Wednesday 16 October 2013

Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2013

The awards dinner for the Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2013 was held last night and Greg du Toit was named Wildlife Photographer of the Year for his image entitled 'Essence of Elephants' (below). The winning and commended images can be found here.

The winning image has grown on me (though if I'm honest I find the lighting a little odd) and I can see why it was chosen. Overall there are a number of quite impressive images, a number of OK images and a number that I don't really 'get'. But that's fine. Greg du Toit is a worthy winner, not least given his impressive back catalogue.

Over the years I have been a big fan of WPOTY and I have followed the competition closely since I was a teenager in the 1980s. I was lucky enough to have an image of my own Highly Commended in the 2010 competition. Of course I don't always agree with the judges' choices - why would I, it is obviously subjective -  but it has always contained a number of inspirational images.

However, last year I wrote a blogpost about the 2012 competition (here) in which I outlined my concern that the competition was becoming increasingly dominated by 'flagship' species. The vast majority of the winning images in last year's competition were polar bears, penguins, big cats and primates, with the occasional shark/whale thrown in for good measure. Last year, of the 70+ winning and commended images in the adult categories there was only one insect, a marked reduction compared to previous years.

Sadly, this year the competition has gone one step further. Not only is it again dominated by flagship species but this time there isn't a single insect. Literally, not one. Some may say that the competition has always been dominated by large mammals, and it has, but it has always included a selection of macro images of insects. For example, the 2010 competition was won by Bence Mate's image of Leafcutter Ants, and there were highly commended images of a Black Ant (my own), an Oil Beetle, migrating Monarch butterflies and possibly others.

Not only is it a little bizarre that the most numerous creatures on the planet don't feature at all in the world's premier wildlife photography competition 2 years running, but it also means that the competition is completely omitting a whole genre of wildlife photography. Macro photography has its own skills, techniques and equipment and it cannot be right for it to not be represented at all. Furthermore, insect behaviour surely has more scope for interesting and original images than, say, the behaviour of big cats or Polar Bears which, let's be honest, we've seen many times before.

To my mind there can only be 2 explanations for this recent neglect of insect images.

(1). There were not many insect images submitted and/or those that were submitted simply were not very good. This is difficult to believe given the vast number of macro photographers in the world and the vast number of high quality macro images regularly appearing in magazines, books, websites, forums etc. However, prior to 2011 the most suitable categories for insects was 'Behaviour: Other Animals'. That has now been changed to 'Behaviour: Cold Blooded Animals'. It's no longer obvious that this category refers to insects so it's quite possible that this is deterring photographers from submitting insect images as it appears that there is no obvious category for them.

(2). The judging panel are consciously or subconsciously rejecting insect images based on the subject matter alone. Why would they do this? Well, perhaps because they don't think the viewing public will want to come to see insect images, or perhaps because the judges themselves have no particular knowledge or experience of macro photography and hence have no appreciation of the skills required.

I suspect it's due to both (1) and (2) and to some extent these 2 explanations are obviously linked. The more it appears that insect images are being left out of the competition, the less likely photographers are to submit insect images.

Aside from the omission of insects, the dominance of flagship species troubles me. The vast majority of these species live in parts of the world where (most) photographers don't tend to live (Central Africa, Arctic, Antarctic, Amazon, etc). This obviously means that the competition is perpetuating the belief that to take wildlife images you have to travel to somewhere exotic. Aside from issues of carbon footprints, this also means that, frankly, the competition isn't representative of the world's wildlife photography. Why? Well it is surely true that the vast majority of wildlife images taken by wildlife photographers are not taken in such places. Think of the UK and think of the typical subjects chosen by UK photographers - Barn Owls, Kingfishers, small birds, seabirds, deer, Badgers, Foxes, butterflies, dragonflies etc etc. Think how many millions of images are taken each year of these subjects. And then think how many British photographers take images in exotic locations. Surely the former must dwarf the latter. Presumably that is true in most other countries too. So why is WPOTY so dominated by images of 'exotic' species?

As a final point, it can't be just me that feels that many of the images in recent years feel a bit 'samey' (not surprising really, given my comments above). But there may be a reason why some feel samey. That's because they really are very similar! I'm reluctant to single out individual images, but I do so only to make this point. These are all very nice images and I am in no way criticising them, but they do demonstrate the point I'm making quite well. Take the following 3 images from the 2010, 2012 and 2013 competitions.

WPOTY 2010 by Marcelo Krause

WPOTY 2012 by Luciano Candisani

WPOTY 2013 by Jordi Chias Pujol

They are a little similar are they not? And yet not a single insect image this year was deemed to have met this standard (a major component of which is originality).

Finally, does any of the above really matter? Well it does to me. I love the Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition and it rightly represents the pinnacle of the profession. I also love wildlife photography. But I also think wildlife photography should be representative of the vast array of species with whom we share this small planet. We should be showcasing all types of plants and creatures and celebrating the biodiversity that we have left. Perhaps more fundamentally, isn't there a risk that it could all get a bit boring if we keep seeing images of the same species?


I'm pleased to see that I'm not the only one raising these issues. See the following 2 blogs:

Doug Mackenzie Dodds

Richard Jones

Also, those who use Facebook may be interested to see some debate around this blogpost by many well known photographers. See here.

further edit:

The European Wildlife Photographer of the Year (EWPOTY) awards were announced on 25th October 2013 and the winning and commended images can be found here. The sheer variety of subjects and the level of creativity in the EWPOTY is notable. It's also worth pointing out that of the 10 winning and commended images in the 'Other Animals' category of EWPOTY (equivalent to the 'Cold Blooded Animals' category in WPOTY), no fewer than 8 images feature insects or other invertebrates. The contrast with WPOTY is therefore clear to see. I have to say that the vast majority of the images in EWPOTY are very impressive and, in my opinion, they are generally far more inspirational than those from WPOTY.


  1. A good point well made Matt. I think it is inevitable that 'flagships' will dominate given the audience that the overall body of work is aimed at. That said, your points are very valid and with advances in technology, there are undoubtedly photographers out there delivering invertebrate images well worthy of consideration.

  2. thanks for your comment Pete. I'm realistic enough to expect 'flagships' to dominate to an extent as this is what many members of the public expect to see when viewing the WPOTY exhibition. That said I would hope to see greater representation of non-flagship species than we currently have. However, I am a little uncomfortable to think that the panel of judges choose images with the public's preferences in mind. That does suggest that they're not necessarily choosing the best images but rather the images that they think the public might like best! :)

  3. I commented on Brett's post re this matter. I have not entered the comp for a number of years now but gonna have a go next year. So far whittled down to - Chacma baboon, porcupine, bontebok a crop of snakey pics. Also looking at baboons spider and some weird caterpillars. Hardly flagship species eh? But this goes beyon the competition. How often are people, most kids 'what is you favourite animal?' the answers are of course predictable. But when peop[le ask me that same Q? I reply 'whatever I'm looking at at the time'.

  4. Hi Matt
    I'd agree with Pete that there is an inevitability that 'flagship' species will continue to be chosen, but I too also have sympathy for the idea that some subject matter is under-represented. Personally I think the standard of the pictures is high again this year and that the 'best images' reside in each of the categories on merit. However, the competition is a commercial venture, with merchandising and branding considerations. While I'm not suggesting the judges are under pressure to consider commerciality, the mere act of judging 'the WPOTY competition' may invoke some sort of subconscious, osmotic response to choose images 'in keeping' with the brand.
    Whatever, the situation, I for one am glad the competition continues to showcase top drawer nature photography to a truly worldwide audience. I wish there were more advocates for the natural world (and nature photography) emulating the same success as WPOTY.

  5. Good luck Tony, I'm sure you've got a great back catalogue of herps.

  6. Hi Chris, Thanks for your comment. I think your statement "While I'm not suggesting the judges are under pressure to consider commerciality, the mere act of judging 'the WPOTY competition' may invoke some sort of subconscious, osmotic response to choose images 'in keeping' with the brand." probably sums up the situation nicely. My concern is that this may have happened to a greater degree over the last 2 years than previously. I do agree with your final paragraph. Nice to hear from you by the way, I hope you're keeping well.

  7. Thanks Matt. I have just put on Richard's blog tht I will have a go at the amazing spider-hunting wasp. usually goes for rain spiders but I also see them often with baboon spiders. Also maybe do something creative with the thousands of lappet moth caterpillars that swarm on the milkwood trees here. Are you allowed to crop images for WPOTY? I think that my Nikon D800 is made for such.

  8. Sounds good Tony. I believe moderate cropping is allowed.

  9. Have to agree Matt with all you said, because it looks to me that someone could take the most striking world winning image of wildlife in say the UK, although it would be technically excellent, dramatic, stunning, fresh approach etc but it won't be exotic or big enough to win because it is British Wildlife. Maybe there should be separate sections for images from Europe, Asia, Africa, USA, etc and only one winner from each going to a knock out final

  10. I have to agree with every word written here, Matt. I have noticed this not only in WPOTY but also in other photo contests, for example NZ Photographer of the Year - somewhat less prestigious, but I think there are almost no records of winning photographs showing small critters.
    The interesting thing is that some amazingly photogenic arthropods are found not only in exotic places but also in human-dominated places. It's all about learning to look. I feel that photo competitions' judges choose to ignore this fascinating part of biodiversity.

  11. Well written, as you say, it's subjective. But at the same time, I'm surprised at there being no insects. I recall one recent year though, I don't remember which one, where none of Africa's big five were represented. None. That's quite a turnaround.

  12. Thanks for the further comments.

  13. "Cherching, cherching...." Its no longer about the photo, its "the brand!" Summed up nicely by Chris above.

  14. Hi Matt
    I agree with the point your making. The competition is really good but I do think there is room for an insect category.
    I did notice the picture titled ‘smile’ of a parrot fish in the EWPOTY is almost identical to a David Doubilet’s picture of the same subject. It goes to show that with so many photographer there will always be similar images being produced.

  15. thanks Liam and, yes, you're right about the 2 parrot fish images. They really are very similar.

  16. I agree with everything you say, Matt. Honestly, if I see yet another shot of a big cat, well then so help me God. I'd also have to agree that the EWPOTY has generally more inspiring images than the WPOTY. Having said that, from the images I've seen for the People's Choice award for 2014, then I think WPOTY may be back on track. My favourite, ironically, is the open mouth of a crocodile, but shot in a very original and striking way (with a butterfly hanging off a tooth), which as you say, has been sadly lacking on the whole.