How to win Wildlife Photographer of the Year

The Natural History Museum’s Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition is the most prestigious of its kind. Chair of the jury, and former BBC Wildlife editor, Roz Kidman Cox reveals what makes an entry catch the eye.

Spirit of the Mountains, Winner 2016, Land. © Stefano Unterthiner/Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Wildlife Photographer of the Year is developed and produced by the Natural History Museum, London (NHM). The competition was originally founded in 1965 by BBC Wildlife Magazine, then called Animals. The NHM joined forces in 1984 to create the competition as it is known today, and now solely runs and owns it.

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The 2020 competition attracted almost 49,000 entries from professionals and amateurs across 86 countries.

Her Royal Highness, The Duchess of Cambridge, Patron of the Museum, announced Sergey Gorshkov as this year’s Wildlife Photographer of the Year for his magnificent image ‘The Embrace’, of an Amur tigress hugging an ancient Manchurian fir in the Russian Far East. Amur, or Siberian, tigers are only found in this region and it took more than 11 months for the Russian photographer to capture this moment with hidden cameras. View the winning and highly commended images from the 2020 competition in our online galleries.

The 2021 competition opens for entries on Monday 19 October and closes at 11.30am GMT on 10 December 2020. The competition is open to photographers of all ages and abilities. Find out more on the WPY website.


Why is the Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition important?

For photographers of wildlife and environmental subjects, it is the most renowned competition in the world, with a long history of rewarding the very best individual pictures and stories.

Having pictures placed in the top 100 can help make careers and reputations, and for professionals, the reward goes beyond financial, bringing huge international exposure. That value is immense for photographers motivated by the desire to see coverage of the stories their images carry.

Owned by the Natural History Museum – an institution with a mission to create advocates for the planet – the competition is itself an institution. Both a photographic art exhibit and a story-telling platform, with a tale attached to every image, its reach is both huge and continuous through the year.

As well as a major exhibition at the museum, there are exhibition sets touring the world and commemorative books in several languages. The competition also brings together a community of photographers, providing creative inspiration and moral support.

In a nutshell, what are the Wildlife Photographer of the Year judges looking for?

Originality. That can mean fresh ways of looking at familiar subjects as much as new ones or surprising situations. The emotional impact or resonance of a picture is also important. But on the international jury, that can differ among the judges, depending on their visual knowledge and background and also their emotional history. Differing reactions can be influenced by culture as much as experience.

The Sacrifice, Runner-up 2010, Wildlife Photojournalist Story Award. © Brian Skerry/Wildlife Photographer of the Year
The Sacrifice, Runner-up 2010, Wildlife Photojournalist Story Award. © Brian Skerry/Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Roz says: 

A bigeye thresher shark hangs in a drifting gillnet, as if crucified. A truly iconic image – graphically powerful but hauntingly beautiful – symbolising the destruction caused by industrial fishing and the enormous toll on wildlife from abandoned plastic nets.

Among thousands of great shots, what makes an image stand out?

Immediate impact can be important, but that may not last through the subsequent three to four rounds of judging. So, increasing the contrast to catch the eye is not the answer.

After the first rounds, it is fascinating to find out if the judges have seen an image that stands out as a potential overall winner. Rarely do they all have the same choice.

It is also fascinating how the impression an image makes can grow with looking, whether resulting from the beauty of form and balance, its underlying emotive power, or both.

Spirit of the Mountains, Winner 2016, Land. © Stefano Unterthiner/Wildlife Photographer of the Year
Spirit of the Mountains, Winner 2016, Land. © Stefano Unterthiner/Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Roz says: 

Taken in Italy’s Gran Paradiso National Park (the photographer’s home ground), this is a picture that you can look at again and again. The flow of the choughs, the line of ancient larches and the protrusion of volcanic rock, sprinkled with snow, create a weave of texture and colour. Emerging ghost- like from the clouds, a bearded vulture gives an extra brushstroke of magic.

Over the years, what Wildlife Photographer of the Year images have really stopped you in your tracks?

For me, the test is lasting power – whether I get the same pleasure every time I look at the picture. That can be a mixture of marvel at the wonder of the subject or scene, the design perfection, or both of those, or it can be a reaction to the emotion or thought- provoking impact of the image.

There are many pictures that do that for me, so it’s hard to pick out just a few, but ‘Spirit of the Mountains’, ‘True Love’ and ‘The Sacrifice’ (all pictured in this article) are good examples.

Can you tell if Wildlife Photographer of the Year images are the result of time and skill or luck and timing?

There are always the ‘how on earth did they achieve that?’ pictures, and camera-trap and remote region images will obviously have taken an enormous amount of time and planning. But it is the end result that is judged, not the effort.

Many behaviour pictures result from serendipity, but a photographer has to be primed and ready to catch those moments – and catch them perfectly.

True Love, Commended 2013, Behaviour: Birds. © Steve Race/Wildlife Photographer of the Year
True Love, Commended 2013, Behaviour: Birds. © Steve Race/Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Roz says: 

A male presents his mate with a wreath of red campion. Many people have created portraits of gannets but never one like this, with such simplicity of composition, perfection of colour and touchingly beautiful behaviour. It was shot on the photographer’s doorstep at the Bempton Cliffs gannet colony in Yorkshire.

What tips can you give when submitting images of well-trodden subjects to Wildlife Photographer of the Year?

Are you familiar enough with what has already featured in the competition to see your image as special enough to be better? Also, it’s worth getting a second opinion from an honest critic.

What are the key do’s and don’ts when selecting an image to enter Wildlife Photographer of the Year?

Don’t select your entries in a rush. Review your selection afresh several times and get a second opinion, if only to verify your own. Make sure you have the RAW files to match. And don’t enter a photo that has already been placed in another competition.

What happens when the Wildlife Photographer of the Year judges disagree?

As with all competitions, it’s the majority decision that stands, though discussion can swing the balance. This does mean that winners can be the result of compromise.

Are any new categories planned for the 2021 Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition? If so, what will the judges be looking for?

Yes, including two very important ones, given our planetary emergency: Oceans and Wetlands. Images should have something to say – symbolically or literally, whether through broad strokes or specifics, beauty or impact – about the importance and functions of freshwater and marine ecosystems and their living components. So, as well as the aesthetics, think about the message that can accompany a picture.

Roz is an editor, photo editor and writer specialising in wildlife and environmental issues. She has been judging the Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition over nearly four decades and edits the Wildlife Photographer of the Year Portfolio books. 

Previously editor of BBC Wildlife Magazine for more than 20 years, she currently project manages, edits and writes photography-led books.

Roz is an affiliate of the International League of Conservation Photographers and was awarded an OBE for services to conservation and photography.

Roz Kidman Cox, photographed by Steve Taylor

This article originally appeared in BBC Wildlife Magazine. Look inside the current issue and find out how to subscribe.

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Main image: Spirit of the Mountains, Winner 2016, Land. © Stefano Unterthiner/Wildlife Photographer of the Year