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There’s a good chance wildlife photos weren’t shot in the wild (qz.com)
196 points by pmcpinto on May 2, 2017 | hide | past | web | favorite | 68 comments

I can relate to this.

I am in West Africa now, and have seen a number of wild Chimps and Gorillas, seriously far in the jungle. Rain, mud, fog, etc. play hell on the cameras, and I can only get to within a few hundred yards before I am told that's close enough and/or the animals leave.

The photos are worse than bad.

I just spent a week at a great conservation project where I was just a few yards away from many, many chimps for 30+ hours. (behind electric fence).

The photos are the best I have ever taken in my life. (not online yet, coming soon @theroadchoseme)

I have also struggled with getting great shots until I learned how many tricks are commonly used like feeding animals, cooling down insects so they don't move or shooting in a confined areas. It makes me feel a little better that rarely get any good shots without using these tricks.

If all of this has to be done for taking photos of wild animals, how does BBC's Planet Earth do it? The footage they get is incredible.

The making-ofs are incredible and worth watching. For one piece of footage, the camera guy was in a bird hide for weeks on end, waiting. I can't imagine the boredom! In another, they used a hot air balloon. And from a technical perspective, the bit where they're shooting sharks in super slow mo is interesting. All of those are on the Planet Earth 1 DVD box set - I'm sure there are digital options around.

It still gets stuck in my head: My Bird of Paradise...

$$$$. They are willing to invest time and money to make something of high quality.

I think they spend months there. I would also be surprised if they cheated a little. When you have spent millions on a production you need results if you ever want to do it again.

Every Planet Earth episode has a mini-"making of" at the end of it which usually shows how shots were acquired.

The article links to this piece, which dicusses how even the BBC can toe the line here. Apparently the "making-of" at the end isn't always the whole story and they say you must go to the internet to get all of the details.


They use the very best equipment, often deployed throughout the area and controlled remotely so it can be hidden in a tree or whatever but controlled by radio from a nearby base.

Actually one of the amazing things about Planet Earth 1 and 2 is that they don't use the best cameras. The BBC is a super cheap institution, and so their cameras are often super bulky and limited compared to state of the art options. Watching Planet Earth Diaries is amazing because you can see the camera crew doing incredible work with old equipment.

They use giant movable chillers and lots of food.

I can relate to this on a slightly different level.

I've never really done wildlife photography, but I've done a decent amount of hunting, and spend a decent bit of time near game farms (but never hunted on one). Hunting here in New Zealand is very different from the USA, it requires a lot of walking and actually finding animals, so you end up covering a lot of ground and spend a lot of time looking at things through binoculars. I've seen a lot of animals from far away, getting close to them is a different matter.

In the open, it's seriously hard to get near animals. They have better sight, hearing, and smell than us, and can run faster up steeper terrain than us. This applies to most game animals. It's not easier in the bush, deer stalking is not an easy skill. They also tend to stand in annoying places that are hard to climb to, and wouldn't be very nice for photos.

Wild animals tend to avoid humans, because humans have guns.

On the other hand, one day, we were driving past a game farm, and there was a serious trophy stag just sitting 50 m from the road behind a deer fence, would probably set you back near 10 grand to shoot if that's what you're in to. We stopped and took a couple of photos of it. It just sat there. We waved at it, it just sat there. We tooted our horn at it, and it stood up but didn't move at all. It was not bothered by humans at all in the slightest. We got some rather nice photos of it, photos you'd struggle to get in real life, first because such a stag in real life is once in a lifetime, and second, because you wouldn't be able to get anywhere near a stag standing in an open field with no cover.

If I was in a mind for poaching, it would've been the easiest trophy ever. Without hunting pressure, animals get amazingly placid.

Another thing to note about wild animals (or animals in general), is that they tend to spend most of their day doing boring things, they usually just sit down and don't do anything.

Actual hunting is phenomenally difficult. My dad does "spot and stalk" bowhunting, which is what non-hunters think people mean when they say "hunting". Hunters always think my dad is kidding when he says he hunts that way, because the vast majority of "hunters" are using man-hunting rifles with excellent optics from quite a distance, or even paying a lot of money to sit in a tree-stand with feeders right underneath them, so they can shoot the (mostly domesticated) animal as it comes to feed. When people have that kind of "hunting" available, it makes sense that they'd think someone like my dad is crazy.

One thing to really point out for those who don't hunt is the style of hunting you indicated is only available in a few states. In Texas you can hunt over a feeder, I am not sure of any other states where it is legal. In many other eastern states there is limited public land so a lot of large game, aka deer, hunting is done via stands with bows. This allows people to hunt in smaller areas near more urban centers.

Out west (CO,UT,NM,NV,WY,MT,ID) things are different. There is a lot of public land so there is definitely a lot more long range hunting. Also the private land out west tends to be much larger than the private land tracks out east. So you will see a lot of pay to play hunting ranches.

When has professional photography ever represented itself as a strictly truthful, unambiguous, and simply decipherable medium?

What I mean is, who told you all those photos were of wild animals in the wild? Who doesn't know that models in the cover of Vogue are covered in makeup? Is the dress blue or gold?

But unfortunately there is a cross-cutting of two unrelated problems here: the populist view that art should be nothing but a strict representation of the real world, coupled with the elitist view that photography is not real art.

Journalists choose words and cherry pick quotes to create an impression they want. Painters have literally zero external constraints. But involve a mechanical contraption literally designed to bend light and suddenly we ask people to not bend light.

This sort of thing comes up all the time in the photography communities I follow. In particular, the idea of post processing. There are some purists who think that no photo should be Photoshopped because there's some sort of loss of integrity there. You didn't capture the moment, you made the moment.

But post processing has existed long before Photoshop. People who shot film did (and still do) alter their developer times, or do stand development over agitation, or dodge or burn prints. And every modern digital camera does some post processing in camera as well. White balance, color correction, or even more fancy stuff like film emulation modes...those are all forms of post processing.

I know a lot of photography contests require the submission of an unedited raw file in order to enter, but that's not what people want to see in the end. They want the Photoshop look without going into Photoshop, and that's very, very rare to pull off. So where do you draw the line?

Photojournalism is a fraudulent concept from the beginning. There is no platonically neutral way to present a scene, you are inherently making editorial decisions even before you snap the picture, with your choice of positioning/framing/focal length.

Which of these is the "neutral" way to portray this shot? And says who?



From there it's all a matter of degrees. Pulling a distracting highlight, desaturating a distracting visual element, cloning something out, it's all on a spectrum. But you could do the same manipulations by changing your positioning and perspective a little bit when you take the shot.

Even stuff like white balance and color correction is frowned on, which is incredibly stupid when using a filter or changing your film stock would have the exact same effect. And the fact that digital is inherently a processed format in itself - you're not seeing color, you're seeing black and white run through a Bayer filter and interpreted back to a color image.

Basically, photojournalism is a bunch of people jerking themselves off and handing out awards for getting "the perfect shot" in-camera.

This is wrong in about fifty different ways right from the first paragraph. Photojournalism has impartiality at its core, not 'neutrality'. Everyone has biases, nobody can be neutral. But you can certainly be impartial.

Framing, composition are also aesthetic decisions, not just political ones, and those decisions are made both by the photographer at shooting time and picture editors at publishing time. The point is to draw the reader into the story.

Making corrections and alterations to digital images is not 'stupid', it is a development that has occurred over time in response to accusations and revelations of genuine manipulations and fakery. With film, large-scale changes were very hard and almost impossible to do with the original negative or positive, so elaborate printing techniques were considered to be almost entirely aesthetic and artistic. With the advent and ascent of digital darkrooms, manipulation and alteration is easier and harder to catch, therefore the appropriate approach is to respect the original pixels and not change any: the integrity of the picture can never be called into question.

This is a potted summary and there are certainly more nuances, complexities and subtleties than I can relate here, I also have a Masters in Photojournalism and do not appreciate the abusive tone bolted onto the previous comment.

> Photojournalism has impartiality at its core, not 'neutrality'.

These words are literally synonyms.

> Framing, composition are also aesthetic decisions, not just political ones, and those decisions are made both by the photographer at shooting time and picture editors at publishing time. The point is to draw the reader into the story.

Certainly, but the need for drama doesn't detract from the editorial aspects inherent to those artistic decisions.

> With film, large-scale changes were very hard and almost impossible to do with the original negative or positive, so elaborate printing techniques were considered to be almost entirely aesthetic and artistic.

No, for someone with a degree in photojournalism you're highly misinformed. Basic darkroom work is trivial to accomplish (it's literally taught in Photo 101 courses) and was routine during the entirety of the film era. Up to and including outright manipulation of photographs in many cases.

Famously, consider some of the "unpersons" removed from images of Stalin - although I certainly agree this is the type of thing that should be avoided in works of a documentary nature.


> With the advent and ascent of digital darkrooms, manipulation and alteration is easier and harder to catch, therefore the appropriate approach is to respect the original pixels and not change any: the integrity of the picture can never be called into question.

I don't see how that substantially addresses the problem. Retouching is not inherently unethical, and individuals who engage in unethical behavior aren't going to be slowed down by your code of conduct.

To wit: did your code of ethics keep the guy from being removed from that image of Stalin?

> I also have a Masters in Photojournalism and do not appreciate the abusive tone bolted onto the previous comment.

Please don't descend to the level of tone argument. It's a logical fallacy and not constructive at all.


Documenting atrocities so that those who committed them may be brought to justice...yeah, that meshes well with your final thought. Maybe this will change your perspective:


"Purist" photography is lot more impressive to me, if there is such a thing anymore, as you mentioned in camera effects etc. I enjoy a good photoshop job as well though.

I think where it matters to me is when you are saying something is "authentic". Lets say someone is taking pictures of a beach for a resort advertisement. One could photoshop the sand to appear as some sort of rare pink color, but when you arrive that color will be nowhere to be found. Same thing if a news article has "beaches are more polluted than ever" and tint the beach to look green. That to me is akin to false advertisement.

I also agree people like and want photoshopped images since almost all photos benefit from a little tweek to saturation and brightness.

Just my 2 cents because I agree with all you said.

Sidenote if someone says "wildlife photography" and its not in the wild, its not wildlife photography.

I think the key is that Photoshop and post processing tools should always be used to enhance the representation of reality, rather than distort it; except when showing something beyond reality is the intended goal.

It can also be said that post processing can be used to cover up mistakes that were made when the image was captured, and as a photographer one should strive to minimize those mistakes.

TL;DR: Photographers should do their best to do a good job when they capture an image and to be aware of what they are trying to convey in the final version that they share with the world.

While I don't think he was airbrushing or anything, even Ansel Adams did quite a bit of work in post processing to achieve the effect he desired. All of that work has simply moved over to Photoshop where you can get the desired effect much more quickly than you could in a dark room.

Apples to Oranges comparison. If something says "wildlife (nature etc) photography" (vs "my pet dog's photos") then it is natural to assume it wasn't staged, right? Technically the title might not be a lie (maybe they shot it in one of these parks) but at minimum it is misleading. But Vogue probably doesn't claim "naturally beautiful" or whatever (not a Vogue reader, just guessing).

Understand the sentiment though.

It might not be Vogue, but women's magazines often present folks as natural beauty. It is obvious (to me) that it means they have light makeup and/or the photo has been touched up, but the text will rave about how beautiful someone is without makeup. It gets worse with tabloids, who like to say someone is beautiful/ugly when they wake up. Diet and exercise can be the same - sure they look good and have a good diet and workout routine. They also have personal chefs preparing their meals, a personal trainer, and sometimes are naturally thin even without those things.

I'd really just like folks to be honest about this sort of thing. They could just say they got the picture at a nature park instead of acting like it was a lucky shot. It doesn't change the wonderfulness of the picture.

This type of article might be the step to demystifying photography. But the story I get told over and over again (not directly, but by exposure) is about the photographer that traveled miles and waited days to get that shot.

> populist view that art should be nothing but a strict representation of the real world

I had no idea.

There was a wonderful episode of the 99% invisible podcast on this subject, while it focuses on sound it goes way deeper than this article


Not to mention this recent 6-min video, on sound & narrative

How Nature Documentaries Are Fake https://vimeo.com/214023666

That wasn't quite as mind blowing as I was expecting. I guess after working on a lot of video projects I can sense when documentaries are taking a narrative license or using music and sound effects to enhance the scene, so that sort of thing isn't shocking to me. Planet Earth is still going out to remote locations to get some pretty amazing shots, rather than doing the work on one of these game farms or adding CGI. As long as they aren't interfering with nature while they do the work I appreciate their effort.

Thank you for sharing the video. It is well explained, and well balanced.

I know how edited are nature documentaries. But I like them anyway. As the video says that makes it more a story, that makes it more interesting.

The pictures with captive animals are a different thing. As chaining a wolf so people can take nice pictures is cruel. To make animals suffer to take a nicer picture without any scientific value is immoral.

This is true of a lot of nature films as well. I got first hand experience of this working as a field biologist in Panama. We had several well known film crews come through where I worked. Trapped animals (temporarily captured for research reasons, it would be highly unethical to trap animals just to film them) were filmed in cages with natural looking backgrounds was common. Several segments involving larger animals were filmed at a local zoo. Insects were often "tethered." A very thin clear plastic thread was glued to their bodies and attached to another surface so they could not fly again. One group wanted to film a tree fall in the forest, so they cut down a tree after attaching several cameras to it... It was an eye-opening experience for me.

Slightly related but very cool, there's a British photographer Tim Flach who takes photos of animals in his studio [0], they are openly taken in a studio and it takes nothing away from their beauty.

[0]: http://timflach.com/work/more-than-human/

Ultimately, if you want to know whether a particular photographer's work is genuinely from the wild, you need to check into their body of work. Ideally, they'll be honest about the use of such animal parks - for the overwhelming majority of cases, though, if they claim the subjects to be wild, they will be.

That's not to say the photos won't have been processed, of course - that's entirely up to individual taste, whether that's casting it to monochrome, or boosting the contrast to bring out the skin texture of an elephant.

In photography circles, parks like those are promoted as a means for enthusiasts to see species they'd otherwise have to travel great distances for - rather like a cageless zoo. It's not something I've engaged in[1], but I can understand the appeal from a hobbyist perspective; and understandably, if you're looking for "wildlife" photography on demand, perhaps for an advertising campaign, you're unlikely to commission someone to attempt to obtain just the right photo out in the wild.

[1] My wildlife focus is primarily rabbits, eg "Momentary":


I don't really see the issue. It's not like wolves don't walk through snow in packs. Or that mountain lions don't jump over rocks.

At a previous job, we talked a lot about managing the expectations of clients. If you promise someone an operating system delivered in two weeks, with a budget of $10k, they will be very upset when you don't deliver. It doesnt matter that it was an unrealistic promise. This is why engineers should double their estimates, and be proactive about communicating delays. People do not like to be disappointed when their expectations are not met.

I think that's what is happening here. People are expecting wildlife photos to be shot in the wild. A studio, or feeding the animals feels like a 'cheaper' or fake product. So they are upset. It doesn't matter if the footage is representative, or if the photos were of a better quality than what could be obtained in nature. It doesn't matter if baiting the animals reduces the cost of making the documentary, potentially increasing the amount of footage we can view. Their expectations were not met.

I've said it before, and probably will have to say it again. We are not logical creatures. We can expect people to behave logically, but we will be disappointed. Then we get upset ;)

EDIT: not saying you were upset

EDIT 2: this is why people don't want to pay for things on the internet. Their expectations have been set.

I think you'll find that a lot of people who enjoy wildlife photography are also those who stand for the preservation of all things wild. If demand for wildlife photography creates a profitable market for raising animals in captivity, it's a bit of a contradiction. There are of course sanctuaries that responsibly protect wildlife, but profitability is likely to breed some not-so-responsible organizations as well. It's not like orcas don't swim and eat fish, and yet public opinion has turned against SeaWorld because of the circumstances that came with commercialization.

Agreed, and it sounds like the federal government is doing its job and monitoring this stuff to minimize abuse.

Its not clear how harassing wildlife living on the edge of survival is better than caring for animals, and taking pictures in return.

Finally an article about hacking on Hacker News. It seems like a clever business. We have Photoshop these days so it's hard to know whether anything is real anymore. AI will only make that worse. But hey, at least they aren't shooting to kill.

Do wild animals even exist in the wild anymore?

Edit: Wow, lots of down votes. I'm not being snarky. I genuinely ask. The term "wild" seems to have undefined semantics. Would a reservation park count as wild?

I get what you are getting at, but yes there are still massive amounts of Earth that are incredibly wild.


Incredibly wild, yes. Sustainably wild.... I have my doubts. As the climate changes, moisture and temperature norms in various habitats are going to change. What we have are islands of wild habitat, and without connections the flora and fauna will not be able to migrate as the climate norms migrate.

The absolute number of acres is not the only consideration. I am concerned about the ability of Ponderosa Pine or cougars to migrate as necessary for survival, to name a couple of species.

OK, what's with the down-votes? Down vote isn't for "I disagree", actually make a reasoned argument. Down vote isn't for "you don't share my politics".

FWIW, I spend a lot of time in the Sierra Nevada and the Sierra foothills. I can see what is happening right before my eyes. I can see what the Ponderosa Pine on my own property are doing in response to stress. I can see the wildlife migrate through and can only imagine what happens to them as they try to cross a bridge from one wild region to another. I am blessed to be a steward of a parcel of wild land that can host mountain lion and other large fauna. Join me if you want to make a difference.

We have islands of wild habitat. That is not an opinion, that is a fact. Wildlife and especially wild plants have a difficult time migrating from one wild island to another. Not opinion, that is an observable, measurable fact.

HN has been getting out of hand lately -- getting down voted for making verifiable, factual observations is something that may be the accepted norm on SlashDot, but has no place here.

I downvoted you for capitalizing the D in slashdot.

It's clearly a semantic argument - but there is a segment of the environmental community (often called the 'bright greens') that take the stance that we've already so drastically and universally affected the natural world that we must look to technological and social change to maintain a prosperous ecological system. Which is to say, no - there is no "wild" anymore.

It's basically Steward Brands "we are as gods and have to get good at it".

We're at best demi-gods. Little squabbling toddlers that can't properly clean up their own messes.

However yeah, we either have to get good "at it" or die off to let something else take our place (eventually).

Depends on what you mean and where you are. If you are talking the US and exclude national parks then you cut the number of animals living in the wild way down. I've seen a wild mountain lion and the only buffalo I ever saw wild wasn't supposed to be (and I'm pretty sure they are confined to ranches and parks for some fairly obvious reasons). There are enough wild hogs that they are a noticeable problem in some areas.

Obviously, the animals inhabiting the oceans and seas have a totally different answer along with birds.

I'm a big fan of wildlife documentaries, and it's very clear that more recent documentaries, either as a result of cost-cutting, trying to be more engaging or what have you, are splicing footage of unrelated scenes (even with completely different lighting and/or landscapes) to create a narrative of something happening that is clearly not taking place.

It's not appealing. It's not exciting. It's farcical and insulting to a certain degree.

It is a little off-putting, but I think it certainly has its place in educating and entertaining people about wildlife.

BBC's Hidden Kingdoms comes to mind, where they make no illusions about the fact that you are watching a film not a camera left out in the woods for ten days.

In fact, after each episode they double down and re-use all their work by showing you just how they got the shots and set up all the scenes.

That, and I think Planet Earth has occasionally been guilty of what you're talking about, but personally I've never felt insulted, more like impressed they managed to make a palatable narrative out of a bunch of wildlife scenes.

> create a narrative of something happening that is clearly not taking place

Sounds like a moon landing hoax "documentary" I unintentionally watched 15 years ago. They were very careful to not show the questions they asked the expert, so the supposed responses to very detailed (albeit bullshit) conspiracy evidence sounded cavalier and vague.

There is a great book about the subject of capturing wildlife images/movies by Chris Palmer: http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/7482381-shooting-in-the-w...

I'm really not sure I'd prefer them pestering actual wild animals.

When you go to many of the parks with noted wildlife, you'll see a fair bit of people traveling around with big telephoto lenses. They never need to pester any wild animals at all.

The only time I've seen people pester wildlife in the national parks, was when they wanted to get a close up using their limited-zoom-ability cell phone. (Nothing happened in this case, others haven't been as lucky -- see pg. 293 of this: https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/65/wr/pdfs/mm6511.pdf)

  Age   Sex     Park affiliation    Activity                                            Distance from bison Encounter type Injuries
  16    Female  Visitor             Photography; turned back to bison                   3–6 ft              Gored           Serious
  62    Male    Visitor             Photography                                         3–5 ft              Tossed          Serious
  19    Female  Employee            Walking; did not observe bison                      10 ft               Tossed          Minor
  68    Female  Visitor             Walking; observed bison and continued to walk past  NA                  Gored           Serious
  43    Female  Visitor             Photography; turned back to bison                   6 ft                Tossed          Minor

In Yellowstone, you see loads of people with expensive scopes and lenses. Often, even with the power of a scope, they're seeing some of the shyer animals (wolf, for example) as little more than a blurred speck because they're so far away.

p293 == p21 of this 28 page pdf

Wild life photography done right requires that they not really be noticed by the animal. You would be amazed how hard it is to get close to a wild animal and no Yellowstone isn't really "wild".

This doesn't really surprise me. I take pictures as hobby and combining with walking it turns into animal photography (well birds mostly). Its not common to see animals like lynx, bear or wolves or moose (mammals basically). So if you are trying to get a great photo of them to sell for stock, I can see this is a huge time save.

For example the wolves I've photographed have been really really far away at Yellowstone. I like the pictures, but they've not great.

Though this takes some of the excitement out of it I suppose.

This guy has written extensively about the business:


I live near Yellowstone National Park and there are a ton of real wildlife photographers in this area doing amazing work.

So now we have fake news, and fake wildlife pictures.

Good place to photo wolves in n nj



That is unduly personal. We've asked you many times not to be uncivil on HN. This process may not seem finite but it is, and ends in getting banned if you don't fix this.

We detached this subthread from https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=14248764 and marked it off-topic.

It's only fraud if it's misrepresentation.

So how does this belong to HN?

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