How to win Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Essential advice - and insider tips on how to win - for anyone considering entering the Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition.  

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Welcome to Wildlife Photographer of the Year. I’m delighted you are considering taking part this year. My aim here is to introduce the competition and, with a few suggestions and insider tips, help you to win!

Don’t be put off entering by the increasingly high standard of winning entries every year. It’s not just professionals who are successful – amateurs of all ages have won awards in the competition numerous times in the past. In fact, in recent years, the judges have been particularly impressed by the standard of images being produced by many youngsters. There are some truly outstanding up-and-coming photographers who’ll undoubtedly keep well-established pros and experienced adults on their toes for years to come.

2008 was another record-breaking year for the competition, with no fewer than 32,351 entries from a phenomenal 82 different countries. Ninety-six per cent of the entries were digital. The overall standard was extremely high and the range of subjects, locations and styles astonishing, with a lot of photographers tackling increasingly difficult subjects or shooting familiar ones in more imaginative ways. With the bar being raised each year, and the revision of several category definitions, the 2009 competition promises to be even bigger and more inspiring than ever before.
So how is it judged?
Not surprisingly, the judges find the selection process more and more challenging. We often joke that we’d like to be able to award two or three times as many prizes to make our decisions a little easier. The core of the judging panel changes each year and consists of an assortment of people from all over the world linked with wildlife and/or photography: professional photographers, photographic agents, magazine editors and designers among them.
Our challenge is to scrutinize every entry and select the best. We spend many days sitting in a darkened room, staring at a big screen, examining one picture after another. The no-hopers are removed fairly quickly, but high-quality shots are often discussed at great length.
Sometimes there are arguments, simply because judging a photographic competition isn’t a precise science. If the decisive factor was merely technical perfection, it would be better judged by a computer. But it’s much more than that. It is as much about art and, as such, is emotional and subjective. Fortunately, our disagreements are always in good spirit – it’s just that everyone feels so passionately about the subject.
It’s the same when you visit one of the Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibitions. Try eavesdropping on a few conversations. As people scrutinise the winning images, I bet they’ll be bowled over by some and confused by others. Most of all, they will disagree about which ones are the best. But that’s precisely what makes this competition so much fun.
Incidentally, the judges have no idea who took the pictures they are judging. That’s a well-kept secret. Everyone on the panel signs a declaration of silence and has to wait with everyone else to find out who took the winning shots. It seems like a long wait – usually about five months before the winners are formally announced to the public.
So how do I win?

While there is no magic formula for winning and no hard and fast rules to explain why one photograph wins and another doesn’t, there are ways of getting your pictures noticed.
The good news is that the vast majority of those 32,351 entries stand little chance of winning. The bad news is that your favourite pictures are probably among them. I’m not being horrible. I’m not saying your pictures are unsharp, badly exposed, poorly composed or just plain boring. No doubt they are perfectly respectable shots. But it’s a fact that if you have been entering the competition and haven’t yet won, you are among the many entries that didn’t jump out from the crowd and slap the judges in the face.
The trick is to include one key ingredient – something that is common to almost all the winning shots: originality. The judges are looking for something that stops them in their tracks. Imagine you are a judge looking at thousands upon thousands of photographs. Many of them are technically flawless - well exposed, perfectly sharp and pleasantly composed – and, after a while, you take these key ingredients for granted. You become desperate for something really creative, fresh and surprising to leap out from the screen. The pictures that do leap out tend to be the ones that win.
Therefore, it’s not what you photograph, it’s (in the words of Ella Fitzgerald) the way that you do it. In other words, despite many people’s fears, pictures of common and familiar species close to home stand just as much chance of winning as pictures of more exotic, rare and unfamiliar ones. In fact, I would go so far as to argue that they stand a better chance, simply because common and familiar species tend to be taken for granted and are rarely photographed properly, so there is more opportunity to surprise.
Popular subjects, such as lions, polar bears and elephants, demand extra effort. That doesn’t mean to say you can’t come up with something new (just look at Polar Sunrise, the 2008 Creative Visions of Nature winner) but you do have to think laterally and use every ounce of your imagination. Anything too obvious or unoriginal will have been done before and probably by hordes of others. 


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