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Nature Photography: Striking the Balance Between Reality and Art

Hello, fellow nature and art lovers! Today, let's talk about a hot debate in photography - how much digital manipulation should be allowed in nature photography.

male and female bullfinches on the snow in Finland
male and female bullfinches in the snow

Sure, basic adjustments like contrast and exposure are necessary and happen in the digital camera whether or not you like it. But what about removing objects, "correcting" animals, or adding objects to improve composition?

Some of the most famous photographers, like Fan Ho and Steve McCurry used manipulation in their work. While Fan Ho did it openly, McCurry introduced his photos as authentic, and was forced to admit manipulation only after hard evidence became public.

The famous Approaching Shadow photo by Fan Ho
Approaching Shadow - Fan Ho

The famous Afgahn Girl photo by Steve Mccurry
Afghan Girl - Steve Mccurry

But what does it all mean for me? As an artist, what should I do?

I consider myself a pragmatist, not a purist. When I submit to competitions or events that require authenticity, I follow the rules. But when it comes to my personal creation, I see the camera simply as a tool in my arsenal and use it to create the first stage in a process of creation.

Let me give you a recent example. A few weeks ago, I fell in love with the bullfinches in Finland. I wanted to capture a photo of both the female and male together on a white snowy background, with the less vibrant female as the dominant subject. I also wanted the photo to look – like many of my bird photos – on the border between a photograph and a painting.

I couldn't achieve this in-camera, so I had to plan it out. I spent a few days near a feeder in Kuusamo, Finland where the bull finches regularly visited. I overexposed the photos and took them with low contrast ‘film’ to make them more painting-like. I ended up with a couple of hundreds of photos to choose two from.

Female bullfinch on a branch above the snow
Femal bullfinch

male bullfinch in the snow
Male bullfinch in the snow

Later at my desk, I worked on each photo with a (digital) brush to remove unwanted elements and make them look more like paintings. Finally, I merged the two photos together for the final result.

Male and female bullfinch final image
Male and female bullfinch final image

This is my process of creation. What do you think? Do you prefer pure, unedited nature photography or do you embrace the artistry of digital manipulation? Let me know.

If you're interested in buying the bullfinch photo you can see the details here. Or if you have any questions, please feel free to contact me here.

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Teemu Laulajainen
Teemu Laulajainen
Apr 13, 2023

Hello Ran. I just talked about the manipulation theme with Nate Larson, and my opinion is that it is ok to use manipulation as long as you mention it and do not mislead the audience, since many still think a photographs, especially realistic ones, can be trusted and represents the reality correct. When I do my photoshopping, the result is clearly a manipulation. And as you said, the end use or the purpose of the photo defines the level of adjustment. Documentary should be manipulation-free area and art not, but since the results of both can remind each other, I'd like the photographer be honest and mention possible editing if there is a danger the photo can be observed as…

Ran Fuchs
Ran Fuchs
Apr 13, 2023
Replying to

Hi Teemu, I agree that as long as you are clear about what you do there should not be any problems. That was the big scandal with Steve McCurry. He never disclosed what he was doing, and once it was found out he claimed he was not a photo Journalist.

Of course, there is the grey area, what do you do with contrast, exposures, granularity, sharpness. After all, the chip in most cameras will do it for you anyway, so doing it manually in PS is mostly considered an acceptable practice. Turning photos to BW also is considered acceptable. After all, you cannot take real BW any more with a modern digital camera


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