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Photography Ethics and the Limits of Imaging with Cameras (Film or Digital)

A photograph is a representation of an event and/or place, but no photograph can faithfully record what can be seen with your eye. The human eye has a tremendous dynamic range that is unmatched by any film or digital imaging system that has been made by humans. Film and electronic sensors (digital cameras) record contrast differently than perceived by the eye. The final print, projected transparency, CRT or LCD computer monitor or computer projector add other levels of changes from the original live scene.

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The eye can resolve incredible detail in its central field of view and because the eye constantly moves, we get a perception of sharpness everywhere in the scene. The eye dynamically focuses as we scan from close foreground to distant background. It tracks moving objects well, resolving detail on the moving object as well as stationary objects. It dynamically adapts to lighting conditions maintaining color balance (thus we see white as white in various lighting conditions, from "bluish" shadowed areas to a red sunset). And it does all this fast, on the order of 1/30 th of a second! In fainter light, the eye actually integrates signals for several seconds.

Film, on the other hand, does not have the dynamic range, nor the exact same color response as the human eye. Current digital cameras also can not match the dynamic range of the human eye, although high dynamic range (HDR) techniques of multiple exposures can match the eye's dynamic range for static subjects. Lenses on cameras have one focal length (zoom lenses one focal length at a time). Film and digital cameras have limited resolution and grain or noise. Thus to record a scene that can match what can be seen with the human eye, including, the detail, dynamic range, and keep it all in focus, the photographer must push the technology to its limit.

One method to record a scene with sufficient detail, is to use large format cameras. I use 4x5 view cameras; the film is 4 inches by 5 inches (image area slightly less). Fine grained film with 4x5 records similar detail what can be seen with your eye. View cameras allow tilting of the film and lens planes to allow the focus to change (e.g from near foreground to the far background) to keep more of the scene in focus. Even so, small lens apertures are necessary to keep the typical scene in focus (a large depth-of-field). Fine-grained film has slow speed. All this leads to long exposures with typical landscape photography scenes. Exposures of 1 to 2 seconds and longer are common, even in full sunlight. This limits what kinds of scenes can be photographed. For example, for everything to be sharp, the flowers and leaves can't be moving due to a slight breeze, so most large format landscape photography is done on days with no wind. Animals are rare in such photos, because they are usually moving.

We've already established that no photograph is a perfect representation of what you see with your eye. The digital photography era is opening up new possibilities for getting around some of these limitations (and of course, as with any new technology, abuses by in the perception of some).

Landscapes with Wildlife

As part of my photography, I have turned to mostly digital work, I used to obtain images on normal film with 35mm and 4x5 cameras and over the last decade with digital cameras. I still have several 4x5 and one 8x10 view camera, but rarely use them as digital mosaics have largely replaced them. When I use film, the film is developed and scanned. I then edit the images to remove defects, dust, compress dynamic range (so the image can be printed), and adjust color balance and contrast. See my Digital Work Flow for more details on this process.

Digital editing opens up new possibilities for getting beyond the current limits of film or digital camera technology. One of these is wildlife in long exposure landscape photography. I have sometimes included wildlife in my landscape photos. Often, the wildlife are moving so that they are blurred in the long exposure landscape photos. I would often encounter wildlife in a scene, photograph them with 35mm film cameras, then set up the 4x5. Sometimes the animals are still there, many times they move on. I'll photograph the scene with or without the animals with the 4x5. Back home, with the scanned images, I can place the animals shot with the 35mm into the 4x5 scene. Any images with digitally placed animals will be labeled as such. The Mt. Evans and Curious Young Mountain Goat image is one example.

Another problem, mentioned above, is wind blurring flowers and vegetation. In some cases, when there is a light breeze, I typically wait (sometimes hours) for lighting, best clouds and a calm period (only a few seconds are needed) to get the best image. In such cases, I'll photograph key elements in the scene ( e.g. a flower in the foreground), zoomed in with 35mm to record details that might be blurred in the large format image. Again, back at the computer, blurred components can be replaced with sharper images of the same thing. While my intent with 4x5 film was to do this to get beyond the technology, I actually only did this with one image. One flower in this image was photographed with 35mm and replaced in the 4x5. The 35mm cameras was along side the 4x5. The image where I did this was: Wildflowers in the Maroon Bells - Snowmass Wilderness of Colorado

More recently, I have turned to photography with digital cameras. Mosaics have taken the place of most large format images. See my article on Large Digital Mosaics as a Substitute for Large Format Film for more details. Digital mosaics have enabled large-format class photos to be obtained with much shorter shutter speeds, allowing work in windier conditions, or including animals. Examples: Foggy Serengeti Sunrise with Zebras and this Cheetah mosaic .

The resulting images I "create" are technical representations to get around the limitations of camera/film/digital technology. I do not subscribe to the view that such manipulation is unethical. I am not trying to show you an exact duplicate of what the film recorded (e.g. because film is not an exact record of the scene), but what I liked/remembered about being in that location and what can be done to get beyond the technical limitations of the camera technology.

Digital modification of large-format images, high-resolution scans of 35mm images, and digital camera images requires hours of work, even for small changes, like fixing a blurred flower. Thus, in any of my images, the it is a rare image that has had manipulation and I note it on this site. I try to make the best image in the field, as that saves the most time. And again, any image to which an animal or ANY other subject that was added to the image, even if it was there in the scene moments before the image was obtained (and photographed with a different camera) will be noted in the caption (and again, this sort of manipulation is no longer necessary with digital cameras). Digital mosaics are also noted in the image description. Unless specifically stated, all the objects seen in the image were there and in the same locations at the time I made the photograph (or series of photos in the case of mosaics and multiple exposures).

Images from digital cameras use a characteristic curve that is similar to print film. I will sometimes change the characteristic curve to best represent the scene. I have found through experiments that I change the characteristic curve in the direction of slide film, but usually with less contrast than slide film. I find the contrast of fine grained slide films too limiting for digital camera images which have a higher dynamic range. I try to bring out shadow and highlight detail that can be seen with the human eye but would be lost on slide or print film. That means contrast less than typically shown in slide film images is necessary. Examples of this process are shown here: Post Processing Advantages.

One can find on the net some incredible images of birds grabbing prey. For example, an owl coming straight at the camera with talons out and about to grad its prey, like a mouse. Such an image would be incredibly lucky to get. What are the chances that the photographer just happened to be in front of a mouse and with an owl nearby that is not spooked by the photographer? Pretty slim. The owl was most likely baited. I have never done this, and if I ever did, the images would be labeled as such.

One can also find photographs of other birds of prey on the net, like hawks, in an incredible banking poses looking at the photographer. They likely were called and the bird is using its resources to check out the sound when it should be using its resources to survive. Is that worth a photo? If the photographer has many of these kinds of images, they are probably called (and maybe baited). I have never done this.

On the other hand, one can visit key locations and get great wildlife images. For example, on can get pretty close to bears in Alaska and make images of them fishing. Most wildlife on the Serengeti ignores safari vehicles. Birds in Florida often ignore people. Same with other locations, like Bosque del Apache wildlife refuge in New Mexico, or a local park. There are many locations where one can visit, and using a long telephoto lens, remain far enough from the animals to not stress them, yet get great images of them doing their natural activities. This is what I do. One can never be perfect at this. Sometimes when approaching a bird it does take flight (e.g. in a vehicle, or on foot). But with good technique, and slow approach, such problems can be minimized.

I also do not remove or add elements to the scene except in rare circumstances, and when I do I note it in the captions. I have been accused of many things, such as replacing the eyes in my bear images with fake eyes. The eyes are all real in every image. The animal images are real and no manipulation has been done. I don't clear sticks from the view in a photo editor. For example, some photographer critics have said I should remove the stick in front of the birds in this image: The Kiss, Great Blue Herons at Sunset but I prefer to leave the stick because that was the way it was when I took the picture. That represents real nature. As a result The Kiss image may never win in a photo contest, but I think it is a more powerful image with the stick.

Wild versus Captive Animals

Some may ask how I obtain wildlife images. Here are some categories.

Unless otherwise stated, all my wildlife images are Wild and Free (no calls, no bait). The keys to wildlife photography is knowing where to go and knowing your subject when you are there. This is true, whether photographing a bird in one's backyard, to a leopard on the Serengeti/

As of this writing, I have never baited or called a wild and free animal to photograph (and I don't hunt). It is apparently common to use calls (e.g. birds using an mp3 player and speakers) to lure subjects to photograph. I do not own such devices, nor have I ever used them. If I ever do use calls, I will note it in the caption. I have seen people bait animals, including feeding birds at a local pond, to feeding foxes at a local park. To date, I have also never visited a private wildlife sanctuary where one pays to photograph captive animals. I do have zoo and pet images and they are labeled as such. I also do not "clean up" my subjects (for example, cleaning dirt from a bird's beak in photoshop, or generally make them prettier by removing dirt or fixing broken feathers). You will notice pieces of salmon on many of my bear images. Many of the lions I've photographed look pretty beat up and I do not "repair them" to make them look better. I also do not replace eyes. My Wild and Free images are genuine.

So please view the galleries with these thoughts in mind.

Roger N. Clark

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Last updated January 19, 2014