Show me the 'wow' and graft in wildlife photography

I want to be arrested and seduced by wildlife photography. A critique of Wildlife Photographer of the Year winners – past and present

5 mins

There are few areas in the creative ‘arts’ that launch such feverish discourse as photographic competitions, especially those of wildlife. As Veolia Environnement Wildlife Photographer of the Year  competition unveils its winners, it is time to consider a few things.

Over the past few weeks in Kenya I have listened to indignant tirades from guests outraged over the initial sneak preview of this year’s competition.

Opinions on wild photos are, thankfully, subjective. It would be dull if we all thought the same but there are some basic tenets that have to be satisfied before any photograph should even enter the judging park.

After the shambles of the winner last year, which was wrong on about a dozen levels, expectations for a fresh sheet have been heightened. A number of the winners have knocked me sideways, but some of the initial salvo left me underwhelmed.

Basic photographic criteria

Photos must be sharp, well lit and well composed. They must have a clear and cohesive message. These are fundamentals.

Whenever I judge a wildlife photo for any sort of competition, I am looking for two things above everything else: degree of difficulty and originality – ‘graft’ and ‘wow’ if you like.

From the preview, the rabbits in Paris are beautiful – well conceived and beautifully executed.

The blue out-of-focus lion is a car wreck – this is not what tungsten balance was engineered for.

If this sounds like sour grapes, it is not. This is still the number one competition, but the reputation of it has taken a shoeing over the last couple of years. Tame animals are by definition not wild – some grovelling apologies and a few resignations would have at least saved face last year over the shameful crying-wolf episode.

Sadly people have been cheating with photographs of tame animals for a long time; the onus was on the judges and researchers who short-changed everyone by awarding the gong to that fraudulent catastrophe.

Wildlife photography is not about manufactured shots and Photoshop sorcery. It is not about aggressive photographers with banks of flash-guns and ludicrously camouflaged lenses terrorising plains and parks. Nor is it about sharks chasing bogus rubber decoys. It is about a sensitive desire to portray a beautiful creature, one that is hopefully doing something unusual or original.

Years ago, one of the winners was of a Martial eagle pulling out of the stoop just above a warthog piglet. The mother had noticed the bird and stepped forward protectively. The eagle was inches from what would have been a potentially mortal collision.

This photo showed patience, fieldcraft and decisiveness. Had I seen anything like it before? No. Was it sharp? Yes. Was it original? Yes. Did it deserve its prize? Unquestionably, yes.

The winner is...

The winner this year is arresting on many levels, although it would look much better blown up large. The other categories threw up some good stuff: the ‘Wild places’ category is beautiful  as is the ibex in ‘Animals in their environment

I like all the ‘Creative vision’ shots. Finally, the ‘One Earth’ category is savage reportage, and the netted turtle in particular stirs up all sorts of outraged emotions.

With wildlife photography competitions, I want wow factor, I want to be arrested and seduced by the images, I want to pin them on my wall and gaze at them for months.

I don't care if every winner is a fox so long as they are the best photos entered. The decision must not be made before – it must not be ‘the year of arty, textured nonsense’ for example.

I want blinding, belting, dramatic, original images. Overall this year is good, and certainly better than last year, with a few absolute snorters to keep the critics at bay.

Wandelust's Travel Photo of the Year
competition is open until 1 November... More

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