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Sunday, May 19, 2024

A Wildlife Photographer Critiqued Our 'New Pokémon Snap' Photos

There’s an invigorating thrill to catching one of New Pokémon Snap’s lovingly animated critters coming out of a hiding spot you’d been coasting past for the last few runs of a level. Like its 1999 predecessor, New Pokémon Snap keeps you on a set track, allowing you to rotate 360 degrees to snap your camera shutter. It’s at its best when you finally turn at just the right time and pay attention to just the right nook.

You can prod subjects to have a joyous little feast, or dance, or exhibit some other surprising, character-specific action. You can highlight them with a radiant glow under the night sky. The level of interaction is curated but can lead to bucolic moments, and there’s a healthy enough variety of beasts and behaviors to make the game a nicely satisfying and sedate experience.

But how closely does New Pokémon Snap resemble real-world nature photography? To find out, I enlisted Melissa Groo to judge my in-game photos. In addition to taking home the grand prize in the 2015 Audubon Photography Awards, Groo has had her work exhibited in the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, serves as an advisor to the National Audubon Society, and writes frequently on nature photography and wildlife conservation. 

In New Pokémon Snap, a character named Professor Mirror rates your pictures based on how centered the subject is, how many Pokémon are in frame, and whether you captured any unique behavior. As you might have guessed, Groo has other thoughts. Following are several in-game photos we took this week—and her candid critiques of how they turned out. 

This interview has been edited for clarity.

Groo: Usually as wildlife photographers, we don't necessarily put our subject in the middle of the frame. But if the subject is facing us, sometimes that does work really well. So compositionally, it looks like the animal is head on, and in that case, that works to place it in the center. But in wildlife photography, it's super important for the viewer to feel a sense of connection with a subject, and that's really through the eyes. Even if you can't see, like, 95 percent of the body, just getting a glimpse, even just one eye, is crucial.

WIRED: OK … that was my worst photo. I think they’ll get better from there. I should also tell you: In the game, you're on a track and inside a little pod that goes from one end of the level to the next. You can't control the movement.

Groo: Compositionally, I really like it. I think the spacing works really well. I would say the one thing that's not ideal, and I don't know if this is fair to critique, but as wildlife photographers we're always looking at lighting conditions, and we're avoiding times of day when the sun is really high because it creates very contrasting conditions such that the top of an animal is going to be really bright. And then the bottom part is going to be dark. It's sort of this aesthetically jarring thing where I won't—if it's going to be a sunny day, I stop shooting at like 9 in the morning, because I want to avoid that contrasty look.

There's a lot of dead space to the left, and something like this I would have cropped in. I would have gotten closer and maybe placed him or her a little bit more to the corner to the left. So compositionally, I think it's a little problematic. I would have maybe tried to include the whole of those structures behind instead of cutting them off at the top. So it would have been more of a story about that stuff. And then just getting rid of this dead space in the front and to the left that doesn't really add anything to the story. 

WIRED: [I explained how the game’s judging system works, that it favors centered, portrait-style photos, and that Professor Mirror scored this photo really well.]

Groo: So they're telling you they want it centered?


Groo: [laughs] This is so alien to me.

I like this. We talk a lot about leading lines. And this, the stream, takes your eye up into the photo, and you just sort of follow it around. Then you start looking at the animals, and they're all sort of doing their thing. Engaging in natural behavior. It's a pretty landscape. At the same time it's interesting in terms of animals and how they're arrayed and how they're busy doing their thing. I think this is a successful shot.

Compositionally, I think it works. I wish there was more light on the face. The bird seems to be kind of lit from behind. And I'm always more trying to get the light to fall on the face or on the front of the bird and on the back. But again, it's highlighting that gorgeous feather attribute that comes off of the head so it can work. It's just a little bit dark on the right.

WIRED: So would it be kosher for me to fix this in post-production and make it brighter?

Groo: As long as it's within reason. It's called dodging and burning, and even Ansel Adams did it: lightening and darkening certain parts of the picture to make it more aesthetically pleasing. That's completely acceptable in wildlife photography, to a point. If it gets too heavy-handed or unnatural, photo contests won't accept it. Other people who have seasoned eyes or know the field of photography and what light can and can't do can tell by looking at an adjusted photo that it doesn’t look real.

This is good. It's a little bit dark. I wish there were more light on the fish. That expression is interesting. And I do wonder if it's mad at the photographer. Is the photographer crowding it? Is it getting too close? I mean, when you see a creature look angry, in wildlife photography, that's often when people may draw conclusions like, “Gosh, the photographer must have been really crowding that animal, because it looks pissed off.” So that would be the only caution. Maybe that wasn't the case. But that's just something to be aware of.

WIRED: No, you hit the nail right on the head. I threw an apple at it. [I explained that to get a Pokémon to face you in the game, you throw fruit at it to get its attention.]

Groo: This is a little bit worrisome to me. I just worry that people might transfer some of this to the field, to real experiences with wild animals to try to get a reaction, even if they just want to make a connection and have an animal look at them in the eye. Or they want to incite some sort of defensive or reactive expression. That would be my concern. I already have concerns about kids who just don't know any better, and they throw little rocks at gulls on the beach. At a time when wildlife really needs us to better support it and honor it and give it space, to sort of create this culture where we're interfering with nature for our own entertainment?

A lot of my work is really about teaching people the dangers of feeding wildlife and how that habituates wild animals to people. And that often does not end well for the animal. Maybe you've heard the expression “a fed fox is a dead fox.” Well, that’s pretty much applicable to any predator.

I don't want to sound like a total killjoy, because there's probably an upside to this. It’s getting people excited about different kinds of creatures and the diversity and the beauty and whimsical nature of some of these animals. But technology is driving all of our instincts and our reactions and our inclinations, and it’s concerning.

I think this is a lovely image. It looks like it's backlit, so you get this rim of light all around the animal when the subject is between you and a light source. It’s a technique that I love to employ in my photography, because it gives you such a great sense of the lines of an animal. I like how it looks tranquil and unbothered. But am I wrong? Was an apple just thrown?

WIRED: Oh no, now you’re worried! No, this was the orb. The orb gives the animal a light around its body. But they don't notice when the orb is thrown.

Groo: Then that's my favorite. My favorite part of the game is the orb. You can say that, OK? Because it doesn't interfere with them, it just lights them up and highlights their beauty, and it doesn’t change their behavior. 

If I had any superpower, I'd be invisible. Any wildlife photographer worth their salt wants to capture natural behavior. And so we're always seeking ways to be as nondisruptive as possible. The thought of throwing something at the animal is the worst possible thing we can do, ethically, as photographers. Most of the time it's going to make an animal take off and be scared of us. Our whole thing is spending deep time with individual animals. How do you get an animal comfortable with you? Well, you don't throw shit at it. You just kind of become a part of the environment yourself. A nonthreatening benign presence in that landscape.

I think compositionally, this one is good. Did you do some Photoshop work on it?

WIRED: Yes, I did! [I used the game’s built-in photo editing tools, and I explained them to Groo.]

Groo: I think basically it's good. It's maybe a little bit bright on them. Might turn that down a little bit. It’s just like a little too “WHOOOOA” bright; the contrast might be too heavy-handed.

The fact that it's kind of cut off on the top is not appealing. I can't get past that. And the Photoshop effect and everything is all a little too psychedelic for me.

WIRED: Tacky?

Groo: Yeah.

Groo: This is a sweet moment of behavior between a parent and young dolphin-type thing. I think it’s pretty good. Fine. Is he freaked out?

WIRED: I threw an apple at him. And then I also added the bow tie and graduation hat with the game’s editing tools.

Groo: I think the bow tie is cute. I wish the hat wasn't cut off. And I don't like that he's uncomfortable. I totally understand the need for ways for people to interact with what’s happening on the screen, but what if there were a little receptacle in the background and it was like, oh, you have to throw a ball in the receptacle near the animal. Something where the object of hitting was not the actual animal. God, there are so many geniuses they had working on that game. Could they have come up with some other means of engagement than provoking an animal?

WIRED: Do you think, right now, during the pandemic, when not everyone has access to nature, and they can’t necessarily travel to it, an experience like this is valuable?

Groo: I think there’s no substitute for the real thing. The benefits that nature gives us, even if you’re just walking in an urban park, far surpass anything you’re going to get from a screen. But if they can teach people something about the importance of land for an animal—every animal needs a home, and animals have very specific kinds of homes that they need, so if there’s anything that talks about conservation of animals, that’s a good thing. If there’s some sense conveyed that there’s this rich world of wildlife out there, something more fantastic and amazing than we can dream. It’d be great if the game had something like, “Go out there and see wild animals, and respect them and protect them!” or a disclaimer like, “Please don’t throw things. Please don’t feed wildlife. This is a game.” Do they have that anywhere?

WIRED: I haven’t beaten the game yet.

Groo: I strongly recommend that they add something like that. If they want me to advise them on it, I’m happy to do it.

WIRED: Can you tell from these photos if I have any natural talent for photography?

Groo: You could be on your way. You have some good compositional grasp and some good concepts about lighting. You just need to get out there and get some practice with the real thing.

Groo and I discussed the importance of nature photography to conservation efforts. I asked her about the role nature photography plays in conservation and whether players will understand the role nature photographers play in environmental protection and awareness.

Groo: There's a whole genre of photography now of conservation photography, where photographers are really working hard to use their photos and to take photos that are sort of storytelling photos about an animal and its habitat. And then they try to find ways to use those photos to raise awareness, to get people to care about a particular animal or the landscape that animal depends on. They want to find different ways to get the word out and educate people, to sort of expand people's sympathies, and that's really what my work is about.

And, and more and more, I think nature photographers are realizing it's not enough just to make pretty pictures anymore. The state of the world—the fact that we're in the sixth great extinction—people are realizing, “OK, I need to use my photos to affect change.” And ethics is a big part of that. How can we be out there as conservation photographers, and not disturb or disrupt our subjects and instead honor them? How do we really come away with natural photos where the animal does not look disturbed by us? And how do we walk away leaving no trace, doing no harm?

So yeah, photos now have the power to really go viral. I think this is a really exciting time to be a conservation photographer or a nature photographer, because we're such visual creatures. Both in the eyes of social media and the ability of our photos to go viral and to be seen by so many. I've seen photos that have more power than words do because it's a universal language. And so with that power that we have, as photographers with that ability to go viral, it's really incumbent on us to advocate for our subjects and to model good behavior as photographers and to be honest and truthful in our captioning.

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