Fifty years ago, a wildlife photography competition hosted by the Natural History Museum, London was a novelty. A wide variety of contests now offer prizes for underwater and close-up specialists, photojournalists, scientists and amateurs alike

In such a competitive environment (and with new technology emerging all the time) what can make or break a wildlife photo? Judges agree there is no single formula, but there are some key things to consider.

So we’ve asked some experts to share their secrets.

Make an emotional connection

Lewis Blackwell managed the judges who picked the winners from over 42,000 entries for Wildlife Photographer of the Year (WPY) 2015. “A great photograph is one of the most immediate, emotionally connecting ways of getting people to think about a subject,” he says.

Humans value eye contact, so being able to come face-to-face with an animal satisfies that need. Likewise, portraying a relationship between subjects, such as predator and prey or mother and child, can draw the viewer in to the animals’ world. WPY Commended young photographer Carlos Perez Naval’s image of a squirrel squaring up to the sharp beak of a gull for a drink of water is a strong example.

 

Photographs tell engaging stories by relating to the experiences of the audience. The best photographs can reveal a whole narrative just through their composition. The way elements appear within the frame can illustrate balances of power, family ties or sexual tension.

Our visual perception is powerfully linked to our emotions. Through clever use of colour and lighting, photographers can suggest a mood that provokes a response in the viewer.

“In my own photography… I try to show the world how I feel and try to make images that look at the world through my eyes rather than taking images that just show it as it is,” says photographer and competition judge Sandra Bartocha.

“I want to find interesting and beautiful images which are able to convey a mood or just show a moment of awe.”

 

The art of balancing composition and contrast

Our vision is very complex, but one key element is contrast. Scientists studying visual perception at the University of Essex have found that as many as 20% of people are averse to repeated, irregular patterns of high contrast. This has been linked to our latent recognition of dangerous animals.

Photographers can use lighting and focus techniques to soften high contrasts, or purposefully incorporate them to create an eye-catching image. Thomas P Peschak, a finalist in the WPY photojournalist category, employs some of this shock tactic in his photograph of a shark and surfer in silhouette.

Like Sandra, many judges are experienced photographers themselves, so they can see the skill in how an image was achieved. She lists “balanced composition, great lighting, a unique moment and perfect technical quality” as her essentials.

Specialists are relied upon to understand the particular challenges the photographers have surmounted to get the perfect shot and the species they have featured. For example, underwater photographer Alex Mustard lent his expertise to the panel after snapping success last year with his image of a sea slug.

“Lighting is probably the biggest challenge in underwater photography. First: light underwater has a different feeling to light on land and great photos capture this. Second: artificial light from flashes is needed to restore the true colours underwater. Talented photographers have the ability to add colour in a natural way, so the subject can be enjoyed in full colour by the viewer without the lighting feeling artificial,” he says.

Learn from the winners

To reflect the broad audience for wildlife photography, judges can also come from non-technical backgrounds. As a former journalist and once worldwide creative director of Getty Images, Lewis says his experience means he is “more concerned about the originality of the technique and the clarity of the communication.”

He suggests that paying attention to the work of your peers can pay dividends: “As judges, we make a point of looking at previous winners and working hard not to choose pictures that are too close to what has gone before. We want to reward photographers who have added to our knowledge of wildlife and who have pushed the boundary a little of what photography can do.”

The challenge of originality and the rewards of patience

Experts like Sandra, Alex and Lewis have years of experience in the field so above all, the key to getting their attention is to show them something they’ve never seen before.

Digital photography has in many ways made it easier to record rarities. There’s even an annual competition dedicated to camera trap photography, rewarding scientists and conservationists that capture images of elusive creatures in remote locations.

But at the same time, the proliferation of technology and our eagerness to record the natural world also means discoveries are now few and far between. With many species sadly in decline, capturing something new on camera is possibly more of a challenge than ever.

 

Photographing unusual spectacles or insightful behaviour can be a more realistic proposition but it takes dedication. This is why wildlife photographers are famed for their patience. Alex advises how to endure the long hours: “Shoot subjects that you love, you are much more likely to be inspired to create something really special. Work close to home as time with the subject is much more important than fancy camera gear.”

Of course, there’s an element of luck involved – you have to be in just the right place at the right time to shoot that weasel riding on the back of a woodpecker. But building a familiarity with your subject, or your local patch, will reap rewards.

Create a lasting impression

Beyond that, a wider awareness of what’s happening in the world, the big environmental issues being discussed and conservation concerns is essential to communicate a unique message.

 

Don Gutoski’s winning image is more than just a good photograph of two foxes, it is a stark reminder of the progress of climate change. Providing a fresh perspective on a topic of change or conflict will keep viewers thinking long after they’ve seen an image. For Lewis, that is the driving force behind wildlife photography.

“With the audience that Wildlife Photographer of the Year attracts, we have a wonderful opportunity and great responsibility to share stories about wildlife, stories that both celebrate and also raise concern around conservation issues.”

The next Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition opens on 4 January and closes 25 February 2016.