This spring I had an amazing experience as part of the judging for the Shell Wildlife Photographer of the Year contest at the Natural History Museum in London. This prestigious contest attracts some of the finest nature photography in the world. Co-owned by the Natural History Museum and BBC Wildlife Magazine, the competition is currently sponsored by Shell and Microsoft, and the winners are published by the BBC Wildlife Magazine in a special BBC book; additionally, a large-scale exhibition will be held at the Natural History Museum in October and an exhibition will tour globally.
The competition very much fits the digital world that this column covers. It showed how much nature photographers have gone to digital and how digital is affecting photography. I also have some ideas to share for readers who want to enter this contest in the future.
I was part of a group of judges who narrowed down the entries to a core group of very fine images for the final judging. The winners would be determined later. More than 18,000 photographs were entered into the competition. Here's the first digital reflection about the competition: In 2005, film made up about 65% of the entries and digital comprised about 35%; in 2006, this flipped—digital made up 65% and film 35%. That's a huge change for a single year and reflects what's going on in the industry.
We judged digital images and slides as projected onto a screen. Here's the next digital bit of interest. The process was hugely different from film to digital, and the digital part went quickly and easily. Digital images were projected from a computer through iView MediaPro using a high-resolution, SXGA Epson projector. You could quickly go back and forth among images. Those that deserved a second look were easily tagged for sorting and viewing with a single keystroke within MediaPro.
We quickly felt like we were using ancient technology when we switched to slides. That sounds a bit harsh, but when we went from digital projection to slides, there was truly a dramatic change that did seem like we had turned back time.
In digital, images are always in focus (assuming the original is), colors bright, and they never jam or cause problems in moving from photo to photo. With the slide projector, the process is certainly a longer one to ensure each image is refocused for critical evaluation (we could also request to see them on a light table—unnecessary with digital), slides would jam, and images didn't project with the crisp light of the digital projector.
Then there was the challenge of going back and checking a slide again (this took time to reload the slide trays and locate the correct image), plus slide trays don't always like moving quickly, so they can jam. With digital, all of this was nearly instant and it was simple to flip through images for further review. The only glitch that occurred was when the program froze once, but all selections were saved as we went along, so that wasn't a problem.
We all noticed something else quite revealing, too. The digital images as photographs were fresher and livelier as a whole. That doesn't mean there weren't some great individual film shots (there were, indeed!). What that does reflect is that it seemed a lot of photographers sent in older images as slides (and transparencies) and the new stuff was more likely to be digital.
There was a downside to digital at this competition—black-and-white. It's very possible to make outstanding black-and-white images from digital files and as digital prints; we didn't see any of those, unfortunately. In fact, the black-and-white section as a whole was disappointing. Black-and-white, whether film or digital, isn't simply the removal of color. To be done well, it needs great attention to the craft of translating color into tonalities. We saw some very good black-and-white prints, but too many of them weren't good examples of this type of photography, even if they were okay photos of the subjects.
That makes this category wide open in the future. If a photographer has a real feel for black-and-white and knows how to get the most from a natural subject, he or she has a chance of winning something in this contest. Any natural subject is fine for this category, but it must work well in black-and-white.
Another category wide open in the future and one that fits digital photography well is the Creative Visions of Nature. The official description is "photographs should take inspiration from nature, but reveal new ways of seeing natural subjects or scenes. They can be figurative, abstract or conceptual...but must provoke an emotional or thought-provoking reaction..."
The organizers weren't looking for odd Photoshopped images, but fresh ways of seeing the world. Digital is perfect for that because it allows you to experiment so much and see results instantly. I don't know what specific techniques might be allowed next year, but you don't have to have wild technique to do well here.
Too many photographers figured that "creative" meant using slow shutter speeds. Let me tell you that after seeing blur after blur after blur, few of them gave any new ways of seeing nature. I think they could have, but the blur would have had to be better thought out, not just another slow shot of an animal running or water flowing. Again, the digital camera could help immensely to refine shutter speed and blur to get an image that wasn't like what everyone else was doing.
All the judges felt that Creative Visions had a lot of potential, far beyond blurs, but very few images in the category in this year's contest stood out as revealing something new or provoking an emotion or other reaction. This is hard to do, but still, this is another category that could use better competition—lots of photos, but not lots of different and competitive images.
The wildlife categories were filled with many excellent images, as to be expected. The competition is intense, but if you win, it's a battle that offers prestigious rewards. I can tell you that, like me, the judges have seen a lot of photos over the years. Composing a really good image that looks like something everyone else does, even if done a little better, just doesn't catch judges' attention. We looked for fresh and new images in every category.
One wildlife category had a very poor showing, though, and we all thought that unfortunate—Urban and Garden Wildlife. Wildlife lives among us in many settings. While we don't do much with such images in OP, many publications do. This subject matter is important, yet this group had a rather small number of entries (which makes a good image have a better chance of winning) and a lot of rather ordinary photos. There are images out there that dramatically and evocatively show off wildlife in urban and garden settings, but they mostly weren't in this contest this year.
Finally, I should mention the World in Our Hands category. For some reason, most photographers thought this meant bad things happening to wildlife. Too many of the photos were just gory and had no strong visual story for the viewer, and very few images gave a positive view of wildlife and people (or if they did, they were too much like snapshots of people helping animals).
The judges all thought there was a great opportunity here for photographers to dramatize problems (without thinking that dead animals were the only way to do that) and to feature solutions. We'd have loved to see more positive images that could encourage viewers to also do something more positive, but the photos have to work as images, too, not just "snaps" (as the Brits call them) of people and wildlife together. This category had a moderate number of submissions.
If you're interested in this contest, check out previous years' winners in the books about the competition, Wildlife Photographer of the Year, Portfolio # (each year has a different portfolio number). These are inspirational books of terrific nature photography (you can find them online at www.nhm.ac.uk/buyonline).
To enter the Shell Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition next year, visit the website at the beginning of 2007, www.nhm.ac.uk/wildphoto. You'll find entry forms, rules and tips on entering, plus details on where the exhibition is touring.