Photo Fix Or Photo Fraud?

I took this photo last year of a black-necked stilt and her three young chicks. I had set up in my usual position, with my lens close to the water surface in order to achieve a more intimate eye-level perspective. I was happy with the shoot and this shot in particular, showing all three chicks together with the mother standing protectively over them.

The only thing that bothered me each time to looked at it was the out-of-focus mud bank just peaking up into the frame. It had not been a concern when I was shooting the mother by herself, but once the chicks were introduced to the scene, the mud cut off parts of their reflections and became a distracting element.

The original image included a distracting mud berm obstructing the reflections of the chicks.
The original image included a distracting mud berm obstructing the reflections of the chicks.

This week I took another look at the shot and realized I might be able to pull off digitally removing the mud feature, and finally fulfilling my original vision. The result is below.

I digitally removed the entire mud bank across the bottom of the photo, and restored portions of each chick’s reflections to rebuild what had been hidden behind the mud. While I was at it, I removed a distracting out-of-focus blade of grass from the left hand side of the photo.

I was able to digitally remove the mud, restoring a close approximation of what the chicks' reflections looked like behind the mud.
I was able to digitally remove the mud, restoring a close approximation of what the chicks’ reflections looked like behind the mud.

Was my change acceptable? Ethical perceptions of photography range wildly. Each photographer and photo critic sits somewhere on the spectrum from thinking that photography is merely a form of art so it is up to the artist’s vision, to thinking that any changes to what was captured by the camera is unethical and not acceptable.

In fact, ethics in photography cover topics other than just post-processing manipulation (which probably gets 80% of the attention). Even when a photograph represents accurately what a camera captures, it does not mean that the scene wasn’t artificially created by the photographer.

I think the judgment lies in how the photograph is presented to the audience. Is this presented as a work of art created in the mind of the photographer? Is it a natural history image, meant to accurately depict a natural scene or behavior? Do the digital edits in any way change the fundamental portrayal of that natural scene or behavior?

For example, in the digitally altered image presented in this article, if I had artificially inserted any of the chicks into the scene with the mother in order to create more emotional impact, that would go beyond what I consider an ethical representation of my work. It would be depicting a behavior in a species that never actually took place. However, the edits I have made fall inside what I consider ethical. I have not changed the position or behavior of any of the subjects of the photo. I have only removed an aesthetically distracting element in order to create a more pleasing photo.

What do you think? I’d love to hear your opinions on the matter.

  • I’ve had a lot of discussions about nature photography ethics at my blog and elsewhere — and I agree with you that it depends on how the photo is presented.

    Putting aside the issue of field ethics and behavior toward wildlife, both of which are very important to me, I think some of these decisions come down to the integrity of disclosure. Here, you show how you changed the photograph and aren’t misrepresenting what you saw. I sometimes take two exposures for moon juxtaposition shots, for instance, but I label them as such. 

    I realize there are purists who would disagree with me, but I think disclosure is a significant component of this discussion. I know a photograph falls under the auspices of “art.” What differentiates nature photography, for me anyway, is that it’s representing an authenticity and a reality which brings to mind stricter mores. 

    I’m particularly critical of set up shots that aren’t disclosed as such … refrigerating insects, as one example, or baiting owls. Well, I have personal trouble with those issues on different grounds. But, I tend to think that if a photographer is presenting work as photojournalistic in nature, that presents a much more stringent set of standards. If the photographer acknowledges artistic changes for the sake of clearing the clutter and then describes that in some form, it may disqualify the images from certain contexts or contests, but it’s honest.

  • I realize I am a little late in commenting here, but I am just getting caught up on my blog reading. 🙂   I don’t see anything wrong with what you did here Hank, and quite frankly, I don’t even think it warrants disclosure personally.  You did nothing to change the relevant ecology of the scene.  You only changed the visual presentation to make a stronger image.  I would also draw the line at adding more chicks, it is just not something I prefer to do unless it is actually presented as a artist rendering.  But what you did here seems pretty commonplace (and well done I might add) and quite acceptable.

  • This is very eloquently put, Ingrid.  You mention being critical of set up shots – what do you think of “natural looking” assembled bird perches (ie, the type of shots Alan Murphy is famous for)?  Food baiting aside, the perches often involve selecting the best looking branches and wrapping vines around them, or adorning stumps with flowers to “create” an aesthetic habitat in which the bird appears.  Based on the number of birding magazine covers he gets, it seems as though this is perfectly fine with editorial publishers.