The results of this year’s Wildlife Photographer of the Year have been announced. Congratulations to Laurent Ballesta who, for a second time, has taken home the main title prize. Plus, Carmel Bechler has won the Young Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2023 award. Amy Davies spoke to some of the winners to find out more about their stunning pictures
It’s always a huge treat to take a look at the winning and highly commended images from Wildlife Photographer of the Year, and 2023’s selection is no different.
Over the years, there’s been a noticeable shift away from what you might call “classic” wildlife photography, towards more artistic representations of certain subjects, as well as journalistic approaches.
More than 100 extraordinary photographs will be displayed at the exhibition in London which runs at the Natural History Museum until 30 June 2024. After it completes its run in London, it will travel across the UK and internationally. A book, Wildlife Photographer of the Year Portfolio 33, edited by Rosamund Kidman Cox and with a foreword by Kathy Moran (chair of the judging panel), is also available to buy now (RRP £28) if you can’t make it to the exhibition yourself.
This year, there were an incredible 49,957 entries from photographers of all ages and experience levels from 95 different countries. An international panel of experts judged the images anonymously, looking for evidence of creativity, originality and technical excellence.
The winners of each category, along with the overall Grand Title and Young Grand Title Awards were announced on 10 October at a ceremony hosted by wildlife TV presenters and conservationists Chris Packham and Megan McCubbin.
If you’ve been inspired by this year’s winners, the next installment of the competition – its 60th anniversary – is now open for entries. You’ve got until 11.30am GMT on Thursday 7 December to submit your work.
Winner, Portfolio Award and Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2023
The ancient mariner by Laurent Ballesta, France
Technical details: Nikon D5 + 13mm f2.8 lens; 1/25 at f22; ISO 800; Seacam housing; 2x Seacam strobes
Photographed in the waters off Pangatalan Island in the Philippines, this intriguing image shows a tri-spine horseshoe crab, with a trio of juvenile golden trevallies poised ready to dart down for edible morsels ploughed up by the crab’s passage.
Marine biologist and photographer Laurent Ballesta has spent his working life dedicated to exploring the oceans. It’s paid off as this is now the second time he has taken home the grand title of Wildlife Photographer of the Year. He was first awarded Wildlife Photographer of the Year in 2021 for his intriguing image of camouflage groupers exiting a milky cloud of eggs and sperm in Fakarava, French Polynesia.
He humbly acknowledges that his success is not just his alone. He told me, “I am very happy, mainly for my team, because I have guys supporting me and working hard, sometimes taking risks, very often being cold and exhausted during these dives to make the best out of the shots. This award is a tribute to the beautiful places I was lucky to visit and explore.”
“Honestly, I can’t tell you how happy I am to receive this award and be recognised by people who have inspired me since I was a teenager! During the first two decades of my career, I didn’t dare to enter this prestigious competition. I don’t know why. On one hand, I regret it because it could have been motivating and an opportunity to meet and make myself known to serious professional media. On the other hand, I’m happy that I waited this long, since together with my best friend and studies colleague, we were able to build our own company: Andromède Oceanology, which has 15 employees (all divers and biologists) and has provided me with the opportunity to lead real explorations.”
Speaking about the images in his portfolio, Laurent says, “photography takes a new dimension in Pangatalan. Usually, it’s a question of enhancing reality: making what is wonderful more beautiful, making what is disastrous more dramatic. It’s different here – everything must be nuanced to illustrate hope, to look for signs and the symbols of a possible renewal. For most of the Portfolio images, it was hard to find the right moment to take the shot. The water is muddy and makes it difficult to find horseshoe crabs. I had to do them again and again and again – because when it becomes too muddy, you have to be very patient and wait for a very long time for the mud to come down.”
Laurent’s top photography tips:
- Don’t try to make images that are better than those made by other photographers.
- Have a passion for your photography – don’t only pursue it for career purposes.
Young Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2023
Owls’ road house by Carmel Bechler, Israel
Seventeen-year-old Carmel Bechler from Israel was awarded Young Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2023 for his ‘Owls’ road house’, a dynamic frame of barn owls in an abandoned roadside building. Using the family car as hide, Carmel made the most of natural light and long exposure times to capture the light trails of passing traffic.
Carmel was just 11 years old when he began wildlife photography, and this is his first award in the annual competition. ‘I hope to share with my photography that the beauty of the natural world is all around us, even in places where we least expect it to be, we just need to open our eyes and our minds,’ says Carmel.
Winner, Photojournalist Story Award
The unprotected by Karine Aigner, USA
Technical details: Sony RX1R II + 35mm f2 lens; 1/40 at f8; ISO 1600
For this portfolio, award-winning photojournalist Karine Aigner explored the sad reality of hunting competitions. In this shot, we can see contestants lining up to have their bobcats weighed in the March 2022 West Texas Big Bobcat Contest, which is the highest paying predator-hunting contest in the USA. The heaviest bobcat prize is US $35,530 (around £28,000.)
This is obviously a fraught and highly sensitive subject, which needed to be approached with care. As Karine explains, “There were many challenges with my story. Access and trust being the top two issues. The topic is very controversial, and has very opposing sides, and is completely legal. I overcame some of the issues by being honest – and documenting what I was shown, and having no judgements.
“It’s an extremely satisfying feeling winning at WPY. Having colleagues, photo editors and media actually see the work you’re doing. Some stories, especially ones that are “hard” to look at, on difficult topics, sometimes get no press, because publications only want “positive” stories. But what is going on in the world, especially the natural world, is not always positive. But it doesn’t mean those stories should be ignored. When you do well in WPY, it gets a whole different set of eyes on them – which feels good, and hopefully creates a larger awareness of the issues.”
Karine’s top photography tips
- Share your work with editors and colleagues that are willing to be honest with you. Do not ask your family which images you should choose to enter a competition.
- Grow a backbone. A competition is not personal. The winners are a product of the opinion of a set of judges. If you don’t win, take a good hard look at your images, and try again.
Winner, Animals in their Environment
Life on the Edge by Amit Eshel, Israel
Technical details: Canon EOS R5 + 24–70mm f2.8 lens at 45mm; 1/800 at f8; ISO 500
This dramatic clash between two Nubian ibex was captured after Amit hiked to an excellent vantage point on the clifftop. The battle lasted for about 15 minutes before one of the males surrendered, without serious injury.
Amit is clearly thrilled by his win, “Having my work recognised at this level is something I have always dreamed about since I started practicing wildlife photography seriously,” he says. “I never knew if I would be able to fulfil this dream. I was notified in March about my success in this year’s contest and it brought me to tears – keeping it as a secret for such a long time was one of the hardest things I have ever done.”
Part of a long-term project about the Nubian ibex, Amit has photographed the animals across different seasons and locations to tell the story of the species. “I was very excited when I spotted these adult males just after sunrise on the cliff above me as they started battling. I wanted to include the Zin valley and the mountains in the image, so I knew I had to hike up and position myself above them. Getting close enough to the Ibex in order to effectively use a wide lens is key for achieving such an image – especially while also making sure not to interfere with their natural behaviour.”
Amit’s top photography tips
- Don’t think about winning photo contests – enjoy the creative process and the time spent in nature.
- It’s fine to look at previous years’ winning images for inspiration, but don’t use it as a guideline on what to enter – the judges are looking for a fresh and creative approach.
- It does not matter if the image was taken in your backyard or in the remotest corner of the world, a good image speaks for itself.
Winner, Behaviour: Mammals
Whales making waves by Bertie Gregory, UK
Technical details: DJI Mavic 2 Pro + Hasselblad L1D-20c + 28mm f2.8 lens; 1/120 at f4; ISO 10
Bertie was fortunate enough to embark on a two month-long expedition searching for orcas. This group specialises in hunting seals by charging towards the ice, creating a wave that washes the seal into the water. This kind of behaviour is under threat from climate change, as seals are spending more time on land as the ice floes melt. It’s estimated that there are just 100 of these particular killer whales in existence, with estimaets suggesting their population is declined by 5% per year.
“These particular killer whales love ice as this is where their seal prey is found,” explains Bertie. “Boats don’t like ice so keeping up with them was a real challenge. It required a huge amount of teamwork between the boat’s captain as he weaved through the ice, his deckhands helping to spot obstacles, our onboard killer whale scientists Leigh Hickmott keeping track of the killer whales and predicting their behaviour, and because I was in the air with the drone, I could also recommend the best route for the boat through the ice and keep and eye on the killer whales if we started to lag behind them.”
This is the first time Bertie has won an award at WPY, having been entering the competition since he was 15 – a testament to persistence and perseverance paying off. He’s incredibly passionate about wildlife photography, “It has the power to stop people in their tracks and take notice. I think images are best when they’re immediately striking but then the more you look at them, the more they reveal.”
Bertie’s top tips
- Think about originality. Has the animal been photographed before? If yes, how can you make your image unique?
- In my case I had an unfair advantage as these killer whales are very rare, but, even if your subject has been photographed before, try a unique angle – such as with a remotely controlled camera – or think about context, where the animal is found in a surprising location.
Hippo Nursery by Mike Korostelev, Russia
Technical details: Canon EOS 5D Mark III + 17–40mm f4 lens; 1/320 at f7.1; ISO 640; Seacam housing
Here we have another photographer who shows that patience is a virtue. Mike has been visiting the hippos in this lake in South Africa for over two years, helping them to get accustomed to his boat. Amazingly, he spent just 20 seconds underwater with them – just enough time to get this beautiful photograph from a safe distance and to avoid alarming the mother.
As hippos only produce one calf every two to three years, they have a slow-growing population which is vulnerable to habitat degradation, drought and illegal hunting for meat and ivory.
Although Mike has won several other wildlife photography contests, he says that WPY has a special meaning for him. “It was always my dream – it’s like the Oscars of wildlife photography so I’m extremely happy that this year I crossed the finish line first after ten years of trying.”
Explaining some of the challenges of capturing this shot, he says, “This animal has a reputation as one of the most dangerous animals in Africa. Before I went into the water to them for the first time I put in hours of preparation, research and watching them – working with the same group every day. Only after a year when I was almost sure that it was safe did I dive to them. I swam slowly with my mask, fins and my camera in my hands. My heart was beating so fast because it felt like I was first in the water with hippos – like Yuri Gargarin in space or Neil Armstrong on the moon! I just knew that if I got some shots, I’d be coming to London next year (for WPY).”
Mike’s top tips
- Be a perfectionist. Don’t be satisfied by your first couple of good shots – you can do more, and do better. Think to yourself – could this photo be a winner of WPY? If not, you must continue.
- Respect the place where you work and the animals. Think about how your photos can protect them – and of course, don’t disturb them. Remember that their life and safety are more important than your photos.
Winner, Natural Artistry
The art of courtship by Rachel Bigsby, UK
Technical details: Nikon D850 + Sigma 60–600mm f4.5–6.3 lens; 1/1600 at f11; ISO 5000
This pair of gannets are framed against the guano-painted curves of sandstone cliffs in Shetland, Scotland. Each summer, the Isle of Noss hosts more than 22,000 northern gannets – the species was hit hard by the 2022 avian flu outbreak.
Rachel says, “As our boat chugged toward the island, I was quick to see potential, but I realised my vision would be tricky abord a small boat in turbulent sea swell, handholding a heavy telephoto lens. I wanted a courting pair, but among the 22,000, I couldn’t find one. Then, I spotted the perfect pair, isolated on a lower ledge, intertwining their necks and framed meticulously by the streaks of guano. Concentration was key, as well as a fast shutter speed to capture sharp images while moving with each wave. In a few seconds, the boat aligned with the rocks and everything came together.”
As a young photographer, Rachel is extremely pleased to have done so well at this year’s competition. “As a 26-year old self-taught photographer, I feel speechless to be a winner in such a prestigious competition so early on in my career. I also feel very grateful for the opportunity to showcase the Northern Gannet to the world.”
Rachel’s top tips
- Understanding the behaviour of your subject and the logistics of your location before you photograph is one of the greatest advantages you can give yourself – by doing this, you can better predict when the opportune moment will occur.
- Sometimes it takes experience, but other times you can take advantage of local knowledge and apps to understand where you should be situated and at what time.
- A strong caption can go a long way in enhancing the story that surrounds your image and draw judges in.
Winner, Animal Portraits
Face of the Forest by Vishnu Gopal, India
Technical details: Nikon D850 + 14–24mm f2.8 lens at 14mm; 1/30 at f6.3; ISO 1600; torch
This subtle image reveals the moment that a lowland tapir steps cautiously out of the swampy Brazilian rainforest.
The tapir is threatened by habitat loss, illegal hunting and traffic collisions – they rely on the forest for their diet of fruit and other vegetation.
Finding a tapir to photograph wasn’t easy, as Vishnu explains. “Fortunately, luck was on my side, as an individual tapir showed up to the forest edge near my campsite. Technically, the big challenge was the lighting conditions. The available illumination was inadequate so I used a warm and non-pointed torchlight, with my travel companion operating it. Since my goal was to get up close using a wide-angle lens, I had to exercise patience and move cautiously.”
Visnu believes that the success of the image is important not just to him personally, but the species itself. “It’s absolutely incredible to do well in this competition, and it also highlights the beauty of wildlife and the importance of conservation. This is truly inspiring and pushing me to do more.”
Vishnu’s top tips:
- My mentor often said that luck smiles on those who keep trying. He advised me to spend more time in nature to take better pictures – it’s something you can’t gain from anywhere else.
- Instead of rushing to take a photo, value your time and enjoy your moments in the wild.
Winner, Behaviour: Amphibians and Reptiles
The tadpole banquet by Juan Jesús Gonzalez Ahumada, Spain
Technical details: Canon EOS R6 + 100mm f2.8 lens; 1/80 at f5.6; ISO 320; ring flash
Toad tadpoles feast on a dead fledgling sparrow in this striking image. It was taken close to Juan’s home – showing you don’t necessarily need to travel to far-flung locations to get a winning shot.
Juan admits there was some luck involved too. He says, “At first, I didn’t know what I was looking at, I just saw a dark shadow floating on the water. When I got closer and discovered what was happening, I was impressed. To get the desired result, I had to wait patiently on the edge of the irrigation pond, leaning with my elbows on the wall – it was uncomfortable. Because the body of the inert brd and all the larvae around it were moving slowly in circles in unison, I needed the lifeless eye of the bird to be visible, which contrasted with the life transmitted by the tadpoles feeding on it. The most important thing was not to touch the water because this formation of tadpoles could break and therefore this unique moment could be lost. To compensate for the harsh early summer light, I used a ring flash to give more texture in the dark areas.”
Juan’s top tips
- Perseverance and determination is absolutely necessary to improve your photographic work.
- Face new challenges, don’t stay stuck in what you already know or do – try new techniques and learn how to make the most of them
- Have good knowledge of the animal species that you want to photograph – their habits, activity schedules, and behaviour in general.
Wildlife Photographer of the Year 59 exhibition
- Opens Friday 13 October 2023 and closes Sunday 30 June 2024.
- The exhibition is open Monday – Sunday, 10.00-17.50 (last admission at 16.30), and weekends sell out quickly.
- Adult tickets from £17.50*, concession tickets £14.00*, and child £10.50*. Off-peak Ault tickets from £15.00, off-peak concession ticket £12.00, and off-peak child ticket £9.00 (*Prices excluding optional Gift Aid donation to the Museum.)
- Get behind the lens of some of the world’s best wildlife photographers with a new Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition tour: www.nhm.ac.uk/events/wildlife-photographer-of-the-yeartour
- Book your tickets: www.nhm.ac.uk/visit/exhibitions/wildlife-photographer-of-the-year
Wildlife Photographer of the Year 60 competition
- Opens for entries on Monday 16 October 2023.
- Closing for entries at 11.30am GMT on Thursday 7 December 2023.
- Entrants to the adult competition may enter up to 25 images for a £30 fee, which increases to £35 in the final week of the entry period from 11.30am GMT 30 November to 11.30am GMT 7 December 2023.
- An entry fee waiver has been introduced for photographers entering the adult competition who live in Africa, Southeast Asia and Central and South America.
- Entrants aged 17 and under may enter up to 10 images for free.
- Find out how to enter: www.nhm.ac.uk/wpy/competition
Wildlife Photographer of the Year is developed and produced by the Natural History Museum, London. For more information on both the exhibition and the competition, visit nhm.ac.uk/wpy/competition