Should Nature Photographers Stage a Scene?

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The Controversy

This image stirred up a miniature controversy over at some time ago. I’m curious to know what other nature photographers (and non-photographers) think about images like this one. Of course, the scene is staged. I saw this nice, round spot of lichen on a rock, spent some time searching for a tiny leaf, and placed it (neatly-centered) on the lichen. The shot – titled “In the Spotlight” – is obviously contrived… at least I think it’s obvious. While the scene could appear like this naturally, it’s relatively unlikely. And of course, I wouldn’t pretend that it was natural if it wasn’t.

Example of staged nature photo

Staged Scene – In The Spotlight, Fall in Ohio

I included three other shots in my FM post. All of them were staged. But interestingly, people seemed to object to “In the Spotlight” but not the second image called “Choosing a Dress.” The forest floor is littered with fallen leaves, most of them brown and dry. I  chose three of the brightest leaves I could find. I stacked them and photographed them in an attempt to show the contrasting colors and shapes. Obviously contrived once again; and yet… other photographers like this shot.

Staged fall photo of leaves in fall from Ohio

Staged Scene – Choosing a Dress, Fall in Ohio

So what’s going on here? It seems that staging a shot isn’t exactly unacceptable. In fact, it’s almost expected. The faux pas lies in creating a composition that isn’t believable. I think we’re taking ourselves too seriously.

We’re Creating Art

For me, photography is ART. Nothing more and nothing less. That means I can do absolutely anything I want with my camera (with the possible exception of knocking someone upside the head with it). The end result matters not at all. It’s simply an expression of my own artistic sentiment. Amen.

(Well. That’s a lovely concept. And yet, as an artist, it is generally important to get the attention of your viewer – not always in a positive way – but at least in a way that holds their attention. Right? So, an artist “succeeds” if the viewer is intrigued. But that’s a whole different issue.)

Contrived or Not Contrived?

How about this image? It’s not contrived. Everything in the image was there in reality. Jay stood in the water, released the shutter, and this is the result. And yet – that’s not what the scene really looked like, right? Anyone who has stood beside a river knows that the water doesn’t look like white silk; that it flows and eddies in rippling, bubbling cascades as it pours downstream. The smoothness of the water in the foreground here is a result of a carefully-chosen shutter speed. Does that make the image contrived?

Landscape photo captured using slow shutter speed in Big Island, Hawaii

Last light captured using slow shutter speed – Big Island, Hawaii

On the other hand, capturing a scene like this is problematic. Shooting a water on a bright sunny day lets you capture the scene with a very fast shutter speed, thereby offering a crisp view of every bubble. But, it also gives your shot a nasty case of blown highlights and dead shadows. Instead, photographers generally prefer to capture a scene like this on an overcast day – which means we need a longer shutter speed (or a wider aperture, which limits depth of field or a higher ISO, which adds noise). And a longer shutter speed means you get this silky effect in the water. So, you choose between creating an unnatural but beautiful effect, or trying to capture the reality of the situation… which might not look too great in the end.

Other “Staged” Scenes

Here are some other examples of “staged” scenes that are contrived carefully by nature photographers using variety of techniques.

  • Staged scene using shallow DOF in Big Island, Hawaii

    Staged scene using shallow DOF in Big Island, Hawaii

  • Staged scene using very high shutter speed in Anna Bay, Australia

    Staged scene using very high shutter speed in Anna Bay, Australia

  • Staged landscape photo using camera motion.

    Staged using Camera Motion – Liberty Park, Twinsburg, Ohio (0H), USA

Just like the rest of the images you see here. Just art. Because we are artists. And don’t artists get to make their own rules? (Except when it comes to knocking someone upside the head with our cameras.)

So what to you think? Feel free to share your own thoughts on the comments below.

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About Author Varina Patel

There is nothing more remarkable to me than the power of nature. It is both cataclysmic and subtle. Slow and continuous erosion by water and wind can create landscapes every bit as astonishing as those shaped by catastrophic events – and minuscule details can be as breathtaking as grand vistas that stretch from one horizon to the other. Nature is incredibly diverse. Burning desert sands and mossy riverbanks… Brilliant sunbeams and fading alpenglow… Silent snowfall and raging summer storms… Each offers a unique opportunity. I am irresistibly drawn to the challenge of finding my next photograph, and mastering the skills required to capture it effectively.