On September 5, 2013 The Natural History Museum will publish ”The Masters of Nature Photography” book. These are 10 shots made by the past winners of the Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition which is run by the Natural History Museum and BBC Worldwide. Enjoy the breathtaking images of extraordinary nature from around the globe along with the incredible stories of how the photography was made.
1. Jim Brandenburg, North Dakota, USA, 1975
It was windy on that North Dakota prairie, so windy that it was unnerving. It was also midday, and knowing that the light isn’t good at that time, I was sitting in my car eating a sandwich. I looked out on the slough, at the sooty tern going back and forth and the bending reeds and thought, I wish I had a movie camera. I stuck my lens out of the window and casually shot a few frames, then went on my way and thought no more about it. When I finally saw the picture, it was a big surprise. This is one of those cases when something changed, where the picture looks different than I remembered.
2. David Doubilet, Danko Island, Antarctica, 2011
I think of icebergs as a perfect metaphor for the sea – only a small percentage is visible to us. We were lucky to find this bergy bit with a small group of chinstrap and gentoo penguins squabbling on top of it. I made a few frames of the idyllic scene before they began to push each other off, and slide down one side, pop up on the other and start over again. I was excited when two gentoo penguins circled the ice under water, providing perspective. Look how much ice there is below water. One of the greatest joys of shooting half-and-half is that there’s always a surprise – especially the way the surface receives the light.
3. Paul NicklenRoss Sea, Antarctica, 2012
Under the ice holes, it’s total chaos. The emperors come in waves, 200 to 300 every hour or two. The chaos is what I wanted to capture, so viewers would feel they were among the penguins shooting to the surface. I love how layered and chaotic the picture is. The left-hand penguin was against my head – these are huge birds. I also love the one perfect penguin, its back arched. I wanted to be in their world.
4. Paul Nicklen, Admiralty Inlet, Nunavut, Canada, 2004
I had always visualized photographing a polar bear under water. It’s the perfect image to illustrate climate change. A bear standing on solid sea ice doesn’t do it – it needs to look vulnerable. This big male was at his most vulnerable, swimming out in the ocean. You’re never in control of the elements, and so the luck is when everything comes together, as it did here. The bear’s reflection against the glassy surface is what makes the picture, the floating ice framing it. I took the shot from the boat. I could have swum with him, but that would have disturbed the water and scared the bear, risking him as well as me – if he’d attacked me, he would have been shot. So I took the picture blind, with my arms in the water. I was sure I’d got the frame and that it was sharp. But it was on film, and so I had to wait more than a month, after I got home, to find out how good it was.
5. Christian Ziegler, Cerro Punta, Panama, 2008
I thought a long time about the composition for this picture and how to create it. I wanted the magnificent hummingbird in its full glory, close-up and intimate, clearly pollinating the orchid while sipping its nectar. The lighting was very difficult to set up. It took two strobes hitting the feathers at the right angle to bring out the metallic color, two to illuminate the flower and two the background. I used a custom-made wide-angle lens, which was literally touching the flower, and angled so the second purple spike was in the frame. The set-up was triggered remotely. But for two weeks, the male who patrolled this bit of rain forest went to every flower but this one.
6. Anup Shah, Bai Hokou, Dzanga-Sangha Dense Forest Special, Reserve, Central African Republic, 2011
Malui is the dominant female in a group of western lowland gorillas, and she is usually a morose and moody character. On this occasion, her group had come out of the forest to feed on plants in the swampy bai [clearing], just when there was a mass emergence of hundreds of butterflies. Most of the gorillas were avoiding the butterflies. But when Malui saw them, she got a gleam in her eyes. I saw it and positioned myself with the light behind me. Three times she ran through the area where the butterflies were, savoring the experience of the explosion of wings. It was a game she clearly enjoyed.
7. David Doubilet Ncamasere Channel, Okavango Delta, Botswana, 2002
We were told the Okavango Delta was the most beautiful dive place in the world. We were also told that we were ‘mad as hatters’ to think about diving there, that we would be eaten or worse if we did. It was indeed the most beautiful place, a dream-like garden, yet wild and crazy and full of clear, green water and waterlilies that bent with the flowing floodwater. It was delicate and dangerous because, wherever we went, there were crocodiles under water nearby. It was like swimming with dinosaurs, and we were wary and looking over our shoulders all the time. We never dived in a place twice, because once the crocodiles felt our presence through vibrations in the water, they would find their way there and wait like the perfect ambush predators they are.
This shot is perhaps my favorite from that time. I was searching for bream when this fisherman appeared above me in a mokoro (a dugout that’s the jeep of the delta) pushing across with a wooden ngashi. He stood statue-like peering into the water, the noon sunlight silhouetting him and casting a shadow across the waterlily forest like an African sculpture. That’s the bit I love. It’s a surreal image – the very essence of Africa.
8. A Grand Perspective, Frans Lanting, Chobe National Park, Botswana
I wanted to contrast the archaic shape of an elephant and the modern form of an impala as they both drank from the same waterhole. I positioned myself flat on the sand so that the elephants were in the foreground and then used a long lens to compress the distance between the animals, which had the optical effect of making the elephants seem larger than they already were. Juxtaposing big and small animals this way was a breakthrough. By choosing a certain perspective and a certain lens and then cropping the elephants so dramatically, I could make them look enormous. It’s a concept that’s found its way into the vocabulary of quite a few other photographers since then.
9. David Doubilet, Waterfall Bay, Tasmania, Australia, 1994
Diving in the deep waters off the southeast coast of Tasmania is a fantastical experience. Cold water wells up at the base of the dramatic cliffs, which is where the kelp forest grows – the same kelp that you find in California. The prevailing winds roll over the top of the sea, but by the cliff face it’s generally calm. It really is an underwater ‘Land of Oz’ down here – everything is so odd and wonderful. Weedy sea-dragons feed on lice at the base of the kelp, looking like metal tintype dragon toys from the 1950’s. I wanted to make a picture of them higher up in the water column. So I followed this foot-long male as it cruised up and down. And it really is a forest down there. I exposed to create the impression of swimming through one, catching the afternoon sunlight filtering through the fronds. I used two strobes both to spotlight the sea-dragon – one from the left slightly above looking down and one from the right, low and slightly across – and to emphasize the mysterious nature of the place.
10. Paul Nicklen Admiralty Inlet, Nunavut, Canada, 2006
It had been a 10-year pursuit – a lifelong dream to photograph narwhals. I bought an ultralight plane on floats. I trained on it. I convinced my friend to pilot it. I had it shipped to Arctic Bay – a huge operation. On the first night, we froze up, lost the engine, blew a crankshaft and barely landed on the ice. It took a new engine and six weeks of hauling this plane around before finally, on the second-to-last day, we got in the air. Flying over the sea ice, we could see groups of narwhals in pockets in the ice. I wanted to fly in and get close, but then I saw this group of males in a teardrop opening in the ice, and we had time to draw back so I could get the beautiful pattern of ice and frame the subject. As soon as I took the shot, I knew I had something special. It’s a picture that you can look at as art or you can look closer and see the bullet scars on the whales – a combination in one picture of storytelling, journalism and art. And that’s what I try to do with my photography.