Photography should inspire. Photography should awe. Photography should inform. Photography at National Geographic is all about storytelling. Sometimes a photo, no matter how wonderful, doesn’t make the pages of the magazine because it doesn’t advance the narrative. But when an image makes you stop, wonder, and think, that’s when the magic happens. And that is the bar every photograph in 50 Greatest Wildlife Photographs has surpassed.
Some of these photos were groundbreaking when they were published—Mitsuaki Iwago’s image of a lion taking down a wildebeest, Nick Nichols’ charging elephant, Brian Skerry’s diver with a right whale. They showed wildlife in new ways, communicating palpable fear as death descends, the raw energy of a matriarch protecting her family, and the shared curiosity between diver and whale. They shocked with their originality, surprised with their power, and communicated vital information about behavior. These photographs are as fresh today as they were in 1983, 1995, and 2008, when they were made.
The photographers behind these images are masters of research, technology, storytelling, and patience, each with a unique approach and a defined way of seeing. Many of the photographs in the exhibit spring from a photographer’s vision of showing wildlife in a new way.
Sometimes the photograph requires nothing more than time with a dash of good luck. Our story about cougars was ready to go to press when Steve Winter’s camera trap finally captured the Hollywood cat known as P22. In other situations, the photographer goes to incredible extremes to bring back photographs that have never been seen, much less imagined. To make his image of sharks feeding at night, photographer Laurent Ballesta used rebreathers to stay underwater for 24 hours straight. Whether it is 12 months tending a camera trap or 24 hours fighting ocean currents, the drive is the same—to show wildlife in an unforgettable way.
At National Geographic we evaluate photographs in the context of story, so it is refreshing to consider these 50 photographs and see them for what they truly are—memorable images that invite us into the wild and remind us that it is our shared responsibility to protect and respect it.
Senior Photo Editor, National Geographic