Photo Tips 6

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The Ethics Of The Setup Shot And The Debate Behind The Lens

In the Olden Days, before the digital camera and the computer, photographers could, with some effort in the darkroom, dodge, burn, and sandwich their prints. It was considered unethical to add or subtract elements. If you did so, it was expected of you to disclose what you did - and then your print was viewed as more of a work of art. And there was nothing wrong with that.
Coming from the old school, when the computer age came, with all of its ramifications, I was appalled at what some photographers were doing with their photos. Somehow, putting polar bears with penquins on ice flows just didnít seem right -(and it wasnít, considering they belong on different poles). I didnít mind so much that they had the computer skills to add and subtract their subjects, but I did mind when they claimed they were photographs taken "as is". It is one thing to use the computer as a darkroom - and I am now seeing its value as such - to remove backscatter, adjust exposure, or crop your photo. It is another thing to use your computer to manipulate your photo and tout it as a photograph taken in real life.  Now that we are in a age where nothing we look at can be considered genuine, it is discouraging for beginning photographers unable to achieve the same results in the field or underwater. Wildlife magazines and films routinely brings us images of animals that startle us with their drama and intimacy. The questions that now arise are whether the shots were manipulated in the field, in the computer, or taken at the ever popular game farm. We donít know anymore what is real (or was it Memorex?)

This unknown subject is about 2" long -coming out of its hole that it surrounded with bits of plastic and old fishing line. I could have moved that material to get a better photo, but that would have disturbed its home. I felt it was better to get a more realistic photo of its environment. Unfortunately, I did not realize noone really knows what it is!!! If you do, get in touch with me. Taken with a Nikon N90- 60 mm  lens in 8' water in the Intercoastal Water off West Palm beach.

There is another side to this ethical coin.  Photographers that shoot birds, other wildlife, fish (above water shots of caught fish), nature and underwater seem to have different ethical standards on how that shot can be taken. Some groups have no qualms about manipulating their subjects in the field. I have seen photographers damage surrounding areas to photograph a flower, disturb the nests of birds, drug fish, and move underwater subjects to put them on a more colorful background. The North American Nature Photography Association has issued a statement on ethical field practices. The condensed version is - (and this applies to underwater!) - environmemtally, have a good knowledge of your subject so as not to interfere, nor impact them in any way. Back off and use longer lenses. Help minimize cumulative impacts and maintain safety. Inform others if you see anyone engaging in inappropriate or harmful behavior - many people unknowingly endanger themselves and animals. Donít argue with those that do not care, report them to the proper authorities. (For more information about NANPA, log on to their website at
As a photographer, I feel we have a moral obligation to photograph the moment as it was, to show  others who canít see wildlife in its natural state, the true behavior of natureís inhabitants. I will not handle, manipulate or disturb my subjects in any way. What you see is what you get, for better or worse.
I feel that if publishers accept photographs that are known to be manipulated, whether in the computer or in the field, it should be annotated with "Capture", "Digitally manipulated", or "Digital composite". If it is a true natural shot, note it as "Wild". Disclosure is very important. Disclosure doesnít necessarily lessen the impact of the image, but it does put it in the proper perspective. We may think we are fooling people with some of these incredible shots that we know couldnít possibly  exist, but we are only fooling ourselves. Future generations who will no longer know what is real, because so much of life now is one big special effect.
Any other comments and issues youíd like to see addresssed? Contact me at

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