Joe and Mary Ann McDonald's

Wildlife Photography

May 2004

Question of the Month


Digital Ethics? Can digital manipulation produce a benign shooting environment?

As mentioned on the home page of our website for April, we just returned from Singapore where we conducted a weekend photography seminar sponsored by the Singapore Nature Photography Society. As part of the seminar Mary and I critiqued images one evening, and one of these was of a lizard basking on a brushy limb. The photographer then pointed out that he had cloned out a leaf that was behind the subject, and asked me my opinion of the ethics of doing so. That sparked an interesting conversation that provided me an opportunity to articulate thoughts and issues I'd not considered previously. I'd like to address those points here.

The photographer's point was this: There was a leaf behind the lizard that he felt was distracting. He removed it in Photoshop, producing an image that was what he had envisioned. More importantly, by doing so after the fact, and not physically removing the leaf, he did not risk disturbing the lizard from its basking site. As the photographer said, he's lost innumerable images in the past by trying to remove a distraction physically, and in so doing, frightening off the dragonfly, lizard, butterfly, or other subject by doing so. By using Photoshop, he removed the leaf while not disturbing the lizard. He got his shot, the lizard was undisturbed, and everything was a win-win situation, except, now, the image was manipulated.

I think all of us have been bothered by a distraction that, in a film based world, we worked around through various means. Sometimes we've avoided distractions by changing lenses or perspectives, or by shading or pinning back or clipping off a distraction. I have no problem clipping off a distracting leaf or grass blade in my own little kingdom -- my yard, but I rarely do so anywhere else, even in my own woods. I mow my lawn, Mary prunes and gardens her flower beds, so plants are being impacted frequently there. But in the field, I try not to actually impact upon the environment in a permanent way, so I'll tie back, or bend down, or shade distracting backgrounds whenever possible.

Now let's consider the basking lizard. It is lying upon a leafy branch, basking in the sun, undisturbed and, because it is not moving, virtually invisible to the eyes of potential predators. There is a distracting leaf behind the lizard, and it might (and I stress MIGHT) be possible to get behind the lizard and to remove the leaf in some fashion, whether that was clipping the leaf off (not advocated by me!) or shading it or bending it out of the way. Quite probably, in moving in to do so, the photographer would have to be too close for the lizard's comfort and the lizard would have darted off, frightened. The result -- obviously, the photographer lost the shot, but there's other factors, too. One, the lizard was disturbed from basking. Two, its movement could draw attention to itself and attract a predator.

Briefly, we explored these ideas during the talk, and then expounded upon this. What if you're photographing at a bird's nest, or you find a favorite perch, or a mammal's den with what-you-decide is clutter in front of or behind the subject? Let's say there is a brightly lit branch that sticks up right behind the nest or perch. An unethical photographer (in my book) might clip the branch off to create a clean background without this distraction. While the photograph might be improved by doing so, it is entirely possible that that branch provided shelter or cover that was essential for the nest. Indeed, any number of micro-habitat considerations may have been involved for the bird to pick that particular site for its nest, and removing a leaf, a branch, or whatever, could compromise the safety and the success of the nest. That's not worth it.

Digitally, that offending branch or leaf could be removed after the shot. Now, the question is, if that same leaf or branch could have been removed by a physical act, does it matter that that same leaf or branch is removed digitally later? The end result is the same -- the leaf is gone. However, the nest integrity is still intact -- nothing has changed for the bird. Going back to the lizard that prompted the discussion, again, the end result would be the same -- the offending leaf is gone, but the manner in which it is done (physically, by removing the leaf, or digitally, by cloning it out) will differ. One could argue that the act of attempting to remove the leaf would disturb the lizard, resulting in the shot not being made because the lizard scurried off. Therefore, since the photograph cannot be made naturally, doing this digitally, where the lizard isn't disturbed and does not run off, captures an image that really isn't possible to make. That's stretching things in my opinion because we really don't know, do we, if the lizard would run off or not.

I posed another question to the Singapore audience, one that I also asked NANPA attendees of a high speed flash seminar I delivered in January of 2004. Hummingbirds are often photographed with high-speed flashes. To do this effectively two to four flashes are used -- therefore the lighting source is man-made. The birds are coming to a feeder, which may be disguised by a flower, or may actually be a flower baited with sugar water. In either case, the flower is generally placed into the hummingbird set, rather than a flash setup being placed around a flower. To prevent ghosting and to eliminate a black background some type of flash-illuminated background is used. The usual practice is to use some type of artificial background. I often use a plain posterboard or a spray-painted background to create a sense of a blue sky or mottled vegetation background. Some folks use out-of-focus photographs of backgrounds, and some photographers use plants in the background to create an out-of-focus but natural-looking background. So, consider. The lights are man-made. The flowers are placed appropriately by man -- they're not natural. The background is placed, or is fake. Only the free-flying, wild hummingbird is natural. And this reality is generally accepted by every photo contest and by every calendar or magazine that publishes hummingbird photographs. It is simply how it is done.

Now, here's the question. Is it digital manipulation if you would photograph a hummingbird against a plane blue or gray or white background and later, in Photoshop, you change the background. Remember, normally one would place a posterboard, painted board, or photograph to serve as the background, and the hummingbird would be photographed against that background in real time. If you thought about it beforehand, you could have photographed a field of flowers or a landscape of cacti (whatever is appropriate for the species) and blown up a print to serve as the background, again shooting the bird against this background in real time. This is accepted as 'normal' when it is done. But what if you change the background after the fact? By using any number of selection tools in Photoshop one could lift the hummingbird and the flower from the 'real' fake background and composite the bird against the Photoshop-generated background. What is the difference? Frankly, since everything about the image is man-made except for the free-flying hummer, I don't see much difference between techniques.

Let's then stretch this further. Is it manipulation, then, to change the flower in Photoshop rather than going to the trouble of disguising a tube feeder by a flower at the moment the image is made. In either case, it's a manipulated flower, one where the photographer has placed a flower to attract the bird or, more commonly, to disguise a tube feeder where the bird is actually feeding. To me, that's now sliding into digital manipulation, but is it really much different than changing backgrounds after the fact rather than at the moment of exposure?

I'd love to hear your thoughts on this. For me, the lizard discussion in Singapore was something of an epiphany. I think that the freedom that digital imagery gives us will actually enhance our wildlife and nature photography experience. If the 'perfect shot' requires a distracting leaf or branch to be removed, and doing so physically would disrupt or disturb the subject, I know I'll certainly consider doing so digitally. For the record, I haven't done so yet, but I think there is a lot to be said for doing so.

I considered one other point when we had our discussion about the lizard. As we all know, wildlife and nature photography is an increasingly popular hobby. Inevitably there will be more and more demands and pressures put on our subjects. Isn't it possible that simple manipulation -- like removing an offending branch or leaf that could be removed physically -- will lessen our impact upon our subjects. And if so, isn't that a good thing?

On the Luminous Landscape website Michael Reichmann has written an essay that discusses the practicality and the ethics involved in shooting a landscape where a sodapop can rests in the foreground. Check it out -- I think Michael's feelings on this are quite similar to mine.


Previous Questions of the Month




 Camera Techniques

 In the Field

How would you meter these images?

Why should you know Manual Mode? 

 The Sunny 16 rule -- is it worth knowing today?

  How do you shoot silhouettes?

 How would you meter these challenging images?

 Who should go Digital,
and when?

 What do we really think about digital photography?

 What do we think of the Canon D30 digital camera?

 How long will film be around?

 What is our initial Digital Workflow?

 What is our Digital Workflow in the Lab?

 Is Shooting in the RAW format worthwhile?

 Is an L-Shaped Camera Bracket worth the Money?
You bet it is!

 Using Zoom lenses with tele-converters and extension tubes -- can you use both together?

 What the heck is the Scheimpflug Law?

  Reciprocity Failure

 What is the Best Composition?

 Are Image Stabilization Lenses Worth the Money?

 Hyperfocal Distance

  How do you determine distances?

 Should you have a depth of field Preview button on your camera?

 Flash and Tele-flash Techniques

 What is the most versatile remote release camera firing system?

 What the heck is a Plamp?

 What is the best flash for closeup and
macro photography?

 How do you shoot high-speed action images?
 How did I photograph that flying wasp?

 What is the Fotronix's
Flash System?

 What Film Lab do we use, and why?

What is the Big Lie?
Tfhe truth about Kenya's Tourism--it is SAFE!

 How can you attract insectivorous birds to your feeding stations and bait sites?

 How do you make things happen in wildlife photography?
 What is our Favorite bird-shooting location?  What are our Five Favorite Shooting Locales?  Which binoculars do we just love to use?

How Easy is Whale Photography?

 What is the best
Game Caller?

  How do we carry our film when traveling?
 Is NANPA for you?  What is NANPA and how will it benefit me?

 Is it time for a summer NANPA Summit?

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