Q and A: To Stage or Not to Stage?

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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.