Staging Nature Photos

Monarch Butterfly (Danaus plexippus) Nectaring on Arrowhead Groundsel (Senecio triangularis), Yosemite National Park © Mike Spinak

A few weeks ago, Jason Reed asked me for my thoughts about staged nature photos. I told him I’d write an article on my website to answer fully, rather than give a brief, incomplete answer, elsewhere. So here it is.

When I started nature photography, I read a book by Leonard Lee Rue III, called How I Photograph Wildlife and Nature. Among other things in the book, he extensively discussed staging techniques he used, such as getting butterflies too drunk to fly, and placing them in good positions on pretty flowers, cooling snakes in an ice chest until they can’t move, then setting them in dramatic poses and aesthetic locations, and so on.

After reading the book, I came to conclude I’m not keen on staging nature photos. This is for several reasons:

1) To begin with, one of the main reasons I’m a nature photographer is because I want to enjoy experiencing the natural world. The more one stages one’s shot – with baiting, or using captive and trained animals, or building sets and background, etc. – the less it’s nature on its own terms, and thus the less of that experience one gets. In that sense, staging doesn’t sound fun or thrilling, and doesn’t have the same appeal to me as making unstaged photos.

2) When staging with wild creatures, you risk harming the animals, in a number of ways. You may increase the exposure of the animal you’re baiting to predators. For example, I’ve seen Cooper’s hawks hang around feeders for songbirds, waiting for an easy meal. Additionally, the bait used to bring animals in is often “junk food” – less nutritionally complete than the animal needs – such as the sugar water commonly used in hummingbird feeders, rather than the more nutritious wild flower nectars. Baiting animals may also increase their exposure to pathogens, especially in cases like a bird feeder, where many birds feed from the exact same hole, or when bringing bait animals from a different area. Getting animals to come to you by playing recorded animal calls wastes the precious resources which many animals need for their knife-edge subsistence livings, just for the sake of photos. And so on.

3) By staging pictures, you’re likely to get what you’re after. Or, to put it another way: you’re unlikely to get what you’re not after – you’re less likely to be surprised by unusual situations and unusual behaviors. You’ll probably get more consistently good photos, at the expense of fewer superlative photos.

4) Staging photos may come at the expense of some useful natural history information. Staged photos are likely to contain less informative content about natural history, overall, if they involve creating scenes or situations which are simplified versions of the full complexity of nature. Staged photos are also likely to often contain false natural history information – the staged setting or situation is likely to be one that an animal wouldn’t have chosen on its own, and is also likely to include inaccuracies about what an animal eats, how it behaves, etc.

For example, there was a scandal, last year, where José Luis Rodriguez was stripped of the Wildlife Photographer of the Year award, for staging his winning photo of an Inberian wolf jumping over a farmer’s gate to hunt livestock. One of the tip-offs that the picture is a fake, using a tame, trained wolf, is that the picture shows false behavioral information. A wild wolf on the prowl, as opposed to a trained wolf performing a trick, would have sneaked through the bars of the gate, rather than jump over the gate.


Now, all of the above may sound like a harsh critique. Let me be clear that I’m not completely against people staging nature photos in all circumstances. Simply put, there are some things we would likely never succeed in photographing without staging to a high degree. Stephen Dalton is a master of staging nature photos to get pictures of things we’d never see otherwise, such as this. There’s obviously value in getting such pictures. I do think one should weigh the risks to the subjects against the potential informative value, and minimize the staging of nature pictures when the likelihood is small of the pictures conveying significant information.

It did bother me when Darrel Gulin, as the President of the North American Nature Photography Association, discussed gluing hundreds of dead butterflies to a bush to make unique photos – because I felt like that diverges too far from the nature in nature photography, and because the message was coming from someone in an influential position, who represents the nature photography community.

Nonetheless, I’m not categorically against staged nature photos. I am against passing off highly staged pictures as unstaged pictures, but I’m not fundamentally against staging nature pictures when that’s the only way to get certain photos with significant informative value. If you’re going to stage photos, then (1) be educated enough to avoid conveying false natural history information; (2) weigh the risks to the subjects versus the benefits of the pictures; (3) be educated and careful enough to minimize risks to your subjects; (4) be honest that the pictures are captive animals, or were baited, or in a birdbath, or whatever.

Do those, and you can make staging a valuable part of nature photography.

Monarch Butterfly (Danaus plexippus) Nectaring on Arrowhead Groundsel (Senecio triangularis), Yosemite National Park, California

All pictures and text are © Mike Spinak, unless otherwise noted. All pictures shown are available for purchase as fine art prints, and are available for licensed stock use. Telephone: (831) 325-6917.

  • Patty Bitterman - Mike, this may be my favorite of your articles because I could totally relate to the subject. I have had opportunity of taking photos of captive and even dead animals such as a butterfly to stage a photo, somehow no matter how well the photos turned out, the feeling of accomplishment was completely absent and was as hollow as a chocolate Easter bunny. Thank you for this excellent insightful review.ReplyCancel

  • Alan Majchrowicz - Good article, I completely agree with you. I don’t photograph any of these subjects but I can imagine how tempting it would be to stage them.ReplyCancel

  • Cindy Bendush - I am in TOTAL agreement with you on this subject Mike. I was told that I could have perfect butterfly pictures if I put the poor creatures in the frig overnight then put them on a dewy leaf in the morning. This just seems wrong in my opinion Doing something to any creature that is unnatural or potentionally harmful is just not something I’m willing to do for the sake of a photograph. Its not worth it. Gluing butteflies to a bush? First of all – your’re right, there is no nature here. Secondly, were does one obtain all of these dead butterflies? Evidently, some people take their photography a bit too far, losing respect for the very nature that nature enthusiasts respect.ReplyCancel

  • Len Wilcox - I think you are describing the difference between documentary photography and creative art photography. There’s a lot of both in each of us, but I think we tend to fall on one side or the other. I know I do – I’m a journalist. While I respect the artistry and technical expertise of the beautiful artwork many of us do, my desire is to photograph what someone would see if they went where I was at. I want to honestly document the world as it is (for me). So staging nature photos would not be an option.ReplyCancel

  • Rolf Hicker - First of all – great article Mike. Thanks for sharing, that was a lot of work.
    I’m very proud to say that in my 25+ years as a nature,wildlife and travel photographer I never staged a wildlife shot, unless a bird feeder would be considered staging.

    I’m not surprised that some well known wildlife photographers are using what ever it needs to get the shot – that is why they became the “top” of wildlife photographers because they had unique pictures – ethics of course out the window.

    It is great to see this discussion coming up because it will open the eyes of some people which think those photographers are the greatest on earth – to me they aren’t.

    Staging it “easy”, yes you will make more money, but in this matter I’m proud to struggle my way through over so many years, not becoming famous for something which I actually need to be ashamed for.

    My ethics are on top of all my work – and I’m very proud of it too!ReplyCancel

  • Cyren - Hi!!! Just came across this amazing site from networked blogs and I couldn’t agree more with what you said about staging nature-shots. They wouldn’t be very ‘natural’ if one staged them now, would it? Besides, drugging butterflies to snap pictures of them prettily placed on wild-flowers would be like getting models drunk to make them more agreeable to photographing nudes… or something.ReplyCancel