Sunday, July 8, 2018

Photographing wildlife: Is a staged photo OK?

Let me start this blog post by saying this: This post about staged photos is going to stir up a lot of emotions (on both sides), but I am writing this for three reasons:

* To respond to a recent blog comment from a guy named Mike
* To open up a conversation amongst all of us
* To express my opinion on this controversial topic

Here is the comment: 

"Are you kidding me, Jeff? Are you seriously promoting a Namibia tour where the guide is digging wildlife out of a sand dune and throwing it on the ground for tourists like your self to photograph? Promoting someone that is baiting birds and reptiles for 'wildlife photography'??? WTF happened to your standards? What would the IOC think of a 'professional' photographer that endorses this kind of eco destructive tourism? 

Jeff, I have respected you, your business, your photography, and your intellect for years. I have referred innumerable people to your site as a reliable and reputable source for photography knowledge, but no more. This is inexcusable. This is a horrifying approach to what you think of as wildlife photography. It completely discredits every wildlife shoot you have ever done in the past as nothing more than a staged photo op"

I did respond to this person, but over the last 48 hours, it has really gotten me thinking about the subject. I don't fault him for expressing his opinions. Actually, I am glad that he did and that it inspired me to think about this more and address it here. I welcome his thoughts on the subject, as I do with all of you, and I fully respect him taking the time to air his concerns. 

To address some of his points:

* The guide who was finding these reptiles in Namibia was doing this to educate us on the fragility of the environment and showing us the ecosystem that exists in the Namibian dunes - his homeland where he has been studying this ecosystem for over 50 years. He never moved the animals from the wild and always made sure to respect them. He would show them to us, allowing us to capture photos, and then let them return to their environment. Not only would he teach us about the wildlife, but he made it a point to stop any time he saw any litter on the dunes, and grab that and put it in his garbage bag. The chameleon that you see below was exactly where the guide found him in the wild. The guide did throw the bugs out for the chameleon to eat (allowing us to get shots like this), but that was fully disclosed in my blog post. 

* I don't think that the IOC (International Olympic Committee) would care about my wildlife photography at all. Trust me, they are not looking at every Olympic photographer and scrutinizing our work. But I would be honored if they cared that much about me and my work.

* I do think that it is overly harsh, discounting all of my work, for a small selection of images, but it is his right to think what he wants. 

* I appreciate the referral of others to my blog and sincerely hope that I have not lost all integrity.

* And now for the most important point, the credibility of wildlife photography. Almost all of the wildlife photography that is in my portfolio, posted on the blog, and taken on our photo tours is completely in the wild. But there are times when we capture photos of wildlife that are in more controlled environments. 

Here are some samples:

In the rain forest of Costa Rica, I always have a half day when the people on my photo tours photograph snakes and frogs that are handled by a native. The snakes are being studied by scientists and the tree frogs are gathered on the property, brought close to us, and then let go right away. They are in their environment and not baited. Does this count as real wildlife photography? I think it does. It is also a great way to photograph these amazing animals, up close and personal, but in a non evasive manor. It allows us to share the beauty with others and hopefully inspire future generations to see it for themselves.

We also visit a butterfly house which has many species of butterflies in a large netted space. Once again, these butterflies are being studied by scientists and not harmed in any way. 

These giraffe were obviously photographed in the Sydney Zoo. That is made obvious by the background. Is this wildlife? No...this is a zoo shot. After doing many safaris and trips to the rain forest, I actually find zoos to be more "invasive" and "destructive" since the animals are kept in such small spaces. Does it make the whole idea of a zoo wrong? I have mixed feelings about that.

I took this photo of an eagle more than 12 years ago. It was in a rehabilitation center in Alaska where it was being cared for. By taking this photo and having it in my collection,  does that mean that I am a bad person or promoting the destruction of the species? I don't think so. But, with that said, I think it is important to tell people that this was not taken in the wild. I always have.

On our first day in Namibia (which is normally a down day for people to get time adjusted), we decided to take the group to a local animal reserve to get photos of big cats and other animals. This cheetah had only three legs and was rescued by the staff. If it weren't for the staff of the reserve, this animal would be dead for sure.

Paying to enter the reserve helps pay for the care of these animals. It also gave the photo tour attendees a chance to practice their photography in a controlled environment prior to us going out in the wild.

At our last lodge in Namibia, they had their own private reserve and fed all types of animals, including rhino, zebra, giraffe and more. This allowed us to get very close to the animals for tight shots like the one above. If I had blogged these as "in the wild" photos, I agree that this would be wrong.

My opinion

I love photographing animals, and started by doing so at the San Francisco zoo. I, like most people in the world, did not have easy access to them in the wild (unless you count squirrels and seagulls). It wasn't until 3 years ago that I started making annual trips to Africa. I don't see anything wrong with people photographing animals in any environment, provided that they are not doing ANY harm to the wildlife. As I said before, I do believe that, if a photo appears to be taken in the wild, it is the photographer's responsibility to disclose if a photo was taken with assistance. I am not a hunter because I could never take the life of another living thing. I prefer using my camera to capture the beauty of the wildlife in any way I can.

Other staged shots

As I dive deeper into the subject of staged shots, it makes me think of all the other photos I have seen that appear to be "real" but are staged. The first time I saw a night shot of an old asian fisherman on a river with his lantern and bird, I thought "wow, that is a great shot!" I was amazed that the guy captured this old fisherman with his lantern and even got a bird perched on the end of the boat. Now, after seeing the same shot of the fisherman on the Li river in Guilin from countless photographers, I know that this is a setup shot. The old fisherman makes himself available to photographers all the time, for a fee of course. Does this lessen the impact of the shot for me? It actually does. I now look at the photo and think, "there is that same guy again, in the same pose and with the same bird tied to the back of the boat." So, yes, staged shots are not the same as capturing the "real moments" in life, but they can still make for nice artwork on your wall.

Your thoughts?

As I mentioned at the beginning of this blog post, I write this as an open to as larger conversation. I would love to hear from all of you, as to your thoughts on the subject. In the spirit of this blog, I would prefer to see constructive thoughts and expressions without any name calling and finger pointing.

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Liesl Aldridge said...

It seems like the fellow who commented had genuine concerns fueled by some respectably intense protective urges, possibly based on his own past experiences or previous knowledge of less reputable tours. It also seems like your work does not take place within the context of those concerns. If anything, his exchange speaks to the importance for all photographers and all internet photograph viewers to accept the responsibility to understand the content they create and/or consume. I have great respect for your work across subjects. I also appreciate your professionalism and your dedication to your followers to take the time to respond to the intense concerns of one follower and to educate those interested as to the environmentally respectful nature of this recent nature photography tour. Thank you for sharing your work, your passion, and your unceasing endeavor to educate and inspire.

Jeff said...


This is an interesting and educational discussion. I do not think that you have done anything morally or ethically wrong. There have been times when I have been in a forest and I saw a beautiful wildflower, but there was an intervening branch between the lens and my "perfect" shot. I would then hold the camera with one hand and bend the branch out of the way until after the shot and then release it back to where it had been.

Is this a "real" or "natural" picture? I think it is. The flower was where it was naturally growing and captured in that habitat. As you explained in your blog post, some of the shots were facilitated (which I think is a more appropriate word than "staged") as part of an educational and photographic exercise for your group. The animal is still wild and is still in its native habitat so that is good enough for me.

What is the real meaning of the word "staged?” Over the last couple of days there was a post about a photographer who was photographing polar bears and one young bear was curious and approached him. The bear would probably have liked to take a bite of that photographer and have a good snack. The bear approached the photographer and his gear several times while the photographer kept snapping away until the bear came too close and, at which time, he would then scare the bear off until the bear made another attempt. In this case, the man was "the bait." The bear was in his natural environment on the edge of the water. Is this staged?

I do believe wildlife needs to be protected and respected. I also think it is the responsibility of the photography community to promote the care and well being of everything we enjoy capturing with our cameras whether they are animals, sensitive landscapes, indigenous peoples, etc. Photography helps to educate others about these topics and I hope you/we continue to do so.

Thank you for your openness and willingness to explore this valuable topic via your blog. Your work is excellent and a joy to behold.

Janet said...

First let me say that I am not a professional photographer but I am a very amateur photographer. Though I would love to train to be better my health inhibits my activity. I personally love to see your photography of wildlife in any form. As I do not fly and so could never go to Africa or other far away places I can live the trip through your eyes and blog. I can feel somewhat like I am there right with you on that safari. It excites me to see the way you photographed those sand dunes and such...I am just amazed. I capture things with my camera for my enjoyment and life documenting but through your lens I can see the world and I so appreciate it!

I was quite surprised at Mike's post. I don't understand why he can be so harsh with you and think that probably in his photography we never see his sooc shots. Is that any different....I have learned that almost never do photographs that are published without some sort of LR (presets)or PS (actions) done to enhance them. So again, what is so different about a "staged" photo and one that has been enhanced by software? Just a thought!

Anyway, please keep doing what you are doing in any form as I so love seeing all the beauty! I love wildlife!!! I have two hummingbird feeders right outside my window to bring them to me so that I can enjoy! They are amazing birds!!! Thank you so much!

Sean Eddy said...

I feel when it comes to a trip to Africa, which for some might only come once in a lifetime, I’d want to see as many native animals as possible. And if they have to be staged, so be it. It’s nice to capture things as they happen by chance, but I see nothing wrong with a staged photograph from time to time.

paperowner said...

Wow , everyone is entitled to an opinion , I think the gentle men went way overboard . The native , trained and educated guide didn’t wrangle an animal from his home and hold him down while everyone shot away . The tours are not only for photos but to learn about the animals their real homes and interactions . There is no way Jeff would allow an animal, big or small to be harmed or taken out of their area when they could be in danger just so the group can photograph them . I feel it would be more damaging to the environment and animals if the whole crew trampled through an area in hopes of seeing a tiny gentle frog or if everyone was digging in the dunes . As you see in the snake photos he was brought to the bottom and than happily swished his way back . Jeff hires native , very very knowledgeable guides who know the land like the animals do , they can foresee an predator just by how the birds fly , that knowledgeable alows everyone an opportunity to see a tiger hunting , they aren’t dragging meat off the truck . And think off zoos they sell food to feed the animals who some have never been in their wild environment . On the tours you see how wildlife truely are . Mothers and hurds comforting and protecting their babies . You don’t see that in the states as after babies are born in a zoo it is usually moved to another zoo , that to me is cruel.
Jeff plans , hires , goes everywhere first to plan the best trip possible before taking anyone on the photo tour . I would love to see the tiny frogs up close , without the native guides I would never see one . Never see Hurd oh hippos in the water . Don’t think throwing a worm to a camilion is in any way baiting . Jeff always tells you how they get to see the animals , how the guides can tell when something is going to happen , I think that is just as amazing as seeing the animals . Jeff Cable would never endanger an animal , his group or his reputation. The tours are life changing , he told me “ once you have experienced the wild of Africa , you might leave Africa but Africa will always stay with you “ . I respect everyone’s opinion with out being hurtful to someone’s passion . I hope this gentleman and we all start really taking care of our planet , the animals in cages hoping for food from machines and the animals in the ocean which is full of dangerous plastic .


Phil Brown said...

The person who attacked you was way out of line. You have nothing to apologize for, but still you wrote a thoughtful, cogent explanation of your approach. Well done.

Enrique Cantu said...


First of all I enjoy your blog. Especially when you break a photo down and show your editing process. I must admit when I read the entry in question I was a little thrown back as well. My first thought was, AHAA! As I thought about it I wondered how many of the shots were 'staged'. But the realization is that photography is a form of art. There is a whole process from equipment selection, subject composing, equipment setting, light setup, and post processing. A true artist knows how to use his media to create. This is how I see your work. Be it at a wedding where you pose the couple or in Africa where a lizard is 'posed' for you. The image still needs captured with the correct settings and processed with an artistic eye.
I once read about a photographer that catches a snowflake with an old hat. Then sets up a macro lens and captures a hundred or so pictures that are then focus-stacked to create one picture. Is this considered staged as well?
I love your work. I love the blog. Please keep it up. There are always going to be people who disagree with something in your process. You are not breaking any laws nor are you hurting any animals. I support your work Jeff!

Jeff said...

Jeff I think what you are doing is great. I have been following your blog for over 5 years now. Keep up the great work.

Paul Hamilton said...


I enjoy your blog very much and have learnt a lot about photography from you, a professional photographer.

If this is the only ONE person that has a problem with the contents of your blog, then all they need to do is hit the UNSUBSCRIBE link.

Jeff, please don't let ONE individual upset you, as the consequences of people constantly having a dig at you will only end up in you thinking is this blog really worth all the stress and grief.

You should not have to respond to people like this as your blog is free to follow and free to opt out.

Me, Im not going anywhere Jeff and I hope you continue to run the blog in the same way you have done up to now.


Paul Hamilton said...


I enjoy your blog very much and have learnt a lot about photography from you, a professional photographer.

If this is the only ONE person that has a problem with the contents of your blog, then all they need to do is hit the UNSUBSCRIBE link.

Jeff, please don't let ONE individual upset you, as the consequences of people constantly having a dig at you will only end up in you thinking is this blog really worth all the stress and grief.

You should not have to respond to people like this as your blog is free to follow and free to opt out.

Me, Im not going anywhere Jeff and I hope you continue to run the blog in the same way you have done up to now.


Paul Hamilton said...


I enjoy your blog very much and have learnt a lot about photography from you, a professional photographer.

If this is the only ONE person that has a problem with the contents of your blog, then all they need to do is hit the UNSUBSCRIBE link.

Jeff, please don't let ONE individual upset you, as the consequences of people constantly having a dig at you will only end up in you thinking is this blog really worth all the stress and grief.

You should not have to respond to people like this as your blog is free to follow and free to opt out.

Me, Im not going anywhere Jeff and I hope you continue to run the blog in the same way you have done up to now.


Rick C. said...

I would only have a problem with staged images when (if) they are presented as being anything but staged and animals are not hurt. Some of us will never get to see animals such as these without a glass wall or significant distance between us and the animal.

I went back and reread your post. In my opinion you were NOT misleading one's impression of what went on and did not present the images as anything but an opportunity to photograph the animals "in the wild".

I believe while some points in general were valid for people who stage shots and try to pass them off as true wildlife shots, I also believe they did not apply to the images you posted and were overly harsh. I can't believe the same tone would have been used had the individual been face to face with you.

Ash said...

Need to shrug that one comment off, since your blog entries are inspiring, packed with information, and you are always very thoughtful with the story/event you are telling. Do not change your style - please!
I think you are very up-front on the environment and venue in which you are photographing, I knew from the blogs where you had taken the photos, so there was no surprise in this last blog you wrote.

Keep up the good work, a lot of us are feeding off of your adventures in photography!!

Terry Howell said...

I like others read your blog because we enjoy it and the content you see fit to share, Keep up the GREAT work. I have followed you since your earliest blog days and have learned much from you at prior B&H seminars. You are a down to earth photographer who teaches well. Please don't let an attack from someone who seemed to be having a very bad day influence you blog work.

I think when it comes to "staged" photography there is not a photographer worth his or her salt that has not taken more than a few.

I started my photography with a high school class I wasn't sure was going to pan out but now 35 years later I'm able to call myself a semi pro landscape and wildlife photographer because of it. I include the preface because in class that was all we did was staged shots, right. By the second semester we made trips to San Diego Zoo, Phoenix Zoo and the likes. These were how our instructor thought we would learn the basics of wildlife photography. Whenever someone asks me about my animal shots and how they can get started shooting wildlife I generally direct them to a local zoo. While this is not what I think of as great shooting and I do find zoos invasive and restrictive for the animals we must all understand these animals while on display for the public, they are being studied daily.

Having been on a few Safari's our guide was just that, a GUIDE. We were paying him to GUIDE us to the animals they knew about. They all shared their knowledge on the subject at hand and we were all the wiser for it. If paying a guide is not your thing the don't use one, no big deal to any of us I'm sure, but I will guarantee I have more shots of animals, birds, fish, bugs than those who don't. Guides are also there to keep us safe. they know the areas and where not to be due to one hazard or another.

I don't care whether you shoot nudes, cars, boudoir, wildlife or any other thing that makes you happy or money, very few photographers can say they shot it unstaged. I will continue to carry my camera into the wild looking for those unstaged shots but truth be told real deal wildlife shots worth a damn are few and far in between. I guess all the world is a "stage" for us to admire and get shots of so stay calm and carry on and by all means carry your camera!!

Unknown said...

Hello Jeff,

I personally agree everything you've said. How many bird photographers bait their traps to get the shot they want. How many hunters bait their traps to get the shot they want. How many staged photos do you see on Instagram with people standing, camping, etc, on the edge of a cliff or sitting on the edge of a high rise building with their feet hanging down....really! So many staged shots it's unreal. But like you say, they can make for great wall hangers.
Your shots are all great and true and nothing you do or have done disqualifies my view of what you do. You're fantastic and I wish I could do 10% of what you do!

Doug Crist said...

I think as long as you're up front about the situation and let people know about any 'handling' that you're adhering to both the spirit and letter of the 'law'.
Thanks for posting the great images you do for those of us unable to go on the tour.

Dave Balding said...

Well expressed, Jeff. Keep up the good work. I enjoy it tremendously and have learned a lot. Thanks

Joanne S said...

Jeff, I love to follow all of your posts and agree with all of the above comments. Who cares whether the photo was "staged" or natural. I don't think that photography is that strict that one must follow "rules". Photography should be a pleasure and not be constrained by so-called "rules" that others have. They obviously are not enjoying life! Keep up the good work!

Jeff H said...

I can only assume that the one complaining doesn't like family portraits or headshots, or senior pictures, or maternity pictures, or any other posed or staged shots. His complaints are rather ridiculous.

David McKellar said...

This is an interesting topic and I agree with what you say. I think the most important thing is honesty. If its a zoo shot, say its a zoo shot, like you've done. Keep on blogging Jeff!

Michael Blum said...

You're both right.

Although I don't agree with Mike, I can see where he is coming from. One could make an argument against any interference with the wildlife. From a photojournalism standpoint, I certainly understand the concern about influencing the scene.

You have given a thoughtful response and I don't think you have been dishonest with your readers. Now, If I find out that the cheetahs weren't even there and you photoshopped them in afterwards . . .