe, Canon, Sigma, Nikon and the rest apply adjustments before it is even displayed on the screen. Then I make adjustments to bring the photo to what I saw, including lens correction.

I have a picture of a Blackburnian Warbler, unfortunately the entire capture has/had (still have the original capture) a green tint due to the sun shining through the leaves. This is not what I saw through my binoculars and camera when I looked at the bird. My brain already made the adjustment filtered out the green tint, the camera couldn't do this. I show the pic without the green tint, and don't mention the adjustment unless asked.

Last year we went to Tanzania, I spotted a Pearl spotted Owlet 7.5 to 8" tall, about 200 to 250 foot away about 40 foot up in a tree. I knew that at that distance, the capture would have to be cropped, otherwise it when showing it in a slideshow , see that blob in the center of the picture , that's the Owlet. I was using a NIKON D2x, 80-400mm Nikon lens, and a 1.4 teleconveter. I took a series of exposures using the normal Nikon 1.5 magnification factor and Nikons high speed crop (2.0 magnification factor). I got a few good captures, we were in a range rover, I used a couple of bean bags and braced myself in the corner of the vehicle to get as steady as I could.

In both of these cases, I brought the capture to what I saw/envisioned, not what the camera took.

As an editor with magazine

As an editor with magazine experience, I wanted to caste a belated vote in support of a new “digitally altered” category in your photography contest. Although Photoshopped images are not to my taste, they are to many people’s liking and should be acknowledged with a category of their own. Because it’s the photographer’s responsibility to ensure a photo is labeled as manipulated, and your contest rules were clearly stated, the owl picture was appropriately disqualified. Regarding "ethical nature photography," it's a subjective term that needs to be explicitly defined when used as a standard in a contest, for example. I myself would define it as a photojournalistic approach to cataloging nature, whereas Ansel Adams' work was art photography with nature as its glorious subject.

I enjoy both original and

I enjoy both original and digitally altered photographs. Art is art, after all. If a contest states no manipulation that is the way it should be. However, if no rules apply, and the photo is digitally altered, it is up to the photographer/artist to tell or not tell. Personally, I like to know, out of curiosity, if a photo is alter significantly. I believe most (dark room photographers) manipulated their photographs so why is that so different than what we do in photo editing programs today? Did Mr. Adams tell the world he manipulated his photos in the dark room? I think not. Did he manipulate them? Of course he did.

I'm wondering why cropping is

I'm wondering why cropping is not allowed. It's not the same as other manipulation - it's just selecting a portion of it. Without that, it would only be people with VERY expensive cameras that could catch the sort of birds that like to sit high up in trees.

I'm wondering why cropping is

I'm wondering why cropping is not allowed. It's not the same as other manipulation - it's just selecting a portion of it. Without that, it would only be people with VERY expensive cameras that could catch the sort of birds that like to sit high up in trees.

If the photographer of the

If the photographer of the DQed owl shot had waited another second, he may or may not have been able to get a better photo. That is part of the enjoyment of nature photography; just being outside photographing rather than inside sitting on your bottom with photoshop.

Photos should follow the

Photos should follow the stated rules. If not, it is another contest.

Contests have rules ....

Contests have rules .... usually arbitrary in some aspects. The rules apply to everyone ... and every attempt should be made to follow the spirit of the rules. The rules should be enforced by the org conducting the contest.

Beyond that ... there are many aspects to photography. Is the image:

photo journalism


photos used to evoke emotions or interest or awareness of issues/ problems

The lines between these will always be blurred. Even going back to the Civil War in the early years of photography, some of the iconic images were staged .... and probably misrepresented as photojournalism. And yet we are better off for these images.

When it comes to contests, rules should be clearly stated, uniformly enforced, and every effort should be made by the entrants to follow the intent of the rules.

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