Is Nature Ever Natural?

In two weeks, my local photography club, the Oshawa Camera Club, will be holding a discussion and vote.  The subject:  how natural should nature photography be?  Club competition rules for the nature category are currently strict, limiting almost all evidence of “hand of man” and requiring that the image be a documentary of the subject in their natural environment.  But today’s sophisticated software opens the door to edits that are routinely applied in other categories, so why not here?  Here’s the debate…


The rules currently permit minor edits:  resizing, cropping, selective dodge and burn and some sharpening.  The objective is not to “alter the essense of the original” image.  And yet, at the same time, high dynamic range (HDR) techniques, focus stacking, and black and white conversion are permitted.  The question of spot healing and cloning is only briefly mentioned, perhaps deliberately so, to attempt to provide some latitude to images that might otherwise be excluded.

All of these techniques add emphasis to the main subject of the image, but do not reconstruct that subject in any way.  They also limit the adjustments that can be made to the environment, staying true for the most part to the definition of documentary.

Club members and nature photographers everywhere agree that these adjustments are reasonable.  Even the great Ansel Adams is thought to have said that he needed to adjust each image to “take care of mistakes that God made in establishing tonal relationships”.  And to be fair, our cameras can’t see the same dynamic range of colours and tones as we can.  So at minimum, we have to compensate for the limitations of our cameras.  Technically speaking, the images need help to be natural.


The question now being asked is why limit the adjustments at all?  Why is the image any less of a nature image if distractions are removed, if the sky colour is changed, if the sky is replaced, if the foliage is made more or less prominent, even if the main subject is repositioned?

To me, there is a big difference between enhancing the existing features of an image and introducing new ones.  Pesonally, I don’t shoot a lot of nature, but I will never add elements to an image that were not there to begin with.  If you miss the hare in the shot of a wolf chasing a hare, you don’t paste in the hare afterward.  If the sky is grey and really it would look better blue with puffy white clouds, too bad.  Come back and get the shot when the sky is blue.


Having said that, I don’t hesitate to remove distractions.  I do remove the branch poking into the right side of the bird.  I do remove the piece of garbage or the garbage can in an idyllic setting of rolling hills.  I do adjust the tone of the main subject of an image, and tone down the peripheral areas.  I do, admittedly, use HDR on occasion.

At the end of the day, each photographer has to ask what is more important to them:  getting the shot or getting the shot right.  For example, entries into the Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition  include stories of getting the shot right.  These often involve days, if not weeks, of patience, cross country treks or wilderness encampments.   Standing in swamps is not unheard of, as is climbing to great heights.

Edits similar to what our club currently allows are permitted even here, but no element of the photograph may be added, removed or moved.  Competition ethics require that photographers do not deceive or disguise.

I think they got it right.  Although personally I do typically remove some distractions from the nature shots I take for myself, I have no issue with the rules as stated for competition.  Frankly, this forces you to be a better photographer.

I’ll leave you with a final thought.  In science, there is something called the “observer effect”, which suggests that a subject being observed is by defintion altered and not natural.  So perhaps this whole debate about keeping nature natural is really moot anyway.

Regardless, to those who partake of this wonderful form of expression, just remember to be as respectful of your subject as you can, both in how you depict them and most especially in how you interact with them.  Taking these shots is really a privilege.

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