Taking great photographs often requires a delicate balance of talent, technology and timing – especially when it comes to wildlife photography, which throws the unpredictability of nature and environmental factors into the mix. This makes the photographs on display at the touring 2012 Veolia Environment Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition all the more inspiring – these photographers can't arrange a reshoot or adjust the lighting; they've taken what nature has given them and captured it in one magical snapshot. Luckily, Mother Earth certainly offers them a lot to work with – and the competition's judges and curators have done an excellent job of making sure the exhibition showcases as many of the globe's wonders as possible, from the humble mouse to the magnificent aurora borealis.
The Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition was founded in 1965 by BBC Wildlife Magazine, then called Animals. The magazine began working alongside the Natural History Museum in 1984 to create the competition as it is known today, and Veolia Environment (which specialises in helping companies reduce their impact in water, waste and energy) stepped in as a sponsor four years ago. This year's competition had over 48,000 entries from 98 countries, which were judged by a panel of industry professionals for their creativity, artistry and technical complexity. The 18 categories feature a varied mix of photographs, showcasing nature’s diversity and allowing us a look at many wonders which would otherwise remain unseen.
Some of the most impressive images on show were taken by budding young photographers. The under-ten category winner was shot by Bartek Kosinski from Poland. Entitled ‘Dawn Flight’, the photo shows cranes disappearing into the haze in Milicz Fishponds Nature Reserve, where the birds spend a few days on the shore of its shallow lake before heading to Africa for winter. Bartek’s commitment to getting the shot is impressive for someone of such a young age – he spent five days at the reserve taking photos of the birds both morning and night, managing to get his winning picture as the mist descended on the dawn of the fifth day.
Owen Hearn's 'Flight Paths' took the overall Veolia Environment Young Photographer of the Year title. Shot on his grandparents’ farm, it shows a striking red kite with its wings outstretched, mirroring a distant plane high up amongst the clouds. The image is particularly significant because of its location; it was taken in the middle of the Bedfordshire site elected to be London’s third airport in the late 1960s, which didn't go ahead due to fierce opposition. At the same time, British red kites were facing extinction – but, following reintroduction, numbers have increased and they now fly freely in the area. In Owen’s image the red kite is strong, clear and proud, while the aircraft cuts a shadowy, looming figure – a great representation of wildlife’s constant need to adapt to living alongside modern urban developments.
In a similar vein, entries for the World in Our Hands award explore the relationship between people and environment, raising awareness of how our actions affect the natural world. The winner, a striking photograph entitled 'Ice Matters', shows a lone, lost-looking polar bear gingerly navigating broken-up ice. Anna Henly took the photo with a fisheye lens, making the huge bear seem diminutive in order to highlight its uncertain future - the polar bears rely on the ice for their survival, yet year-on-year temperatures are rising, reducing the amount of ice cover and the time available for the bears to hunt. An important issue to address - and certainly worth the 4am start it took for Anna to get the shot.
However, while many of the pictures bring to light the difficulties facing wildlife today, an equal number were taken simply to celebrate and showcase animals at work, rest and play in their natural environment. In the winning image from the Behaviour: Mammals category, Grégoire Bouguereau (France) was lucky enough to come across a magical moment in the Serengeti National Park - an eager-looking pack of young cheetah clubs ready to pounce on a fearful calf, in what was their first hunting lesson.
Paul Nicklen also managed to take an extraordinary shot for the Behaviour: Birds category, although it was not without its occupational hazards. While waiting to take his image, Paul made sure he kept one eye on the emperor penguins rocketing out of the water, and one on the many leopard seals ready to pounce on them. While the penguins were his real target, it comes as little surprise that he would want to make sure he watched out for the seals too; on one occasion, Paul found himself getting a little too involved in the action when one of the seals hit him in the face, thinking he was a penguin. Luckily, his dedication to getting the photo despite the seals' interruption was worth it, capturing two beautiful emperor penguins energetically leaping out of the water onto the ice.
As well as winning the Behaviour: Birds category, Paul scooped the overall prize of 2012 Veolia Wildlife Photographer of the Year with his image 'Bubble-Jetting Emperors'. This was the image Paul had been waiting so long for; a sunlit bunch of emperor penguins making their way to the surface in a riot of bubbles and movement. To take the photo, Paul lowered himself into the water, locking his legs under the ice so he could remain motionless. Luck, timing and judgement all played a role in helping Paul get his sought-after image - with icy-cold hands and little time to think, he had to act quickly and use his instincts as a photographer to get the focus and framing spot-on. A well-deserving winner.
This memorable exhibition offers a window on some of our planet's most amazing natural wonders, and garners fascination and admiration from visitors of all ages - not only in terms of the nature itself, but also the talent, skill and technical abilities of the photographers who captured these wonderful wild moments.
Image credits: Turtle gem ©Jordi Chias Pujol (Spain), Fluff up ©John Marriott (Canada), Last wild picture ©Steve Winter (USA), Treading Water ©Charlie Hamilton James (UK).