The Best Of The Best!

Think beyond local camera club contests and consider some of the premier nature photography competitions in the world
The Best Of The Best  Photo contests can be a successful way to get your images published, and some of the premier nature photography contests are monitored by publications, making them ideal for working your images into print as well.

There are photo contests of every shape, form and subject so you have a wide range of choices. But to truly test your abilities, consider the bigger national and international contests produced by organizations such as the BBC, Nature’s Best and the Valley Land Fund. These contests draw some of the top pros in the world of nature and wildlife photography. Each contest is somewhat unique in its structure so you need to study the entry rules, review winning images of past contests and decide on the commitment level necessary to improve your chances of winning.

The BBC Wildlife Photographer Of The Year Contest
Probably the most internationally recognized contest is the annual BBC Wildlife Photographer of the Year contest, produced by the BBC in England since the early 1980s. There are several classes of entry subjects, including a variety of species subjects, from insects to endangered species, as well as scenic-based subjects, but all images must include wildlife as part of the image, except the plant class.

Each entry class is limited to a maximum of three images. Images of captive animals are allowed, but they must be identified as such and you must certify that no animal was harassed in any way to capture the image. There's also a contest section for younger photographers. Even if you're in your teens or younger, you still have a forum for your work.

To submit images for this contest, you must be ruthless in your selections. Choose only those images that are stunning in composition, show some type of action or expression, are perfectly exposed and, if possible, have some unique feature about them. You may only submit images that were taken within the last three years of the date of the contest and you must certify this. The competition is fierce; you're competing against the best and the annual selections prove this. Past winners include photographers such as Frans Lanting and Tom Mangelsen.

The contest leans toward action and dynamic images rather than portraiture. The BBC also is one of the few contests that often will showcase predator-prey attack or kill images. That activity is part of nature and many of the images are striking with great impact on the viewer.

Each year, the winning images are featured in an issue of BBC Wildlife Magazine and a special print show of all winning images travels throughout England during the year. A book of the winning images is published each year as well.

Literally, tens of thousands of people will see your images. The BBC also produces a fantastic awards show for the winners that includes a reception at the Museum of Natural History in London, where all winning images are displayed in a special showing room. Invitations go out to the media and many of the stock agencies so it's an ideal opportunity to discuss your work with people who could help you in the future. Top prize money in the thousands of dollars makes it a worthwhile endeavor.

Nature's Best
While the annual photo contest produced by Nature's Best hasn't been around as long as the BBC contest, it has become internationally recognized as one of the premier wildlife and nature photo contests. Structured somewhat like the BBC contest, there's a variety of subject classes.

Nature's Best provides separate sections for pro and amateur photographers so you have a better chance to get your images showcased even though you might not be a professional nature photographer. You're limited to 20 images total spread among all the classes. Nature's Best doesn't put a time limit on when the image must have been taken, but images taken with newer, more sophisticated cameras and lenses and newer, high-quality films tend to win out over older images. You still must be ruthless in your selections and strive for images that have great lighting or unique features, images that will grab viewers and make them want to see more. Dupes as well as original images are accepted.

Nature's Best holds an awards banquet to honor the winners and produces a special edition of the magazine each year that features all winning images. For last year's contest, Nature's Best set up a program at the banquet to sell prints of winning images with the proceeds going to the photographer. Monetary awards are given in each category.

Valley Land Fund
One of the newer wildlife photo contests is the biannual Valley Land Fund Photo Contest, produced by the Valley Land Fund in South Texas. This contest is unique in several ways. The premise behind the contest is the recognition and protection of wildlife and wildlife habitat in southern Texas. The area is undergoing rapid population growth, but still has many large, undeveloped ranches that provide excellent habitat for a wide variety of wildlife. The photo contest was developed to raise the awareness of people to the special nature of the area and the wildlife it shelters.

This is considered by many photographers to be the "Iron Man" wildlife photo contest, as the contest lasts six months. It's produced every other year from February through June. There are more than 50 classes of subjects and, to have a shot at winning, a photographer must submit images in as many classes as possible. Only images taken during the six-month contest period are eligible and original images must be submitted.

Photographers may submit images as individuals or as teams. The entry form provides the selection option and the appropriate fee. Each photographer or photographer team is paired with a rancher and must photograph only on that ranch for image submission.

You may submit up to three images in each class but, in many of the classes, such as some of the bird classes that include three or four species, you may submit only one image of a given species. Plan on shooting for a significant portion of the six-month period in order to capture images of migratory species as well as breeding or nesting species.

This contest requires a major commitment of time, energy and effort. Photographers usually will live on the ranch property, possibly in a bunkhouse or an out building to be close to the action. There are five grand-prize winners, with the first grand-prize winner splitting $30,000 with the ranch owner.

Weather in South Texas can range from almost cold in the early months to over 105 degrees in the shade with high humidity in the later months. Sitting in a blind in 100-degree heat for 10 to 14 hours a day for several weeks can be a great learning experience about what it means to be a wildlife photographer. Several photographers in past contests have shot more than 300 rolls of film during the contest.

Unlike the BBC and Nature's Best contests, a new panel of three judges is selected for each contest. The Valley Land Fund produces an awards banquet with a slideshow of the winning images, and brief talks by the grand-prize winners and their ranch partners. The fund also produces a very high-quality book of award-winning images for each contest. If you're interested in this contest, check out copies of past contest books to get a perspective of the competition and talk to the contest manager about available ranches and conditions.

You must submit your original images from your shooting, certify that they were taken during the contest and make sure images are coded, not labeled, so judging is done without the judges knowing who took the image. While you certainly don't have to shoot the entire six months, you should be prepared to put in the time required to give you a good chance at placing high in the contest. Remember, you're partnered with a rancher who also has paid an entry fee and is interested in winning. (The peer pressure among rancher participants is growing every year and has helped tremendously in protecting the habitat and improving the knowledge base of wildlife species in the area.)

This contest is an excellent way to build your stock of special wildlife species found nowhere else in the U.S. Currently, this is the highest total prize money offered by a wildlife photo contest.

ICF Pro-Tour
The newest concept in wildlife photo contests is taking shape this year with the first contest to take place in the Texas Hill Country in the spring of 2006. The ICF Pro-Tour of Nature Photography, produced by Images for Conservation, based in Edinburg, Texas, is for well-published pro wildlife photographers. The concept is to develop a pro wildlife photographer tour with contests spread throughout the United States, Canada and Mexico. Each contest is limited to the first 20 pro photographers who submit a portfolio of published images and meet the criteria for publication.

Similar to the Valley Land Fund Contest, each photographer will be paired with a rancher in the Texas Hill Country and will shoot for one month. There are numerous species classes, and winners will have to submit images in almost all classes to have a shot at the grand-prize money. The first grand-prize photographer will be awarded $80,000, which will be split with the rancher. With the kickoff in the Texas Hill Country, it's hoped contests will be scheduled throughout the year at locations throughout the U.S., Canada and Mexico, with financial awards similar to the Texas Hill Country structure.

The ICF management hopes this program will become a continuing pro tour similar to golfing pro tours with the potential for high dollar awards for the photographers and a way to financially compensate landowners for protecting their land rather than developing it. The selections for 2006 have been made and include Theo Allofs, George Lepp, Wendy Shattil and Bob Rozinski, Tom Leeson, Joe McDonald, Wolfgang Kaehler, Daniel J. Cox, Cathy Illg, Tom Walker, Jeremy Woodhouse, Gary Vestal, John Hendrickson, Jozsef L. Szentpeteri, Rolf Nussbaumer, Sean Fitzgerald, Christian Ziegler, Lynda Richardson and me, Dave Welling. The competition will be extremely tough and demanding, but it's a great way to evaluate yourself against some of the best in the business.

Daniel Housberg Wilderness Image Award
Another major opportunity for photographers working in Alaska or developing environmentally based projects in the state is the Daniel Housberg Wilderness Image Award for Excellence in Still Photography and a separate award for Excellence in Video or Film. This is a highly regarded awards program that's not a photo contest in the general sense of photo contests.

The project or images must be strictly from Alaska and, according to the Alaska Conservation Foundation and the Advocacy Arts Foundation that administer the program, awards are made for still images and video or film projects that advance the protection of the environment, further the discussion of issues relating to conservation of habitat or the enlightened management of national resources, or promote greater public education in these areas. The images or projects must relate solely to Alaska or Alaska subjects.

The Alaska Conservation Foundation has been presenting Housberg Awards since 1996 and the Advocacy Arts Foundation joined with the Conservation Foundation a few years ago to double the financial award to the winner in each section. The awards are now $1,000 for both still and film/video winners.

Past still photographer winners include Michio Hoshino (posthumously), Kim Heacox, Dorothy and Leo Keeler, James Barker, Subhankar Banerjee and Robert Belous. All of these people have been heavily involved in Alaska environmental and native cultures for many years.

The application procedure for this contest is somewhat unique. Nominations for awards may be made by the photographer or someone familiar with his or her work who feels he or she has a body of work or project that meets the above criteria. Applications must include a selection of 20 images that support the project or effort as well as a short summary letter of why the individual should be considered (50 words) and a more detailed letter of nomination that includes the breadth of the nominee's contribution to the Alaska environment or conservation (500 words). Letters of support for the nominee from other people also may be included.

One interesting feature of this program is that if you don't win in the year you submit, your application will be held and reviewed for a possible award for the next two consecutive years. This program is well worth considering if you have the Alaska experience, not so much for the money, but for the recognition of the Alaska environment, its wildlife and its native cultures. All are under consistent assault from outside influences such as the current effort to bring drilling to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge or to increase logging in the Tongass National Forest, one of the largest remaining temperate rain forests in North America.

Whatever contest route you take—from entering a major competition such as the BBC contest to a local camera club contest—remember, don't be discouraged if your images don't win. (For several years, many of us who entered the Valley Land Fund Contest would get together at the NANPA convention and show images of "non-winners" and discuss why and how we could do better next time.) Each contest gives you the opportunity to improve your skills, meet new people, discover new locations and photo opportunities, see a wide variety of wildlife and create new and better images. What more could you want and still have great fun doing it?

Alaska Conservation Foundation

BBC Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Daniel Housberg Award

ICF Pro-Tour

Nature's Best Photography Contest

Valley Land Fund Photo Contest

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