Bird photography is full of small, fast-moving creatures that make challenging photo subjects—but that didn’t deter nearly 8,000 photographers who entered their work into the ninth annual Audubon Photography Awards.
“Bird photography has become so popular and stunning photos are all over the place.” says Melissa Groo, a wildlife photographer who helped judge this year’s competition. “As judges, we are looking for something really special—behavior we’ve never or rarely seen before, or a special pose that highlights the beauty or uniqueness of a bird. It doesn’t have to be an exotic bird to be exciting.”
Steve Mattheis of Jackson Hole took home the top award for his image of a gray owl about to take flight.
The increasing popularity of this genre of photography has made organizations like Audubon more important. Photographers entering the contest needed to adhere to Audubon’s Guide to Ethical Bird Photography. Groo, who helped write the Guide, says it’s not unusual for some wildlife photographers to attempt to cut corners to get a shot: encroaching on a bird’s comfort zone, cutting branches away from around a nest and baiting owls with pet store mice will get you disqualified. “Nature photography should seek to leave as little a footprint as possible and to respect the welfare of birds above all else,” she says. “Birds are under threat as never before, losing habitat all the time, and facing many other human-caused challenges.”
Ultimately, bird photography requires the same kind of time and research that other genres of photography require. “It really takes an understanding of the natural history of your subject to be able to know where to find it and what to expect,” Groo says. “It takes being prepared to put the time in, there will always be the lucky shot that didn’t require a big time investment, but the best photos come about because someone has really stuck with their subject; that’s the best way to up your chance of capturing a really special moment”
See some of our favorites from the Top 100 in the gallery below.