Creating the shot, literally.A lone red maple leaf rests on a rock in the middle of a cascading forest stream. The background bathed in golden Autumn sunshine.

How far are you willing to go to create a photograph?

How far is too far? 

For my landscapes, the more intimate portraits in particular, I have no problem doing a little light “landscaping” to clean up the composition. Without hesitation I’ll remove a piece of dead wood from a stream, and I even keep a couple of small bungy cords in my bag to hold errant branches out of the way.

 But what about adding something to the scene that wasn’t there in the first place?

*  *  *

Take a good long look at these two photographs, what do you think? Personally, I like them both. But then again, I’m kind of biased aren’t I?

Ok, now let’s assume that you like them, maybe you even really really like them.

Now, what if I told you that in one of them the scene was staged, and the other is just as I found it.

*  *  *

In one of these images the red maple leaf, or leaves so as not to give any clues as to which is the “staged” scene, was placed where you see it. In the other I was lucky enough to find the leaf, or leaves(again, no clues), as you see it/them.

Tell me, do you enjoy either one, or both, any less knowing one of them was staged?

*  *  *

What have you added or removed from a scene to create a photograph?

Would you add or remove anything?

Ripley Falls And Red Maple Leaf










(In case you’re wondering which image has the added props, and which is the way I came upon it, that’ll remain my little secret 😉 )


43 thoughts on “Staging

  1. I guess, the first one is the staged photo. It feeled odd to me in the first sight, even before I read the post.
    Nevertheless, both photos are great.
    In my landscape photography I usually don’t change anything, but hindering branches or other plants growing in my camera’s sight.
    Come like a thief, leave nothing than footprints and take nothing, but photographs.

    1. I have to say I like your philosophy on your landscapes. On the rare occasion that I do add an element, such as was done in one of these, it has to be believable, and it has to be done with what’s on hand at the scene. I wouldn’t add a bright red maple leaf if there weren’t any maples with bright red leaves on them at the scene. I altered the scene to represent what could very easily have happened had one of those leaves landed on the rock on its own.

      1. personnally, I don’t add anything because I’m still looking for the “right” picture and don’t have the eye for props; maybe some day… today, we went hiking up a lake and I thought of your pictures and about light and reflection and took a few I’m pretty proud of!
        Thanks for the everyday inspiration!

        1. My “eye for props” is quite limited actually. And is pretty much limited to this kind of shot. I’ve wanted this kind of shot, “lone red leaf on a mid-stream rock in autumn” for some time. So when the conditions presented themselves, meaning I came upon a place with many red maple leaves on other boulders in the stream, just not on the boulder I wanted them on, I picked a nice looking leaf and placed it where I wanted it.

          I’ve tried this with some nice bright yellow leaves too, but the yellow didn’t have the impact I was hoping for. Now that I have my “red maple leaf” shot, I doubt there will be much if any more “staging” in my future. In fact, these images are from three and two years ago respectively, and I haven’t done it since.

          I do still plan to clean up the frame by removing unwanted debris, or using my trusty little bungy cords to hold branches or a small saplings out of the way.

    1. Thanks Edith, that is the response I hope for with any of my photos. Though I do understand why others may feel manipulating the scene like I did in one of these isn’t for them.

  2. nice photos jeff. I do not see a big problem with moving an occasional leaf as long as the photo still stays true to what the original scene looks like. The things I have an issue ( and I know you do not do this) are when people take clouds from one photo and blend them into a scene that had no clouds to begin with or totally transplant backgrounds from one image to the other.

    I think there is a place for manipulation like that but I would not consider it “true” nature photography.

    1. Thanks Rob. Your first comment is exactly what I was going for an the few times I’ve done this. Actually, strategically placing a leaf or two is the only thing I’ve ever added to a photograph. But, as I’ve stated in several of my replies, it has to look natural. You’ll never find something in any of my photographs that couldn’t have been there naturally. The same applies to me moving downed tree branches out of the way, or holding back a branch or piece of grass in order to clean up the frame. I do it to remove unwanted distractions.

      As for compositing photos, I have mixed feelings there. You are right, I don’t do that. But mostly because I don’t know how. I don’t have the desire to learn either. I look at my photos as art, not as photo-journalistic representations of nature. Though maintaining realism is extremely important. Yes, I want my colors to pop, but I don’t want someone to ever look at one of my photos and immediately think, “that can’t be real.”

      I hope that made sense.

  3. I’m am getting better at this, I hope?! I’ve taken quite a few photos where a branch, twig, whatever … just messing up the whole composition. I now try to look for more of a “clean look”, if you will. Although, the occasional blurred branch makes for very interesting art. I tend to lean more toward that genre of photography.

    1. Good for you! I do the same thing. One of the reasons I’m such a proponent of tripods is that using one slows you down and gives you time to really decide how you want to compose the photo. But sometimes to get the photo you want you need to remove a stick, or blade of grass, etc. to clean things up. As for your “occasional blurred branch,” the key is to recognize when it’s an artistic element, or a distraction.

  4. Love both the photographs but prefer the first, though that’s because I like the rounded boulders rather than the more jagged rocks in the second image! Even though there’s still rushing water, it seems a more peaceful scene! I haven’t moved things in or out of scenes before… I tend to move my position but wouldn’t be adverse to adding or taking away to improve the overall composition! Love those red maple leaves 🙂

    1. I do try to do the same. But sometimes there just isn’t a clean composition without cleaning up some of the mess left by the last storm or spring flood. I’m glad you like the leaves too. Nothing says “Autumn” like a red maple leaf.

  5. I like shot one much more than the second one, careless of leaves 🙂
    Personally, I do not feel good adding anything to pictures at all. (If the whole setup is not staged anyway, like in a photo booth)
    Even if I look back at the photograph 5 years later, I still feel a little shame to have “arranged” the scene.
    Therefore I try to keep things as they are. This might lead to disappointments “there could be an eyecatcher here” but in overall it is more satisfying.

    1. That’s actually my favorite of the two as well.

      I certainly understand and respect your point. One thing I can say with certainty is that I would never stage a shot like this if it weren’t possible for it to have occurred naturally. If there hadn’t been red maple leaves all over the place where each of these shots was captured, you’d never see me arrange a shot like this. I look at it as recreating something that has probably happened thousands of times before ( the leaf happening to fall on either of these particular rocks), it just hadn’t happened on the day I was there.


      1. Also, I have to add, contrary to belief, photography is never uncolored, never objective. Even with the focal length or angle the photographer cuts reality to something he wants to show.
        To add some tension – There has been a controverse discussion about a photographer putting fluffy toys into debris in destroyed buildings in a war zone. This, for example, is something that I would deprecate.
        Therefore, I like and support your idea of “something that probably happened thousand times”.

        1. Exactly! How the photographer chooses to frame any scene alters reality to some extent.

          For your last comment I would have to agree 100%. Unless it was meant to be some form of artistic/political statement, doing something like adding children’s toys to a war ravaged scene is dishonest at best. Considering all the wars, past and present, could this have happened “a thousand times” as I mention? Yes. But if there is any journalistic intent with such a photo, adding something, or taking something away, is wrong.

  6. I do like them both and I think the red maple leaf (leaves) add interest to both of them. I don’t mind staging a bit. If I remember, I will remove dead twigs. I hadn’t thought of placing a leaf in just the right place, but it’s a great idea for fall foliage. Thanks for sharing.

    1. Thank you. I feel the same way about the leaves. I would have been perfectly happy without them, but the added splash of color the leaves provide “works” for me.

  7. I like both photos, maybe the second a bit better but that would be the wanderer and storyteller inside me. I do have to say….. YOU are a tease for not telling which one was “staged.” 🙂

    1. Thank you! I wanderer and a story teller you say? Then I must return your generosity and pay you a visit so you can tell me a story or two.

      And I’ll take that last part as a compliment 😉

  8. Is the first one the staged one? I remove things all the time… have not thought about adding new ones as yet :D. And yes, I really, really like them both!

    1. Thank you Paula! I would say that in over half of my waterfall-stream-river images, the more “intimate” the shot the more likely, I’ve removed something. A twig sticking up in the water. Or cleared out some of that yucky foam that collects behind on the waters surface. And it’s usually something in the immediate foreground that is going to be a major distraction when viewing the final image.

  9. I clean up many times myself. In most of my shot I looks and may even more around. Both are really nice shots but the one on top is wonderful. I like how you moved the leaf for better composure.

  10. I don’t care which was staged – they are both beautiful! I have staged photos in the past – This is an art and if the scene would become what your mind dreams it should be by just adding a little something extra, then I think it is necessary to do so!

    1. Thank you Jessica! I agree. I feel I am creating art, not a completely realistic version of the scene. If that were the case I would stop using longer exposures to give the flowing water the smooth silky look. That certainly isn’t the way our eyes see it.

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