What Makes a Nature Photograph “Real”?

Candice Gaukel Andrews by Candice Gaukel Andrews | October 16th, 2009 | 9 Comments
topic: Eco Travel, Green Living


“After” photo: ship is gone; more highlights (see the “Before” photo below). ©Candice Gaukel Andrews

It looked perfect through the lens. I had the shot all lined up: blue mountain in the background, a rocky trail winding through the middle, and wildflowers in the foreground that made up two-thirds of the composition. I rotated the polarizing filter just enough so that I had a bright blue sky. Click.


“Before” photo: notice ship mast in background. ©Candice Gaukel Andrews

No sooner had I snapped the shutter release than a fellow eco-tourist standing at my elbow leaned in and remarked, “I could take great photos, too, if I had the fancy camera you do and knew how to fix them in the computer.”

I smiled and said nothing, but the comment rankled me. Cropping a photo and lightening or darkening areas, after all, are nothing more than techniques that generations of earlier photographers have used for years in the darkroom.

But that fellow did have a point. Some of the nature photos you see today in outdoor magazines or framed and for sale in stores depict images that don’t exist in the real world. Some are so doctored, in fact, that a disclaimer of “photo illustration” has to be added for purposes of disclosure.

The “doctor” is usually in …

Many of the most iconic nature shots popular today are composites. How probable is it, for example, to capture that perfect moment of a wild wolf howling in front of a moon so big that it would have to be hurtling toward the Earth to make such an image even remotely possible? Or what are the chances that a photographer could catch a polar bear standing in the perfect spot beneath an incredible array of northern lights? Those types of photos are almost always the result of merging two or more separate shots.

Is that photo, then, any less of a “nature shot” than one you’d take, say, of a tree growing in your backyard, without any digital alterations made after you depressed the shutter? Would you be more likely to purchase such an untouched shot, or would you go for the Great White Bear pondering the aurora borealis?

… and has been for a long time


“After” photo: no jacket sleeve; tighter cropping. ©Candice Gaukel Andrews


“Before” photo: blue jacket sleeve in lower left corner. ©Candice Gaukel Andrews

Manipulating scenes for the camera and the images the camera captures is nothing new.

As far back as the 1860s, photographer Matthew B. Brady, whose name is almost synonymous with Civil War photography (although he was often only the “project manager”), was rearranging carrion and debris on battlefields for more dramatic impact.

Then there’s the infamous 1994 Time magazine incident, when the publication darkened O. J. Simpson’s skin to make him look more like a criminal.

I’m an amateur photographer, so my “doctoring” is usually minimal, limited to taking out a telephone pole here or removing a bit of jacket sleeve there that just happened to move into the corner of the frame before I quickly snapped.

Do even these manipulations “ruin” a nature shot? Should we be interested only in pure documentation of what’s out there? Or should we, rather, be more interested in creating the image of what we see out there, much as a nonfiction writer uses his or her own style and choice of words to convey an emotion — to make you feel what he or she does about the “facts”?

Drawing the lines — or taking them out

In truth, almost all good photographers create a “vision” for every photo they take. Whether before taking the shot (moving a leaf for a better composition) or after clicking (lightening the shadows or changing a horizontal format to a vertical one), they are all manipulations.

Are these tweaks a threat to the integrity of “purist” documentary photographers, who don’t believe in altering anything? Is the goal in nature photography to capture an unadulterated moment, or to create an image? And, how do you answer the question, “Is your photo real?”

Happy trails,



  1. That is an excellent discussion of recording your images so you bring the best visual to the viewer . We are fortunate to have the technology to bring out those wonderful nuances in our images and to be able to remove unwanted distracting spots . I think it is part of discovering what is there in the image, an eye, a wisker
    or maybe a metalic glint on a wing to tell the story. I’m not much for combining images, but I guess it could be creative and into the realm of artistic expression.

    Helen Iltis | October 17th, 2009 | Comment Permalink
  2. Personally, I have no problem modifying a photo to take into account the weaknesses of the camera versus the human eye. First, cropping — we naturally focus intently on the interesting subject, and all else falls to peripheral vision. Cropping is the photographic equivalent of ignoring something uninteresting that intrudes in the periphery of the view.

    Second, exposure compensation (or whatever you call it). When I’m looking at a view, I can focus on the dark elements and the eye adjusts and I can make out fine detail (even if I need to shade my eyes). Similarly, when I’m looking a a bright area, my pupils narrow and then I’m seeing well. The camera, on the other hand, has to take an image at a single exposure setting, so the darks may be impenetrable and the light areas washed out. Using software (I use the free tool GIMP; see http://www.gimp.org) to pull out the darks and un-washout the lights can really help a photo present what the human eye would see. Overuse it, though, and the photo can look artificial. A little goes a long way.

    Third, I sometimes use sharpness enhancement. Particularly with point-and-shoot cameras, a lot of photos tend to a soft focus, and just a bit of sharpness enhancement restores what a human eye would see as it focused on each element of the scene.

    So, although I unabashedly use the three techniques above, I would answer “yes” if any body asked me if my photo was real. The weakness of the camera is my rationalization!

    Ben Branch | October 18th, 2009 | Comment Permalink
  3. I think there’s a distinction between photos presented as reference materials for a technical work, which I agree should definitely be left undoctored for accuracy’s sake, and photos presented as art. In the latter case, it’s reasonable to assume that the artist is presenting a view of the world as it should be rather than the world as it is. Of course, as you say, it’s nice to have a disclaimer in that case.

    Nine Quiet Lessons | October 19th, 2009 | Comment Permalink
  4. Dear Candy:
    Digital was made for cropping, lighting, straightning the horizon, but to “photo shop” an entire picture is great for the effects, but doesn’t truly show what the photographer saw. I guess it’s what a person wants from the photo. I liked you cropped photo.


    ps thanks for sharing.

    muriel shiff | October 19th, 2009 | Comment Permalink
  5. One of the reasons that many photographers have made the switch to digital media is the feeling that with all the controls at there disposal, they never have to print a bad picture again. In the old days you’d take your film in for processing and after spending 10-15 dollars, hope that you had a few good prints out of the roll. Now you can preview the images, select the best of the bunch and with a bit of Photoshop work, make a good photo better. What a feeling of power! I draw the line at taking subject matter out of the image, though. That’s part of the composition of the picture and should be dealt with in the framing of the original image.

    Art Hardy | October 20th, 2009 | Comment Permalink
  6. “Real” or “not real” has become a question of degree, hasn’t it? In the case of nature photography, I have no problem with the sort of editing you did in the shots above, Candy. However, if you’d taken shots of bears in a zoo and merged them with wilderness shots of scenery, that would be beyond the pale — unless captioned appropriately to explain the mashup.
    There are a couple of New York Times blogs that are focusing on photographic alteration this week: Randy Cohen considers fashion photos at:
    and Errol Morris has a 7-part series on documentary photos at:

    Joan Campbell | October 22nd, 2009 | Comment Permalink
  7. Is this photo real ? Probably not ! Glamour , movie star , gossip ,news and food magazines,I would say , all use altered pictures . When is the last time a hamburger looked like it did in a add ? Should a nature photographer not doctor his pictures ? How many times in the outdoors are conditions perfect for that great photo ? To much light , to dark , to much rain , to much wind , or to far away . Or you didn’t see the subject at all and you had to go to a wildlife preserve to get a picture with a fence in the background . If some photographers want to alter their photo’s to make them more appealing or have more of a natural setting that’s their prerogative . If some photographers want to leave them the way they took them then that’s their prerogative . Maybe all photographs should have a disclaimer on them ” creatively altered ” or ” this is what I got ” John Howard

    John H Gaukel | October 22nd, 2009 | Comment Permalink
  8. I like structure. If the composition of a photograph is unchanged (i.e. superimposition), it’s real to me. Having said that, I think a lot of animosity has arisen due to the technological shift in capturing. There’s still no precedent established or doctrine of “responsible” editing in photoshop. I don’t think there should be. As an artist you use any means necessary to communicate whatever the hell it is you want to show people. I’m sure Matthew B. Brady would have used photoshop if they had ethernet cables installed in conestoga wagons at the time, too.

    Travis John | October 23rd, 2009 | Comment Permalink
  9. I think being able to enhance a Nature photo is terrific – it simply helps express the wonder you have seen. However, I do find composite photos less admirable, since they are creating an image that simply did not exist.

    Mary | October 27th, 2009 | Comment Permalink

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