Digital Manipulation and Nature Photography Competitions « Arthur Morris/BIRDS AS ART

Digital Manipulation and Nature Photography Competitions

If you give the animated GIF above a moment to play you will note that in the course of optimizing the image I did a fair amount of digital clean-up. See more below. This image was at Indian Lake Estates, FL with the tripod-mounted Canon 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II lens with the 1.4X III TC and the Canon EOS-1D Mark IV ISO 200. This is a 7-frame AEB HDR: +/- one stop around Evaluative metering at zero: 1/800 sec. at f/8. Central sensor/rear-focus AI Servo AF.

Lens/camera body Micro-adjustment: -8.

Digital Manipulation and Nature Photography Competitions

I did not have to look far to find an image that would be disqualified from most international nature photography competitions; it is an HDR image that has obviously been cleaned up). As far as the ethics of nature photography are concerned my stance is a simple one: the before image is an image of a lily in a pond and the after image is an image of a lily in a pond. No lies have been told at least from where I sit.

Recently, while searching the web for information on my friend, the late Fritz Pölking, an iconic German nature photographer, I came across a link to an interesting article entitled “Manipulated Images in Nature Photography Competitions; Pure Nature or Pixel Pushing? You can find the entire article here. It is an interesting article that would be well worth reading for all serious nature photographers especially those concerned with the ethics of nature photography (like me) or those (like me) who enjoy entering (and especially having images honored by) one or more of the prestigious international competitions. The article was credited to the “GDT board of management” but at the very end included this “by Thomas Block” and this “German to English translations by Alexandra Korte” so I am a bit confused as to how to credit the authorship.


The GDT (Gesellschaft Deutscher Tierfotografen) is based in Germany. Rather than try to explain exactly what they do I offer this from their website:

What does the GDT want?

The GDT set itself the task, to produce photographical appealing, convincing and biologically irrefutable nature photos under the compliance with the prevailling laws and to distribute them to the public by exhibitions, books, photo magazines, catalogues and lectures. That way the GDT wants to contribute to a better understanding of the nature and to advertise for her protection. For GDT members the respect for nature is the most important rule at their photographical work.

What does the GDT do?

Every year the GDT organizes the huge “International Nature Photography Festival” with slide shows by photographers from all over the world, with photo exhibitions and seminars on latest subjects of the nature photography. During the festival a unique photo market presents innovations of the film and equipment market, customized designs, numerous accessories, books and travels about nature photography. Above that, every year the GDT organizes an internal photo contest “GDT – Nature Photographer of the Year” as well as an open contest “European Wildlife Photographer of the Year”.

(I have been meaning to join the GDT ever since I visited to speak about six years ago….)

My Comments

Note: the bold italics in the “What does the GDT want?” paragraph above are mine. The choice of using “biologically irrefutable” to qualify nature photos is an interesting one that clearly implies that little or no digital manipulation (I far prefer the term optimization) is permitted. As you read the article above that implication becomes very clear. And I am fine with their stance. For the contest and for their exhibits. If I do join (I am planning to do that soon) and I enter the contest (as I also plan to do) I will of course abide by the rules.

At the end of the article they included “Statements of some (actually 3) of the members of the jury (for the 2009 European Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition.) The first two judges towed the party line. Here is a typical remark by made by judge Theo Bosboom (Netherlands):

The second day was still pleasant, but brought also a lot of frustration. After viewing the raw-files, we had to eliminate many selected pictures, because the competition rules had been breached by the photographers. Sometimes this decision was easy, for example when all kind of objects had been removed from a picture, or when the picture turned out to be only a small crop of the original (while only 30 % cropping is allowed). In other cases, the decision was less obvious and required extensive discussions between the jury members. It is for example hard to determine whether the contrast and colour temperature of a picture have been changed so much that also “the message of the photograph” has been changed.

We could spend days discussing that single paragraph alone so I will limit myself to a single comment: It is very hard indeed to determine if an image has been “juiced up” too much especially since the judges were not there and in view of the following facts:

1-Digital images are inherently unsharp and low in contrast as they come out of the camera as compared to film images.
2-Properly exposing digital images to the right to ensure that a file of the highest quality will often result in a RAW file that looks dull and washed out.

When I read the comments of the third judge–Dr. Siegmar Bergfeld (Germany) I was, however, stunned. Here they are:

While judging this competition I was once again struck how the intensity of the images had amplified through the use of digital photography. There were a lot of great eyecatchers which were in many cases later identified as a breach of the competition rules. It was a painful task to exclude otherwise great photographs because of undue manipulations. I came to ask myself the following: should we make the creators of these photographs the centre of our criticism or our competition rules?

Back in the analogue era of photography we – as genuine wildlife photographers – accepted the numerous feeding places that we consciously did not incorporate into the photograph, the “manipulations” using graduated filters, ultra zoom lenses, flashes, blurring, a little twig removed and much more…not to
mention the work in the dark room. Now with digital photography at our hands our possibilities to improve images have been increasing magnificently. It is my opinion that we should utilize this (sic: technology) openly rather than making it a taboo (a much straighter approach would be for example to hang a small copy of the original raw file with the corresponding photograph). To avoid any misunderstanding: copying additional objects into an image, distorting the essential meaning and also any kind of composing if not stated, turns wildlife photography into an untrustworthy and interchangeable matter. But great photographs are often not created by adding something but by the art of reduction.

Wow! Stunned is an understatement. Blown away. Shocked. Though the translation (or possibly just the intended meaning) is a bit less than crystal clear here is the judge of a prestigious international competition suggesting that nature photography contests might be better off allowing things like background clean-up so long as the natural history of the situation is preserved.

I am hoping that Dr. Bergfeld proves to be a man ahead of his time….

Do note that the relaxed digital restrictions (see below) in The 1st BIRDS AS ART International Bird Photography Competition accurately reflect Dr. Bergfeld’s suggestions.

From the Rules page:

  • Digital Restrictions: Entrants are permitted to remove both major and minor distracting elements from an image so long as the natural history of the scene at the moment of capture is preserved. You may add canvas, a wing-tip, or a tail-tip. Compositional elements that were not present at the moment of capture may not be added. Dust-spotting is of course permitted as are adjustments to color, contrast, and tonality. You may crop your images. Cropping shall not exceed more than 50% of the width and/or the height of the original RAW image.
  • RAW files for all winning and honored images (except for those entered in the Digital Creations category) will be requested via e-mail after the close of the contest. They must be submitted in a timely fashion. Instructions for submitting the required files will be sent via e-mail. Failure to submit the requested RAW files will result in the image being eliminated from the competition.


Nothing above including my comments should be construed as being critical of the GDT. Most prestigious international nature photography competitions have similar digital restrictions. I am hoping of course that in the future things may change drastically.

Your comments on any of the issues raised above are of course welcome.

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Shopper’s Guide

Below is a list of the gear used to create the image in today’s blog post. Thanks a stack to all who have used the Shopper’s Guide links to purchase their gear as a thank you for all the free information that we bring you on the Blog and in the Bulletins. Before you purchase anything be sure to check out the advice in our Shopper’s Guide.

Canon 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II lens. Man, I am loving this lens on my shoulder with the 2X III teleconverter. I also use it a lot with the 1.4X III TC.
Canon 1.4X III Teleconverter. Designed to work best with the new Series II super-telephoto lenses.
Canon EOS-1D Mark IV professional digital camera body. My two Mark IVs are my workhorse digital camera bodies.

And from the BAA On-line Store:

LensCoats. I have a LensCoat on each of my big lenses to protect them from nicks and thus increase their re-sales value. All my big lens LensCoat stuff is in Hardwood Snow pattern.
LegCoat Tripod Leg Covers. I have four tripods active and each has a Hardwood Snow LegCoat on it to help prevent further damage to my tender shoulders 🙂
Gitzo GT3530LS Tripod. This one will last you a lifetime.
Mongoose M3.6 Tripod Head. Right now this is the best tripod head around for use with lenses that weigh less than 9 pounds. For heavier lenses, check out the Wimberley V2 head.
CR-80 Replacement Foot for Canon 800. When using the 800 on a Mongoose as I do, replacing the lens foot with this accessory lets the lens sit like a dog whether pointed up or down and prevents wind-blown spinning of your lens on breezy days by centering the lens directly over the tripod.
Double Bubble Level. You will find one in my camera’s hot shoe whenever I am not using flash.
Be sure to check out our camera body User’s Guides here.
The Lens Align Mark II. I use the Lens Align Mark II pretty much religiously to micro-adjust all of my gear an average of once a month and always before a major trip. Enjoy our free comprehensive tutorial here.
Canon EOS-1D Mark IV User’s Guide. Learn to use your Mark IV the way that I use mine. Also available for the 7D and the Mark III here.

17 comments to Digital Manipulation and Nature Photography Competitions

  • George Ealovega

    Extremely interesting and important discussion. I began my professional international advertising career way back in 1968 and returned State-side some thirty years later. Most everything was done on 8X10, both location and studio. This was the golden-age of advertising photography when some of us commanded three to five thousand a day in fees which translated to the fact that we had to earn our money and deliver as finished a product as technologically possible. Filters inside the bellows; a moving “grease glass” in front of the lens to selectively blur background objects or create “halos” around objects. Double exposures meant one intricately cut masks inside the main bellows for the first exposure and a reverse cut mask for the second exposure. Major retouching meant going to dye transfers, then air-brush and back to a finished transparency. This was the skill-set one needed to master to earn the name “photographer”. Photoshop killed that golden-age fee-wise but opened up a whole new world that I embrace whole-heartedly…I would never go back to film. Photoshop tools are primarily based on techniques we had to develop and master in-camera but the bottom line is that both then and now, the successful image was a creation of the photographer who was able to master the technology of the time.

    Traveling around the world was always combined with staying on after the assignment in Africa, Australia or where-ever with a personal wildlife photographic safari…I was extremely fortunate to travel on the client’s dime! I was always also a wildlife artist with international clients, so the photography and the oil-painting were always intricately intertwined in that the finished “image” was always the paramount objective.

    Both my son’s are now in the industry. One a photo-journalist. The other, the vice-president and creative and technical supervisor of a major international film studio company specializing in digital compositing for the film and TV industry which brings me full circle to the main topic of this discussion….competition rules and the need to present RAW files. It is time for the rules to be based on an honest effort to create a true and beautiful representation of what the photographer’s mind saw. As to the RAW file issue, from many discussions on the learning curve my one son acquired in the transition from film to digital in his movie compositing work and his software development, I have been made aware that in his industry, a finalized Tiff or Photoshop file of an eagle flying off with an elephant grasped firmly in it’s talons could, admittedly at some cost in time and expense, be converted in its newly altered form back to a RAW/DNG file with all history removed and the original meta-data inserted proving that by competition rules, this event actually happened!….see everyone!…its on a RAW file! With that in mind, just how long will it be before these “competitions” will need to change with the times and go back to the days when the image was truly a work of art based on the creative and technical skill of the artist/photographer. I am getting old!

  • I teach a class in Digital Photography and every semester I get students who comment on manipulations I make in ACR and Photoshop to improve the image. Some thing I’m cheating.

    The emphasis in the class is learning how to use your camera in manual and semi-automatic modes. I tell my students you can set your camera to automatic and half of the time you’ll get a decent photograph — but what about the other half? Most of my students come to class and shoot JPGs. We work hard to learn how to make good sharp exposures but afterwards the software engineers take over.

    What I mean is this. If you don’t shoot RAW, the image still must be processed through the camera’s RAW converter. If you’re shooting jpgs, the camera’s built-in RAW converter will make decisions for you like sharpness, contrast, hue, saturation, and luminance. This takes control of the final result out of the photographer’s hand and relies on the software developer to come up with the correct algorithm for each situation. Even though I am a software developer, I don’t want someone else making those decisions for my photographs which is why I shoot RAW and process every image I think worthy with ACR and Photoshop. It’s not cheating; It’s me taking control and responsibility for my images. In this digital age it must be recognized that image manipulation is a necessity like film selection, developer, stop-bath, and fixer were a necessity in the film era. Thank goodness I no longer have to sit in a darkroom and breath in those chemicals.

    Thanks David. I am glad that we have control of the way our images look. With slide film in a lab it was a crap shoot. I would say that what you are describing I prefer to call “image optimization” rather than “manipulation.” artie

  • Jim Magowan

    I think the old saying, “In matters of taste there can be no dispute,” applies. The way I used to differentiate between a photograph and a picture was; a photograph is a work of art with composition, etc., playing an important role. A picture can be technically great, everything looks like what it is, properly exposed, etc., but artistic elements may be lacking. The rules seem to be an attempt to keep the photograph as close to a picture as possible. Art is a creation of the mind. It is the artist’s expression of what he or she sees. (would Rembrandt be disqualified in an art contest because his paintings don’t look enought like the subjects?

    Years ago I was a member of an art gallery. The painters got up in arms becasue my photographs sold better than their paintings because they were cheaper and ‘looked better’ and, besides, they were not really ‘art.’

    Did Audubon illustrate with bird pictures or bird art? If he were reincarnated and used a digital camera would he illustrate with missing wing tips and twigs in front of the birds?

    It is obvious we must restrict ‘manipulation’ of wildlife images so they are not confused with ‘art.’

    I have stood side by side with a group photographing eagles in Haines. Some of the group got better photographs than others. There was even one guy whose photographs were consistantly better than mine. His name was Artie something or other (age does things to memory). Using someone else’s blind may get you a great picture, but a great photograph comes from what is behind the viewfinder, not what is in front of the lens.

    Thanks for sharing your excellent thoughts and for your kind words. 🙂 artie

  • Fine, Art – you have our opinion, I have mine: I disagree with yours and agree with Granville’s.

    And – sorry – the wolf is absolutely germane to my premise, being another example of a photographer taking advantage of a staged scenario in order to get a (prize-winning) shot that he would not have been able to make by his own devices – it differs only in degree from the point Granville has made.

    The wolf situation is not at all germane. First of all, guy flat out lied. Second and more important, you are comparing free and wild birds coming to a feeder or to a pond or to a dead hunk of meat or a live mouse to a the use of a captive animal….. artie

  • Granville

    My point was directed at entries for competitions specifically. I still think that entering a competition with a photo that is 90% someone else’s work is dubious. Fine if you buy time at someone else’s setup to improve your skill but don’t pretend the resulting photos are all your own work. In the days when I ran a commercial studio I would do all the lighting and setup, and my assistant would operate the camera, which didn’t get him the photographer credit . Sadly I’ll now have to look at the Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition in a completely new light.

    If I pay to go anywhere and I press the button the image is 100% mine (no matter what you think or believe. Of course you are free to think and believe what you want :). You write “now…” That I do not understand either. The practice has been going on for decades…. artie

  • Arthur Morris/BIRDS AS ART

    Harvey, JIJO. Junk in equals junk out. You cannot transform a bad image into a good image in Photoshop. 🙂 artie

  • harvey tabin

    I do not know who I agree with, and it does not make a great deal of difference to me because I enjoy looking at clean photos. But I have thought that we might mistake a fine computer operator for a great photographer if too much adjustment is allowed.

    Yes, I have thought about Ansel Adams.

  • Oh, I’m not judging, Art – I don’t enter competitions, so I don’t have a horse in this race.

    Nevertheless, getting a competition-winning “wildlife” image from someone else’s set-up opportunity seems somewhat analagous to a hunter going to one of those awful game parks in Africa – where the animals are essentially wheeled out in front of the guns to be shot – blowing a hole in some critter, and then shouting about what a great hunter he is.

    He might be a good shot, and the Lion’s head on his wall might look as good as any other Lion’s head on a wall (if you like that sort of thing), but a good hunter?

    And – in a sense – the notional winning photographer above is in a similar category: he might well have taken a great photo, but is that all it takes to be a wildlife photographer?

    I can’t help but think of the jumping wolf image that won- and then lost – the 2009 Wildlife Photographer Of The Year competition:

    Keith, With all due respect for reasons previously stated I disagree 100%. And the disqualified jumping wolf has nothing to do with your premise. There is lots to being a great wildlife photographer. I have nothing against folks working at great set-ups whether the set-up is theirs or rented…

  • I think Granville makes an interesting point, Art.

    It is that – unlike the (considerable) personal efforts you make to get to Antarctica – there’s something about rocking up to what is in effect a set-up/staged wildlife photography opportunity that rankles a bit.

    It’s surely a fine line, but I personally feel (as does Granville, I think) that part of being a bird/wildlife photographer is doing your own legwork: I’m never more proud of images I’ve made than when I’ve used fieldcraft, careful observation, and my own research in order to make the opportunity come about.

    Simply turning up, paying a wad of cash, rattling off a couple of cards’ worth of files then scooting off home with a satisfied grin on my face isn’t really what it’s about for me.

    That said, I certainly understand the appeal if the subject matter is something that I’m not likely to be able to “crack” with my own efforts, but in broad terms, I’m with Granville.

    Surely there is a big difference between satisfaction and right or wrong…. In addition, there are dozens of folks every week who show up at stellar photographic locations, blinds, feeder set-ups, etc. who could not make a good image to save their souls…. I think that Dr. Block may have been agreeing with you in part when he wrote, “Back in the analogue era of photography we – as genuine wildlife photographers – accepted the numerous feeding places that we consciously did not incorporate into the photograph…. artie

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  • Bill Tyler

    To answer your question, I don’t know of any bird photographers using the equipment I mentioned.

  • Vern Denman

    Great discussion. I think it would be fun to have a contest where you take a picture, no tweaking, just using your camera and lens the best you can. I think we must remember that nature is not always perfect and perhaps we should show it the way it really is and not try to gloss over what is truly there. Having said that, I am guilty of playing light room develop overtime.

    Perhaps. Or perhaps not. Please remember that files right out of the camera will look washed out if properly exposed and that files from digital cameras are inherently unsharp as compared to film. Be careful what you wish for. 🙂 artie

  • Hi Artie,
    Thomas Block is part of the management board of GDT (treasurer) and he spoke certainly on their behalf, so he or the whole board can be considered author. Alexandra Korte translated the original article from German into English. … and Siegmar Bergfeld certainly is ahead of many of us. I consider him as the most creative photographer in Germany as you may see in his winning image in 2002 ( Personally, I agree completely with his and your view. If somebody is able to improve the quality of an image by tweaking a tone curve or removing distracting elements, that should be valued the same as using a flash or removing distracting litter before taking the image… In any case, the true story about the creation should be told.

    Hi Dirk, Thanks for the info and the link. And obviously I agree with you wholeheartedly. artie

  • Granville

    This all reminds me of my early black and white days when the hot topic was whether a photographer should use separate sky negs to put clouds into a bald sky. I suspect the answer will be the same – you can’t stop technology.

    To widen the discussion a bit, I’ve only just learnt that some contestants in nature competitions are paying established photographers to be allowed to use their hides and feeding stations to get pictures of illusive creatures. They then enter the resulting pics as their own work . Well, OK, they may have pressed the button, but surely it must take more to call yourself a wildlife photographer?

    Granville, I really do not see your point…. It is costing me about $28,000 to get down to Antarctica…. Should I not enter a contest because it’s a great place and cost me a fortune? You could say the same thing about paying to get on private property and use someone else’s blinds. That sort of stuff has been going on for decades at least and I have no problem with it. Respectfully, artie

  • Your link to the Canon 5D goes to the lens not the camera. Jim

    Thanks Jim. I repaired it above and included it here as well. artie

  • Artie –

    I agree completely with your POV; in order to encourage more talented photographers to enter these contests it’s time to bring a more contemporary and reasonable attitude to the rules.


  • Bill Tyler

    I understand most of the restrictions, and also understand the difficulty around defining what nature photography “ought” to be. The one restriction I don’t understand is the one on cropping, and it’s one that your contest shares with GDT. Aside from image quality, there is no difference between a crop and use of a longer focal length. Either one restricts the field of view, and in essentially the same way. As far as image quality goes, the proof should be in the final image, not in whether it’s been cropped. If one photographer uses a Leica S2 (37.5 megapixels on a rather large sensor) or a Hasselblad H4d (50 megapixels) the image quality after heavy cropping may well equal or improve on image quality from an uncropped image made by a Canon 1dx. So what’s the rationale for limiting cropping instead of simply letting image quality stand or fall on its own?

    I was thinking the exact same thing as I was reading the article. Do you know anyone who photographs birds with the gear that you mention? artie