Most of the wildlife photography you see is fake


Audubon's Ted Williams explains that staged images have taken over the animal photography business and argues that these ubiquitous phonies give the public an inaccurate view of nature:

Audubon has sent me to lots of wild places over the past 31 years, but I'd seen only one wolf and three cougars (a litter) until December 8, 2009. On that day, before noon in the Glacier National Park ecosystem of northwestern Montana, I encountered not just one wolf but two and not just one cougar but two! What were the chances of that?

Well, they were 100 percent, because I'd rented the animals for a photo shoot.

Go read the whole thing.

I'm not as bothered by the hired animal photography business as Williams. The most valid concerns are those surrounding the welfare of the caged animals, but apart from that I have a hard time being scandalized by staged imagery.

The trouble is that photography is not and never was a valid medium for determining truth about the world around us. The whole point of photography is propagandistic. Pictures communicate a story, or promote a concept, or a person.

Even in the wilds of the deepest Amazonian jungle, photographers still make decisions about when to trigger the shutter and what to include in or exclude from the frame. These decisions are as much a lens into the imagination of the photographer as they are a recording device for the subject, and the difference in artificiality between farmed animal photos and wild photos are more in degree than in kind.

To be clear, I have much more respect for the photographers who put in the hard yards in difficult conditions to shoot animals in their natural state. Truly wild wildlife photography involves a level of skill and artistry beyond that seen in the calendar crowd. But to the extent we're interested in how the world works, we should not impart on photography a role that it cannot play. We should not be deluded that pretty pictures can inform us more than they can mislead us. We have science for that.

*photo by Andrew Geiger; h/t buggirl

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Wow. Who knew! (Not I, clearly)

Makes the Planet Earth series all the more impressive.

My problems come less with the staging itself than with the treatment/rental of the wildlife. Who are these people that do this for a living? How are the animals treated when they are not on a shoot? What happens to them when they are no longer young/fit/charismatic enough to shoot?

I have ethical qualms even about non-profit zoos, although I realize they may be necessary for a number of reasons. But private businesses keeping and training wild animals like this sets me on edge.

I read an article a week or so ago from Africa Geographic that talked about this. Several UK papers heavily covered photos taken by an American and heaped upon his shoulders a great deal of praise for his skill in locating and photographing wildlife, but come to find out every photo he took was staged. Which seemed obvious since they included tigers and lions--from the US.

I have no problem with staged photography so long as the animals are cared for properly and so long as the photographer fully discloses that he/she did not in fact locate and photograph "wild" wildlife (doing otherwise deceives people into thinking the photographer has skills which they don't actually possess).

As a painter and fine arts major, I completely agree. Programs like Photoshop and Gimp may have made it easier, but staged photos have been around as long as the medium has existed.

Photography can still be awesome, but it's important to recognize what it is, as you've done.

When I first saw the headline here, my eye skipped the word "photography". So...I was expecting robot wildlife. Rather disappointed, i must say.

By DesertHedgehog (not verified) on 08 Jun 2010 #permalink

This is initially surprising, but then, on further consideration, I am not at all surprised. Now I know why a 2-hour Earth movie emerges out of thousands of hours of footage.

Alex, thank you for your thoughtful and experienced comments. Your conclusion was great.

Don't forget that a lot of nature documentaries are also shot using stages and captive animals. David Attenborough has happily admitted that he has done this in the past and sees no issue with it as long as the behaviour being observed is genuine.

Interesting post Alex and I would agree that other than some concern for the treatment of the animals, I'm not surprised or upset to learn that many 'wild' photos are staged (I did grown up on Marlin Perkins and Walt Disney).The history of recording wildlife from the cave wall to the digital camera (or SEM) is one of interpretation first and foremost. On the other hand, it doesn't bother me if prizes are revoked for non-wild wild shots, as has happened in a photo exhibit that my museum hosts.

What is most interesting to me is that people tend to think of photographs as being truthful representations - even though most people who think this way may have composed photographs themselves. The idea that a 'natural' photograph is somehow better is also interesting, although perhaps this is more about handycapping or limiting access than about truthful representation.

Also, regarding David Attenborough and Planet Earth, etc, I heard from a trusted source that they don't take ANY sound recording devices on their video shoots. All sounds you see in his documentary are filled in from a stock sound libraries from zoos and other places.

From a practical point of view, the hardware required to get high quality sound in so many difficult places is not viable, but it still feels odd to realize the sound is pretty much fiction. The person who told me this said they visited a research site to record unique species of animal X. They didn't have sound equipment and the documentary used a very different sound that was taken from a very common relative of species X.

This discussion is fascinating. I wanted to let you know that my new book "Shooting in the Wild" has just been published, and it deals in depth with topic.

"Shooting in the Wild: An Insider's Account of Making Movies in the Animal Kingdom" takes you behind the scenes of the hugely popular nature film genre, sharing the adventures of the daring and creative people who make these films and TV shows. It also pulls back the curtain on the dark side of wildlife filmmaking, revealing an industry driven by money, sensationalism, extreme risk-taking, misrepresentation, staging, fabrication, and even abuse and harassment of animals.

It's available on for about $16.

Best regards,

Chris Palmer

I live in Nebraska and we are blessed with three wildlife photographers of note.
Tom Mangelsen, - I not sure if Tom is based here these days but he is from Nebraska.

Joel Sartore - lives in Lincoln, NE and is associated with National Geographic. Some of his wildlife shots are essentially studio.

Michael Forsberg, - Mike has had some books published, the most recent on the Great Plains. One shot of a bobcat was shot with a camera on a trigger to respond to an intruding animal - but still a fantastic shot.

In all cases there is a lot of hard work that goes into doing these photographs - more than the casual photographer would ever care to do.

To complete my above post. I'll you view their galleries and decide what might be staged and what not. Joel's work has a lot of human interest stuff which works well for National Geographic. But both Mike's and Tom's work is centered on nature. In the case of Mike's - I don't think there is much "staging" in many, if any. of their photos. It would be difficult to "stage" (and not really necessary) to stage the photos of the Sandhill Cranes migration on the Platter River.

Here's one of mine.

Wild? Staged? None of the above?

Art Wolfe got nailed over his book "migrations" many years ago, when he failed to mention that most of the impressive repeated patterns of zebras and other migrating animals that were passed off as being straight photography were largely due to mastery of photoshop.

Very interesting. This reminds me of the exhibits on display at the American Museum of Natural History in NYC. Initially, because it was too difficult to access live animal species, months of effort would go into creating incredibly lifelike representations of the animals using taxidermy, and the they're still on display today. It seems almost like we've come full circle.