Call me naïve. I grew up with a fantastic, albeit distorted, ideal of what nature photography was. As a young boy I would sit and pore over the pages of nature photography books, National Geographic and Outdoor Photographer Magazine, enchanted at times more by the thought of what the photographer had to endure in order to capture the photographs, than I was at the images themselves. I guess you could say that to me being a nature photographer was akin to being a hero of sorts. Though my experiences in the world of nature photography have changed my perception of the ways in which certain images are created, I still hold onto my childhood ideal as the standard by which I measure the authenticity of an image. I had my ‘Walter Mitty moment’ at the beginning of 2012 when I was blessed with the opportunity to leave my day job and embrace my career as a nature photographer full time. The longer I’ve been in this field of photography, the more aware I have become of a number of glaring conflicts of ethics that I’d been largely insulated from up until the past decade or so. I’ve listed a few of them below.
1). I learned of photographers baiting wildlife with food to bring it in close for that ‘award winning shot’. One of the more common practices is to throw a mouse bought at a pet store (or a fake mouse tied to a fishing pole) into the snow in an open field to bring down an owl from a nearby tree where it is roosting. There are few people anymore that will try to defend the practice of baiting a wild bird or animal. Those that do are either ignorant or just plain selfish. It is simply a no win situation for the subject. As nature photographers (and more specifically wildlife photographers) we must ask ourselves why we are baiting our subjects. Feeding wildlife within the respective boundaries of any U.S. national park or wildlife refuge is illegal. In many states, feeding wild animals is punishable by fines and/or imprisonment. Any game warden in the United States will tell you that feeding wildlife causes them to change their natural behavior, teaches the animal to associate humans with food and acclimates them to human dependency. Often disease can be introduced through the food or bait. I’ve heard the argument that baiting owls has saved their lives during hard winter. In response I’d like to say that there are entire agencies and biologists responsible for monitoring and making decisions concerning the health of these species. I don’t see how anyone can justify the practice of baiting a wild subject for photography by saying that they are doing so out of concern for their subject. If you are truly concerned for these species, join a local organization in your area that is responsible for evaluating and caring for them. Baiting a starving subject and then taking pictures of it coming in for food just doesn’t translate to me as someone who cares for the natural world. The bird or animal can also become imprinted and lose it’s natural fear of people, and that never has a favorable result. Baiting animals pretty much always ends up with the animal or bird being killed or imprinted. I’m honestly not sure which of the two is worse. Some people try to compare this to feeding birds at a bird feeder, it is not the same. I have to say that people don’t ‘bait’ songbirds at a bird feeder, they might photograph them while they are there, but that isn’t the reason for feeding songbirds in the first place. Conversely, people didn’t start feeding the owls mice out of concern for them, they did it to get the photo they wanted. Furthermore any ornithological agency would tell you that nearly all the people that feed songbirds seed in the winter do so consistently and without interrupting the food supply. So even if people wanted to make that argument, you can’t even begin to compare baiting owls to feeding songbirds seed at a bird feeder. The fact that the baiters are using a method that jeopardizes the welfare of the owls is simply a base exploitation of the subject. The photographers baiting their subjects are not providing a dependable, consistent supply of food. They show up when they want to, throw out a mouse to get the image they want and then go home to process their images. We have to remember, that even if we as nature enthusiasts would never knowingly harm a wild animal, the birds and animals that get imprinted can’t discern between those that will, and those that won’t harm them. I’ve worked closely with wildlife conservation & rehabilitation agencies for over 20+ years and Audubon for the past decade, filling every role from volunteer to board member and I can tell you for a fact that those types of decisions are best left to the professionals. Regardless of how much we like the outdoors, nature photographers are not biologists. If our actions as nature photographers (i.e. ‘baiting’) is changing the natural behavior of our subjects, can we honestly say that we are “Taking Only Photographs and Leaving Only Footprints”?
2). Staging scenes in a studio can be a practice used by macro photographers to create completely unrealistic settings and positions for small insects, amphibians, reptiles and such. Often the small creatures are damaged in this process and cannot survive once returned to the wild. Hee Jenn Wei published a very informative and equally disturbing blog post on this topic which you can read more about here.
3). Another increasingly common practice is taking images of captive animals and passing them off as wild. The topic of captive wildlife photography is a vast subject and brings with it strong emotions from both sides. Some people say that they don’t have the means to travel to photograph wildlife in their natural habitat and that the animals and birds in their cages and enclosures are still ‘wild’. To prove their point they might ask if you’d be willing to walk into the lion enclosure at the local zoo. Obviously the answer is an emphatic ‘NO’ (or at least I hope it is). Despite the fact that these captive animals are clearly still ‘wild’ in the sense that they could inflict great physical harm if they chose to, there is a distinct difference between these animals and those photographed in the wilderness. For the sake of illustration let’s compare the orcas at SeaWorld to those one might see off the coast of Alaska. For generations now millions of people have gone to SeaWorld and other parks like it and thought, ‘Oh, look at the happy whale!’ With the help and insight provided by the recent expose‘ film Blackfish and the outrage over the capture of two wild orcas for the purpose of being put on ‘display’ at the Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, the public is becoming increasingly aware that this isn’t the case. Not all captive animals in zoos, wildlife parks and such are abused or exploited, in fact many of them are unable to return to the wild for a variety of reasons. These animals provide a great service in helping scientists to better understand them and to educate the public. It isn’t the zoos or wildlife parks that I take issue with, in fact, I don’t even take issue with people photographing these captive animals. The staff at those facilities do vital work in a multitude of ways. The issue is people trying to pass off images of captive animals as ‘wild’. We could take pictures of those whales at SeaWorld and say they are wild, and indeed they are, but those images wouldn’t depict what a happy, wild whale looked like at all. It’s the same thing with images of captive wild animals; they don’t accurately represent the element of freedom and the spirit of a wild animal in its true habitat. Say for example, you capture a picture at the local zoo of a lion feeding off of a carcass in its nicely landscaped enclosure. The lion looks fierce; it growls, defending its ‘kill’. You think that lion looks like a hunter, but you are wrong. What you are looking at is a lion that has had a slab of meat thrown into its concrete enclosure through barred doors. That is what a defeated lion looks like. That is what a lion that couldn’t last a day on the plains of Africa looks like. Attempting to pass off pictures of captive animals as wild animals is unjustifiable.
4). Merging elements from the photographs of totally different subjects and trying to pass it off as one, single exposure image is another trend. In this example you might see an image of a striking sunset and a perfectly located flock of geese in the same photo. Though that isn’t impossible, when you see the same photographer posting image after image with perfectly located flocks of birds flying through their epic landscape shots, it starts to makes you wonder what is really going on. These photos are multi-image composites, plain and simple. However I should take the time to clarify, that there is another technique that involves taking multiple, bracketed images of the same scene, which allows the photographer to capture extended dynamic range and hyperfocal distance that cannot be achieved with a single exposure, but is visible to the human eye. The images are later blended together in photo processing software by a very time intensive process. These types of images, like any photograph, can be over-processed, however the finished result when done with the proper post processing technique applied can create a very realistic image. For those of you that might be wondering, this is not HDR, it is a completely different technique and requires a good deal of post processing skill to be done well. I don’t take an issue with this type of photography or processing. In my opinion this isn’t really any different than stitching together images from a series of panoramic shots. When you stitch a panoramic image together you are working laterally to align all the images side by side, and when blending multiple, bracket exposures, you are working linearly (with depth) to align and blend multiple images of the same subject. So long as the finished product represents what the human eye sees, I believe that this is still an authentic representation of nature photography. For the sake of the uneducated viewer it may still be appropriate in this case for the photographer to relate that exposure blending techniques were employed to achieve the finished image.
These and a host of other poor practices are watering down the field of nature photography. They are creating a false expectation of what authentic nature photography looks like within the industry for the photographer, the public, the nature photography awards organizations and the publishers. These practices ’glamorize’ nature photography in a way that becomes incredibly difficult to duplicate when ethical standards of nature photography are upheld. The nature loving family who has bought into all these photos goes on a family camping trip in their favorite national park expecting to view at least some of what they have seen represented in their favorite nature magazine spread or on TV, but they don’t, not even close. All the shots from that magazine article spread or TV nature series were fabrications of reality. Disenchantment sets in and the appreciation for an authentic representation of nature is lost. Granted there are a great number of nature photographers out there that don’t cut corners and don’t take the easy way out, but with each passing day their numbers are depleted. Though the responsibility ultimately rests on the photographer to have the integrity not to engage in these practices, I believe that the publishers and nature photography award organizations bear an equal responsibility not to publish or recognize these images without a disclaimer, if at all. By publishing these ‘counterfeit’ images and passing them off as ‘authentic nature photography’ the publishers and award organizations are seriously compounding the problem and actually encouraging these kinds of practices by the photographers employing these tactics. Over the past decade more and more images that were taken using these practices have been published. In some cases they have even won nature photography awards from organizations and publications that were at one time some of the world’s most respected entities for featuring authentic nature photography. The continued publication and recognition of these types of images makes it increasingly difficult, if not impossible, for the ethical nature photographer to remain competitive in this field. Historically one of the elements that made nature photography so appealing to the public is that not everyone could go out and capture the images that a professional nature photographer was able to. The arrival of the DSLR to some degree eroded the separation that once existed between amateur and professional photographers. It only further devalues the work of the ethical nature photographer to have the recognition, monetary gain and accolades handed over to a photographer that exhibits no integrity in their work. Perhaps it is an impossible task to define ‘true’ nature photography, but ultimately I don’t believe it’s so difficult. All one needs is the drive to create the best image possible when presented with the opportunity, the dedication to represent the image as it was in the wild in your post processing work, and a moral compass that won’t allow you to take cheap shortcuts or cave in to the new ‘norm’. It would be nice if the publishers and nature photography award organizations might make themselves accountable for the same.
Your thoughts and comments are always welcome.
– Nathaniel Smalley