Judging the Competition

The logistics of adjudicating the 2016 competition were formidable. Judges in several different time zones around the world had to assess thousands of entries and then co-ordinate their personal appraisals of all the images entered in 14 different categories of the photographic arts.

Their brief was to select award-winning creations whose unquestionable merit would not only earn the respect of the most discerning wildlife photographers, but also inspire the greater viewing public around the world.

Behind the scenes, a large administrative staff worked tirelessly to receive entries, distribute them among the judges and then liaise with the relevant photographers to acquire the necessary RAW files in time for the moderating discipline. The design of the catalogue and the commissioning of the exhibition prints could start only after the RAW files of all the winning images and their descriptive texts had been received, verified or edited, and then signed off.

Despite the fact that some new categories were added to the 2016 competition, there was general consensus among the judges that the overall standard of the entries was substantially higher than that of last year.

However, the appraisal process and results of the 2015 competition also signalled a revision of traditional thinking in respect of the portraiture category in wildlife photography. For many years it has been acknowledged that language is a fluid vehicle of communication and that it is in a constant state of flux.

This is demonstrated by the fact that English, as it was spoken in Shakespeare’s time, is significantly different from the English used today.

Thus we see that the communication vehicle is a dynamic entity that moves with the era in which it is used and its constant change is dictated by the people who use it. To some extent, the same applies to photography. Technological advances in the equipment available to photographers today, have dramatically changed the nature, demands and standards of prizewinning wildlife images.

Generally speaking, what won accolades in this field 20 years ago can no longer compete with the products of superior electronic shutters, accelerated ISO ratings, automatic focusing and the high-speed, sequential shooting capacities that are common to modern cameras.

Change has been inevitable.

At the same time, a significant change has been taking place in the portraiture field that addresses human subjects. Practitioners in the studio industry have moved with the times. Customers no longer ask for the static, head-and-shoulders image of the single subject in a style that can be traced back 2000 years to Roman coins or even in the manner recorded with a slightly more generous expanse of garments in portraits like that of the Mona Lisa.

Nowadays, the human portrait profession explores far more exciting and dynamic presentations of its subjects. People are photographed less formally, standing up, sitting down casually, or even lying down for the occasion. In the case of an environmental family portrait, a toddler running full-tilt at the camera during a shoot often produces the preferred image.

It is these considerations that stimulated fresh thinking in respect of wildlife portraiture. In my own mind the notion of fusing elements of landscape, sport and portrait photography into a new model of wildlife portraiture held great promise. Should a wildlife portrait not explore more dynamic forms of expression, even to the point where the dividing line between an environmental portrait and an image depicting animal behaviour becomes tantalisingly controversial?

In exploring this fresh approach, the judging panel could accommodate in the portrait category images that might otherwise never have been displayed. While some of the images might rattle the cages of tradition, we trust that they will also encourage a greater sense of adventurism in exploring the vast reservoirs of opportunity that will be unlocked by the innovative approach.

The rules of entry also made it possible for photographers to submit images that had been processed as Black and White. Such was the support from entrants for this medium, that the organisers felt obliged to create a separate category for these images. We would like to record our sincere gratitude to our Category Winner Sponsors for their generous support in this regard.

Although support for the category: Portfolio Photographer Of The Year, increased considerably in 2016, it is clear that the demands implicit in the assembling such a portfolio are extreme. After all, an entrant is required to present 10 world-class images that cover a variety of genres while collectively revealing a comprehensive repertoire of photographic skills.

However, we at NBPA are still persuaded that the task of determining who should be the Photographer Of The Year should be based on a portfolio and not on a single photograph. It is in the nature of judging images that, beyond certain basic criteria of merit, currents of subjectivity can flow through the assessment processes. Therefore a greater sense of fairness and objectivity pertains when a winner is determined by a portfolio rather than by a single image.

Notwithstanding the potential variations of opinion, the overall winning image of the 2016 NBPA competition provoked very little dialogue among the judges, achieving nearly 100% consensus in the adjudication.

While awards are dominated by action-orientated and behaviour orientated work, the question will inevitably be asked about whether there is still place for the artistic approach to wildlife photography. It was for this reason that the organisers of the NBPA 2016 elected to introduce the Art in Nature category, with a request that photographers should use texture, lines, patterns, colour and slow shutter speeds in conjunction with creative cropping to explore artistic renditions of wildlife. However, these applications had to preserve the documentary truth of the subject matter.

It became evident that, while landscape photographers can more readily compose their images in a context of artistic criteria, it is much more difficult to find and apply those compositional building blocks in wildlife images. As it happened, the winning image in the Art in Nature category explored the technique of panning with a slow shutter speed. This image has arguably set the benchmark for correctly executing a panning shot in a way that takes a wildlife image to an altogether higher level of photographic achievement.

It is my sincere wish that you will experience the same joy when viewing the NBPA 2016 award-winning images that the judges found in selecting the winners. And may the images trigger the same vigorous debate among peers, family and friends as they did among the members of the judging panel.

Lou Coetzer

NBPA 2016 Moderator in Chief