Welcome to the second part of a two-part series about wildlife photography ethics. Part 1 explored the questionable social media techniques that some photographers use to increase their following. In Part 2 things get even uglier! I’ll be focusing on authenticity issues with photography and photo editing. Baited animals are passed off as hunting naturally, captive animals are portrayed as being in the wild, frozen insects are made to look alive and the list goes on. Keep reading and learn how to have a critical eye to spot inauthentic wildlife photography in your feed.
An object that is made to look real or valuable in order to deceive people.
Baiting is a controversial topic that sparks a heated debate whenever it comes up on social media. Rather than rehash these arguments, I’m going to focus on how to detect baited shots. Baiting is using food to attract wild predatory animals such as owls, kingfishers or foxes closer for photographs. Many people, myself included, are against this practice for a variety of reasons, including that these animals begin to associate humans with food which can negatively affect their behaviour.
Baited shots are everywhere – they win contests, appear on magazine covers and are often some of the most liked photographs on social media. When it comes to authenticity, photographers rarely admit they use bait. The audience is lead to believe that the animal is hunting or behaving naturally, when in fact the shot has been staged. With a bit of practice though, you can start to spot the signs that a photographer is using bait.
How to Tell if an Owl Photograph is Baited
Because shots aren’t accurately labeled, we sadly have to look at all owl photographs with a critical eye. I run an Instagram photography hub called Ethical Owl Photos. I have the difficult task of figuring out whether photographers use bait to get their shots.
Here are some clues I look for:
- A large number of arctic owl photographs e.g. Snowy Owl, Great Gray Owl, Boreal Owl and Northern Hawk Owl – these are the most commonly baited species.
- Flight shots, particularly of the owl flying straight towards the camera and/or pouncing towards the snow
- Numerous close-up photographs
- I read captions, profiles and even the photographer’s website to see if any context is provided
- Information about the photographer attending or running owl photography workshops. The majority of these workshops rely on bait.
One shot that surprised me was of a Barred Owl flying toward the camera. We don’t often hear about Barred Owls being baited, but it does happen!
Baiting Other Animals
Using bait to lure wildlife isn’t restricted to birds. Photographers bait all kinds of wildlife including bears, whales, sharks, wild cats (tigers, lions, leopards etc.), foxes, pine martens and wolves. All I would say is, if a shot looks too good to be true, sadly it probably is! Context is important so read caption to see if the photographer has shared information about how they got the shot. And location is another factor – some places allow you to get closer to animals than others. Lastly, I am always wary if a photographer has multiple closeup animal photographs without any explanation of context.
Baiting wildlife can also raise legal issues, such as a case where a biologist was fined $12,500 for baiting killer whales.
Underwater Kingfisher Shots
Photographers, particularly in Europe, train Common Kingfishers to fish out of an aquarium to get underwater and diving photographs. To read more about the practice and see example photographs click here or here. Even when a tank isn’t used, photographers will bring fish to attract Kingfishers to a particular spot. They set up special perches near the spot, to maximize the chances of getting a great shot.
I now look at all photographs of the Common Kingfisher with a critical eye. Although I haven’t seen an aquarium set-up being used for North America’s Belted Kingfisher, I think we would be naive to assume that some photographers don’t feed them with fish to get closer shots.
The breeding season is a sensitive time for many species. Photographers shouldn’t be getting too close or spending too long near a nest or den taking photographs. This is especially true for endangered species. Photographers also sometimes remove foliage and in extreme cases actually remove baby birds from nests to stage photographs. While it is difficult to judge whether nest photographs have been taken ethically, we should consider these photographs more carefully than regular ones.
Take a look at this Instagram account and think about the implications for wildlife photography ethics.
Over Use of Playback
One way to attract birds to come closer to you is to play their song or call. According to Audubon’s Guide to Ethical Bird Photography, playback should be used sparingly and avoided altogether during breeding season and with endangered species. Many birders, myself included, use short bursts of playback on occasion for difficult to see species.
David Sibley’s article, The Proper Use of Playback suggests:
The epitome of bad playback etiquette is the birder who walks around with a device continuously and loudly broadcasting sound, or the photographer who sets up a device on continuous playback and waits for the bird to fly in.
Unfortunately it’s impossible to tell if a photograph is of a bird responding to excessive playback. All we can do is be aware of this issue and bear it in mind when looking at photographs, particularly of shy species.
p.s. I didn’t use playback to photograph the Eastern Towhee above.
Photographers use flash to photograph owls and other nocturnal creatures at night. Flash is also used to supplement natural light during the daytime. According to Audubon, flash should be used sparingly at all times and avoided altogether on nocturnal birds at night. If you don’t like the use of flash, the ‘good’ news is that it is pretty easy to tell which photographers are using it.
Some photographers post photographs of captive birds and animals, but don’t label them accordingly. The audience is lead to believe that the animal is actually in the wild. Look for close-ups of raptors and owls (like the photo above), exotic birds and mammals and insects/amphibians/snakes that don’t live in the area where the photographer is from.
This issue goes beyond photographing animals in zoos. There is a whole industry of game farm photography where you can pay to visit farms where captive animals like cougars, wolves, bears and fishers will be staged for you. There is a well-known story about a photographer who won a £10K photography contest for a shot of a ‘wild’ Iberian wolf, that was later found out to be captive.
While many people are bothered by baiting or harassing animals, the ethics around macro photography seem murkier. Unlike with animals, photographers more freely admit to killing, freezing, refrigerating, soaking, hairspraying and even rubbing Vicks vapo rub on insects. Amphibians and insects are also removed from their natural habitat and staged for photographs. The Facebook Page, Truth Behind Fake Nature Photography has some great examples.
Red flags to look for are shots with multiple species like the example above, water droplets on insects (they can be natural, but are often not), things that just don’t seem like they would happen in the wild, insects looking stunned or frozen and amphibians in unnatural positions. The winning photograph in a National Geographic contest was a photograph of a Dragonfly in the rain. It was later found out that the “rain” was actually someone spraying the dragonfly with water.
Authenticity Issues in Photo Editing
Most photographers edit their photographs before posting them online. This is a generally accepted practice, but there is a line somewhere between enhancing the natural beauty of a photograph and altering it to something unrecognizable from the original scene.
Editing of the Subject
Editing the main subject of a wildlife photograph can have authenticity implications. Some photographers alter the colour of a bird’s feathers or eyes so much they no longer accurately portray how the bird really looks. It’s a fine line and most photographers, myself included, have, on occasion, added too much saturation or too much sharpening. While the occasional snafu is to be expected, look out for photographers who regularly amp their colours up to an unnatural level.
This is even more of a gray area than the edits done to the bird or animal. On one extreme, some would argue that even removing a branch from a bird photograph is doing too much. For other people, the line might be removing all the background elements from a photograph. Some of this comes down to personal taste, but part of is does still speak to the authenticity of seeing a subject in its natural environment. If you prefer to see ‘natural’ photographs keep your eye out for photographers who only post perfectly blurred out backgrounds.
A composite is a combination of 2 or more images taken at different times. An example is a photograph of shorebirds along a beach that’s combined with a photograph of a Bald Eagle swooping. Even though the photographer didn’t see a Bald Eagle swooping towards shorebirds, the audience is lead to believe that this is the case.
Oftentimes photographers don’t disclose that the shot is a composite. Even if it is disclosed, you are seeing a scene that didn’t actually exist in nature. Like with everything else in wildlife photography, if it looks too good to be true, it probably is! Although there are more radical composites out there, this Great Horned Owl photograph was disqualified from an Audubon photography contest because it was found out to be a combination of two photographs.
Wildlife Photography Ethics – Conclusion
There is a lot of inauthentic wildlife photography out there and most of us could do better at more accurately portraying our work. Honest communication and truthful captions go a long way at upping your authenticity game. Some photographers take it a step further and set out to deceive their audience. I hope that by reading this article, you’ve become more aware of some of the ‘bull’ that’s out there. Even with the most critical eye, some photographs will still slip through the net. But, you can always fall back on the simple rule of thumb: if it looks too good to be true, it probably is!
To read Part 1 of this series about social media practices, click here.
What authenticity issues have you come across while looking at wildlife photographs on social media?