Q and A: To Stage or Not to Stage?

Frozen in Time

This image stirred up a miniature controversy over at FredMiranda.com this weekend. I’m curious to know what others (photographers and non-photographers alike) 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.

Choosing a Dress - Varina Patel

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 – titled “Choosing a Dress.” The forest floor is littered with fallen leaves – most of them brown and dry… and 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.

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.

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) and 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.)

Taghia, Morocco


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?

On the other hand – capturing a scene like this is problematic. Shooting a river on a bright sunny day lets you capture the scene with a very fast shutter speed – thereby offering a crisp view of every bubble and rivulet. 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.

Liberty Park, Twinsburg, Ohio (0H), USA

Here’s another example of a contrived image. Jay created this shot by using a long shutter speed, and moving the camera up and down slightly while the shutter was open. It’s creates a dreamy effect – something I’d call Art.

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.)

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.

  • When peaople look at landscape or nature photography, then there is often the intention of seeing how beautiful nature is by itself. If they then are told that the image was staged, they feel disappointed. Last year I have been photographing a little stream in a national park here in Germany. A tourist went by, asking me what I was doing. So I explained it to him and showed him some pictures with the stream blurred due to the longer exposition I choose. His comment “but that doesn´t look like how the stream is looking in reality”. And off he was.
    On the other hand as an artist I don´t want to be a documenter. I want to express my feelings and I want to show the beauty I see around me. If I need to alter some things to get my message clearer, why not? I´m doing that always on a different scale, e.g. when I´m waiting for good light etc. The line is a) I have to be honest about the altering (if it´s not obvious) and b) I will not destroy things, like breaking a branch if it sticks into the picture.

    • I’ve heard the same comments, Carsten. 🙂 I guess you can’t please everyone. For me, it’s always about making art, so I don’t worry about what other people think. I like your simple rules – be honest, and don’t do damage. Most of the time, it really is as simple as that! Keep on keeping on! And good luck with your photography!

  • Pete Pfeiffer

    Staging is only one aspect of creating a photograph that you’ve imagined in your mind. The question ‘is staging ethical’ has to do with intent. As an artistic amateur or professional exposing film (digital or real) to make pleasing, intriguing, enlightening, or stimulating images then ‘all’s fair in love and war’! On the other hand if the intent is to deceive then I believe staging is off limits.

    IMO most all photographers stage photos to some degree to maximize pleasure – of the one taking the pic, and for those who ultimately view!

  • Jim Hanson

    I think it is the same for any photo, some will like it, some will not, and maybe some will hate it and rant about it. The fact is, you make the photo, it’s up to you how it turns out. Whether you position some pieces or put the camera in a certain position or what settings you use or how you process it. Like it or not that is the photo, it is what the photographer wanted to present to you!

    Personaly, I like them both, but the second is more pleasing to me. Both of you do great work, thanks for the inspiration and advice.

  • Well it’s not quantum mechanics but the very act of taking the photo is in effect “staging” the event or scene.

    As for the “up the side of the head thing”; maybe that’s why I find clay so easy.

  • No problem at all! Stage and manipulate away.

    It ain’t over ’till the fat pixel sings!

  • I have no idea why people are so opposed to staging a scene… how is different that posing a model, or lighting a scene or anything else that photographers do.

    Make the photo. full stop.

  • I suspect you were singled out by anti-lichenists. Sure, it’s okay to manipulate a few leaves, but by including a lichen you crossed a line. What’s next? *Mushrooms* and leaves? I tell you, the world is spinning right out of control.

  • This was a very interesting article and i can see why some people have issues with some staged elements. It may have to do with the fact that they expect us to find the unusual and/or rare in nature and bring it to them as opposed to create it…not that i agree or disagree with that. I just think that an artist (in this case a photographer – because that what he/she is) should be entirely honest and, just as you did here, say if a certain image is staged or not…to avoid any further controversy.
    It’s a matter of taste in the end and when it comes to that, we are all subjective.
    And since you were curious what we think about the images – i’ll be truthful and say that i liked the second image much better than the first even before reading the article and the situation hasn’t changed. Not that i don’t like the first one, but the 3 different layers, textures, lines and colors in the second make the viewer forget all the details of how the photo was taken and just enjoy it…and that’s what a great photo should do.

    Enough rambling :))
    Regards and thanks for all your nice articles!

  • I think the decision about whether or not to stage an image depends the artist’s style, and what the artist wants to convey with the shot.

    None of us ever truly capture a scene the way it looks in reality, simply starting with framing.

    So even though I prefer not to disturb the scene in order to stage it, I don’t hold it against a photographer if they do it — unless they damage the environment in the process. That’s really where I draw the line (footprints are ok, plucking avalanche lilies isn’t).

    As for whacking people with cameras… they’re not intended to take that sort of abuse. We should be nice to our cameras. 😉

  • As usual, lovely photos Varina. There’s nothing wrong with staging photos (or pushing them in Photoshop, etc). In fact, I think it’s necessary if we want to claim we are artists. If we just capture what was there and add nothing of ourselves to the process, then we’re just someone with a camera. I don’t see where art is involved.

    I use photography to show people how I see and experience nature. If they want to see the scene *exactly* as it was then they can walk there themselves in the cold before sunrise and take their own photo 🙂


    • Agreed – We don’t hold the painter or the sculptor to a certain standard of “reality” – why should the photographer be any different? 🙂

      • Photography and painting are not the same art form. You can’t blindly apply the same logic from one to the other. Now there are many similarities but here is one key difference:

        People expect photos to be ‘real’ and may enjoy them more as a result of that belief. You start ‘lying’ to the viewer and the most significant differentiating factor of photography over other art forms is gone.

        That said in this particular case I think it is obvious that you have physically altered the scene so the viewer wouldn’t expect to find it that way

  • I agree with you. We are artists, and we are entitled to our artistic freedom. Ironically, I deal with the opposite of what you talk about here. I often have people tell me I should have changed the composition of a shot. It always makes me laugh out loud when they tell me they don’t like a certain part of the setting when the photo is of a deer running through a field or other wildlife. Yeah, like I can ask that animal to stop and wait while I find the perfect composition for the shot. LOL

  • Kevin

    I have no problem with it. I have always had the attitiude that we make pictures, not take pictures.

    • 🙂 Looks like you and I agree, Kevin. Well said!