Nature Photography: Objectivity, Manipulation, and Ethics

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

National Geographic’s February 1982 cover is famous for its deception: The Giza pyramids were squeezed together to accommodate the cover format. After its publication, the magazine took a hard line against doctoring its photography, even after the advent of Photoshop.

Photograph by Art Wolfe

When Art Wolfe’s book Migrations was published in 1994, it was heralded as a triumph of nature photography. Two years later it came under fire when it was revealed that Wolfe had altered about a third of the images. To create this shot, for instance, Wolf cloned zebras to fill in spaces. Wolfe calls the work a “digital illustration”—a term he mentions in the book.

Photograph by Connor Stefanison

Above is one of the winning shots from the Natural History Museum in London’s 2013 Eric Hosking Portfolio Award, taken by Connor Stefanison. To capture this dramatic pose, Stefanison baited the barred owl—which he explicitly stated in the caption, writing that he used a dead mouse to lure the raptor.

Photographs by Andrew Geiger

Captive-animal farms or “game” farms offer the opportunity to stage wildlife, making it look like the shots were taken in the wild. These two photos are part of a series photographer Andrew Geiger did for Audubon’s March-April 2010 issue to show the set-up, and result, of one of these less-than-wild shoots.

Photograph by Annie Marie Musselman

Unlike game-farm shoots that aim to replicate natural settings, photographers sometimes shoot captive animals indoors. Annie Marie Musselman’s photo above has a strict agenda: To raise awareness about animal abuse.

Courtesy of Paula McCartney and Klompching Gallery, NY

Paula McCartney isn’t trying to pull one over on you. She deliberately places store-bought birds in natural landscapes with the goal of blurring the line between truth and fiction.

Photograph by Todd R. Forsgren

Ornithologists and licensed banders commonly use mist nets to capture and tag birds. Photographer Todd Forsgren took this shot of a boat-billed flycatcher while accompanying scientists conducting field research.

Photograph by Arne Olav/Caters News

Finally, a match made in Photoshop. Arne Olaf merged a pug and a bird to create a purd.

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