Who’s the best nature photographer? And why?

I enjoy being alone but even I have a limit, so after two full days isolated on Shropshire’s Stiperstones ridge recently, I welcomed the arrival of another photographer and his obvious desire for some philosophical musing. After some collective grumping about the light, he popped the question: “So who’s the best nature photographer in your opinion?” I’ve been asked this a fair few times over the years and never been able to offer a definitive suggestion as to who, or a convincing argument as to why. This was no exception and I fudged my response but a 450-mile drive home gave me time to ponder.

There are many contenders in my book. My old buddy Mark Hamblin for his insane consistency; the annoyingly talented Vincent Munier for his visual artistry; the equally annoying Stefano Unterthiner for his ability to spot a story and nail it; colleagues Andy Rouse and Danny Green for their work ethic; Alex Mustard and Tom Peschak for their pioneering underwater work, ditto Paul Nicklen; Staffan Widstrand for his unrelenting drive; Orsi and Erlend Haarberg for showing us true beauty; Niall Benvie for provoking thought and discussion; Laurent Geslin for sticking to a tight plan and making the most of it. Sandra Bartocha for just being bloody good. And then there are the giants from across the pond – Mangelson, Brandenburg, Doubilet – all proven, committed and talented artists. There are of course many, many more.

I fudged my response to the young man at Stiperstones because it’s impossible to choose just one; it depends what the criteria is. There’s one thing that each one of these photographers has given me at different times: Inspiration. The question then is not “Who’s the best?” but “Who’s the most inspirational?” That of course is even more subjective and opens up a different can of worms (I can tell you though that despite my gratitude for years of help, Hamblin’s toilet etiquette puts him out of the running at this point. Ditto Benvie’s weird ideas about chocolate and Green’s pie-eating prowess. And Munier is just too nice to be inspirational).

Anyway back to the issue at hand. Around 20 years ago I nervously picked up the phone to Laurie Campbell who kindly offered me some advice on my rather naive perspective on a career in nature photography. At that time – and things have changed radically in the last two decades – Laurie was almost unique in his creative approach to capturing British wildlife on film (just google ‘film’ if you’re under 25). The range and extent of Laurie’s coverage remains unsurpassed even if his style has been endlessly emulated and, if Laurie doesn’t mind me saying, developed and improved. So in terms of personal inspiration, Laurie gets my vote even 20 years on.

But there’s something else to consider here. If there are two things in life that I can’t abide (other than Bush and Palin – sorry but my respect doesn’t even stretch to using their forenames) it’s cruelty and unfairness, however they might manifest. Laurie’s work, perhaps above all others, has shown consistent honesty, humility and regard for his subjects. In a world where competition increasingly drives unsavoury behaviour, these are undoubtedly traits to be proud of.

If any of us nature photographers are to leave a legacy, and in my opinion we should all at least try, it surely should be one of inspiring others. Occasionally being thanked for doing so is without question the greatest reward in this often-unrewarding work. I’m presently pondering my future direction (does that sound like a pretentious out-of-work actor?) but whatever I end up doing, I’ll strive to inspire. And I’ll strive to be fair. If I succeed in either I’ll be content.

I didn’t exchange details with the young man at Stiperstones but I’d like to thank him for catalysing a thought process. It won’t be the last time this subject is visited but at least when I’m next asked the question, I’ll have some thoughts put aside.

Votes of your own, criticism of mine and general comments welcomed. Perhaps we should all meet on Stiperstones ridge one day?

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11 thoughts on “Who’s the best nature photographer? And why?

  1. I think naming the best would be to totally diminish and simplify the differences in each photographer. Individuality and creativity is something to be applauded, so putting all these diverse photographers into one list is unfair.

  2. So apart for Phython, 80 days, Pole to Pole, Sahara, Himalaya, what have the Palins ever done for us?? Nothing!!!

    Serious response. I would probably plump for William Henry Jackson. Mostly because his photography was fundimental in the creation of the National Parks and therefore really did change attitudes towards the natural world.

  3. Ok, so inspirational and thought provoking, huh………..

    Without wanting to sound too pretentious……how about…. the best nature photographer is the one we are always striving to become?

    ………….there you go Pete, something for you to go and mull over in a quieter moment!! LOL

  4. An interesting poser to which I suspect there is no definitive answer. It’s almost impossible in the same way as choosing Boycott or Bradman; The Beatles or Status Quo (Pete!); Van Gogh or Rembrandt. For me it’s more the individual image, which conveniently gives me a get out because now I can choose everyone or no-one!
    Because nature is diverse so are the many images that can be created and I often prefer the simplicity of a straightforward shot by say Eric Hosking on film in black & white to a complex digital HDR creation. I would however add one name to Pete’s list – Bence Mate for his particularly innovate nature shots.

  5. I’ve often been struck by the parochialism exhibited in the field of outdoor photography. This is yet another example. Any such list that omits Ansel Adams, Art Wolfe and Galen Rowell as candidates is an incomplete list.

  6. For me It would also be Bence Mate, wow how does he get those shots, Hes my fav at the moment but you know what, Its the wow factor so many people have in there shots that I love. Another fav is Macro king. Andrea Hallgass

  7. Oh go on then if no-one else is going to say it I will. How about Peter Cairns and no I’m not joking. As someone who lives, works and tries to take photographs in the same part of Scotland I find the consistently evolving work of messrs Cairns and Hamblin inspirational.

  8. I fear I’m not adding much to this but for the record I think Danny Green’s work is terrific. And for all time – Jim Brandenberg.

  9. Bence Mate is the one that consistently makes me think ‘damn, wish I had thought of that’.

    However placing a remote camera in a part submerged fish tank at a heron roost, then creating a remote control for a roll of clear film that goes over the tank so it can be wound on whenever the glass becomes dirty. I have to admit I would never think of that.

    I think the only thing that will stop him winning many more WPOTY titles is if he becomes a judge, he is only 27 and has 15 awards if you count highly commended’s.

    On this isle I would say Danny Green as a photographer, Neil Benvie as a creative and yourself as someone how can bring everything together in a grand plan (Tooth and Claw, 2020v, WWoE etc)


  10. There is one name that has been missed off this list of the great and good of wildlife photography. He still does things the old fashioned way spending his time working with wild animals, he displays the highest professional and ethical standards, he spends time working in depth with subjects, he is one of the most pubished UK wildlife photographers and he is a great guy. Oh, and he is bigger than me!

  11. Is it important? The best photographer is the one that inspires me to go outdoors and to try myself. The best is the ones that evokes admiration for the creature and its environement. Who encourages me to spend hours to watch, to try again and again and finally, to come home with a couple of decent and maybe more than decent shots. The best is the one that gets it pure, with the minimum of sophistacted techniques and gadgets. One of the best is for shure Peter in the sens I am just talking about.

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