Does a Wildlife Photo Have to Be “Wild”?

Candice Gaukel Andrews by Candice Gaukel Andrews | April 20th, 2010 | 9 Comments
topic: Eco Travel

If you’re a nature enthusiast, chances are that somewhere in your home you display at least one image of a wild animal in its natural habitat: a framed photo hanging on your wall of a black wolf peeking through the leaves, a calendar on your desk with 12 glossy shots of snow leopards in rocky places or several conservation magazines — whose covers depict eagles or hummingbirds in flight — stacked on your coffee table.

What may surprise you is that many — if not most — of those images may not be of wild animals on their home turf, but photos of captive “game farm” animals rented out to the photographer and trucked to a scenic location.

It takes strength of mind and character.

One of the requirements for becoming a wildlife photographer is to possess a ton of patience. You also need to have the fortitude and physical strength to sit in freezing snowstorms, blistering heat and pounding downpours for hours at a time, waiting for the opportunity to get that “perfect shot.” Sometimes, that moment never comes. Nature doesn’t always cooperate with a photographer’s pressing deadline.

When that happens, some photographers (and magazine editors, catalog company executives and calendar producers) will hire wildlife from a game farm. Owners of game farms will bring “model” animals to photographers at the setting of their choice so they can get the shot — and the paycheck.

White-tailed deer

These three white-tailed deer were photographed in the wild. ©John T. Andrews.

Using captive, “tame” animals as substitutes for authentic wildlife isn’t new. Even the early Walt Disney films of the 1950s and 1960s — which, for decades, set the standard for nature films — went this route. In White Wilderness, Part II (1958), for example, lemmings, caught by children in Churchill, Manitoba, were put on a turntable and flung over a cliff into the sea to simulate their “suicide runs.” Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom (which premiered in 1963) often staged animal scenes.

While today’s nature productions have come a long way in authenticity, such as the BBC’s Planet Earth series (2006), Disneynature’s Earth film (2009) and the current PBS Nature TV program, stock photo agencies, such as Getty Images, routinely sell “wildlife” photos that were actually accomplished with the aid of a game farm. Some are labeled as such; some are not.

A little shampoo works wonders.

I talked with well-known nature photographer Patrick J. Endres of — whose images have appeared on the covers of magazines such as National Wildlife, Defenders and Backpacker — for his take on this issue.

“I consider myself first and foremost intrigued and lured by the creative element of photography, so I don’t approach it with the premise that an image be represented exactly as it was seen,” Endres said. “This is not problematic, generally, in the artistic and commercial realms. However, when it comes to the editorial photography marketplace, or nature and wildlife prints, I think that image manipulation, digital alteration or captive animal status is something that should be disclosed.

“I have never photographed at a game farm, and generally would not find satisfaction in getting imagery at such a location. However, if I were doing an assignment for a commercial client that required the use of tamed animals, I would consider it a reasonable option. For nature prints, and images I sell for editorial use, I do not alter them beyond the standard image processing attributes. If an image has been digitally altered, or includes a captive or tame animal, I believe it should be disclosed.”

White-tailed deer

This shot of a white-tailed deer was taken at a “game farm.” ©John T. Andrews.

If  an image on Endres’ Web site has been digitally altered, he includes the words “DIGITALLY MODIFIED IMAGE” in capital letters in the first line of the caption. However, not all nature-image sellers adhere to this same standard of disclosure — either because they don’t know if a photograph depicts game farm animals, or they don’t bother to ask.

To be honest, animals in the wild often aren’t as good-looking as their game farm counterparts. Out there, wolves get diseases, leopards starve and eagles receive wounds. Leaves and dirt adhere to their fur and feathers. Would you buy a photo of a wild animal that looked dirty or sick? Now that photos of shampooed and well-fed wildlife have flooded the marketplace, do you expect anything less?

Should it be required that shots of captive, game farm animals be labeled as such, or not? Would you feel differently about your black wolf photograph if you knew it was actually of a game farm animal? Let me know your thoughts.

Happy trails,


Feature photo: ©Patrick J. Endres,


  1. Interesting post.

    Mike M. | April 21st, 2010 | Comment Permalink
  2. I don’t think it’s something that necessarily needs to be regulated, though it is more honest to label non-wild photos as such. Of course, it’s good for people to be aware that not all “wildlife” photos are representative of animals as they appear in the wild.

    Nine Quiet Lessons | April 21st, 2010 | Comment Permalink
  3. Most people assume that when they’re looking at a photograph it represents a moment in time that has been captured and not altered. But in reality almost all images that are printed or reproduced as either advertising or editorial imagery have been manipulated to some degree. The result is viewers must now look at photos with a certain amount of skepticism rather than accepting an image as “real”.

    Art Hardy | April 21st, 2010 | Comment Permalink
  4. I guess I’m just a dreamer, but when I see a “wild” life, photo, I want to believe it is wild. As amature photographers, I’m sure we have all gotten some remarkable photos in the wild, and we feel really great about that achievement.
    I guess if a commercial photographer wants a shot of a swim suit clad model next to a polar bear, it’s warmer to do it in a controled enviroment.

    muriel shiff | April 22nd, 2010 | Comment Permalink
  5. As I look at my last trip’s pictures, there are a few that are not
    in good focus, and most of these are simply filed away to never be
    seen except for informational purposes. In only two cases did I
    actually make changes in the pictures, one to attempt to get a
    reduction in the amount of early morning fog. The picture may be a
    bit improved, and for a calendar picture may be better but the
    original is still a better reminder of actual memories. The second
    was a blind shot of a wolf, and he shows up better with a more dense
    shot. The rest please me as original, and are a bit more

    Ed K. | April 23rd, 2010 | Comment Permalink
  6. Personally, the only photographs I have of animals are in their natural habitat. For me, that is the beauty of “true nature”. I would nevere go to a game farm to photograph animals, just wouldn’t be a true representation of what animals are all about.

    Sandy Gunderson | April 23rd, 2010 | Comment Permalink
  7. There’s a place for both. For commercial purposes, game farms make the most sense. But if I went looking for nature photography as an art I wouldn’t look at Getty’s.

    Travis John | April 23rd, 2010 | Comment Permalink
  8. yes many photographer has been shoot the photo in forest for animal beauty and many person has been shoot for interesting to make the scenery in wild .

    Everbright Smiles | April 25th, 2010 | Comment Permalink
  9. good points are mentioned in the post. thanks for sharing.

    Jason | October 23rd, 2014 | Comment Permalink

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