Back in 2007, Austrian biology professor, scientific advisor and nature photographer Josef Friedhuber visited the Kahuzi-Biega National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo to capture a glimpse of the eastern lowland gorillas that inhabited the park.
After a two-hour trek into the dense jungle, Friedhuber and his group chanced upon some female gorillas eating from the bushes. Just as he was about to snap a photo of this group, a sudden movement startled him. It was Chimanuka, a rare silverback gorilla who is now about 35 years old, and one of the few survivors of his species after violent conflicts in the ‘90s killed half of the gorillas in the region.
“He suddenly came out of the bush about five meters in front of me, drumming on his breast and showing his impressive behaviour,” Friedhuber said in a media release sent to VICE. Despite being alarmed, Friedhuber’s instincts kicked into gear and he was able to seize the moment to photograph the rare gorilla. “I was frightened and fell back in a bush,” he said. “While falling, I took the picture, so it is blurred because of the movement.”
More than a decade later, Friedhuber’s shot has emerged as one of the winners in the 2021 Nature Photographer Of the Year (NPOTY) Awards, a competition that supports and celebrates nature photography and conservation efforts through art. Curated by an organisation called Nature Talks, the NPOTY recognises photographers across various categories including landscape, underwater, nature art, and humans in nature. Last year, more than 20,000 photographers from over 97 countries sent in their entries, with the winner receiving cash prizes of up to €3,000 ($3,416) along with special camera equipment.
While only a handful of contestants emerged as winners or received high praise for their work, the stories behind these stunning shots are equally arresting.
Terje Kolaas, a bird photographer from Norway, came out as the overall winner for his photo titled “Winter Migration.” While Kolaas has been photographing birds for more than 20 years, using drone technology to capture them mid-flight, he ran into several roadblocks for this one due to fragmented landscapes, buildings that obstructed the frame, human artifacts and messy backgrounds.
“During the strange and rare events of blizzards and heavy snowfalls in late April 2020, I realised that the photos of my dreams were within reach – photographing the geese from the air against a pure and clean snowy landscape,” he said, recalling the exact moment leading up to his winning shot. “I positioned myself close to a field, where I knew that the geese would feed regularly, and waited for them there. As soon as I heard incoming geese, I took off with the drone and waited for them in the air.”
Wildlife photographers have often admitted that capturing the perfect shot is often preceded by long waits in isolated or extreme locations. Category winners for wildlife and mammals at the NPOTY attested to this.
UK-based William Burrad-Lucas, whose photo of a rare and elusive black leopard won in the Animal Portraits category, said it took several months of preparation and perseverance to get the shot. “For the image to work, many elements needed to come together,” he said. “Firstly, it had to be a cloudless night, which wasn’t common at this time of year. The only way to expose the dim stars was to use a long exposure time and, therefore, there could be no moon, which would otherwise cause ghosting. And, of course, the leopard himself had to appear.”
Burrad-Lucas captured the prized photo of the gleaming black leopard fading into the night using a camera trap, a camera typically equipped with an infrared sensor to monitor the presence of animals and record their behaviour.
Estonian photographer Aare Udras used a similar technique to capture his picture titled “Young Wolf (Canis Lupus),” the runner-up in the Mammals category. “In my surroundings, the wolf is the most intelligent animal, with extremely well developed senses,” Udras said. “They also learned to read and understand human activities. All that makes photographing them a great challenge.”
To pull off his highly commended shot, Udras first had to narrow down on a wolf litter’s pack and find a bottleneck in their usual route. Upon discovering a small ditch with a beaver dam in Estonia’s thick forests in 2019, he decided it was the ideal location to install his camera trap. “In about 6–7 months, I got lucky,” he said. “Actually this young wolf photographed herself, letting me have a recording. This photo shows well how relaxed the wolf is, even while jogging on the beaver’s dam in absolute darkness.”
While capturing wildlife is tricky territory that comes with a set of dangers, a whole other layer of risks and complexity comes with photographing the underwater world. German photographer Georg Nies, whose photo of rare pygmy seahorses was declared the winner in the Underwater category, said it was an excruciatingly arduous task.
“Photographing pygmy seahorses is an extremely difficult business,” he said. “They are very small, rarely larger than 2 centimeters. But above all, they are very well-camouflaged and difficult to find in the gorgonians in which they live.” To zoom in on the tiny sea species, Nies had to work seamlessly with a local diver guide. But even so, the process wasn’t easy.
“Unfortunately, however, many pictures of pygmy seahorses and other curious animals underwater are not taken in a species-appropriate and environmentally friendly way,” he said, adding that tampering with such photos is common. “Moreover, the seahorse likes to turn away from the photographer,” he added.
“Using the pointer stick, they are turned gently by the dive guide towards the photographer, so that a front portrait is possible. Most importantly, the seahorses do not tolerate too much flashlight. Because they don’t have eyelids, they must endure the amount of light from the flashes. In areas where there are many underwater photographers, these animals go blind within a very short time and do not survive long. Therefore, the number of photos should be reduced to 6 to 8 per photographer,” Nies said.
Photographing the wildlife of the world in its natural habitat is equally about finding the ideal lighting as it is about timing.
Miquel Angel Artús Illana, a Spanish photographer whose photo titled “Fishing trip at sunrise” was declared the runner-up in the Birds category, also spent several days in remote isolation to capture a group of Magellanic penguins heading out to the sea as the sun rose over the horizon.
“The image was taken in the Saunders Islands, where for five days, I was isolated with a small group of photographers, only in the company of penguins and oysters, species of birds and mammals,” Illana said. “Since the best light was at sunrise, I stood on a small hill at five in the morning and waited for the penguins to appear in groups as they usually do. The light and the surroundings did the rest.”
For Levi Fitze, the winner in the Youth category, perfect lighting is what gave his shot of a young Alpine ibex strolling through a meadow its ethereal aura. “I spent the night in a mountain bivouac to photograph in the morning and evening hours,” said the Switzerland-based photographer. “The situation this evening was just perfect. I was already happy with the nice flowers, when suddenly the sun broke through the clouds and a beautiful backlight situation was created.”
For Israeli photographer Roie Galitz, the runner-up in the animal portraits category, perspective was everything. Titled “Last Embrace”, her photo captures a young lioness navigating her way around a dead elephant, almost as if they were hugging.
“One of the things I like about the image, besides the composition and lighting, is the viewer’s experience with the image, which is a bipolar one,” said Galitz. “I like to watch people’s reaction to this, when they first respond with “awww, they are hugging” and after a few seconds they realize that something else is going on.”
From the eruption of an active volcano to ice cracks that resemble human cells to frost that lingers on branches, check out other winners and notable entries from the contest below.