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Who’s the Best Wildlife Photographer?

Who's the Best Photographer?

I enjoy being alone, but 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 wildlife photographer in your opinion?”

I’ve never been able to offer a definitive answer to this and, as always, 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 delivers insane consistency; the annoyingly talented Vincent Munier is a real visual artist; the equally annoying Stefano Unterthiner has an enviable ability to spot a story and nail it.

Then there are those who work and work and work.  Colleagues Andy Rouse and Danny Green are two immediate examples. Beneath the waves Alex Mustard and Tom Peschak have produced pioneering underwater work. Ditto Paul Nicklen. Wild Wonders entrepreneur Staffan Widstrand has unrelenting drive, and Orsi and Erlend Haarberg show us true beauty in all of their work.

And what about the thinkers? Niall Benvie, Daniel Beltrá and, closer to home, Andy Parkinson (although he does far too much thinking). 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 criteria is used. There’s one thing that each one of these photographers has given me at different times however: inspiration. The question then is not “Who’s the best wildlife photographer?” but “Who’s the most inspirational?” That of course is even more subjective and opens up a different can of worms.

best wildlife photographer
This style of portrait, now widely copied, was what got me into nature photography. It’s perhaps now had its day but will be remembered as ‘Laurie’s Way.’

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. 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 and ones that we should all aspire to.

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: not necessarily with the standard of our images or our technical proficiency but with what we stand for, how we go about our business; our values. It’s about respect – delivering it to others and nurturing it yourself. That requires a commitment, which reaches far beyond owning a decent camera and nailing the odd prizewinner.

I didn’t exchange details with the young man at Stiperstones, but I’d like to thank him for catalysing a thought process. Votes of your own and general comments welcomed in the comments. Perhaps we should all meet on Stiperstones ridge one day?

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Based in the Scottish Highlands, Peter Cairns is a nature photographer with 15 years professional experience. Tooth & Claw, Highland Tiger, Wild Wonders of Europe, and more recently 2020VISION, are all projects that have been an integral part of Peter’s career. He is a Senior Fellow of the International League of Conservation Photographers.

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