History of the competition

Wildlife Photographer of the Year is the Natural History Museum's annual competition and exhibition highlighting the unique and beautiful relationship between photography, science and art.

What began in 1965 as a magazine competition with just 361 entries has blossomed into one of the world's most prestigious photography awards, with over 45,000 entries each year and a touring exhibition seen by millions around the globe.

A black and white photograph of David Attenborough and C V R Dowdeswell holding an image of an owl
David Attenborough presented C V R Dowdeswell, winner of Wildlife Photographer of the Year 1965, with his award © Topfoto

The competition began life in Animals magazine, which later became BBC Wildlife. The publication hoped to provide a platform and an incentive for the field of wildlife photography, which was then in its infancy.

The competition grew in popularity and in 1984 the Natural History Museum became involved. In the days before digital cameras and online submissions, hundreds of jiffy bags containing competition entries would arrive at the Museum by mail each day to be manually sorted and submitted.

The Museum continues to shape the competition into the stunning international success it is today, and Wildlife Photographer of the Year contributes to the Museum's mission to inspire a love of the natural world and create advocates for the planet.

A swarm of box jellyfish photographed underwater
Jelly fireworks portrays a mass gathering of box jellyfish on South Africa's Cape Peninsula. This image was a finalist in the Under Water category in 2014 (WPY 50). © Geo Cloete

Conservation stories

From the very beginning, the aim of the competition has been to 'enhance the prestige of wildlife photography in the hope that ultimately the awards will benefit the animals themselves, by creating greater public interest in them and in that all-important topic: conservation.'

The competition's awe-inspiring images of wild animals and their environments, and the poignant photojournalism - all of which have important stories to tell - have helped the public to fall in love with the natural world and care for its future.

Whether they highlight the abuse of animals in places where the public might expect them to be protected, such as in Witness, photographed Emily Garthwaite, or subtly comment on the impact of humans on the natural world, as seen in Morgan Heim's One in a Million, the photojournalism images entered into the competition are often thought-provoking and moving, and they can also be vital for conservation efforts.

Visitors to the exhibition are also often brought into contact with species and habitats that would otherwise be largely out of reach.

A lion and two tigers sit on stools, performing in an animal show. Two trainers stand to the sides. The image is black and white.
Britta Jaschinski won the Wildlife Photojournalism category in 2015 (WPY 51) with the image, Broken cats. This poignant portrayal of a lion and two tigers performing in a drugged state with teeth and claws having been pulled out, highlights the plight of animals used by humans for entertainment. © Britta Jaschinski

In 1986 the exhibition was sent on tour for the first time, first around the UK and then internationally, bringing the public face to face with some of the world's most magnificent creatures and habitats. In 1991 the first book of winning images was published, giving visitors a lasting memory of their experience at the exhibition.

Within the Museum, scientists and researchers have used the photographs to inform our scientific understanding of animal habitats and behaviours, helping to further their conservation and protection.

By sharing these images and helping people to build a personal connection with some of the most endangered species, Wildlife Photographer of the Year has helped to foster a better understanding of the complexity and importance of the natural world.

A black rhino stands in a forest and eats from a fallen tree. The natural lighting gives the image a golden glow.
Greg du Toit's image, Golden forest rhino, was Highly Commended in 2010 (WPY 46) in the Gerald Durrell Award for Endangered Species. Capturing this image fulfilled Greg's long-held ambition to photograph the critically endangered black rhino. © Greg du Toit

From amateurs to professionals

Alongside its conservation message, the competition exists to boost the profile of wildlife photography as an artistic medium and support the careers of young photography professionals.

Entries to Wildlife Photographer of the Year have always been judged anonymously, with professional work being considered alongside that of amateurs, giving budding photographers a chance to have their work exhibited among the greats. The introduction of the portfolio award in 1991 extended the competition's ability to support young professionals.

Indeed, many of today's most distinguished conservationists, photographers and filmmakers launched their careers though the competition. Television presenter and naturalist Chris Packham, who first entered in 1985 and won multiple categories into the mid-1990s, went on to build a successful career documenting the natural world.

A family of otters huddles together at the surface of the water, surrounded by marine plants
With his image of an otter family, Charlie Hamilton James won the Young Wildlife Photographer of the Year title in 1991. Charlie has since continued to enter the competition, gaining recognition for his work in adult categories such as Urban Wildlife, Animals in their Environment and the Wildlife Photojournalist Story Award © Charlie Hamilton James

The introduction of the Young competition for those aged 17 and under, as well as the increasing affordability of camera equipment, further opened up the competition for young people.

Many of the young winners of the 1980s - including Bruce Davidson, David Breed, Torsten Brehm, Ross Hoddinot, Charlie Hamilton James and Warwick Sloss - have gone on to successful careers in wildlife photography or filmmaking.

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