Yellow-rumped Warbler (and the pervasiveness of fake nature photography)

As I mentioned yesterday I’ve been reexamining some of my expectations of my own photography but some things will never change and this is one of them.

  • Today’s post is a long read so it won’t be of interest to everyone and I accept that fact. But this subject has been nagging at me for a long time so I had to finally get it off my chest.


1/2000, f/6.3, ISO 640, Canon 7D Mark II, Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS II USM + EF 1.4 III Extender, not baited, set up or called in

I photographed this Yellow-rumped Warbler just over a month ago near the Jordan River. I quite like the photo because of the droopy-wing pose which allows us to see both of the predominant yellow areas of the species including that yellow rump responsible for their “Butter-butt” nickname. I have a clean background (somewhat unusual for this species), an interesting curved perch and there’s good light on the bird.

But there’s a problem. This isn’t the photograph I took.



1/2000, f/6.3, ISO 640, Canon 7D Mark II, Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS II USM + EF 1.4 III Extender, not baited, set up or called in

This is what I saw through my viewfinder. In the first version of the image I cloned out the twig at upper left to make a point.

To be honest I’m fine with that twig. It mimics the curve of the perch and the arch of the warbler’s back, it isn’t too close to the bird for my tastes, it’s sharp and besides, it’s natural and it was there. But many photographers would have cloned it out because they think it distracts by pulling the viewer’s attention away from the bird (partly due to its relative brightness).

But even if I wasn’t fine with the twig I wouldn’t clone it out and present the “fake” image as real because IMO that’s dishonest to the viewer and it isn’t what I photographed. My craft isn’t digital “art”, it’s nature photography. To my eye the first version of the image reeks of a setup or a clone job anyway, especially considering the species which generally prefers relatively thick cover for its habitat. I was just lucky to get this bird as clean as I did, even with the twig in the image.

In the past fake nature photography was pervasive in our mass media including (but not limited to) magazines, books and television “documentaries” and the photographers and producers involved were incredibly innovative and creative in their methods and slick at hiding what they’d done. Photographers cloned unwanted elements out of their images or cloned wanted elements into them and documentary producers would rent animals from game farms and then force them to go through their paces and film them doing it. Example: throwing a rented cougar off a cliff into a river so it could be filmed as it went over a waterfall – we can thank Marlin Perkins and Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom for that one but the list is endless and similar practices continue to this day, though thankfully to a lesser degree at least in some quarters.

Were you a fan of any of the following in their day?

  • Oscar-winning White Wilderness – Faked, using a turntable to fling “suicidal” lemmings off a cliff and a polar bear cub thrown over the side of a mountain to film it as it bounced down the steep slope
  • Mutal of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom – Faked, terrified tame animals were lassoed and then wrestled in order to “rescue” them
  • Wild America with Marty Stouffer – Faked, regularly staged fatal confrontations between predators and prey
  • The spectacular Winged Migration – Faked, with tame birds, raised from eggs and imprinted on their handlers

Even Sir David Atttenborough (whom I admire) has admitted that he faked a scene about a polar bear giving birth in the wild that was really shot in a zoo

The list is truly endless and even though many of the examples I’ve listed above are older dishonest and wildlife-stressing practices continue today, largely because of the pervasiveness of game farms that rent out animals to anyone willing to pay their fees and because of the ease of faking film and photographs in this digital age.

Thankfully, many of the more respected nature magazines like Audubon, Natural History, Smithsonian, National Wildlife and some nature photo contests are beginning to make efforts to restrict or prevent such abuses in their magazines (or at least disclose them in their credits). And the more respected nature photo contests are finally beginning to enforce ethics rules for their competitions but doing so is extremely difficult because photography fakery is often hard to detect and because so many nature photographers are willing to cheat (prize money can be lucrative and the fame of winning alluring).

But highly respected nature magazines and photo contests are dwarfed by other markets like fishing and hunting magazines and the vast poster and calendar industries which have no standards at all for honesty, ethics and humane treatment of animals in nature photography. For example, Ted Williams in Audubon Magazine writes:

  • ” The vast hook-and-bullet press is shameless. Battery acid is splashed on captive fish to make them leap frantically. I talked to one genuine wildlife photographer who has quit submitting deer photos to hook-and-bullet publications because he can’t compete with all the photographers who rent or own penned deer bred for freakishly large antlers. One such mutation, appearing on the covers of countless hunting rags, had four owners, the last of which bought him for $150,000. For years the ancient beast was kept on life support with medications and surgeries.” 

Some may think it’s a stretch for me to equate sickening abuses like some of those above with cloning elements into or out of a nature photograph (especially when it isn’t disclosed) but it’s a slippery slope and in my opinion it’s all dishonest at a minimum and some of it is much worse than that.

I believe that full disclosure of some of these methods can mitigate to some degree but never absolves.




  • If you have the interest and are willing to invest the time required you might want to read this excellent article in Audubon Magazine by Ted Williams which details the history and describes the more current state of fakery in nature photography and media. Believe me, it’s a real eye-opener.
  • Evan Hirsche, former president of the National Wildlife Refuge Association, described a semifinalist who had to be disqualified from their photo contest for cheating (cloning elements into and out of his image) as “ethically challenged” in William’s article. I know from experience how frustrated Hirsche has been in the past by cheating in their well-respected contest because I was personally involved in an incident where the grand prize winner of their contest had cheated. In several lengthy phone conversations with Hirsche and the attorney for NWRA it became obvious to me how difficult it can be to enforce ethics rules and honesty when photographers are willing to cheat and lie.
  • If I were king I’d make game farms illegal in most instances and expect photo contests to require that photos be submitted in RAW format.
  • Except for a single instance many years ago when I was new to photography and entered some photos at the state fair I’ve never submitted photos to a photo contest and likely never will. Because of the pervasive cheating in that arena photo contests leave a rancid taste in my mouth that I can’t overcome. Probably cutting off my nose to spite my face but that’s the way it is…
  • There’s a fine line between the photographer who digitally alters his/her nature images for their own personal satisfaction or for reasons related to “digital art” or artistic expression and those who deliberately try to mislead or cheat in photos meant for publication or public consumption (including on the internet). It’s a line I’m unwilling to cross or even approach but others have different views and I accept that fact. It just isn’t for me… 



69 comments to Yellow-rumped Warbler (and the pervasiveness of fake nature photography)

  • Kathy H.

    Wow, this was really eye opening (and shocking, really), as was Ted Williams’ article. I am very much an amateur wildlife photographer, and working hard to get better. I know that photo manipulation, baiting, etc., happens, but I didn’t really grasp the lengths to which people go. My parents are such incredibly honest people, and brought my siblings and me up to be the same way, so it never even occurred to me that people do this kind of stuff. (I was thinking of submitting a photo to a contest, and was wondering if it would be ethical to sharpen the bird’s eye a little! Sheesh.) Thanks for posting, Ron.

    • “so it never even occurred to me that people do this kind of stuff”

      Don’t feel like the Lone Ranger, Kathy. Most folks are in the same boat, as was I in the beginning. That naiveté is exactly what the unethical folks are counting on when they don’t disclose their methods in nature photography.

      I appreciate your comment. My sisters and I were brought up that same way as you describe your upbringing.

      BTW, sharpening is perfectly ethical – don’t give it a second thought.

  • The North American Nature Photographers’ Association has a clearly written set of ethics regarding the photographer’s relationships to the place and the subjects, about disclosures concerning cropping, coloration, etc.

    • Thanks, Martha. Most nature photography organizations, nature photo contests and nature magazines have similar guidelines as do nature photography critique forums. And many of them are even more restrictive than those of NANPA.

  • Bruce Lindman

    Slippery slope?
    There is a clear demarcation between affecting the behavior of an animal, and effecting the look of an image.
    No slippery slope involved.

    The line is drawen (fuzzily) between documentary photography and artistic photography. Personally, I draw the line at adding elements to a scene that were not there, but I have no issue with removing elements or making lighting/tone adjustments in order to improve the aesthetic quality of an image. Because the aesthetic quality is my focus, whereas documentary quality is yours.

    • You’re entitled to your opinion, Bruce – no matter your logic or what your motivation may or may not be for having this one. I’ll respond to several aspects of your comment.

      I make “lighting/tone” adjustments too as does virtually every other photographer on the planet. I also sharpen and make exposure adjustments. That’s a given and pretty much assumed by everyone. But your apparent equating of “removing elements” from an image (cloning) to lighting and tonal adjustments blows my mind. To me in nature photography they’re (rotten) apples and oranges.

      And you make an unwarranted and incorrect assumption when you state that my focus is “documentary quality”. I love documenting behaviors and some of my images are only of documentary quality but that quality certainly isn’t my focus. It could much better be stated that high quality and aesthetic reality is my focus and my goal.

      Folks who clone significant elements/objects into or out of their nature photos and then display them publicly without disclosing what they’ve done (I’m not talking about other types of photography such as general photography, photo art or those who make such changes for their own pleasure – only nature photography that is displayed publicly and often for sale and perhaps photo journalism) to folks who don’t know what they’ve done to the image are very well aware of the fact that many if not most viewers will just assume that what’s in the image is what was really there – especially in nature photography (I presume I don’t have to explain the relationship between “nature” and “natural” here). In fact, the photographer involved is often counting on their ignorance of what has really been done because that photographer also knows that much of his/her audience would think much less of the image (and likely wouldn’t buy it or give it likes on Facebook etc) if they knew that it had been significantly doctored and phonied up. Folks like that want and appreciate photos of nature – the Real McCoy. If they wanted paintings or photo art or other types or concoctions of reality they’d most likely be looking elsewhere. So when significant cloning is done in nature photography and then not disclosed when it’s displayed publicly it’s inherently dishonest by omission. If your specific audience knows that your style often involves cloning that can be another matter.

      There’s very good reason why all of the highly respected nature photo contests forbid cloning elements into our out of an image or at the very least expect disclosure when it’s done and most of the quality nature magazines do the same or are moving in that direction. They know what their audience expects and even demands in nature photography and they want no part of the deliberate deception of doctored nature photographs that aren’t disclosed.

      So, here’s what all this is getting at – your denial of the slippery slope. It’s a slippery slope of the degree of dishonesty to viewers from cloning out elements in your own images without disclosure to the truly disgusting, misleading and dishonest practices of folks like Marty Stouffer and some of the rest of the “documentary” makers. I agree that cloning elements out of nature photographs doesn’t “affect the behavior of an animal” but that has no relevance – absolutely none – to the slippery slope of dishonesty I referred to (and you contradicted) and I made it very clear I was referring to the element of dishonesty and not something else in my post.

      And I have a question. Why is it ok for you to clone elements out of your images but it isn’t ok to clone elements into your images? What, pray tell, is the difference?

      Like I said in my post “others have different views and I accept that fact. It just isn’t for me…”. But you contradicted what I said about the slippery slope in such a way, with an abrupt, dismissive and even confrontational tone, that prompted me to defend my stance and I decided to do it in kind. Otherwise I probably would have just let it pass as a difference of opinion.

      PS – If you don’t honestly disclose your cloning and if you consider yourself a bonafide nature photographer for your own edification perhaps you should check out the link to the nature photography guidelines of the North American Nature Photographers Association (NANPA) in the link provided by Martha E. Ture in her comment above.

      Page three about “truthful disclosure of any post‐processing digital manipulation” would be particularly relevant.

  • Laura Culley

    Sorry to be so late, but you pretty much know what I’d say. I treasure basics like honesty and personal integrity and shun the opposite. I used to watch Marlin Perkins, but I was a child and didn’t know any better. Now I do. I’ve met Jim (I can never remember his name now…I’ve jettisoned him out of my mind/reality) several times, dressed as he was in “Wild Kingdom.” My internal crap meter pegged, so I never gave him another thought.
    We’re all here BECAUSE of your personal integrity and honesty. It shines through in so many different ways, which is truly a blessing in this FAKE world. In addition to all the things mentioned here that wrench my gut, the other factor is its impact on history. Since we cannot count on the integrity of the image, we cannot trust anything it represents.
    Sorry to be so late to this party, but house cleaning got the better of me.

    • Thank you, Laura. If I remember correctly his name was Jim Fowler. In later years he took over for Perkins as host (I think…)

      • Laura Culley

        Yeah, that’s him…Jim Fowler. He’s shown up at several falconry events and the part that probably set off my crap detector was he was dressed in his “Wild Kingdom” garb. I mean, REALLY? Can’t you change your clothes in 30 or more years? Then, he was espousing falconry information without a bird on his fist, or from what I could glean, at least a couple of decades, if ever. Crap detector pegged!

  • Thanks Ron for your excellent article and speaking out against the cheats. It is stomach turning to find out that many of the wildlife shows and documentaries I enjoyed growing up were abusive to wildlife and faked. They were my escape from the ugliness of the human world that tends to swamp the daily news. Watching wildlife to see a more natural world removed from man’s influence. Learning later that much of what I “escaped to” was faked is really discouraging.

    The fake photographers trade fame and instant gratification over ethics and respect for wildlife. The internet and the lust for likes on Facebook posts seems to be making things worse.

    Working with USFWS wildlife refuges I am seeing another challenge with trying to reduce unethical wildlife photography. The government agencies are way under-staffed and under-funded at this point. Heck, now their existence at all is being challenged by our sick politics.

    Even so, there is additional problem where unethical photographers and wildlife media companies influence the officials at parks and refuges so they can get away with unethical nature photography, including areas closed to the general public. Camera companies and photography equipment companies getting preferential treatment at refuges and at the same time allowing unethical practices to occur on the refuge by these pros.

    When you speak up to the authorities about this, you can end up getting black-listed.

    For any of your readers that may not already know this. Any photography workshop or tour on public lands (BLM, USFS, USFWS, NPS) requires Special Use Permits. When you register for a workshop, kindly ask the workshop instructor to see their permit.

    If you see unethical practices taking place, take a photo of it happening and send that photo to the refuge/park manager with a copy to another party (so they have to respond). If needed, go ahead and send it to the media, especially if agency is unresponsive to early concerns you raised. You can do this without being overly confrontational.

    If you find out a pro-wildlife, pro-environment organization is awarding unethical photographers (calendars, contests, articles, workshop advertisements, etc.) then let them know you do not support this and will be unsubscribing and spreading the bad word. Example organizations where I see this include (National Geographic, Audubon, eBird, NANPA, …). Frequently the reviewers and editors in these organizations do not realize that a photo was cheated or baited, so increasing their awareness can help. Some organizations get money from the photographers to advertise and intentionally turn their head and look the other way.

    We are in very tenuous time in the USA now. I think we are close to a civil war. We have moved away from logical discussions on every topic. “Doubling Down” and being the loudest voice in the room has won out over logic, reason, compromise, and science. As a scientist myself I find this to be pathetic. The concept of a Venn Diagram is lost. For example, now I often hear “You use a bird feeder, so that is the same as feeding mice to owls”. I have worked with many smart people of the years, including Nobel Laureates. The smartest people I have worked with often say three simple words “I don’t know…”. The stupidest people I have met never say those three words… How we got to supporting the loudest and most stubborn, over logic, reason, compassion baffles me.

    We are learning more and more about our impacts on wildlife. At the individual level there are photographers who currently do not know that their certain behavior will have a negative impact on wildlife. In fact I think all of us are continually learning, and re-learning, as we grow. I look back on many things I have done in my past activities (from a little kid with a BB gun, to fly-fishing, bird watching, and wildlife photography) that I am now ashamed of, and no longer do — since I learned more about impacts on wildlife. If we can begin with education, in a friendly and encouraging approach that can help. I know have a lot to still learn. Your daily blogs are a great place to continue learning.

    I have rambled way too long in my reply here. This is tough topic and an important one. I am passionate about it since I know we as humans can do much better.

    • I agree with all you’ve said here, Ed. And I like your suggestions for dealing with some of the problems.

      I remember some of the instances you’ve told me about in the past where supposedly respectable and ethical organizations with good reputations have performed unethically in the field for their own purposes – especially when they think now one is watching (or has a big lens aimed in their direction). That makes me sick…

  • Diane Bricmont

    Oh so late to the party, Ron, but I agree with you 100%!!! Thanks again for for all the joy you bring while keeping it “real”. Every time I run into somebody carrying a camera in the field I sing the praises of your blog!

  • Deedee OBrien

    Thanks, Ron. That article was eye-opening for the wide-spread fakery of nature photography. I knew Winged Migration had to be faked. I think the clue had to do with following a specific bird on “migration” that something had happened to and they checked in on it again at the destination. I was embarrassed as a birder and member of Audubon that so much was made of the movie.

    Personally, I do remove unwanted branches occasionally from my photos, but only I see those photos. Am thinking of entering such small contests as Project FeederWatch through Cornell, but will be sure I do not submit a photo that has been altered in such a way.

    Thanks for getting me into bird photography. I has been a joyful hobby.

    • And thanks for taking me out to Farmington that day long ago, Deedee. It had been many years since I’d been there (long before I began photographing birds) and your reintroduction for me was wonderful. I won’t forget that day and what a good friend you’ve been for decades now.

      Oh geez, now I’m reminiscing in my mind all our crazy experiences with the Junior Science Academy so many years ago. Good times! It was fun to make you blush back then and I was pretty good at it. You were a good sport to put up with my antics!

  • Alice Beckcom

    Like you said…Ted Williams article in Audubon Magazine ‘is a real eye opener’. It sure was for me. I will not look at photographs/films of animals/birds, etc. the same way again. Some might say that is a bad thing for me. Others might say that knowing the truth is much better. I am in favor of ‘knowing the truth’, as I’m that kind of person.

    Ron, thank you for ‘opening my eyes’!!!

  • nikonsteve

    Thank you…thank you ..and thank you! My sentiments exactly… and this is why yours, and Mia’s are two of the only sites I follow for my nature photography fix! You’re the best and your blog today explains one of the reasons why I feel this way.

  • April Olson

    Sadly true. I have joined a few on line photo groups but found the praised and award winners highly over processed. I personally do not find the photos pleasing. I don’t really know how to use the Photoshop I own, about all I do is straighten my horizon, crop and sometimes lighten my exposure.I need to play with it more just so I now how it all works. I have been playing with Photoshop lately with HDR but if I post a photo I state it is HDR and how many overlays.

    As far as “fake” wildlife shows go I never liked them. As a kid I hated those shows, the were so staged to me. I did like the photography of Winged Migration, but I went into it knowing how it was filmed. I often have wondered about some of the scenes in PBS Nature. I like the show overall but there are times it seems too contrived, and it ruins the authenticity of the program for me. The only good thing, nature shows make people aware of their wild neighbors and perhaps have a greater value in preserving them and their natural habitat, and possibly exposing the fake or abusive wildlife farms.

    • You make some good points, April.

      My normal work flow includes only cropping and exposure adjustments in the RAW converter (Adobe ACR) and sharpening in PS. Occasionally I’ll do a little more subtle fine tuning in PS but not much. If the image was taken in very low light I’ll occasionally increase saturation and contrast but only slightly. I’ll use the clone tool to get rid of any dust bunnies but mostly I use that tool on photos for my blog to produce examples like I’ve included in today’s post. And in those instances I disclose what I’ve done.

      IMO oversaturation has ruined more otherwise decent nature photographs than any other processing mistake folks make. Those images look like hideous cartoon images to me.

      Even some of the more respected nature shows on PBS have succumbed to sensationalism to a noticeable degree in recent years. I miss the subtlety and assumed intelligence of the audience in the “old days”. Sensational and overdramatic narration drives me nuts.

      • April Olson

        “Sensational and overdramatic narration drives me nuts”
        Jon and I watched a recent series on Nova about natural disasters, we laughed all through it due to the over dramatic music. We were even predicting the mono log. Jeeze, the over simplified drawn out explanations, Is the general public really that dumb?

        • “Is the general public really that dumb?”

          In a word, yes. That’s why it works. And why fake news works. And conspiracy theories work. We’re in a world of hurt I’m afraid…

  • Your ethics and honesty are part of what keeps me (and many others) coming back.
    There is enough which is fake in our lives (and it is often unavoidable). I don’t need more. I don’t want more. And I will avoid it when I can.

  • Larry Muench

    Thanks for posting, Ron. I really had no idea how pervasive this was and to what extent well-known and respected companies and individuals resorted to this behavior. I respect your integrity and agree with your viewpoints 100%.

  • Patty Chadwick

    Fake is FAKE. We now even have a fake president, a fake cabinet and even and fake news(lies). We have fake lobster, fake crabmeat, fake orange juice, fake eyelashes, fake boobs, fake butts, faked lips,fake photography and all kinds of relationships built on fakery. Who the heck wants fake anything? What the HELL has happened to us??? This is twisted and SICK!

    • Patty Chadwick

      We even have fake electronic memory and intelligence. Our reliance on electronic memory and intelligence, tests show, is causing a decline in real intelligence and memory…especially in anaytical and critical thinking and problem-solving…no wonder we “elected” trump….. But it would as a former educator, this scares the hell out of me!!!

      • Laura Culley

        I agree with everything you said Patty! Personally, I don’t trust anything or anybody anymore unless they’ve proved their honesty and integrity. Mariah taught me that! And I treasure her for that lesson. And like you said, that’s why we’re here.

  • I belong to a local photography club. In March I went to a seminar on wildlife photography put on by one of the members. The presenter told us about a Montana place called the Triple D Ranch. For some thousands of dollars, he said the Ranch hosts photographers who get herded into an enclosure, and then large predators are thrown food, so that the photographers get a picture of a black wolf leaping from a snowy boulder toward the camera. Then, said our host, when asked how you got that shot, you can say “400 hours in the wilderness.”

    I left the seminar at noon, and after I calmed down, I googled the Triple D Ranch. I read that they had been busted for having the front claws of some animals surgically removed…but even if that had not been so, all of my ethics are offended. I go to the same mountain every day, and have come to know the wildlife there pretty well. I spend minimum 2 hours a day rambling around, and now know the daily lives of herds, packs, flocks. 2 hours a day times 330 days per year times several years is my time investment. And I would no more take one of these photographers with me than I would rub dirt in my hair. I have too much respect for the mountain and its inhabitants. I have contempt for these people. Just contempt.

    • Martha, Ted Williams writes about some of what goes on at the Triple D in the article I’ve linked to in my post.

      You’re reaction to this kind if thing is similar to my own. My reaction is visceral and very unpleasant, like a punch in the gut.

  • Marty K

    Another very thought-provoking post, Ron. I probably should have assumed that so many nature “documentaries” were faked. We watched Wild Kingdom regularly, but our family snark was limited to, “I’ll be safely here in the studio drinking daiquiris while Jim wrestles this man-eating alligator.” I suppose we should have guessed.

    I’m saddened, but not surprised. Cheating as a means to an end seems to be incredibly pervasive in our society — from students to business to politics — for too many people, the ends justify the means and they don’t care who or what gets hurt in the process. It sucks for us honest folk who take what life hands us and try to make the best of it.

    I think I’m going to go build a blanket fort now and hide from the world. Anyone want to join me? I have kittens, but someone needs to bring snacks.

    • I agree strongly with everything you’ve said, Marty. It’s a sad state of affairs indeed.

      I’d join you in your fort if it wasn’t for the cats… 🙂 Although kittens are hard to resist.

      • Marty K

        They’re only 3-1/2 weeks old and simply adorable! The mom is incredibly sweet and solicitous of pets and attention. It looks like she might have been a little slutty too — at least 3 different “baby daddies.” I’ll be doing some home-training fosters and will have dogs in the fort in a couple of weeks if you can hold out until then. 😉

    • April Olson

      I have taken to donning my hoodie, my own personal portable blanket fort, its remarkable how it can close out the world at times. I often have our rescued parrot tucked inside with me.

    • I will definitely be there. With snacks. And coloring books (if no-one expects me to stay between the lines).

      • Marty K

        Oh boy! I recently bought a “Crayola 64” with the built-in sharpener. I still need to find a good coloring book, though. 🙂

    • Laura Culley

      Marty, as long as you take care of the cat boxes, I’m in and I’ll bring dogs and cookies, and maybe an adult beverage or two! 😉

  • Dick Harlow

    Thank you, thank you for this post!!
    I used to try and enter my pictures because I was naive until it became apparent the dishonesty of some of the contestants. I’ve never gone back. Because I am an amateur, had a job and many other hobbies, I was only disgusted by the situation. I can just imagine how angry and disheartened I would be if it was my lifes work.
    One of the reasons I so enjoy your images besides the fact they are so good and the teaching aspect of the post, is your honesty! I have a great deal of respect and admiration for what you stand for and appreciate your willingness to call out those who will fraudulently put their photography as real and unaltered.

  • Trudy Brooks

    Wow, very interesting to read about all this stuff going on. I know I could never get great photos of wild life with my little camera, and I thought the people who did had great cameras and wondered how they were always at the right spot at the right time. Now I know! Thanks I enjoyed some of those shows while growing up, and now learn most of it was fake. How sad.

  • Thank you, Ron, for a superb, insightful post. When I first began digital photography about five years ago, I went through the learning curve of how to produce an acceptable image of a subject I liked. Of course, this led to a “need” for “better” equipment and software to convert digital images into masterpieces. (Because, after all it’s all about equipment, the operator just presses buttons, right?)

    Along that learning curve was a detour marked “enhancement”. A short trip down that path revealed I was totally inept at removing, say, a twig, from an image without leaving some really ugly results behind. I retreated back to the main path and haven’t strayed since. Of course, I use the tools available for changing minor technical details. But the content of the image I saw in the field remains as I saw it. Okay, yes, I will crop an image for several different reasons on occasion.

    I think the fact that I was a birder for a long (long, long) time before I attempted photography formed my philosophy of not messing with nature when attempting to get an image of a bird. For me, the environment where the bird is located, the actions of a bird – these, to me, are often as important as showing the bird itself. Granted, a quality portrait of any bird showing stunning detail (you, know, like that guy Dudley does) is a welcome rarity on my computer screen!

    Sorry for the long post, but you started it.

    • “Okay, yes, I will crop an image for several different reasons on occasion”

      Wally, I’d venture to say that all of us crop our images on a regular basis. Personally I rarely post a full frame image and there’s nothing at all wrong with cropping.

      I also want to make clear that I don’t equate “normal” image adjustments (sharpening, minor tonal adjustments, lightening or darkening etc.) to cloning elements into or out of an image. All of us make those adjustments – that’s a given and I believe assumed.

  • Susan Stone

    Very interesting. I think we tried to watch Winged Migration, and I remember being upset by it and not able to watch it. I don’t know what it was about it, but it didn’t sit well with me. That was long before I became acquainted with your blog. I also remember catching small bits of nature productions that purported to be about life in the wild, but had an emphasis on violence in nature. Couldn’t watch those at all. And then one day I was at the zoo in Salisbury, MD, at hawk feeding time, and watched a Red-tail with the chick it had been given: absolutely no violence at all; it was just eating, exactly the way any other creature eats. I realize there’s some apparent violence when a critter dies at the hands of a raptor or wildcat, but it’s not the exaggerated crap they show on those programs. I like the second of your photos better, and do not find the second branch distracting. Also want to say that you may reach a smaller audience by staying with your blog and not entering photo contests, but competing with cheaters isn’t worth the effort you’d put into it, and at least with the blog, your audience appreciates who you are and what you do. In this day and age I am more appreciative than ever of honesty and transparency.

    • “In this day and age I am more appreciative than ever of honesty and transparency”.

      I agree, Susan. Those are rare commodities in our world today and that’s an appalling fact. Thank you for the kind words.

  • Patty Chadwick

    SICKENING!!! Had no idea it was so bad, co cruel!!! Actually makes my heart hurt…

    • Patty, most consumers of wildlife photographs and film aren’t serious photographers or wildlife experts so they have no idea what’s going on either. They just assume that what they’re seeing is nature and natural and the producers of such fakery are counting on their ignorance and acceptance.

      • Patty Chadwick

        I must reluctantly admit to being one of those…trusting, naive, “fools”…I believed what I saw…though I knew we even have artificial coloring and artificial flavors in our food and drink.

  • The “fine line” is the edge of the slippery slope leading to “staging” and in the worst cases to the kind of sickening abuses you’ve cited—-I do think the idea of submissions limited to RAW
    format might be helpful, and would ideally require an explanation as to the reason for the requirement. There is whole new generation of “artists” and “photographers” out there already
    whose only visual reality lies within their lighted screen and whose only reference point, sadly , is the bottom line,,,,,,I regularly see technically accomplished “wildlife” painters producing
    manufactured portraits of , for example, cougars SO FAT that they could only be residents of zoos or wildlife farms but which are “artistically” depicted in natural settings………I can only
    conclude that the “artist’s” focus hs nothing to do with grasping the animal’s probable reality, but only with producing a salable product. I am glad that you continue to raise your philosophical

    • Well said, Kris.

      I’ve heard that some photo contests are beginning to strongly suggest or even require that photos be submitted in RAW format but some photographers are screaming about it because they “claim” that they don’t shoot in RAW. In almost all such cases it’s my bet that claim is a bald-faced lie for any professional or serious nature photographer…

  • Elmer Deloso

    Thank you for another enlightening editorial. I stick to simple crops & adjusting EC if needed, else that’s the extent of my digital photo “processing”. I’m a believer in capturing what you see, and absolutely 1000% hate fake eyelashes, boobs, crab meat, and fake “photos”.

    • “absolutely 1000% hate fake eyelashes, boobs, crab meat, and fake “photos”

      That line provided me a much-needed smile, Elmer – a commodity that I expect will be sadly lacking for me today. Thanks for that!

  • Judy Gusick

    Great article, both yours and the link, Ron as well as the photos. Grew up on Wild Kingdom…….:( Game Farms I’m aware of to a point tho mainly from a hunting standpoint – never thought of them being used for photography. Also never paid much attention to the adds in Outdoor Photographer since I’m not using them. Outdoor Photographer is trying to walk a line with articles by Amy Gulick on a fairly regular basis. 🙂 Interesting this summer when my sister Jannett was visiting from England – she is a prolific photographer. “I’d never be able to do wildlife photographer as I couldn’t sit still for 2 days trying to get a particular animal” 🙂 She does shoot at some wildlife refuges/rehab centers in England from time to time but never tries to pass them off as anything but that. Most of my photos along that line are “they came by” for the same reason as I’m pretty hyper. My mother gave me a poster many years ago of 2 vultures in a tree on saying “Patience, my ass, I’m going to kill something” which fits tho I’m not really into killing unless necessary either! Thanks for enlightening us as to the true nature of what many of these photos are captured and the extreme editing that goes on in the digital age.

    • Judy, Game farms are evolving. Originally most were for “hunting” (if that’s what you want to call killing game in situations like that) but when the digital age arrived and so many people took up “wildlife photography” game farm managers saw another lucrative market for their “product” and the photographers came running with their wallets open. IMO it’s a sickening industry and practice.

  • Zaphir Shamma

    I always enjoy reading what you have to say. However, I find myself on the other side of that fine line you mention. I have no issues with cloning out a twig or other small object. I put that act in the same ballpark as adjusting temp, contrast, sharpening, etc. I’ve never cloned in anything. As far as contests or money, I’ve only done 3 in my life and with unaltered photos. As an amateur, I only post in FB and my prize is likes and comments. If I can make someone smile, all the better. My desire is to make the best photo I can and that doesn’t stop when I telase the shutter. I often post the SOOC photo below so folks can see what I saw. I get you and hear you, but my convictions don’t run as deep as yours on this topic. I don’t feel that what I do would fall into the camp of fake photography. I would be saddened to think you thought my photos were fake. As always, I enjoy your photos and thoughts – Zaph 🙂

    • Zaphir, in the cases you describe I have no significant problem with what you do because you disclose your methods and you’ve only submitted unaltered photos to contests.

      This is a ticklish subject and even ethical photographers won’t all agree about precisely where that line should be. I’ve simply stated my case and where I stand on the issue for my own photography.

  • Marcia Stager

    I reluctantly entered the digital age a couple of years ago. However, I generally prefer my Nikon FM3A film so I appreciate your thoughts on reality vs. enhanced/altered. I went through a very similar thought process as you with a waterfall picture I took….leave tree limb hanging over or remove it? Left in and enlarged for my house.

    • Interesting, Marcia. I went through a similar stage of introspection in my early days of bird photography but the more I learned about what was really going on out there the more much of it disgusted me.