Michael 'Nick' Nichols' The last great picture

Wildlife Photographer of the Year: what makes a winner?

As judging begins to crown the next Wildlife Photographer of the Year, we take a look back at the shots that made competition history.

Wildlife Photographer of the Year, held annually at the Museum, represents some of the best nature photography the world has to offer.

For more than 50 years, it has encouraged and celebrated the work of wildlife photographers, and generated public interest in the subjects themselves. Rivalry is strong, with thousands of entries battling it out each year, and it takes a touch of magic to make a winner.

Innovation and originality

Roz Kidman-Cox founded the competition in its current format, and re-launched it together with the Museum in 1984, adding in the youth categories. A judge on the panel for 32 years, in 2014 Roz authored 50 Years of Wildlife Photographer of the Year - a book on how the genre became an art form.

Roz says, 'Nature photography requires craft – planning, knowledge and the application of technique. But for a picture to be seen as more than a crafted record of a subject or scene requires a composition that connects with the viewer's emotions and imagination.

'It’s those compositions that the judges of the competition search for. And it is the test of time that reveals whether or not their choices have been right.

'Sometimes a picture is obviously innovative. Other times it has a quiet appeal - and it’s the little things, not the obvious ones that make it work. But a winning picture is always original.'

Evoking magic

Several entries from the 1970s and 1980s have endured - as striking today as when they were first conceived.

Dune oryx

This winning image from 1988 has been capturing imagations for decades © Jim Brandenburg
 

One of those is Dune oryx, a winning image taken by Jim Brandenburg in 1988, which shows a large antelope spotlit on sweeping Namibian sand dunes.

Jim later went on to head the competition's panel of judges from 2012 until 2015.

Roz says, 'This picture is powerful in its simplicity and almost mystical in its content. The photographer was on a shoot to cover the war in Namibia.

'He'd visualised the picture of an oryx in the sand dunes, but that it materialised was a miracle that happened right at the end of his three-week search. Whether or not you know the story of its making, the picture stands as both magnificent and magical.'

Elephant creation by Ben Osborne

A bull elephant helped Ben become 2007's Grand Title winner © Ben Osborne
 

Seeing beyond the expected

In 2007, Ben Osborne became a Grand Title winner with Elephant creation, an image of a large bull elephant kicking and spraying mud in a Botswana water hole.

Jim Brandenburg declared this energetic creation his favourite image in the history of Wildlife Photographer of the Year.

Jim says, 'There's an unusually powerful and explosive energy expressed - a wonderfully chaotic mix of shapes, textures and subtle tones that keep the eye lingering.

'It takes courage to venture into the realm of rule-breaking when there is a fleeting event to capture. Photographers often fear abandoning conventional methods of depicting a story. This image shows the gift of really seeing beyond the expected.'

Know your setting

It took 2014's Grand Title winner six months of work and study to find his image, The last great picture.

The last great picture by Michael 'Nick' Nichols

Nick framed his vista with the plains beyond the lions and the dramatic late afternoon sky above © Michael 'Nick' Nichols
 

Michael 'Nick 'Nichols followed lions through Tanzania's Serengeti National Park until they were used to his presence. It was a quest to create an image that captured the wild essence of a pride.

Without the months of planning, preparation and learning, Nick would never have achieved such a dramatic and evocative picture.

He explains, 'I spent so much time with the lions that I could sense every nuance of their moods. I knew individual personalities, I could tell when I'd got too close, or stayed too long.'

He photographed the lions in infrared, which he says 'cuts through the dust and haze, transforms the light and turns the moment into something primal, biblical almost'.

A tale of two foxes by Don Gutoski

A red fox captures its prey against a stark white background © Don Gutoski
 

Telling new stories

Don Gutoski, a doctor from Canada, was the 2015 Grand Title winner with A tale of two foxes.

Don spotted the red fox chasing something across the snow. As he got closer, he realised the prey - now dead - was an Arctic fox.

He stayed at the scene for three hours until the red fox, finally sated, picked up the carcass and dragged it away to store for later.

In the Canadian tundra, global warming is extending the range of red foxes northwards, where they increasingly cross paths with their smaller relatives, the Arctic fox.

Jury member Kathy Moran explains, 'The immediate impact of this photograph is that it appears as if the red fox is slipping out of its winter coat.

'What might simply be a straightforward interaction between predator and prey struck the jury as a stark example of climate change, with red foxes encroaching on Arctic fox territory.

'This image works on multiple levels - it is graphic, it captures behaviour and it’s one of the strongest single storytelling photographs I have seen.’ 

Judging week for the fifty-second Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition begins at the Museum on 25 April.

Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Find out more about the competition.

50 Years of Wildlife Photographer of the Year

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