I have kept this to myself for a long time but after several discussions about wildlife photography ethics during the photo tour I feel compelled to write about this. Digital technology makes it very easy and convenient to manipulate images however the photographer chooses to but manipulating the trust of your audience is something that you cannot fix with a healing brush. There are some photographers out there that would recommend cloning out the grass from the grizzly cub’s mouth. This is a topic that comes up a lot during critiques I’ve seen both in-person and online in the nature forums.
To understand why it is important to be upfront about your photography is because unless stated otherwise, the audience generally expects a nature photo to be of a scene that actually appeared before the camera. Certain things like adjusting exposure, contrast and saturation are considered acceptable for journalistic standards but adding and removing elements falls under the manipulation category. Those who stand by manipulation always claim that choosing a camera and lens is a form of manipulation so therefore since it’s art we can do whatever we want but that argument is sidestepping the real issues in my opinion. There is a big difference between using a telephoto lens or burning & dodging versus cloning out grass, twigs, branches, replacing an ear with another ear, placing animals into scenes, etc… What impresses people about nature photography is that the photographer was able to capture a single moment in time that they were a witness to and one that the viewer was not able to. When photographers start to implement CGI-like effects or other sleight-of-hand tricks into your nature photos then it loses any magical connection that the viewer would have gotten if it were actually captured at the time of the shutter closing. Just like Babe Ruth & Hank Aaron compared to Barry Bonds. Bonds has the most home runs but who is held in higher esteem?
Now if you follow the photography industry, you probably know that there have been numerous photo competition winners that have come under fire and been stripped of their awards due to undisclosed manipulations or false captioning. The one of wolves hopping over a fence comes to mind. When it comes to keeping your photography career in mind, you really need to consider who your audience is going to be. If you shoot nature (especially wildlife), you will likely license photos to a lot of textbooks, science, newspapers and environmental publications. These are all editorial in nature which means that the images are expected to not have elements cloned out and grizzly bear hair changed into different colors so the head stands out from the body. If you manipulate a few images here and there, can you really remember or be able to keep track of which images have been manipulated beyond basic image optimization? Unless you caption the image as manipulated chances are that the images will be lost into the mix and will eventually get submitted as editorial work. That could cost you your credibility. It’s just not worth it for professional photographers.
My Opinion: If you don’t like something about your photo then take a better photo or wait until the conditions are right. If isn’t happening then it wasn’t meant to be. When it is happening then you’ve got yourself something magical. The pursuit of the “Decisive Moment” is what nature photography is all about. Nature is chaotic. If you want “perfection” then go into studio photography.
Here are five general no-no’s in wildlife photography ethics:
1. Passing off captive animals as natural wildlife.
2. Adding or subtracting of elements within a photo.
3. Baiting wildlife with food. I’m not sure that bird feeders fall into the category but it is more about not leaving out a slab of steak to bait a grizzly bear. This behavior puts both people and the wildlife in danger.
4. Deliberately approaching wildlife beyond legal distances.
5. Harassing wildlife.
Update – 8/14/10: Paul Marcellini sent me this link to an excellent Audobon Magazine article on misleading wildlife photography practices: Picture Perfect
See more of my grizzly bear pictures.