Wildlife Photography Ethics

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Grizzly Cub Feeding on Grass, Lake Clark National Park, Alaska

Grizzly Cub Feeding on Grass, Lake Clark National Park, Alaska

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.

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51 thoughts

  1. Agreed! A few issues back, Outdoor Photographer featured the photography of a fellow who, from what I could tell, caught the “decisive” moment in a studio setting. With the exception of one image of an osprey catching lunch, the rest all appeared to be staged.

    While the images were technically stunning, I did not think that they deserved to be published in a magazine that has the word “outdoor” in its title….

  2. Looks like you had a great time at Lake Clark National Park with Ron. Losts of nice bears there. I was close to there in July Redoubt Bay (Big River Lake) which is at the boarder of Clark National Park. We had lots of bears but not the giants. I have got to go to Clark National Park, it looks great. Great shooting-have fun

  3. Thanks guys.

    Derrick – I’ll have to go back and see that issue of OP. Thanks for pointing this out.

    Steve – Good to know. Moose was a biologist I think at one point so it doesn’t surprise me.

    Dennis – You definitely should go check out Lake Clark. It is awesome.

  4. Good points. I just recently learned that a great shot featured in Outdoor Photographer last Nov. was false. It shows a wolf sniffing a photographer’s tripod and bag. Turns out it was a captive wolf.

    Nice analogy using Barry Bonds.

  5. Thanks Richard and Scott.

    I’ll dig through my OP issues to see if I can find that one. I’m curious to see what was published. OP is no stranger to flipping images on the cover or not being upfront about image captioning (Art Wolfe’s double-moon exposure for example). Art Wolfe stated on his blog that he provided this info to the magazine but they omitted it so it is on the publishers as much as it is on the photographers to be upfront.

  6. That cub is so adorable with the eye contact -who gives a flip about the grass? Maybe we expect too much sanitized results from the wild.

  7. I have always said, if you leave yourself open to unethical manipulation, even just once in awhile, then your entire body of work becomes suspect. Put the effort into capturing the decisive moment or get out of the way and let someone who is a better photographer than you do it.

  8. “I have always said, if you leave yourself open to unethical manipulation, even just once in awhile, then your entire body of work becomes suspect.”

    Jon – I couldn’t have said it better. This is exactly what I am implying.

  9. Thanks, it had to be said. Photography has always been about capturing the truth. In the past, photography could only show us the subject “as-is.” Sure, we could change the contrast and dodge and burn the light and dark parts of the negative but the photography was real. Audiences became sophisticated and learned that photography showed us the world, the real world as-is. We as photographers have to consider our audience’s expectations and cater to those expectations. I feel digital wildlife photographers need to meet the expectations of their wildlife audience too. They need to follow the same journalistic standards of those that preceded them: tell the truth.
    PS: A quick thought about the No, Nos of wildlife imagery: In lieu of number four (I think no.s one, three and five pretty much cover no. four), you could substitute: label the image as a manipulated digital capture or as a digital illustration.

  10. Very true, Gerry. I posted a link to this post on the Nature Photographers Network and the first response was of the photojournalism v.s. art variety. I have a feeling that people who feel that un-manipulated nature photography is fine because it is art haven’t actually had to present their work publicly before. It’s one thing to get your back slapped by like-minded photographers on an online forum but take your photography in the real world and the most commonly asked question will be “How much Photoshop do you use? or “Was that Photoshopped?”

    For someone who spends a great deal of time in the field that is as degrading as a question as you can be asked. I understand why people ask it though because they expect the photography to be of an actual scene not some manicured or manufactured software b.s. It is asked because the general public doesn’t trust photography anymore. So many people abuse Photoshop these days that the first assumption is that if a photo looks unique then it must have been manipulated somehow.

    Say if a photographer is showing their work and they get asked the Photoshop question. Imagine this response, “Well I cloned out a tree trunk here and six branches behind the bear to get a clean background so he looks like he walking on water.” The viewer goes onto the next image, “Hmm, was this scene real?” “Yes, it was real.” “Wow. How did you pull it off?” “Well I composited four images for dynamic range then assembled it in Photoshop but the bear was actually standing in the field” When you start doing those sort of things you can no longer say, “I just work on basic exposure, contrast and saturation to represent what I saw.” All of your work becomes suspect as Jon was alluding to above. No one is going to take you seriously as a wildlife or nature photographer if this is the type of work you choose to present to the public.

  11. I see your perspective as a nature photojournalist, but that’s not my cup of tea. You see, I am a portrait and commercial photographer, and the truth rarely leaves my studio. Skin enhancements, nips, tucks, and body contouring are standard fare for me. I use liberal applications of Lucis Pro to achieve a Dave Hill look for some portraits. You would not believe the things I do to food to make it look appealing. For example, the milk in a bowl of cereal is really Elmer’s Glue, which photographs a much brighter white than real milk. I use glycerine misters to make food look moist and appetizing. So, I am not averse to applying my Photoshop skills to images of nature, but I am an artist, not a journalist.

  12. Robert – this post was about wildlife photography. There is no mention of studio photography in this post.

    And I think where nature photographers have gone wrong is somehow the thought of being an artist somehow means that they can do whatever they want and still call it wildlife photography.

  13. Audience expectations is the key here. Fashion and Art have a different audience than the Journalist and the Nature Photographers. Some people want to hear the lies and some people do not, they want the truth and only the truth. The second point was about labels. Label the untruths as such: photo-illustration or manipulated image. Reveal the truth about the image and I would not have an issue with the photographer. BTW, if you removed the grass from the cubs mouth, it would become lifeless. It would like an image of a stuffed bear propped up in any old field. Frankly, I have more issue with the upper left hand corner of the image than the grass.

  14. Can even a straight image present the truth? Perhaps only shades of it. Everything that we do behind the lens (including the lens itself) to make the image is a manipulation, is it not?
    Think awhile about that.

    Perhaps we don’t outright lie to the audience but even at the most basic level, what we decide to include and exclude from the frame puts our own spin on what is presented to the audience. If that isn’t exactly a lie it certainly is not the truth either.

    Even if you are hung up on the fable that wildlife photography must be photojournalism you should be able to see the verity of that. Are you willing to tell me that the nice out of focus background easily achieved from a long telephoto is the truth? I hope not, it’s all shades of gray.

    Standing upon photography to call photojournalism fact and art false does not take into account an unstable foundation.

  15. Kevin – to each his own but if you really do feel that all photography is a type of lie then that is probably a reflection on your own work as well.

    Since when did straight nature photography without computer manipulation become labeled photojournalism and everything else become known as art?

  16. Wow, I guess you really didn’t like my commentary or my work. Oh well, it’s certainly not the first time and has never stopped me before.

    Did I say that all photography is a lie? Maybe you missed the point. All photography is manipulation. It is neither pure in veracity or falsehood. Some images contain more truth than others but all are gray of one shade or another.

    Perhaps you are not saying that wildlife photography is photojournalism. If so then why the demand to subscribe to a similar set of rules when none are required?

  17. Kevin – I didn’t say that I didn’t like your work. It is very good actually. I was suggesting that if you feel that photography is a lie then maybe you feel that your photos are not representing wildlife as faithfully as you could. Only you know this. Your work looks natural to me so I wouldn’t even think in terms of computer manipulation when viewing it. Likewise if you manipulated half your photos and tell me you didn’t swap out any feet or put a new tree in the photo then I’d believe you too, I’d just judge those images differently. But if you go about doing all those things and are not upfront about it to every viewer then they find out later, they wouldn’t ever trust that you were actually shooting the scenes you are portraying. Regardless of disclosure, manipulated photos might look good aesthetically but for someone expecting to see nature they would be disappointed.

    Also wildlife photography suggests that the animal was photographed in the wild. If the wild part is being created in Photoshop how can be it called wildlife?

  18. BTW, I do agree with you in that some images contain more truth than others. Wildlife photography is one that most viewers would expect to not have been manufactured. Fashion photography is another story.

  19. Kevin, please Do not confuse style with unacceptable treatments of the subject and negative space. The history of the genre expects it, the audience of the genre expects it and you should honor that and expect it too.

  20. Very good points, Gerry.

    I guess the question could be asked of photographers, do you care about what your audience thinks and expects?

  21. I’m not a photoshop wizard and so I don’t really care to spend much time on any kind of extra curricular activities of that nature. That being said, my images are heavily manipulated – the old fashioned way.

    I find a location, set the stage where I control the background and the light, and then employ various enticements to attract birds to my stage. I employ satellite strobes off axis, blended with ambient, to fill shadow and help definition. I slightly underexpose for strong color. It is studio photography in the field with wild subjects. It allows me to take much of the serendipity out of the objective and focus on making better photography.

    And I don’t see much difference between what I’m doing literally and what another with talent in photoshop would do virtually. There is truth in every image I make, I present the natural beauty of a species. There is also an enormous amount of information that I am not including by choice – so as not to distract from that beauty. I do not include how I made a photo where the image is displayed but I do have a separate gallery where I show various tools and techniques that I use. My images are certainly gray and I am not ashamed of that.

    If people like my work, great. If not, so be it. I’m not out there to make art by committee. So for me, it’s nice if I have acceptance from any given audience but I will still be out there, traveling my path, with or without approval.

    As for the history of the genre and what the audience of the genre expects – which history are we talking about? What the public believes they have been viewing throughout that history or the truth behind the scenes? Do you really believe that magazines like National Geographic really had that much serendipity going on between the golden covers? How was it that the Croc Hunter couldn’t help but stumble across such a diversity of critters while out for a stroll. A lot of hard work went on behind the scenes to make that magic that everyone loves happen. I happen to appreciate and honor that part of the genre’s history as much as the finished product.

    By the way, a good discussion and arguments from you guys – a tip of the hat to you.

  22. Thanks for clarifying your views, Kevin. I appreciate you taking the time.

    As for the photography methods, I don’t think we differ very much as I too use off and on-camera flash for landscape photography and for birds on occasion. Controlling contrast and getting the most color out of scene has always been the goal for most nature photographers.

    What we differ on though is what is acceptable computer manipulation. There is a difference between what you are shooting in the field versus creating composited wildlife and “nature” scenes via a computer. In my mind, once you go down the cloning and replacement path then it’s impossible to draw a line. Putting a polar bear head on a brown bear body then calling it wildlife photography would be ridiculous in my opinion yet how is that any different than somebody who would advocate swapping out ears or changing the hair color on a bear’s head so it isn’t the same color as the body? Different shades of gray yes, but neither are the shades of gray that I want to see wildlife photography become. That is making a mockery of our genre. Call it wildlife illustration but wildlife photography it is not.

    Believe it or not, swapping out ears was actually recommended during an in-person photo critique session. When I heard about that, I was appalled. But given the various views I’ve seen online, I wouldn’t be surprised to see more of this happening in the future once newer photographers (who find this acceptable) start working as photographers.

  23. Well said, Richard. Excellent post. The argument that all photography is manipulation, that Ansel Adams did dodging and burning or that photography inherently is a lie, does not hold any water. This is mainly because at the heart of this debate the real issue is whether the photographer has any skill, artistic sense, or talent. Someone who is a genius in Photoshop is just that, but this does not make him or her a genius in photography. When we talk about photography, we are discussing the moment of capture. What is done with the CAMERA to make the art. Minor White in the 1940s and 1950s made this distinction. In classes at the California School of Fine Art, now the San Francisco Art Institute, he emphasized the development of skill and creative aptitude at the moment of seeing rather than in the darkroom. Inherent in the medium of photography is a sense of realism. Nature photography, journalistic or not, is thought to represent “reality,” that is, to mimic the physical world. As one reader here put it, audience expectations have much to do with whether an image maintains integrity or not. In this age, anything goes, as long as it is disclosed. Altering images, removing or adding elements, is not common practice in journalism and is not considered ethical. The photographer who uses the light reflectors and other field manipulations is not respected by straight photography purists, but is truer to the art of photography than the Photoshop artist because the manipulations are at the point of capture.

  24. Interesting article Richard but I’m afraid nothing is ever black & white.

    It’s easy to say cloning is bad when people are duplicating animals or replacing entire backgrounds.  My fear and from what I’ve witnessed in the field, many photographers use the ‘No cloning’ rule to justify their destruction of an environment.  Classic example is in bird photography.  I’ve seen people cut away the very branches a bird uses to protect it’s nest from predators and the elements in order to get a better background.  Personally I would rather clone out a branch here and there than to cause damage to the subjects I’m working with. 

    Now comes the messy part, the gray areas. Sometimes it’s not up to the photographer. Editors aren’t going to waste time picking or copy space to find out/print that a small branch was removed from the background of a photo. In fact if you didn’t remove it, they might have their art department do it for you. So where is this line we are not to cross? Absolutely no retouching at all? Damn the bird, cut the branches, kill the chicks as long as I get my photo? Or retouching only when it’s small & preserves an animals health & well being? Slippery slope to whatever, whenever.

    There’s no easy answer unless you go to the extremes.

  25. Rebecca – If people are destroying the environment to get their photos then they are just sick people regardless of what they believe for computer manipulation. They are the extreme version of everything wrong that I pointed out in this post.

    If the publishers do all that cloning then that is on them but the question still has to be asked, why not just put in the time to be a good photographer like Jon Cornforth says?

    In the film days (10 yrs ago for example), were the photographers worse back then because digital wasn’t as prevalent or did they put in more time to get great photos since they knew there was no second chance to fix it in the computer? In my opinion, people are taking the lazy way out now that photography is easy to manipulate.

  26. Rebecca this blog post is about ethics. Ethics, by definition, is black and white. It is either right or wrong, yes or no. No middle ground is available, it is or it isn’t. I have to admit in order to understand the extremes, you have to know the history of the genre that you participate in. Educate yourself.
    I once took a fun B&W class. It was a Photography 101 and a Philosophy 101 taught as a dyad: the two classes were taught as one. It was basically a class about the philosophy of art production. I learned about my own motivations. Plus, the class forced me to think about my own art production by making me write down in a clear, organized way the hows and whys of my image making. By putting it down on paper, I was forced to commit to the ownership of my work and to clarify how I did what I do. My suggestion: take the “artist statement” and make that your philosophical statement and learn more about the history of photography. With your newly published artist statement/philosophy, you will have a better understanding of how to act in the field as you shoot and how you handle any post-production work. When you tell others how you will shoot and how you handle finished prints, you commit yourself to doing the right thing (at least as far as the published statement is concerned). You can shoot black and white but your pictures will not have those unethical shades of gray.

  27. Ok then, Gerry, who sets black as black and white as white? Do you know anyone capable of making that call, I don’t.

    I can set that for myself (and I’ll always fail the test in one shade or another) but I must not attempt to set that for someone else (even though it is easier to do so than for myself).

    If ethics isn’t personal for self-regulation then what is it good for? I think often it is abused by those trying to regulate others as a way of placing others lower to raise themselves up.

    Sure, there are so many troubling issues out there as to be overwhelming but if I can get back to focussing on placing my own right foot in front of my left the weight of it all lifts and I find myself with direction again (and plenty to keep me busy).

    I think there is a large chasm between ethics in theory and how it is applicable in real life – that is where the gray comes in.

  28. Kevin, you ask a lot of good questions. These are my opinions. Your first sentence asks who sets the standards. Then you say, “I can set that for myself…” I agree with you 100%. Self regulation is the key to ethics, who decides what is right or wrong? We do. Who is this “we?”: your parents, your peers, teachers, anyone or anything that influences your thoughts, feelings and behaviors. They are your community. You are part of that community whether you like it or not. (I don’t believe this is the forum to discuss Nature vs. nurture). Ethics is community standards. To answer the question: you know your place in the community, you understand the standards the community expects and you (should) know the history of the genre in which you participate in and what it expects; therefore, you say what is black and you say what is white based on community standards and history. The next point is about peer pressure. The community only accepts conformity. The non-conformist is shunned. Yes, it sucks. The chasm you mentioned is non-existent. You have ethics or you don’t. There is no theory because the life you live is real (at least to you). And in your real life, you are accepted by the community or you are not because you followed community standards or you didn’t. This known as ethical behavior which is not black and white.

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  30. Thoroughly well written article, most of what I do is when on holiday in Namibia and South Africa and I point out when I take shots of the cats that are in some sort of enclosure, many are there because they are “problem” animals and have been relocated.
    I had some great advice once that said “the shot that sells is the one that shows animal behaviour”, that’s real behaviour not manipulated behaviour.

  31. Thanks Steve. Speaking of problematic animal behavior, I saw a McDonald’s commercial the other night that had a grizzly bear go after some tourists who left behind some french fries that it wanted to eat. I can’t think of any worse way to influence bad behavior than show such a commercial like that. Feeding wildlife is a big enough problem as is.

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  33. In response to Derrick’s comment on the top of the page, I wrote the article in question. If you actually read the article, those that were shot in studio were clearly indicated (4 out of 7 images were in the wild). And those that were not were published to illustrate the point that not all behaviors can be captured with the traditional methods. Richard is talking about not disclosing — clearly my article is not a case of non-disclosure since the whole point of the article was How-To (written in huge font on the first page) This is the reality of real wildlife photography. All the hallowed images of yesteryear have something about them that, if revealed, the weekend warrior might take issue with. But that is the conveniently idealistic perspective that the weekend warrior can afford to adopt.

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