The 2013 National Geographic Photography Contest Winners

During the month of November, National Geographic magazine invited photographers from around the world to submit photos in three categories: People, Places and Nature. We received more than 7,000 entries from over 150 countries, with amateur and professional photographers across the globe participating. You can view all of the winning images here.

We asked Senior Photo Editor Susan Welchman, and National Geographic contributing photographers Stephanie Sinclair and Ed Kashi to judge this year’s photo contest at the Society’s headquarters in Washington, DC, on December 9th.

Imagine a darkened room with images projected on a huge screen, and almost total silence except for the ‘yeas’ and ‘nays’ of the judges and the occasional discussion over specific photos. Several hours later, after multiple rounds of editing, the finalists became clear and the real debate began.

Ultimately, the judges unanimously agreed the Grand Prize should be awarded to Paul Souders for his image of a polar bear lurking beneath melting sea ice in Hudson Bay, Canada. After realizing the photographer had won an award in another contest for a very similar photo, we thought it would be interesting to hear from Paul directly.

MONICA CORCORAN: How long have you been shooting wildlife and how/why did you get into it?

PAUL SOUDERS: I’ve worked as a professional photographer for nearly 30 years. It’s the only job I’ve ever had that didn’t involve pumping gas or pushing a lawn mower.

But I never set out to be a nature photographer, I wanted to be a news shooter, and I started my first job at a small daily paper in Rockville, Md., with dreams of journalistic glory. I covered a lot of high school sports, portrait assignments and weather features. It felt like telling the story of my community, one day at a time. At some point, I decided a change of scene was in order. Never one for half measures, I packed up everything I owned and drove 4300 miles to Anchorage, Alaska, to take a job at the state’s biggest newspaper. It was 27 below zero the day I arrived, but it was entirely new and magical. There was a moose in my backyard and I could see bald eagles on my morning commute.

And that’s when I started moving away from news work and toward photographing wildlife. But it’s still the same mission, telling stories about the places I see and the wildlife I encounter. I left the paper 20 years ago and I’ve worked as a travel and wildlife photographer ever since.

MONICA: A near frame of yours won the Animals in their Environment category of the 2013 Wildlife Photographer of the Year photo contest. Tell us the story behind these photos.

PAUL: I had two sharp frames of the underwater bear, and the framing was only very slightly different. I entered the BBC contest right at their deadline, and never compared the two side by side. Once it won its category in BBC (but failed to win the grand prize), I kept staring at the lower right hand corner, where the ice edge is cropped, and it started to bug me. I do prefer this frame, since it has the entire ice edge. It’s one of those little details that can make a picture work just a bit better, but not something I even noticed or cared about initially.

The bear swam up to the iceberg, ducked under and stayed underwater for several seconds as I moved my zodiac into position and then held out the camera on a six-foot boom near the entrance. I didn’t fire until she came up to breathe and take a look at me, and I kept firing the shutter as she submerged again. She hung there, just below the surface, watching me, then came up for another breath before swimming away. I couldn’t see her from where I sat in my small zodiac boat; I was shooting blind with the wide angle. I sensed it was a unique situation, but the first thought in my mind was that I really didn’t want to screw up. I’d already dunked the remote radio trigger and camera into the salt water, and had to jury rig a replacement cable by chewing off the copper wires and hand-splicing it together. I don’t know how, but somehow it worked.

MONICA: Do you have any advice for other wildlife photographers?

PAUL: My standard advice is to marry well. And don’t quit your day job.

It is REALLY hard to make a living at this. I was lucky enough to begin a photo career at a time when you could earn at least some sort of meager living at it. A newspaper photographer’s salary wasn’t much, but at least it was a job, and an amazing training ground where I got to shoot pictures every day. I worked around other, better photographers who helped me learn my craft. And I actually got paid to do it. I worry that it’s much, much harder for the next generation of photographers to make a living and build a career.

I consider myself very fortunate to continue to make a living pursuing work that I really love.

MONICA: What are your thoughts on entering photo contests?

PAUL: I like to think I’m past the point in life where I live and die by contest results and the momentary ego boost they provide.

What I do appreciate is how contests can bring storytelling photographs to a wider audience, and how they can captivate an audience of millions to see the natural world’s fragile beauty, and to motivate them to take an active interest in experiencing and protecting it.

View more winning images here.

Follow Monica Corcoran on Twitter and Instagram.

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