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

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I did not know Mr. Adams

I did not know Mr. Adams altered his image so. Dodging and burning are legitimate modifications to an image to bring the range of tones back in line with what was in the view finder that the camera was unable to record accurately. But what Mr. Adams did was to remove what was there. Nature photography should present nature as it is. If Mr. Adams actions are acceptable then why not clone in or out every element of an image until you have created what you envision? That said, I would not mind his manipulation is it were stated up front. From childhood I have enjoyed nature photography because I thought it presented to me real places, real creatures, real vistas that I might be able to see my self one day. To find out they didn't even exist before the photographer (as with the pyramids) is disappointing.

Many questions ask if a shot

Many questions ask if a shot is 'ethical' or not. All these shots could be ethical depending only on the definition of what nature photography means for the purpose of a competition. They are all photographs of nature. What's unethical about that? But if you are trying to win something - that's where the judgmental term of 'ethical' comes into play.

I believe “nature

I believe “nature photography” should be just natural on its natural setting with no alteration or manipulation whatsoever (including baiting). What you see in the viewfinder is what you get. Anything else could be characterized as some form of artistic photography.

I believe “nature

I believe “nature photography” should be just natural on its natural setting with no alteration or manipulation whatsoever (including baiting). What you see in the viewfinder is what you get.

Ansel Adams said that the

Ansel Adams said that the greater part of his work as an PHOTOGRAPHIC ARTIST was done in the darkroom. Here, Adams "shaded & burned" his work, manipulating the image through exposure at the enlarger. That makes it "art".
"Nature" photography and "wildlife" photography should be largely unmanipulated. Every photgraph rendered (digitally illuminated or printed) is manipulated in some way, setting contrast and color balance at the least.
Then again, I'm a purist that really doesn't like to do anything more than crop.
As far as the contest, the rules clearly stated the photo was supposed to represent what was "in the viewfinder", therefore any manual changes (including cropping) would be dissallowed.

Scott O'Connor

Photography means painting

Photography means painting with light. In the first example of Ansel's Moonlight over Hernandez, this is an image that Ansel's heavily dodged and burned to create the final outcome. The question that should really be asked is Nature photography documentary photography? If not, then creative license is acceptable, but it is good judgement to specify that creative license was used, especially if great changes were made.

Intersting to see the

Intersting to see the feedback from others. Thanks so much!

This is an imprtant survey

This is an imprtant survey and should be more visible to photographers everywhere.

Nature is exactly that. It is

Nature is exactly that. It is our "natural world" not a made up or fantasized one. Photos that are submitted for nature photography contests should reflect that. I have nothing against photo art but it has its' own niche in the world of photography. Nature can be a very challenging environment. I am most proud of my own work when I have captured a beautiful shot accurately. Please separate the two art forms.

i actually think the

i actually think the unaltered grand prize owl photograph looks better. the altered photo looks unnatural because the owl looks strange

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