The stage is set

A couple of posts ago, I mentioned the concept of staging shots in nature and wildlife photography, and I’m finally getting back to tackling that as a subject. I’m going to attempt to throw some things out there for consideration without inserting too much personal opinion into the mix – we’ll see how that goes ;-)

While I don’t know if it has ever been measured by poll, I think most people believe that nearly all of the images they see of wildlife subjects have been shot on location and demonstrate natural behavior. Not only that, I think a large percentage actually bear some resentment towards the photo (or nature program) that is staged in some way. From experience in the field, and knowledge of lighting, behavior, and conditions that you’ll find these animals within, I can tell you that a hell of a lot more photos are staged in some way than most people think. For instance, most of the calendars showing owls, wolves, and the big cats are not shot in the wild. Most nature programs are staged either partially or completely, something that fans of The Crocodile Hunter and such really don’t want to hear, but seriously: do you think anyone, no matter how experienced, wanders up on animal subjects in the wild as often as these shows demonstrate?

There’s several debating points here. The first and biggest is, “Lying to your audience.” And I will readily agree that claiming that a staged shot or captive animal is actually “in the wild” is unethical. But, if you notice, most shows, calendars, photo credits, etc. make no such claim at all. They simply let you believe it, and take pains to hide the extra cameras, the edges of the set, the lights and reflectors, and all that. They imply a wild setting, but make no positive claims of such.

So, is implying unethical? Hmmm, good question. We are bombarded by it throughout our media, from commercials featuring “doctors” to every reality show out there, and everyplace in between. We’re happy with the suspension of disbelief that is required to get anything at all out of our entertainment. And in fact, there’s no small resentment when an actor that we like turns out to be a bigger asshole than the character they portray. There seems to be little argument, however, that we see nature photography and programs differently from, say, MTV’s “Real World.”

One can argue that nature photography can have a goal of demonstrating appearance, coloration, habitat, or behavior, and that staging doesn’t actually change this. Yes, it’s a closeup of an owl, one that it would be virtually impossible to achieve in strictly natural settings. But that doesn’t change the fact that it’s adorable! Yes, it’s perched on a real branch and has foliage in the background – that’s just part of the setting. Is this wrong, or deceptive? Does it have the same impact on us if it’s perched on the handler’s glove, or an obviously manmade perch? Is that difference all in our expectations?

Cost is an issue, too. Let’s say I want to see a hummingbird feeding its young. How many times have you seen hummingbird nests? I have yet to find any myself, even though I know there’s been one within a hundred meters of my place (because of the presence of a family at my feeder.) It might be a dozen meters off the ground, well hidden in a tree. Getting close enough for good detail shots means being in the trees near it, with a clear shot through foliage, and with adequate light to keep the images from blurring. Too close, and the hummingbirds aren’t going to like my presence, and might even abandon the nest. I might spend days to weeks at a time trying to get a couple of simple photos of feeding behavior.

Does this mean I can sell those images for a hell of a lot more money to an editor, because they’re genuine and took lots of effort to get? The chances are slim. Will the sponsors of a nature program pay a lot more for footage in natural conditions? Nope – there’s only so many commercials they’re going to stick in the program, and only so many viewers that these programs typically get, anyhow. Steve Irwin (The Crocodile Hunter) gained as many viewers as he did because he was an over-the-top character, and because people were waiting to see him get bitten. And while his show was one of the few that might have gained enough sponsor money to do everything in the wild, this was certainly not their approach.

So, how much “staging” is okay, and for what purposes? I’ve photographed hatching Ground Skink eggs in a terrarium – the behavior was natural, the setting was not. I’ve done plenty of shots at zoos – should this limit where and how those shots are used? For an article in a local newspaper or magazine about eagles, should any images be taken in the wild, or are these simply illustrations? Does the practice of setting out food and waiting for the photo subject to come by count as staging? And here’s a crucial question: would you pay more for a calendar of penguin photos that was guaranteed unstaged and natural? A whole lot more? And what counts as staging? Does habituating the animals to the presence of a photographer count?

I’m not leading anywhere with this, just providing some of the perspective. And of course, you should have guessed by now that, if I used that image at top for this post, it was staged – look closely and you’ll see the white of the bathtub peeking through the leaves. I tweaked the color and contrast to appear more like natural light conditions. The snake itself was quite wild, however – I had rescued it hours earlier from an old casting net it had become entangled within, and getting these shots earned me several bites and no small amount of juggling as it launched itself from the bathtub (not to mention cleaning the bathtub afterwards.) I was after detail and identifying markings, but is this an adequate excuse? And if I sell it, should there be specific markets I aim for?

[And if it helps, I usually make great effort to shoot in natural settings, and have never misrepresented an image. Just to put your mind at ease ;-) ]

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