Image Manipulation and Nature Photography

Photoshop has, at times, created problems for ethical photography. Now before I tell you what brought that to mind, I also have to say that many people do not understand how photography really works. They think the camera is a perfect recorder of reality. It isn't.

Cameras, for a lot of reasons, have a number of limitations that prevent them from capturing what we can see. This is not a digital issue. Andreas Feininger wrote about this problem 50 years ago in his classic photo books. Because of this, sometimes "Photoshop" is needed in order to make an image more accurately reflect what was really in front of the camera.

Mark Larson recently sent me a link to something that happened at the Sacramento Bee newspaper ( A photographer there combined two images of egrets to "better show" a part of the subject. He was fired for this manipulation. Here are the images from the Sacramento Bee website.

The manipulated photo is wrong on many levels. A lot of folks want to simply condemn such an image for "changing reality" (which it does and is not an ethical thing for a newspaper), but for nature photography, this brings up something, that to me, is more disturbing. As nature photographers, we are the "eyes" of the public. People believe photography, so we owe it to them to show nature as honestly as we can. I don't want people to get the wrong impression of nature.

In this Sacramento Bee situation, the photographer has literally created a behavior of the birds in the final photo that is not real. Notice how in the first image the great egret is "backing away" with its neck (a normal behavior when another bird is trying to get its dinner), but in the second, it almost looks like the bird is handing the frog over. This photographer was just not thinking.

Ethics in terms of what a photo looks like is important, but I think the discussion sometimes gets lost in arbitrary discussion of the photograph's photographic qualities (the "manipulation") rather than what is happening to the depiction of reality. This becomes important because it goes beyond "Photoshop."

This is one reason why I have always been very disturbed by the John Dominis LIFE magazine photo of a leopard attacking a baboon. To this day, that photo is touted as a "great wildlife photo", yet the story is tragic. The leopard is a captive animal and was deliberately put into an enclosure with the baboon just for the photograph. To me, this is a more ethically egregious photo than the Photoshopped egrets, but both images are important for the way they pretend to portray "nature reality" when they don't.

I think it is also important to go beyond looking at photos simply as being "manipulated." I am far more interested in how nature is portrayed. I believe that a lot of "fang and claw" wildlife shows on television that portray nature as vicious and aggressive are also "manipulated", though nothing has been digitally manipulated.

This is also important in that young people are very comfortable with the computer and working on it. They may not see a simple change in the graphics of an image as being significant or even lying (which may be what the Sacramento Bee photographer thought), but it is the change of the world into something that does not exist that is important to me as being the big problem (and an issue that cannot be argued based on "I was just doing simple computer work").

About Rob

I am proud of the work I have done as a photographer, author, naturalist and nature photographer, editor and videographer. I love the natural world, and that can be a native bee in my native plants garden as much as a visit to a national park. I am a husband of a beautiful and smart wife, a father to my outstanding son and daughter, and one who lived in Minnesota most of my life, but now loves the variety and very long growing season of Southern California. I have written and photographed a lot of books and magazine articles but what is most important to me about them is knowing that I have helped people become better photographers and gain a better connection to nature. I work to help people connect with photography and nature through speaking and as a workshop leader, too. All of this has gained me a Fellow award with the North American Nature Photography Association. Many people knew me as the long-time editor of Outdoor Photographer magazine and I am still connected with them as a contributing editor. A short list of some of the books I have done: Landscape Photography: From Snapshot to Great Shot, Magic of Digital Landscape Photography, The Magic of Digital Nature Photography, National Geographic Field Guide to Digital Photography, The Power of Black-and-White in Nature Photography and Reports from the Field (an iBook). My website is at; my blogs are at and
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22 Responses to Image Manipulation and Nature Photography

  1. Jim Clark says:

    Great piece! I would like to post this on my facebook. And you know, I have never witnessed a snowy egret trying to snatch a fish from a Great egret, which is much larger in size. A couple years ago, when Carson and I were judging the annual nature photography contest for the a national conservation organization (no, it wasn't Defenders of Wildlife), we learned that several images that had placed in the winning categories,were manipulated by the same photographer! We just learned about it after the contest was over and some savvy observers started questioning the images. The more the organization investigated, the truth finally came out. One was a misleading and untrue caption: a bird species at a particular refuge that was never recorded there. Others were clones and digital manipulations like the one you show in this blog. The photographer is rather well known in certain circles...I recently unfriended him on my Facebook . It is just counter to how I do my photography. Thanks for bringing this up.

  2. Hugh and Carol Nourse says:

    Thanks for a great discussion of reality in nature photography. I have never believed that cameras were necessarily reality because of the quirks of taking pictures. But to go beyond that point to worrying about whether we have been honest in revealing how nature works is a great point. Amen.

  3. John j. Mullin says:

    Unethical is unethical period! I would like nature photographers to ask themselves this; just because I can, should I? I also think that posting the NANPA guidelines for truth in captioning and ethical field practices would help.

    Being untruthful has become all to pervasive in the world to day. I agree with you that we, as nature photographers need to be vigilant about being true to the craft.

  4. Rob Sheppard says:

    Thanks, Hugh and Carol.

  5. After reading your article I now realize how important to keep the
    integrity of photo. Informative post. Thank you.


  6. Teresa de Jesus Hernandez says:

    Thanks Rob for a great article, I think ethics is very important in all profession.


  7. Jim Shoemaker says:

    This is an important topic of consideration for all photographers, but especially in journalism. In the case of the photo for the Sacramento Bee, the photographer's decision to manipulate seems trivial in retrospect. According to what I've read, he chose to merge the two images because the thing in the beak of the Great Egret is more clearly recognizable as a frog in the second image. The original top photo effectively tells the story of what was happening; one bird is trying to steal the other's dinner. There was really no need to manipulate aside from artistic preference. (As an aside, why he didn't just clone the preferred frog from one image to the other while leaving everything else intact is beyond me.)

    • Rob Sheppard says:

      That is an interesting thought. If he had changed just the frog, there would be no behavior change to the wildlife, though it is still "changing time" (different events originally at different times now at the same time) with that manipulation.

  8. Jan says:

    Perfectly said Rob. Almost every image these days has some manipulation. It may only be to increase the contrast or boost saturation and some manipulation can be good. Putting a leopard in a cage with a baboon is disgusting and unconscionable. I think when you are trying to represent something as true to life as possible there should be little or no manipulation (e.g. OK to remove that pesky dust spot). If you are trying to make something surreal make it obvious or add a disclaimer.

  9. Michael Guncheon says:

    I think this is a very important topic about media (not just still images). As "reality" television shows are all the rage, what is presented as real to me is more serious transgression than the merging of two images.

    That is not to say that egretgate -- there I said it -- is not a problem.
    (Though I might have just used both images to imply the action more, but that's the video in me speaking.)

    For me the key is what you are saying or implying to the viewer. If you are a photojournalist that seems to be a very defined line in the sand. Obviously, choosing a focal length, sensor size, shutter speed, aperture etc. affect the final image. So does RAW processing and other image processing. But RAW images need to be processed to be used, images need to be sharpened because of low pass filters in the image sensors.

    At what point does adjusting a slider, say saturation, go from "okay" to "over the line"?

    (I have had discussions with photojournalists about cropping and that is a interesting topic to say the least.)

    While sometimes the topic might seem trivial at times, I am reminded of lemmings and their mass suicide misconception.

  10. Rob,

    I really like your piece! Thanks for sharing us. I have strong feeling against manipulation of any sort. Some may think me extreme, but I believe enhancing the quality of the imaging is suitable with minor cloning or healing but never adding or combining elements of other images to create a totally new contrived image.

  11. Rob Sheppard says:

    Thanks, Michael. Great thoughts. The lemmings story is another rather nasty part of wildlife photography/filmmaking. For those who don't know the story, lemmings do have somewhat of a mass migration at times, but they never jump over cliffs to their deaths. That was a totally fabricated story by the Disney filmmakers who forced lemmings over the cliff just for their film. But what makes the story important is that today so many people believe lemmings jump off cliffs, even though it isn't true. It shows the power (and responsibility needed) of mass media.

    Your comment about cropping is interesting. As soon as you change focal length, you are "cropping" the scene.


  12. Erin says:

    Great article! Personally, I find the challenge and excitement in trying to capture an image directly from the camera and not using post processing. Granted, sometimes cropping is definitely needed and balancing contrast, but getting that great shot without having to touch it is so rewarding (and saves time!). I also think you bring up a good point about changing the behavior or forcing behavior just for a shot. I think any human manipulation either on a computer or with the animal itself (the horrible examples above) in natural behavior is unethical to both the viewer and even the animal/species. So many wildlife/nature shots are used to encourage and promote conservation and if the pictures themselves don't represent reality, than it's a misleading. Thanks again for bringing up this important issue!

  13. Everett Davis says:

    If we get into the discussion of post processing or cropping as altering a photo, then Ansel Adams was at fault too. He would spend hours in the darkroom preparing his pictures. Post processing is a fact in digital photography due to the limits of the sensor to record as the eye sees the picture. However, where the line is crossed is when a photographer tries to pass off something that did not happen naturally as fact- as in the example of the leopard. Or when two images are combined and not disclosed as in the Egret picture. The biggest issue here is disclosure. I feel it is dishonest to make changes as stated above, or to add such things as wing tips, or to move eyes to make the picture more appealing without disclosure, or to take pictures of animals in captivity and not state that fact.

    It was a good point that was made about cropping a picture or using a telephoto lens. It is taking it to extreme to condemn these established photographic techniques as excessive and therefore unethical manipulation.

    The simplest way to avoid any ethical problems is full disclosure!

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