The ability to document and define events
with a camera has always given
photography a unique power
against other forms of art.
That is the truth
Martha Hill

Fireball Lilys in November    
Masai Mara, Kenya

Fritz Plking

Is Nature Photography  Photo-Journalism, 
Art or  Blunder?

It seems as if art in general has left its great future behind no matter if we are talking about painting, music, literature or photography. In painting nothing has happened since Picasso, after the Capitol Records from Sinatra in the mid fifties nothing remarkable has happened as far as music is concerned and after Ernst Haas contributed the "Wischer" as a medium of expression to nature photography there has been no progression of artistic development in sight only the technical development has progressed rapidly.

Perhaps the future lies somewhere else for us:

While watching and hearing a singer on television, it is pretty safe to assume that he is only opening and closing his mouth and that what you actually hear is the recording from 10 years ago, when the voice was still good. The source of the applause is also from a tape which was more then likely recorded from some decade old entertainment show when people where still enthusiastic.

So you are listening to a singer who has not had a good singing voice in ages, whose appearance receives a raging applause from people who have been dead for years. This is called playback and is a standard procedure on German television. The host of the show then delightedly tells the audience that you are watching a live television broadcast from the Congress Center in Berlin.

Or take for instance the news programs: There you see how recruits of the German Army are drafted and carrying their belongings in cardboard boxes. This scene is actually staged and it took a long time to find photogenic cardboard boxes to give to new recruits who then had to parade through the gates numerous times until the take was good enough to convince the viewer of the news program that that is the way it is when new recruits arrive.

This you can look up in the biography of Wolf von Lojewsky. Nowadays they call this documentary. I dont even want to get into the films on wildlife and what they are telling us are wildlife documentaries.

Most of the wildlife documentaries have just as much in common with an actual documentary as a hot dog does with meat.

Panda in a breeding-station l
Wolong Valley, China

Do we want to affiliate ourselves with this? By just taking another 8 fly-agaric (poisonous mushroom) and planting them where there were actually only two to make it appear more impressive and then to sell that to the public as a natural picture?

The law requires you to declare the fact that a product does not meet the consumers expectations if you are bringing it out on the market.

So for instance, if you produce butter but you substitute other ingredients for the milk, you have to call the result margarine.

Someone who produces marzipan (sweet almond paste) but uses peach pits has to call the result persipan.

Champagne produced outside of Champagne region is not allowed to be called Champagne but has to be called sparkling wine.

To this day there is no mandatory declaration in nature photography.

I can have a domesticated bear rear up on its hind legs in Wyoming, publish the picture and have people believe that it is an original wildlife picture.

I can construct feeding areas and take pictures of animals fighting over the food and make the people believe that this is happening in the wilderness of nature.

Well now apparently nature photography is not so important that the law would stipulate you declaring which picture is real, arranged or made-up.

But nothing is keeping us from making a certain point: `honesty is our contribution to the so-called minimum standard` and voluntarily introduce our own declaration.

Real photos of nature are those where the photographer has in no way, shape or form intervened with the subject. The premium class of nature photography. They bring out the "pleasure in the real thing".

Controlled pictures of nature are those where the photographer intervenes, works with bait, lures (tape recording, calls, sounds, etc.) when twigs or leaves are either added or taken away; when the photographer puts up tree limbs for landing sites (i.e. at places where the animals are fed in winter, with birds that feed on bees) and so on.

Everyone has seen the pretty pictures of brooks and streams that have picturesque leaves of fall coloring artfully strewn on the rocks by the banks, where they have never lain before in reality, clearly visible to the viewer that the photographer has put them there.

Or, another example, when I read an article about "gliders" in the magazine "National Geographic" and see the picture of a snake that is gliding down to the ground from a high tree, I would really like to know if this snake is voluntarily gliding through the air and if this is the pose it has while doing so, or if the photographer s assistant has thrown this snake up ten times in order to get this particular pose right and that the picture is actually of a snake having been thrown.

There was a time when journalists and photographers of National Geographic had the motto: dont pay, dont interfere. I would really like to know if that is still so. This could be documented convincingly by adding a clear comment to the picture.

Buffalo and yellow billed oxpecker  
Masai Mara, Kenya

Fictional photos of nature are those where the photographer composes a double exposure by copying two slides onto one and of course all of the digitally created products. Those where bothersome details can be removed by digital retouch or one and the same animal copied five times into one picture, and so on.

Now we nature photographers could if we wanted to say: the third century will be the century of unmistakable nature photography and that is the reason we will clearly declare the status of nature photo.

Another interesting question is: Where is the sense of taking a picture which would actually have not existed in nature without our interference?

Nature photography is an independent medium and an independent form of art. Nothing can compare itself to it, nothing comes close and nothing can replace it if it is done honestly and remains true to itself.

If it is manipulated, arranged or digitally altered, it becomes exchangeable.

Because changing and arranging can and is done by every painter and drawer. This is the reason why no one is interested in painted pictures of nature. Everyone knows that the way the painter depicted this is certainly not the way it was in reality.

That is why you find 99% nature pictures instead of painted or digitally created pictures in earlier nature / wildlife magazines. People, if they are informed, actually want real pictures, pictures who show the way it actually is and not created or made up pictures.

Nature photography is a unique documentary for nature. It can do what no other medium or form of art can do: It can capture the real and authentic moment in nature. We do not want to give away this unique gift by becoming incredible through combining these real pictures with the ones that were manipulated or digitally created, without clearly stating which is real nature photography and which is substitute photography.

In the end it will not be the nature photographer who decides if the pictures will carry a declaration or not, but the proof-readers, picture and magazine editors.

Only when they are aware of and feel their responsibility to inform on the status of a depiction towards their readers, thus demanding a proper labeling from photographers, will this be accomplished in the long run.

As a first step the nature photography societies would have to seriously try and establish this. This would be a nice task for the GDT and for the IFWP, the coalition of (almost) all the European nature photography associations, in this way being able to implement it in all of Europe.

The second step would have to be that the picture editors of the most important magazines like i.e. National Geographic and GEO are convinced of the importance of this by the nature photographers associations. Only if they are under the impression that they owe this to their readers as a respectable magazine, to clearly explain the status of a photo, will this system have a chance to get established.

Which does not mean that every individual photographer cant already start doing this. The sooner the status of a picture is clearly outlined, the sooner a standard implementation can be achieved.

This would be my suggestion:

Always when a nature photographer has in no way altered the subject, the label on the slide frame should read:

A nature document not arranged nor manipulated.

With all takes of wild animals or plants as well as landscapes, where the photographer has interfered with bait or lures, directs or places animals in photogenic places, works with calls or sounds, adds or removes twigs, branches and leaves, etc. these motifs should be labeled:

wild and controlled

For all takes of tame or domesticated animals the international term is:


All takes that were done not through the exposure of a camera, meaning double exposures, sandwiches, digitally retouched or created pictures:



The GDT (association of German wildlife photography) and the NANPA ( North American Nature Photographers Association) have thankfully started this a few years ago and published guidelines, which in the meantime really should be revised.

Bald Eagle at a winter feed  
Homer, Alaska, USA

Whereas for me the integrity of the subject is the most important factor was it as it appears and did it happen that way? It is not so important to me if a polarization or split filter was used. That is something the associations have to determine.

If we "correct" nature, we take pictures of the way we want nature to be not the way it really is. Does the viewer of the picture have a right to know that?

But if we do not distinguish between takes that imitate nature and the real nature photography, we stoop down to the level of painting, music, sculpturing and other arts. That would mean that we are voluntarily giving up what makes us so unique and elevates nature photography high above other forms of art: truth, reality and documents of creation in our photographic work.

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