Stunning Wildlife Photography: Staged or Candid?

Stunning Wildlife Photography: Staged or Candid?

It's difficult to denounce nature photography, especially when the shots look this good. The hours that Konsta Punkka has put into his photography are not to be sniffed at, but is it unfair if the animals are fed in order to achieve the look?

Punkka brings a wonderful blend of high quality nature photography, sublime proximity to untouchable wildlife, and stunning imagery. The somber and muted tones certainly create an appealing look, and his following on Instagram is a testament to that. However, does this style of photography cross the boundaries of ethics? Do the viewers understand what's really happening, and do they think that he's really a "Squirrel Whisperer?"

The most striking theme is how close Punkka gets to nervous foxes and bears. Taking a look at Suzi Eszterhas, who shares common themes with Punkka, we can see a clear difference in the shots. Esztherhas' photography comes across as more candid and imperfect, whereas in this case, the animals are fed in order to get the shot. It's a subtle but noticeable difference in style. The characters within the frame of Punkka's images are very deliberately photographed. It's not a moment; it's a stage. Can we call this type of photography "natural?" I'm positive we can; however, there needs to be honesty and fairness.

Where the Problems Lie

Faking wildlife photography is nothing new and controversy in the business is nothing new either. In 2010, José Luis Rodriguez had his Wildlife Photographer of the Year title stripped because the wolf in his image wasn't actually wild. It was a trained wolf from a nearby zoo in Madrid. Nancy Black was put on 3 years probation and fined $12,500 when found guilty of feeding Orcas while shooting in 2004. In these cases, the problem doesn't lie around animal welfare so much as it was dishonest of Rodriguez and Black. Black argued that the blubber fed to the Orcas was hunted by Orcas earlier and so didn't harm the ecosystem.

In other cases though, animal welfare does come into serious play. Conservation India describes how certain practices may benefit the photographer but not the wildlife. It's eye-opening to think about it from the other perspective, the subject's. Their list of don'ts are as follows:

  • Crowding an animal
  • Photographing a nest
  • Playing back birdcalls in order to attract birds
  • Photographing nocturnal animals with light
  • Chasing animals until they're exhausted
  • Handling animals
  • Calling other photographers when an animal is found (crowding)
  • Baiting
  • Off-roading/speeding in sensitive habitats

Punkka baits the animals that he photographs. That's largely illegal in the hunting world, but not in the photography world. However, reservations hold codes of conducts, and in the UK, you even need a license to disturb certain habitats. This protects the photographer, who won't know exactly how an animal may react to their presence. 

Of course, baiting is on the lower end of offenses and sits squarely in a grey area. There may well be instances in which Punkka isn't doing any harm, and he's feeding birds like many people would in parks. The issue is that we don't know the full story, and he may well be disturbing and stressing wildlife. 

One practice that Nathaniel Smalley points out is using mice to attract birds. I would consider this to be the more harmful end of the scale and go beyond the realm of creating the shot.

One of the more common practices is to throw a mouse bought at a pet store (or a fake mouse tied to a fishing pole) into the snow in an open field to bring down an owl from a nearby tree where it is roosting. 

At the end of the day, Punkka's stunning photos are incredible to see. He stresses that he spends hours seeking out the right photo, which is definitely reassuring. However, when wildlife photography has become clouded by ethics, it's easy to question whether his images aren't as authentic as the audience considers them to be. What are your thoughts?

Stephen Kampff's picture

Working in broadcasting and digital media, Stephen Kampff brings key advice to shoots and works hard to stay on top of what's going to be important to the industry.

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It might be a bit extreme, but to me wildlife photography is the ability to capture the animals and their behavior in their environment and the photographer should never interfere with it. And it's not just feeding, but also getting too close, calling, disturbing, etc...

I see this as a matter of respect towards the animals as well as a matter of preservation. The problem with interfering, and feeding especially, is that on the long run it tends to modify the animal behavior and this could really ruin the delicate equilibrium of the ecosystem in some cases.

As long as he's not feeding them food that's harmful and his audience is aware of his method I don't see an issue with it. We pay models to take their photo, is it really that different?

Yes. I'm afraid it is very different. No model has ever had to be put down because she/he got too used to photographers. I doubt a model has ever attacked anyone because they don't have money for her, but wild animals that grow too accustomed to being fed by people will sometimes attack them because they think that they all should be sources of food.

Greg, nothing personal, but you're completely ignorant on this subject. Feeding any type of food to wildlife puts the animal in the fast track to death. Animals easily become habituated to people feeding them, and they can in turn teach their offspring that people = food. Animals can then become aggressive if someone who knows better doesn't feed them. If animals keep coming to people for food, they are unfit to live in the wild, and they can be taken to be rehabilitated, and possibly be put in a facility to live out the rest of their days.

I guess it depends on how you define wild.

In a pristine wilderness I agree with you, but in a urban or semi-urban environment we have already changed the animal behavior and made them reliant on human activity. There is little difference to putting out a bird feeder and placing feed to encourage animals to come to a more photogenic location Even farmland is not a natural environment so you are doing little more than redressing the balance by putting feed out.

wildlife and staged portrait shoots are polar opposites. Wildlife is closer to street photography. It's supposed to be candid and unfold in front of you. The decisive moment....... feeding the animals and calling it wild is as bad as staging models and calling it street.

I don't feed or photograph wild animals, I just eat them.

Taking photos of animals being accustomed to being fed is surely not as challenging (the time to get them accustomed is something different).

The easiest way to get photos of wild animals is to go to a zoo and take photos there. As long as it is not an exotic animal but an animal which could also live in the area, it might even be possibility to hide the fact that there were fences, i.e the photo depicts a captive animal.

I know that there companies / places (coincidently in Finland, where Konsta Punkka lives) which make money by offering the possibility to photograph wild animals. The fact that the animals are regularly fed in the location so that photographers are almost certain to get some photos during their stay, is the basic business plan.

At least for one of those places, I heard that the wild animals would wait that the bait is brought by quad(s) and then appear when the quad(s) left. The animals are accustomed to the fact that the engine sound indicates that food is coming. Tome that does not sound like a true wild animal because it does not seem to see the need to hunt as it is regularly fed.
Concerning another place, I heard that there is a very typical / easy to recognize spot for this location which would be easy to recognize on a photo. (Also that place takes care that the wild animals have sufficient food supply).

I can understand that photographers who spent money for a stay in those locations want to be (almost) sure that photo-opportunities will occur during their stay. On the other hand, I would prefer that people would mention the fact that the photo(s) were taken at a feeding place but I am sure that most photographers simply omit the fact.

I admire the photographers who -besides studying the (behaviors of the) 'target'- invest lots of time and patience to get the photo they were looking for. And I also wish them all the needed luck for the accomplishment.

I am guilty of feeding our park deer in the winter, they come out of the woodwork right up to anyone and almost demand a snack because its been done for years. Im out looking for blue jays really not friendly deer. Ill be the next dude on YouTube getting kicked in the head if I dont give up my peanuts.

This is a 10mm shot so its very close.

This is a quick way to be hurt or killed by a deer. Deer may look delicate, but those hooves are sharp as all hell, and they can F you up. Not terribly smart, my friend.

The deer in this park have been doing this for the 23 years that I have lived hear without any incident, I wouldnt expect them to be wild as much as the deer in a petting zoo. If you walk away they follow, you cant shoo them away or wave your arm, they dont care, toss them some food and they seem to go away when its gone. im out looking for birds and want them to bugger off.

What a great shot!

They make zero noise in the woods and snow, you turn around and they are right besides you, its creepy as hell and gets the heart jumping a bit when you dont expect it and your by yourself. Been going to the park woods for years but I cant get use to them apearing out of nowhere.

I work in a facility with wildlife which are all unable to live in the wild due to injuries, both mental and physical. Some of our animals were fed by people, causing them to be habituated to people, and expect food from people. Animals quickly learn humans are an easy source of food if they are fed by people! Imagine you're a hungry fox at Yellowstone and you have gotten food from people in the past. I don't care if it's a vole (which it might catch in the wild by itself) or a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Both are harmful! The fox then comes to people and people keep feeding it. Let's say that fox has pups. Guess what? That fox will teach its pups that people are where they need to get food, not wasting energy hunting for food. Let's then say the fox gets to close and bites someone. Or someone actually has a brain and knows not to feed the fox. The fox can then become aggressive and bite the person. A wild animal biting a human = death to the animal, and in some cases multiple horribly painful rabies shots in the idiots (who fed the animals) stomach. Feeding wildlife is never to be acceptable. Sure bird feeders won't do too much harm, because birds are not associating people with food. They are associating seeds with food. The fact of the matter is, anyone who says it is okay to feed wildlife for any reason, is 100% ignorant to wild animals well being. Feeding wildlife is putting that wild animal in the fast track to being killed, or ending up in a facility to be cared (essentially behind bars) for the rest of their lives. Wild animals belong in the wild. Not behind bars. Don't be an idiot. kpunkka's photos are a sham, and the fact that he is so popular tells us how ignorant people are to the f#cked up tricks he's pulling. I don't care how long he has spent with animals. He doesn't care about them. He cares about getting a photo at the animals expense. I admit, being a wildlife photographer myself, I have slipped by getting to close. I'm sure there isn't a single wildlife photographer who can't say, I effed up. But, at least I'm trying, and at least I'm not feeding wildlife. I have studied wild animals for years, and work as a science educator, teaching kids about California native wildlife. If I try to get close to an animal, I look for signs in their behavior. If I see signs that the animal wants me to back away, I'll do just that. I know these animals, their behaviors, and warning signs. I'm not going top put myself or an animal at risk to get, 'the shot."

It depends on what you want to 'tell people' about the shot. If you don't want to say, 'Yea I laid food out' then you may have a longer wait to get the shot. If you want to just get the shot regardless, then do it. It's kind of like the purist people who say 'straight out of camera', or the person who waits until all the birds are gone to get the perfect landscape shot so they can say ' I didn't use Photoshop'. Different people are into different stuff..

Although I agree with the idea of being honest and tell people if the photo is staged or not, the problem here is not the same as the "straight out of camera". It's not a matter of being purists but rather to respect the wildlife for what it is: wild.
As Kevin pointed out, feeding wild animals leads to so many unpleasant consequences both for animals and for people.

This kind of thinking is what is wrong with society today. Feeding wildlife, hurts wildlife, and could hurt people too! Fact: If you feed wildlife, you have no regard for an animals well being, and have zero respect for nature. Ignorance isn't an excuse.

Calm your horses.. I was only commenting on the title of the article 'Staged or Candid', not about giving free steak to bears. But I understand your thinking. If I was to (which I don't) feed wildlife to 'get the shot', I'd want to make sure it was something from their environment and that they didn't know I was there, or at least not associate me with the food. Hand feeding, or a fake mouse on a fishing pole is just plain wrong.

This photo of a sleeping bald eagle shows my approach to wildlife photography. I was walking down a path and accidentally stumbled upon this bird that had just finished a meal. I spent about 30 minutes getting closer to it and took a number of photos from a respectful difference. The eagle became so comfortable with my presence that it actually went to sleep. I took a couple of additional photos and slowly walked away.

While I may not get as many spectacular photos as people who, in my opinion, cheat at wildlife photography, I know that I have disturbed these amazing creatures as little as possible.

That said, if my income depended on my wildlife work, I think it would be hard to resist using some of the less intrusive methods.

Even after hours lugging my Sigmonster around in the Utah mountains, I'm okay going home without any exciting images, as long as I spent that time enjoying the outdoors.

There is no one simple rule here.

If you are taking pictures of animals in an urban environment, say your back garden, your activity has already modified their behavior, for example birds coming to a bird feeder. In this situation positioning feed in a specific location to get a better shot is unlikely to cause any harm.

However a creature in the wild needs to be treated in a totally different way. By feeding it you are changing its behavior and may harm it when that food source disappears once you have finished your shoot.

The other problem often seen is photographers disturbing nesting birds to get a shot, especially when it becomes some sort of competition to capture a rarity. Photographers must always be aware and respect the environment that they operate in, those who don't give the others a bad name.

Finally photographers need honesty about how they got their shot and not pretend it was harder than it otherwise was.