Curious bison © Klaus Nigge

Klaus Nigge was one of the first photographers in Germany to begin experimenting with digital photography, entering Curious bison into the competition in 2004 © Klaus Nigge

A history of Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Ethics, conservation and prestige are just a few of the many elements that define Wildlife Photographer of the Year.

Now in its fifty-third year, the competition has seen many a transformation since its launch in the 1960s.  

Wildlife Photographer of the Year is an unparalleled annual event, each year opening the world's eyes to the previously unseen.  

But from its magazine origins, a lot has changed over the years for the internationally renowned competition and exhibition.                      

A colourful start

Launched in 1965, Wildlife Photographer of the Year was a competition held by the BBC's Animals Magazine - now BBC Wildlife Magazine.

In its inaugural year it attracted 361 entries, many of which came from overseas.

The public increasingly desired images of nature, so competition entries documented species, animal behaviours and natural events that most people had never seen before.

At the time, only colour images were accepted. Colour photography was a common medium, though it was cheaper for photographers to work in black and white.

David Attenborough presents C V R Dowdeswell with his award

David Attenborough presented C V R Dowdeswell, winner of Wildlife Photographer of the Year 1965, with his award
 

In the competition's first year, the grand title was awarded to C V Roger Dowdeswell for his image of a tawny owl carrying prey to its young. Dowdeswell was presented with his award by the now-legendary naturalist and conservationist Sir David Attenborough.

From the onset, big names in the world of natural history backed the endeavour. The judging panel was headed by pioneering bird photographer Eric Hosking, who was also Britain's only professional wildlife photographer at the time.

The competition's Eric Hosking Portfolio Award debuted in 1990 to encourage emerging talent by offering a platform for young photographers at the beginning of their career.

Growing internationally

By the end of the 1960s the competition was a well-established annual highlight for both photographers and the nature-loving public.

In 1982 the winning images were exhibited for the first time, housed at the Mall Galleries in London.

Two years later Wildlife Photographer of the Year joined forces with the Natural History Museum, which has since taken on hosting both the competition and exhibition. The Museum now fully owns Wildlife Photographer of the Year.

Its reputation grew internationally in the years following, and by 1986 most of the prizes were being won by entries from outside the UK.   

An endangered Nilgiri tahr

In 1995 photographer Jean-Pierre Zwaenepoel was the first recipient of the Gerald Durrell Award for Endangered Species, for his image of an endangered Nilgiri tahr (or Nilgiri ibex) © Jean-Pierre Zwaenepoel
 

That same year, the exhibition went on tour for the first time, around the UK. A few years later it began to tour internationally, in Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the USA.

By the 1990s the touring exhibition was adding stops across Europe, as well as in Japan, India, Kazakhstan, Trinidad and Brazil.

The first book of winning images was published in 1991, giving the public a lasting memory of some of the world's best wildlife photography. The publication has been printed every year since.

Wildlife Photographer of the Year has also launched the careers for some of today's distinguished conservationists, photographers and filmmakers.

Among these is television presenter and naturalist Chris Packham, who first entered in 1985 and won multiple categories into the mid-1990s.

The competition grew from 361 entries in its first year to over 40,000 entries 50 years later.

One of the hallmarks of the competition is the range of entrants. Entries have always been judged anonymously, with professional work being considered alongside amateur.

The art of wildlife photography

When the competition started in 1965, all entries were divided in two sections: Britain and Overseas. These were then split into three categories each: Birds, Mammals and Other Animals.

An urban fox

Television presenter Chris Packham first entered the competition in 1985, and went on to be a multiple category winner, winning prizes into the 1990s © Chris Packham
 

A category dedicated to black-and-white photos was launched in 1977, recognising the potential for more creative interpretations of nature. Today this style of photography can be entered into any category.

Further categories have been added since, such as the young awards for those under 17, reflecting the increasing accessibility of wildlife photography.

In the 1990s, renowned wildlife artist Bruce Pearson was appointed to the judging panel. He was especially interested in images that best conveyed the essence of the subject. This new focus toward aesthetics helped wildlife photography stand out as an art form in its own right.

Conservation through a lens

Although conservation societies had existed for a long time prior, it wasn't until the late 1950s and early 1960s that environmental issues were widely acknowledged by the general public.

Thanks to conservationists such as the charismatic naturalist Peter Scott, who assisted in launching the WWF in 1961, conservation become increasingly visible and vocal.

By the 1970s, nature photography in particular became a known power in spreading the word on green issues. The decade also saw the emergence of several nature-related magazines, books, radio programmes and film.

Key conservationists of the time - such as Guy Mountford, Malcolm Penny and Nicole Duplaix - recognised the value of media in spreading their messages.

Peter Scott presents Jonathan Scott with his award

Jonathan Scott, pictured receiving his award from WWF founder Peter Scott in 1987, used his competition images to raise awareness of environmental issues
 

The topic of conservation lay at the heart of Wildlife Photographer of the Year from its outset. The competition had a conservation partner for the first half of the 1980s, the Flora and Fauna Preservation Society - now known as Flora and Fauna International.

Photographers such as Jonathan Scott and Angela Scott, who won the competition in 1987 and 2002 respectively, used their images to raise awareness of environmental issues.

'The Wildlife Photographer of the Year story is about moving people from ignorance to knowledge, and the conservation categories are hugely important in doing that,' said Jonathan.

In 1995 an award for images highlighting the conservation of endangered species was introduced in memory of the writer and conservationist Gerald Durrell, who was one of the competition's award presenters.

The dawn of digital

In the 1960s colour slide film had become more affordable, although it was still basic in comparison to later forms of photography.

Photographers couldn't review their photos in the field, and auto-focus and light metering had not yet been developed - all of which resulted in high failure rates.  Film roll would then take weeks to be processed, leaving photographers waiting to see whether their excursion had been a success.

Massing of wildebeest in the Maasai Mara

In 1979, The crossing, was one of the first photographs to show the massing of wildebeest in the Maasai Mara. It was captured using traditional film © David Cayless
 

The cost of equipment began to fall in the 1970s, and with travel becoming more accessible, the world of wildlife photography opened up to a greater number of people.  

But things were set to change - in the late 1990s and early 2000s, photographers began experimenting with then-new digital photography.  

At the time, digital equipment was expensive. Memory cards held few more images than in a roll of film, and the quality was similar. But the technology developed, and in 2002 Klaus Nigge was one of the first German professionals to turn to digital.

Klaus said, 'Before, every exposure cost money, so we could not afford to take risks.

'With digital we suddenly had this freedom to take hundreds of exposures, to experiment, to make mistakes and check the effects immediately.'

Equipment prices quickly fell, and the competition began accepting digital entrants from 2004.

This saw an increase in images taken in low-light conditions, and sharp, high-speed action shots that weren't possible before. Photographers were pushing boundaries like never before.

More and more artistic images were entering the competition, leading to debates on how much post-production should be allowed.

An underwater shoto of four cuttlefish

The dawn of digital photography opened up the world of underwater photography, such as for 2016 Invertebrates finalist Scott Portelli and his image, Collective courtship © Scott Portelli
 

Rosamund Cox, editor of BBC Wildlife Magazine from 1983 to 2004, steered the competition through many changes over the years.

She said,' The best wildlife photographers are still those who develop an intimacy with their subjects, have a passion for what they are doing and the ability to see when they have created that special image.'

Although much has changed since the first iteration of the competition in 1965, one thing has always remained the same: a photographer's dedication to their vision.

Visit the exhibition

Visit the Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition to see the world's best nature photography.

Visit the exhibition

See the world's best nature photography in the fifty-third Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition. Opens 20 October.