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The Best of the Best: Selecting the 2015 National Geographic Photo Contest Winner

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A rare and jaw-dropping anticyclonic tornado touches down in open farmland, narrowly missing a home near Simla, Colorado in this winning image.

With almost 14,000 entries submitted, competition was strong for top honors in the 2015 National Geographic Photo Contest. To sort through all the stunning images, we turned to our seasoned photographers and editors.

Tasked with finding the best of the best, three judges—David Guttenfelder, photographer and National Geographic photography fellow; Anand Varma, National Geographic contributing photographer; and Jessie Wender, National Geographic magazine senior photo editor—gathered to find the winners.

In the end, photographer James Smart’s stirring image of an enormous tornado funnel in Colorado took home the grand prize.

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A rare and jaw-dropping anticyclonic tornado touches down in open farmland, narrowly missing a home near Simla, Colorado in this winning image by James Smart.

Recalling the moment he made the winning photo, Smart says, “The tornado was slowly getting bigger as it picked up the dust and soil from the ground on the farmland. It wasn’t moving very fast, so we kept getting closer as it tracked next to the home, as you can see in the image. Driving down a Colorado dirt road, we were lucky enough to be on the west of the tornado, so it was front-lit. This really helped to get great detail out of the image and the perfect light for the sky and foreground.”

Smart won $10,000 and a trip to Washington, D.C., to participate in the prestigious National Geographic Photography Seminar at National Geographic headquarters.

Here, Wender and Varma share their insights into what it took to capture the judges’ eyes—and the top prize. —Sarah Polger, Senior Producer, Travel

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Francisco Mingorance’s photo of phosphogypsum ponds in Spain won first place in the Places category. He writes: “While preparing a report on Spain’s Rio Tinto from the air, I decided to include the phosphogypsum ponds located in the marshes of red, whose radioactive discharges [have] destroyed part of the marsh. As an environmental photojournalist I had to report this story but had to do it with an image that by itself attracts the viewer’s attention. On a low-flying training flight, this image caught my attention for its resemblance to the impact of an asteroid on its green waters.”

SARAH POLGER: What in particular were you looking for while judging?

JESSIE WENDER: I was looking for images that surprised and engaged me, demonstrated a creativity of vision, and really stood out from the other submissions. I wanted to see images that were both compelling in terms of aesthetics and subject matter [and] original and unique.

ANAND VARMA: I wanted to be surprised. That was the main criteria I was looking for. I think many of the entries were trying to fit a preconceived notion of what a “National Geographic” photograph should look like. I understand that approach because that’s what I did when I first started out as a photographer. In the end I was most drawn to the photographs that showed their subjects in a new way.

SARAH: Tell us about your mindset while judging and how it differs from when you photograph in the field?

ANAND: I judged the contest the same way I judge my own work while I’m in the field. I’m looking for an image that first grabs my attention but also has enough detail and complexity to give my eyes something to linger on.

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Joel Nsadha’s photo of a young man in the slums of Kampala, Uganda, won first place in the People category. He writes:”Bwengye lives in a slum called Kamwokya in Uganda’s capital city. He cherishes his bicycle more than anything and brings it to this playground in the slum every evening, where he watches kids playing soccer.”

SARAH: And Jessie, you spend your days working with photographers on story development and editing and shaping some of the most compelling stories of our day. When you turned your eyes to the contest, did you look at pictures differently?

JESSIE: Judging was a very difficult task. In many cases it’s hard to judge vastly different images against each other, and in other cases, you see so many of the same subject photographed in a similar way that it becomes difficult to distinguish one from another.

Watch a behind-the-scenes video of the judging process

SARAH: Was there a particular technique or style that consistently stood out to you in the entries?

ANAND: I was really interested in the images that captured a sense of motion. I’m struggling with how to show motion in my current projects, so I think that’s why those images stood out to me.

JESSIE: I didn’t notice a particular style or technique consistently throughout the submissions. I saw many extremely well-executed photographs in terms of technique, light, color, and composition, but the images that really stood out and surprised me were those that inspired a sense of wonder, captured a beautiful moment, presented a new way of looking at something familiar, or showed me something I’d never seen before.

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Bence Mate’s photograph of bee-eaters won an honorable mention in the Nature category. He writes: “White-fronted bee-eaters gather on a bough before going to sleep in their burrows, scraped into a sand wall. I was working on this theme for 18 days, as there were only five to ten minutes each day when the light conditions were appropriate. Ninety percent of my efforts to capture this image were not successful. I used flashlights to light the bee-eaters sitting on the branch but not the others flying above. At this angle, the backlight generated rainbow coloring through the wings of the flying birds.”

SARAH: How did you feel during the judging process? How do you feel about the results?

ANAND: I was initially a little bit disappointed in the entries, but I learned to appreciate the images more and more as I revisited them over the course of a few weeks. Now, when I look back at the winners and honorable mentions, I’m very impressed. That is the same arc of emotions I experience when producing and judging my own work.

JESSIE: I found it interesting, both the crossover and how photographers interpreted each category differently. Persistence and patience, waiting to capture the right moment, is something that distinguished the winning images and honorable mentions.


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