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

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.

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Comments

For me, nature photography is

For me, nature photography is desired and valid in the following circumstances, in order of preference:
1) capturing any living creature in its natural circumstances interacting with others of its kind or other species.
2) capturing any living creature in its natural circumstances alone
3) capturing any living creature in a staged, captive or baited state if the behavior shown is instinctual and characteristic of its behavior in its natural habitat
There can be commentary, montage, satire, cause related shots, but none of these are natural. Use of Photoshop for contrast and other enhancements of a raw image? No problem. Use of Photoshop to cut, paste, scale. That's too much alteration. Anything the camera didn't see, a nature photo viewer shouldn't either.

For me, nature photography is

For me, nature photography is desired and valid in the following circumstances, in order of preference:
1) capturing any living creature in its natural circumstances interacting with others of its kind or other species.
2) capturing any living creature in its natural circumstances alone
3) capturing any living creature in a staged, captive or baited state if the behavior shown is instinctual and characteristic of its behavior in its natural habitat
There can be commentary, montage, satire, cause related shots, but none of these are natural. Use of Photoshop for contrast and other enhancements of a raw image? No problem. Use of Photoshop to cut, paste, scale. That's too much alteration. Anything the camera didn't see, a nature photo viewer shouldn't either.

Thought-provoking,

Thought-provoking, educational and well-designed survey. Great job! Looking forward to more.

Liked and learned very much

Liked and learned very much with the discussion. What real matters is being honnest and desclaim all the circunstances of the photo. And of course, the rules and limits of the digital arrangement must be much more explicit by the organizers of any contest.

I think it is unethical to

I think it is unethical to bait owls for photos. Pictures can be obtained without it - the photographer just has to work harder or smarter! Check out my friend Eri
k Bruhnke's wonderful owl photos - he never baits the birds. https://www.facebook.com/NaturallyAvian

The problem lies with us. We

The problem lies with us. We want a picture to stand in for nature or for a human experience of nature, which it cannot do. Photographs are artificial creations. Seeing a photograph is not the same thing as being out in the field. We need to be conscious of this. Ansel Adams was always candid about how his images were produced, down to the technical details of exposure, development, and printing. He was aiming for a certain aesthetic effect, a picture that grabs the viewer, not a snapshot, and he had a formidable bag of tricks to produce such images, although certain things were always off limits. There was an ethical side to his procedure: a picture that stops the viewer will make the viewer want to look longer, understand, and ultimately preserve the object.

If you are doing a project

If you are doing a project for commercial purposes it really should not matter as in the zebra photo and some of the others. If you are shooting "farm" animals to sell as prints - again - who cares.
If you are entering a contest that specifies "animals found in the wild" or limits entries as stated in the owl image then it does matter.
I cannot remember when an image of a potted flower made to look natural had that fact acknowledged. I have seen many images where the final print was obviously manufactured but not acknowledged - get a grip ... there are more important things to worry about.
Just adhere to the rules.

This is a very interesting

This is a very interesting topic, and my thanks to Audubon for providing this opportunity for a discussion.
Today there are two general camps regarding manipulation: the purists, who feel you must make the image look exactly the way it did in nature. By this definition, which exists in many camera clubs, Moonrise Hernandez would be unacceptable, as the black sky obviously is not reality, and all that black would give it a very low score in camera club competitions.
The other, more enlightened approach IMO, are those that allow for artistic expression. Generally this means any change short of changing pixels via cloning. Compositing at least for exposure purposes is usually acceptable.
Cloning is where the real disagreements come into play. Many people certainly clone out distracting elements in nature photos. Cloning in elements is where most nature photographers would draw the line. I am disappointed that Art Wolfe cloned in zebras in the photo above. Having a photo enhanced disclaimer is not adequate IMO, without being more specific as to the nature of the enhancement.
On my website I discuss how the fantastic images of osprey catching fish were really made. See http://natures-colors.com/essays/ospreys.html.
When I saw an osprey with a fish in each talon, I was quite sure that this image was not taken in a natural setting, yet the magazine article lead one to believe that it was. Is this ethical? Should a photographer have to reveal his tricks? Perhaps so, if they write about it in a nature magazine.

Lines are hard to draw,

Lines are hard to draw, however making a photo look as close as possible to the way you saw it is ok. Also removing distractions or dulling them is simply art. Animal life should be natural and not doctored if so claimed.It is not possible to say "farmed" animals should never be used as at times these are all that's left, no wild ones out there. Hope this is not getting too common!

As a amateur photographer and

As a amateur photographer and ham radio opperator I feel that it is OK to enhance a not so great photograph such as one that the light factor is not that great, shadowes shroude part of the subject etc. Wildlife photos are a one of a kind and most times one of a life time photo. I do not feel that a photo should be presented out of context or doctored to conform to a subject in question. Only good judgement and ethics can determan what can be used and what should be kept for examples of how to improve your photography skills.

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