Nat Geo Travel spoke with the 2016 National Geographic Travel Photographer of the Year, Anthony Lau, to learn how he made the grand prize-winning photo.
Congratulations on winning the 2016 National Geographic Travel Photographer of the Year contest. Let’s start at the beginning. Where was this photo taken?
This photo was taken in Inner Mongolia, which is an autonomous region of China—not to be mistaken with Mongolia—in Saihanba National Forest Park, located inside the Hebei Province in China.
"Saihanba" is a term with mixed origins from Mongolian and Chinese, meaning a beautiful and high mountain. As a matter of fact, Saihanba National Forest Park was also the royal hunting ground during the Qing dynasty.
Why Inner Mongolia? What brought you here to photograph?
I was not a stranger to this beautiful highland grassland. Back in the autumn of 2012, I took on my first travel photography trip and Inner Mongolia was the destination. I learned a lot of lessons in that trip and the experience in that trip was unforgettable. Indeed, I always recall the learning from that trip to help myself get through new challenges I encounter in photography.
However, in 2015 I found myself encountering a huge bottleneck in photography. My photos were not getting any better. And as my job got more and more occupying, I found my camera was locked up in my cabinet more often than it was traveling around with me.
At the end of 2015, all of a sudden a time window was open between my projects, and I decided to visit the place where my passion for photography started—Inner Mongolia.
Once I was there, the memories and the reality converged. The mental images of the once golden autumn forest became a silvery white carpet of snow. The gentle autumn breeze became a howling winter current and the once familiar landscape became a brand-new experience. I felt excited and my creativity started flowing again.
Your image of the riders wrapped by the morning mist and snow is a stirring moment. Tell us how this moment unfolded.
It was early in the morning after a very tiring hike to a snow peak for sunrise. Getting up 3 a.m. at minus 25°C (minus 13°F) was a challenge and I decided to take a nap in the car while traveling back to the hotel for breakfast.
Suddenly my travel mates woke me up and we came across a team of Inner Mongolian riders showing off their skills, commanding a group of horses around the frozen grassland.
The light was very good and morning mist was forming as well. I was so excited to get into position with my telephoto lens to capture some great photos.
Well, not everything was so smooth.
The freezing temperature slowed down the speed of continuous shooting and caused a malfunction at the adapter between my lens and camera. Not only that, I noticed every breath I took basically frosted the viewfinder and LCD screen. With just manual focus and a frosted viewfinder, I had to guesstimate and utilize trap focus to get my shot.
The snow was getting heavier, the wind was getting stronger, and the light was moving away from its optimal position. I knew I only had a couple of shots’ worth of time to get the best out of this encounter. With a bit of luck, one of my final attempts managed to capture the moment when one of the riders charged out from the morning mist along with his horses.
How did you feel when you made this photo? Did you know you'd captured a special moment?
I could really smell something good ahead, given the context, light, and environment. However, what really excited me was the challenging situation (the malfunctions I mentioned above) and that I was able to get through that in this tight time window. It may not be my best shot, but I definitely love it the most.
How does winning the 2016 National Geographic Travel Photographer of the Year contest feel?
I was checking my mail on my way home. When I saw this email from National Geographic, I was actually expecting a thank-you note for participation.
Then my jaw dropped, eyes widely opened, and I muttered to myself, Oh my, that’s not true. I checked and checked and checked again, to make sure I read it correctly. I was totally surprised and absolutely overwhelmed. It is a dream come true and I am really short on words to describe how I feel.
It is going to be a new page for my photography and I really look forward to share even more adventures with my family, because their support and encouragement are the fuel of my passion.
See more of the winning images at natgeo.com/travelphotocontest.
Watch a behind-the-scenes video of the contest judging.
This interview has been edited for clarity.