How Award-Winning Wildlife Photographers Get Their Pictures

studying subjects and learning behaviors can make for award-winning shots

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

London’s Natural History Museum announced its 2019 list of winners for Wildlife Photographer of the Year, USA Today reported. The beautiful pictures exhibit an eclectic view of nature the world over. Here’s how they did it.

Wildlife photographer out in the field with camera and ghillie suit
Award-winning images of wildlife are photographed by highly skilled wildlife photographers. Photo by aaltair / Shutterstock

A Monterey cypress tree in California, a startled marmot in China, and a bigfin reef squid in Indonesia highlight some of the colorful natural wonders that were awarded first prize in the 2019 Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition, which is sponsored annually by London’s Natural History Museum. Shutterbugs around the world submitted their best snapshots of landscapes and wildlife, which were narrowed down by museum staff to a short list of winning photographs in various categories. A colony of garden eels standing on the ocean floor took the prize for the best underwater shot while a distant overhead shot of an erupting Hawaiian volcano won in the category of “Earth’s Environments.” Wildlife photography is a challenging hobby, but it can be incredibly rewarding as well, if you start off on the right foot.

Patience and Storytelling

“Successful wildlife photography requires a lot of commitment,” said Dr. Tim Laman, Research Associate in Ornithology at Harvard University’s Museum of Comparative Zoology. “It requires passion for your subject, and some might say, a bit of obsession and often a lot of patience. When I tell people what I do, they often comment on the patience that must be required to sit in a blind for hours, even a whole day, waiting for something to happen.”

“I ask them in return if they’ve ever sat at a desk in front of a computer for a whole day.”

Dr. Laman said that his first big break came in photographing rhinoceros hornbills for National Geographic in 1997, in Borneo. Having a passion for his subject—”they’re the biggest, most colorful, flashiest birds of the Southeast Asian rainforests,” he said—helped tremendously. So did an element of storytelling that comes with wildlife photography.

“For this hornbill story, I wanted to cover other aspects besides just feeding in fig trees, which is a good way to get started,” Dr. Laman said. “For storytelling, having visual variety is really important. For example, capturing the wildlife in the environment where maybe the bird is rather small in the frame, but it sets the scene—that kind of shot is really important to storytelling. It really takes you there to the place.”

Capturing Action and Behavior Shots

According to Dr. Laman, capturing action and behavioral shots can really help bring a story to life.

“This can include feeding and all kinds of behavior, but for birds, adding flight shots really pumps up the energy of your story,” he said. “For something like a hornbill in the rainforest, it’s not easy to track the bird flying through trees and get it in focus. The way I approach it is to find a spot where the bird’s coming and going—either from a fruiting tree or a nest.”

Dr. Laman pointed out that birds are creatures of habit, and will, therefore, fly on a similar route multiple times when traveling between two points. When he was working on his hornbill story, knowing that allowed him to get the type of shot photographers—and magazines—dream of.

“By studying that over a couple days, I knew that he was going to pass through this gap with a nice, clean, distant background as he flew away from the tree in his typical direction that he went,” Dr. Laman said. “I pre-focused in that spot so I could just track him, and when he came through that gap, fire[d] away.”

“Great pictures can be made, and are being made, by people daily with every type of camera from phone cameras to point-and-shoots and on up. The most important tool for photography is not your camera, but your eye, your vision, your mind.”

Dr. Tim Laman contributed to this article. Dr. Laman is a contributing photographer for National Geographic magazine and a research associate in ornithology at Harvard University’s Museum of Comparative Zoology. He received his Ph.D. from Harvard University and has been a regular contributor to National Geographic since 1997.