Canadian Geographic Photo Club - The ethical dilemmas facing professional wildlife photographers (Part 3)

The ethical dilemmas facing professional wildlife photographers (Part 3)


With the conclusion of Canadian Geographic's first Wildlife Photography of the Year contest and the recent launch of the magazine's 's December 2008 wildlife issue, Canada's fauna is top of mind for us these days. Wildlife photography, such as the winning contest images, offers a glimpse into the lives of the many species with whom we share this country. In this three-part series, the Canadian Geographic Photo Club explores the ethical dilemmas facing Canada's wildlife photographers.

Part three: Digital manipulation

In the past two articles, we've discussed common ethical dilemmas wildlife photographers face while out in the field. But what about the moral questions that arise after they snap their photos?

It's not uncommon for professional photographers to make minor corrections to their images before selling them. Photoshopping an image is such a widespread practice that editors now expect to receive photos with small alterations such as colour and tonal corrections. For a wildlife photographer who can spend weeks, months and even years photographing an animal, the pressure to deliver a perfect image can raise some questions as to how far they should push the boundaries of digital manipulation.

Don Johnston is a professional natural history photographer whose wildlife images have been published in magazines such as Canadian Wildlife and Nature Canada. Like many photographers, he makes adjustments to his images using photo editing programs, and in some cases, he'll remove distractions from his photos, such as clutter in the scene or the dirt on an animal's fur.

" I don't think it's unethical to make small alterations to offending objects," he says. "If I could have walked up to that grizzly bear and knocked that little bit of fluff off its fur, I would have done so."

These distractions can take away from the photograph's composition. Johnston, who has a degree in biological sciences, argues that it is less invasive to an animal and its habitat to remove the small imperfection after the shot is taken rather than physically removing it from the scene on location.

" When you talk about digitally removing a twig that doesn't essentially alter the statement of the photograph, I don't see anything wrong with that at all," says professional photographer Dennis Fast. " It's what painters do all the time."

However Fast, who has been photographing wildlife for 25 years, draws the line at changing the intent of the image, such as adding animals to the photograph and changing backgrounds. This more involved method of digital manipulation goes beyond twigs and trash and is where transparency and full disclosure of a photograph's alterations becomes important. The ability to sell an image, their moral standpoint and the intent of the photo all play a role in the photographer's decision to disclose the information.

" One can be extremely creative with the programs available today," says Rebecca Grambo, one half of a wildlife photography duo with her husband. " However, each photographer must decide how much change is too much to let go unlabelled."

While she occasionally alters the intent of her photos, by adding in other animals or changing the background, Grambo is always truthful about all modifications. She makes it very clear that these photos are not for editorial use, but for artistic purposes and are therefore not true representations of wildlife.

While not all of these photographers alter their wildlife images in this way, Johnston, Fast and Grambo agree that honesty is essential if a photo is digitally manipulated to this extent. " I choose to tell the truth about my images and accept the fact that some sales may be lost," says Grambo. " It's just another part of respecting the animals and places I photograph."

By Michela Rosano



Mathieu Dumond posted 2016-05-12 10:30am

For me, as a biologist and wildlife photographer, it is about rendering in the most pleasant way the reality of nature and wildlife. Nature photography can be a raw documentary, an artistic documentary or an artistic fantasy. The 3 have their purpose. I prefer the first two, where the scene is real with a few basic exposure and color adjustments (which is nearly always done with digital either by the camera or by the photographer from the raw file). Disclosure is of course the best way to inform the audience of what they are looking at.

Wayne_Duke posted 2016-05-12 2:19am

I totally agree with full disclosure, and as a wildlife photographer keeping alterations to a minimum is a must. Too often we get photo art instead of photographs.


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