2009 Photo Contest: Stories Behind The Photos

What does it take to win the National Wildlife Photo Contest?

01-01-2009 // Carla Brown

Photographers are funny people. Since 1970, National Wildlife® magazine has hosted a photo contest, and the photos that we receive are unbelievably inspiring and beautiful.

In the past few years the photo contest has moved online, and in 2008 we had more than 55,000 photos uploaded.

So what are the stories behind the photos? When entrants upload photos, we encourage them to tell us what it took to capture that moment. After scanning a few thousand stories, we noticed these fun trends:

California Lady Slipper Orchid

Family members both help and hinder in the creative process

Many of us struggle with work / life balance, and for photographers, sometimes it is difficult to fulfill family obligations and capture the perfect photo. Getting the photo just right takes time, and many want to spend more time taking the photo than is available.

"The trip took much longer than expected and the longer it took, the more upset my wife got because she didn't want to hurry getting dressed for dinner. Finally we got there and I had time for a few pictures before we hurried back for our dinner appointment."

Family members often don't have the same vision of what would make a great photo.

"When the setting sun hit that magic hour, they agreed to stop capsizing each other long enough to pose for Dad. I had in mind a nice, mellow, reflective pose. They, obviously, did not."

Not all family members see photography as an inconvenience. Another photographer described how his niece stood in a heavy downpour holding an umbrella over him so he could capture a photo of rare orchids.

Sometimes family members are the ones who recommend a photo. One family was "on a ridge in the setting sun after a glorious day in fresh powder and sun, my 6 year old daughter noticed the 'shadow people' below. She posed us."

Pink Dolphin

Photographers love the thrill of the perfect moment and rare sights

Digital cameras are particularly helpful in our quest to capture the perfect moment. Photographers tell us about the moment the bird grabbed the bug in the air, or when the fish was leaping through the air to escape the bear. Still others use it to remember finding a rare thing, such as when a photographer went to the Amazon River to photographer the endangered pink dolphin. He had a particularly strange moment when he captured "an extremely rare picture of wild animal urinating!"

Another photographer wrote, "This little guy has a prehensile nose. It was difficult to get a good shot as he was hiding beneath the bushes. I did get to see him wiggle his nose."

Dik Dik by Anne Tate

Photography can be a long-term commitment

Sometimes photographers encounter the perfect moment, but more often they tell us that they track their subjects over days, weeks, months, even years.

One photographer has been taking photos of roadrunner birds outside of his home for two years, accumulating more than 10,000 images. He says "I call this The Roadrunner Project."

Another wrote, "I have been watching these guys for weeks and weeks, after hundreds of pictures, I got this one, laying on a dock and waiting for him to pose below me in the oyster beds."

Baby Hummingbirds

Another watched a hummingbird carefully raise her chicks over weeks:

"I followed the whole process from the building of the nest, to the laying of the eggs, to the hatching and finally to the day the hummingbirds flew away. What a tiny nest! She laid the eggs, sat on them through fierce rain storms and then fed them when they hatched. As time went on, the little birds had to sit on each other to fit in the tiny nest and the mother would just fly in to feed them. I was lucky to be there to see them fly away."

Another photographer followed a male leopard patiently:

"The fact that he had an impala kill in the canopy meant it was likely he would return, so I waited, and six hours later he reappeared out of the long grass. He spent much of his time in the tree hidden amongst the foliage and getting a clear shot was difficult. The following morning I returned, now having seen him leave the tree twice in exactly the same manner, I prepared to capture this shot - hoping he would stick to the pattern. It was lovely just observing him as he repeated the pattern of 'feed', 'rest' and 'leave.'"

Photographers push themselves physically

Some photographers go to great lengths to capture the right shot. One photographer climbed a tree hanging over a river to take a photo of a sloth from just the right angle.

One photographer went to great lengths to capture the first light of the morning in bear country. He climbed the mountain, singing loudly to ward off bears. After a good hike he set up:

"I had a sickening feeling in my stomach as my now frantic search turned up everything except my camera! The fog in my brain cleared slightly as I remembered setting it on roof of the car. I took a deep breath, glanced at the sky to determine how long I'd have until first light, and began sprinting through the woods. Gone were any attempts at singing, my new warning to the local bears was the severe gasping I made as I tried at high altitude to keep my lungs from exploding."

Shark by Mark Cowardine

Sometimes we wonder how the photographers lived to tell the tale:

"This blue whale was magnificent, and I had to lean out of the plane to get this image."

Or this example of understatement:

"I was cage-diving, and this large female was very curious."


"My guide and I heard from the locals that there was a massive, 16-foot green anaconda hanging out by a jungle river. One day we headed there and found her (the large ones are all females) by the bank. She soon slipped in the water and after repeated reassurances from my guide that it would be relatively safe, I followed the huge reptile with my underwater camera. I was able to take a series of unique photographs. While bold and very curious, the snake was never aggressive. This was an unforgettable experience to say the least!"

Pelican by Paula Garner

Sometimes the photographer relies on faith:

"I remember praying on this shot that he/she would not hit me. This bird was coming straight at me, and I just kept saying 'Hold, hold, hold and don't duck.'"

Photography teaches about nature

Watching wildlife is fun, and watching them through a camera lens allows you to tell the tale of what you saw. Some use their hobby to connect with nature:

"Knowing that I was going to be moving out of Florida I wanted to document the breeding season of several species of bids found there. I spent five months visiting a rookery. I would often go two or three times a week. I knew which nest had chicks and would set up my camera on a tripod and patiently wait for a special moment. On many mornings I would leave without much of anything, but on this morning the shot I was hoping for came together."

Bobcat by Deb Docherty

Animals sometimes respond to photographers

Many carefully and lowly approach wildlife so not to ruin their photos. They say that some wildlife seem to "enjoy" getting photographed. While photographing pelicans, one couple said "to our amazement we kept on fishing towards them and they didn't even move. I grabbed my camera and took a few pictures. It was one of those moments in life you may never get a chance to ever repeat and you enjoy every minute."

Another photographer saw trash cans tipped over and garbage bags shredded. He quickly grabbed the camera and followed the trail: "There was movement. Ever so slowly I crept forward. Then she emerged and our eyes locked. I slowly raised my camera to begin shooting. I use a 100 to 400mm zoom lens which I didn't need, she was that close. I squeezed as many shots as the camera would allow. She didn't move but seemed transfixed. She was so beautiful, almost delicate. It was a magical moment that will stay with me for the rest of my life."

Meerkat Pups by Jack Burtt

Photographers make us want to travel to amazing places

We get photos from all corners of the earth. Some are taken by photographers who are volunteering as naturalists.

"While volunteering with Earthwatch Institute studying meerkats in South Africa, these pups huddled together for warmth in the chill of the evening, just before heading underground for the night."

Others volunteer on school trips:

"I was on a 10 day kayaking adventure with a group of homeschoolers studying Marine Biology with an organization called Classroom With A View."

One photographer described taking photos while studying at night in Costa Rica.


"At one point on this night, after I'd crouched along on one of the paths, my co-worker exclaimed "how did you not walk right into this!". He'd spotted a massive spider web spanning right across the path, a beautiful spider perfectly centered! Without knowing it, I'd crouch-walked right underneath it!"

Photography is not always glamorous

One photographer noted that he visited "a beautiful spot, but your shoes pick up a lot of Canada goose droppings."

Photography can be therapeutic

Many take photos to relax. One photographer described his photo as "just unwinding after a hard day at the office by stopping to take a few photos on the way home."

Sometimes taking photos helps pass the time.

"As our car broke down and we were waiting for the mechanic to repair, I didn't waste time without shooting and this was the result."


Photography can be poetic and moving

Many photographers have a reverence for their subjects and the moment. You could imagine taking their stories and making them into free-verse poems, such as:

"Shot this in my pajamas one morning out the window from our cabin. The mountains, clear in the sunrise light, seemed to float like a ship in the clouds."

You would think that a photograph is worth 1,000 words, but this photographer connotes even more in her story:

"Pelican hit the water, and all I could think of was wings of metal."

Having a camera in front of your face can give a feeling of distance from the environment, and sometimes that is a good thing, when faced with a sad moment. One photographer described a mother fox mourning for her kit:

"This mother red fox has done a great job protecting her young, but tragedy can and does strike. Her 5th fifth kit was mauled by another animal, most likely on one of their expeditions. We observed her carrying the dead kit in her mouth and laying it down in the middle of the lawn. She nudged the kit and licked its wounds to no avail. She was clearly distressed over her loss."

Another photographer summed up the experience that causes so many of us to pick up the camera and head outdoors:

"I could not stay inside any longer when I looked out the kitchen window and saw the dance of colors going on out back."

Thank you to all the photographers who share their art and their stories with us. We are honored that you take the time and it inspires us in our work to protect wildlife.


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