NBPA 2015 Landscape Category Winner Mark Dumbleton reports back on his Masai Mara photographic experience.

Masai Mara 17 Aug-24 Sept_2015_08234-Edit-2b

I’m sitting in the beautiful bar and guest area at Kichwa Tembo Tented Camp in the Masai Mara, reminiscing about the photo safari with CNP.

Throughout the trip, I took over 6500 images over 6 nights and captured some amazing photographs and had some amazing experiences. The scene that stands out in my mind the most from the trip was my last afternoon in the Mara – sitting with the male Lion called “Scar” only a few meters away, with his pride behind him and thousands of Wildebeest and Zebra running between the Lions.

Storms clouds covered extensive areas of the sky, which added the drama to this magnificent display of the essence of the Mara. Apart from the wonderful photographs I captured, it was a wildlife spectacle I will never forget.

My trip to the Mara was a prize I won by winning the Natures Best Africa Landscape category with a photograph of the Blyde River Canyon called “Canyon Aloes”. The prize was sponsored by CNP, &Beyond and many more. What a privilege it was to win the prize, and upon hearing that I won, I could’t wait to get back to the Masai Mara and witness the Great Migration.

The photographic experience was one to remember. The way drives and tuition sessions were conducted by the CNP members was professional, and the customised vehicles CNP have makes photographing with big lenses a real breeze. The CNP guides were always on hand to help with any questions the clients had, and really helped us all in establishing great workflow when importing and working on our images.

The Kichwa Tembo Tented Camp was one of the nicest lodges I have ever stayed in, with the friendliest and most helpful staff around. The tented room was magnificent and highly recommended. Our drivers were outstanding, their knowledge of the wildlife and the Mara triangle helped us in deciding on which routes to take which most of the times was the perfect choice.

But it was the essence of the wildlife and landscape I was in the Mara for. I have been to the Masai Mara 3 times prior to this trip, and the experience is very different every time. This 4th trip was very special to me, experiencing the struggle for life and death in the Mara in ways I have never seen before.

I really do feel that the Nature’s Best Africa is a wonderful competition, and I am so proud to have been part of the 2015 competition. To offer the winners a trip to the Masai Mara is incredible – an incredible way to allow the winners a chance to further enhance their portfolios with the magic of the Masai Mara. Apart from paying for my flights, everything else was taken care of. Now that is a prize I have yet to see any other competition match!

Well done Nature’s Best Africa! And thank you for an amazing experience in the Masai Mara! I cannot wait to get home to work on some images!

- Mark Dumbleton

Finding the Winners

What are the contemporary criteria of merit that determine the ultimate, differentiating degrees of excellence among the very best images of the genre?

In other words, what makes a good wildlife photograph in 2015?

In other words, what are the contemporary criteria of merit that determine the ultimate, differentiating degrees of excellence among the very best images of the genre?

For more than a year now, the answer to this question has engaged my mind. In fact, finding that answer has become something of an obsession. It has driven me to do intense research and canvas dozens of opinions from sources both professional or merely sincere. It has also provoked numerous dialogues, some of them robust to a point that challenges the boundaries of friendship and decorum.

Inevitably, my search led me to the conundrum of whether wildlife photography is a genre of the purely documentary, or whether it embraces the less tangible realms of art.

Although I have addressed the question as a topic in the wildlife workshops I have presented both locally and internationally, a recent event has persuaded me that wildlife photography is a genre in a measure of identity crisis. The Natural History Museum in London screened an audio visual presentation featuring the winners in the Museum’s and the BBC’s competition over the past fifty years.

Suddenly it was no longer clear what precisely defined good wildlife photography.  This raises the question: Will it ever be possible to engineer absolute standards of adjudication with an empirical result that is totally unconstrained by subjective response?

Secondly: Will two completely different panels operating five years apart be able to apply identical criteria of judgement? Probably not in this lifetime! And more especially so, since the people receiving the critiques and verdicts on their creations are, in themselves, not robots. After all, individual egos and passions are fragile commodities. They can easily denounce reality to seek refuge in fantasy. So, it is unlikely that any panel of judges will be able to satisfy all the people all of the time.

Influencing factors in the debate on relative merit are several. The advent of digital photography has undoubtedly changed perceptions of merit in international competitions. Yet, strangely enough, some images that had been perceived as inferior prior to the advent of the digital era, have now earned new acclaim.

Simultaneously, it is accepted that the improved dynamic range and higher ISO thresholds of state-of-the-art digital sensors raised the bar of achievement to heights previously unimaginable.

Add to the mix the fact that the world’s growing environmental and conservation conscience attributed elements of merit to images that might previously have been treated with indifference. A strong conservation message evidently improves a photograph. Then, the use of new tools such as remote controlled or beam-triggered shutter-release mechanisms, can provoke new admiration.

Shunting cameras around on remote-controlled buggies or strapping them on to drones for bird’s-eye views of wildlife scenarios understandably tantalise the speculative mind.

Almost overnight, differences and deviations from norms and traditions have added a new dimension to the criteria of excellence. Compounding the challenge of empirical judgement further are the economic and political currents that flow through businesses, lobbies and countries around the world. Let us not lose sight of the fact that the advent of digital equipment has led to an international explosion in, and practice of photography. Many aspects of cultural and religious bias, prejudice or restraint have now entered the arena of photographic expression, creating new dimensions of merit and censure. Therefore, evaluation criteria are not likely to be static entities, but subject to a constant state of flux.

While there is, as yet, no simple answer to the debate on whether wildlife photography as a genre is art or not, some principles are clear in my mind. Being an observer and recorder of a wildlife story does not make a photographer an artist. There are times when the dedicated wildlife photographer will encounter a graphic moment that happens to be in harmony with sublime lines, textures, colours and patterns. The resultant image will be considered art and its author an artist, but in reality these moments are few and far between. They should not be confused with attempts to contrive the artistic by blurring or panning or zooming images in a manner that was traditionally perceived to define Art but which achieved artistic acclaim only when the end result elevated the endeavour to a new level of achievement.

In Nature’s Best Photography Africa 2015, I believe award winning photographs in the Landscape category came closest to art in wildlife photography. Take time to contemplate the landscape authors’ contributions in this publication. Savour the meticulous attention to detail. Ponder the sensitive use of light, the delicate control of highlights, the feeling for texture, tone and colour that make the end result far more than just a sum of the parts in a production that is technically flawless. In wildlife photography, the degree of difficulty involved in capturing an event is a factor that can separate images of similar merit. But that degree of difficulty has nothing to do with the number of hours a photographer may have had to spend chasing an image or the cold that might have been endured, or the gymnastics that might have been engaged to set up a shot.

Challenges that earn points are essentially in the field of the photographic act itself, and not in the peripherals that facilitate managing to freeze in perfect focus, two duelling African Skimmers in an airborne battle speaks of more meritorious photographic achievement than the claim of having had to sit in a hide, on and off for seventeen years, before being able to photograph by torchlight a rare specie of owl feeding its young on nearly extinct cane rats.

The fact that wildlife photographers are primarily technicians is reflected in the fact that the first-round elimination process of all internationally renowned competitions is based on the technical competence of the images submitted.

Sadly, many potentially great images do not graduate to the second level of adjudication because of an elementary technical flaw, and judges are compelled to judge what is presented to them. They cannot send a potential winning image that has been poorly cropped back to the author for revision. They cannot ask an author to remove the dust spots that are consigning a photographic masterpiece to the elimination bin. Only once the primary standards have been met by the author, can the search begin for amazing, artistic images.

Our approach to selecting the winning photographer of the year was in line with the criteria set out above, but novel in how winning portfolios are determined.

First, we decided that the photographer of the year would not be selected on a single image, but rather on a portfolio of images. This reduced the element of controversy that can be generated by different perceptions of a single image. But all portfolio images had first to pass the individual proficiency test of their component parts. Portfolios with large numbers of images that failed the first round test were automatically eliminated. All the remaining portfolio images were then judged in their appointed categories along, with the other entries to test their relative merit. Only after the final round of judging all the categories, did we reassemble to portfolios. Relatively few survived to this final round.

Consideration was then given to both the individual quality of the images, as well as the versatility of subject matter and the variety skills with their relative competences, as demonstrated by the photographer.

Our admiration accompanies our congratulations to the Nature’s Best Photography Africa Photographer of the Year, who presented us with the winning panel. We are encouraged by the excellent response we received, despite the very short notice given to contestants for entering the 2015 event. It is with great anticipation that we look forward to receiving entries for the 2016 Nature’s Best Photography Africa competition.

My fellow judges and I wish you well, and send you our warmest photographic regards.

Lou Coetzer
Director – Nature’s Best Photography Africa