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The “Greatest Nature Photographs of All Time”

A polar bear dance, a doomed thresher shark, and a crowd of giant tortoises gathered at dawn in the Galapagos are just a few of the stunning images that have been selected as the Top 40 Nature Photographs of all time to celebrate the inaugural Green Auction on the 40th annual Earth Day this April...

A polar bear dance, a doomed thresher shark, and a crowd of giant tortoises gathered at dawn in the Galapagos are just a few of the stunning images that have been selected as the Top 40 Nature Photographs of all time to celebrate the inaugural Green Auction on the 40th annual Earth Day this April 22, the International League of Conservation Photographers (ILCP) said this week.

Many of the Top 40 photographs have been published by National Geographic Magazine.


Doomed by a gill net, a thresher shark in Mexico’s Gulf of California is among an estimated 100 million sharks killed yearly for their fins. They add to the devastating global fish catch: nearly 100 million tons…

Copyright © Brian Skerry

(Brian Skerry is a photojournalist specializing in underwater and marine-related subjects and stories. See more of his work on the National Geographic website.)

The Top 40 collection, which represents a wide range of styles and genres and span over 100 years of the history of photography, were nominated and chosen by members of the ILCP, a fellowship of the world’s top professional conservation photographers.

“Many of the images, generously donated by the artists or their representatives, will be up for auction at the inaugural Christie’s International “Green Auction: A Bid to Save the Earth” on April 22, with proceeds to be divided between four environmental organizations, which include: Conservation International (CI), Oceana, Natural Resources Defense Council and the Central Park Conservancy,” ILCP said in a news statement.


A group of australian sea lions relax and frolic in a sea grass meadow near Little Hopkins Island, South Australia. “They are a curious species that nuzzle the lens and playfully pull on fin and mask straps. While I .was photographing them the leader of the group stood straight up and .looked around and then swam straight and fast for the beach with the entire group following. The sea was still and quiet and something told us that maybe we should leave too and we climbed into our boat just as .great white shark came into view. The Australian sea lion is one of the rarest and most endangered pinniped in the world.”–David Doubilet

Copyright David Doubilet

(See David Doubilet’s photographs of toxic nudibranchs–soft, seagoing slugs.)

Assembled in an online gallery, the photographs include iconic images of nature in the 20th and 21st centuries, made by such photographic luminaries as famed black-and-white landscape artist Ansel Adams, National Geographic Magazine Editor-in-Chief Chris Johns, Pulitzer Prize-winning landscape photographer Jack Dykinga, and underwater documentarian Brian Skerry, ILCP said.


Morning Mist, Rock Island Bend, Franklin River, Southwest Tasmania, Australia. This iconic photograph was instrumental in allowing the rivers to run free. First published in The Australian newspaper prior to the 1983 Australian federal elections with the slogan, “Could you vote for a party that would destroy this?” There was public outrage. At 10.40 a.m. on 1st July, 1983, the High Court of Australia declared the Gordon Franklin dam illegal. The rivers still run free.

Copyright Peter Dombrovskis


Polar Dance. “For centuries polar bears have gathered along the western shores of Hudson Bay [Canada] during late October and early November waiting for the bay to freeze. Here at Cape Churchill the land extends far out into the bay and is one of the first places the bay begins to freeze. When the ice grows solid, the polar bears move out onto the ice where they will spend the winter hunting for their main diet of ringed and bearded seals…The pregnant females leave the bay and head inland 35-40 miles. There they will dig dens, and the young will be born in December and January.

“Cape Churchill is the largest gathering of polar bears on earth. Here the relatively solitary bears come together and socialize waiting for the temperatures to drop and the ice to freeze. As the winter storm approached the cape, during near whiteout conditions, two adult polar bears test each other’s strength in what is known as play fighting.

“From the time polar bears come out of their dens in March and April, cubs, like most animals, play-fight. Male polar bears continue to play-fight into adulthood. It not only keeps them fit and establishes a hierarchy, but to any viewer it is obviously something the bears enjoy.

“Polar bears are my favorite mammal to photograph, and this image, titled “Polar Dance” with its almost human-like gestures of dance and the mood created by the blowing snow, is my most favorite image I’ve made.”–Tom Mangelsen

Copyright Thomas D. Mangelsen/Mangelsen Stock

More than one hundred photographers and editors associated with the ILCP were asked to submit nominations for images they considered to be “the best,” in whatever way they chose to define it. The only restriction was an inability to self-nominate. They were encouraged, however, to consider factors such as aesthetics, uniqueness, historical and scientific significance, or contribution to conservation efforts.

“It was no easy task, selecting just forty images from the incredible nominations submitted to us by some of the world’s greatest nature photographers, but it was a tremendous honor for the ILCP to be asked to take the lead on this challenging project.” said ILCP Executive Director Justin Black.

“No doubt, there are other notable and worthy photographs that could have secured a spot in the Top 40 gallery,” Black added, “but this diverse cross section clearly demonstrates the power of photographs to educate, enlighten, inspire, and stir us into action to protect our limited natural resources.”


African elephants at twilight, Chobe National Park, Botswana..”During the year I spent living in the Okavango Delta of Botswana, I worked at night for periods of time, waking up at sunset to follow animals through the hours of darkness. I often started the evening at a favorite water hole where I hunkered down by the edge and made myself a fixture in the landscape. Elephants moved around me in the waning light like shadowy forms.

“One evening a herd of bulls gathered across the water from me, rising above their reflections under an October moon, in a primeval scene of ancient Africa…The existence of huge free-roaming herds of elephants in Botswana is a symbol for both the nature of this landscape and for the human decisions that must be made about the fate of wild places and wildlife both here and elsewhere on Earth. How we balance those interests will be the legacy of our time, the path we leave on the land. “–Frans Lanting

Copyright Frans Lanting/Frans Lanting Photography


Water lilies, Okavango Delta, Botswana. “One of the greatest challenges in photography to me is to define a personal point of view. During my work in Botswana’s Okavango Delta, I looked for ways to capture the essence of this great wetland and my own response to the wonder of it.

“The Okavango covers thousands of square miles, but it is really just a thin sheet of water stretched across the sands of the Kalahari. The delta’s water lilies drew me in because they symbolize life made possible by water in this dry land. I photographed lilies covering lakes and giving shelter to an array of animal life, but I was searching for something more lyrical. One day I looked down in a clear lagoon and noticed how a patch of lilies was anchored in desert sand. An idea took hold. I plunged into the swamp…Actually, I slipped in. Quietly. Crocodiles abound here.

“While an assistant stood guard in a small boat, I sank to the bottom with a camera encased in a bubble-shaped underwater housing. I held my breath on each dive, which allowed for less than a minute at the bottom. It took many attempts and the better part of a day for the image to become refined.

“I was intrigued by the sinuous curves of the lily stems. In an interesting reversal of the maxim about magic light peaking around sunrise and sunset, underwater photography conditions get better towards high noon, when light penetrates farther into the depths. By the time I had figured out solutions to the technical problems of this shot, the midday sun backlit the lily pads suspended at the water’s surface

“From the bottom of the swamp I saw that the lilies told a larger story, about the anomaly of water in the desert. In one sense the margin for life was exactly the distance from the lilies above my head to my toes buried in the sand. But my perspective was of the exuberance, not the limits, of life. The water was only a few feet deep, but the lilies reached for the sky.”–Frans Lanting

Copyright Frans Lanting/Frans Lanting Photography

(Frans Lanting has been hailed as one of the great nature photographers of our time. Watch him talk about his work.)

The stories and challenges in photographing such wild scenes on film are revisited in the ILCP’s “Top 40” online gallery.


Giant tortoises in pond, Alcedo Volcano, Galapagos Islands. “The Galápagos Islands provide a window on time. In a geologic sense, the islands are young, yet they appear ancient. The largest animals native to this archipelago are giant tortoises, which can live for more than a century. These are the creatures that provided Darwin with the flash of imagination that led to his theory of evolution.

“Immutable as the tortoises seem, they were utterly vulnerable to the buccaneers and whalers who took them by the thousands in the last two centuries. But one population eluded them. Inside the Alcedo volcano on Isabela Island, an earlier era lingers. This caldera is sealed off from the outside world by steep lava slopes that rise to 3,860 feet on the equator.

“It was not until 1965 that an Ecuadorian biologist found a way down inside and discovered a world where giant tortoises roamed in primordial abundance. This group had presumably never seen humans…They hadn’t seen many more when I entered the time capsule of the caldera.

“For one memorable week, I lived among the tortoises of Alcedo. Photography one morning was one of those precious experiences where I could be part of a scene rather than a distant observer. The tortoises were resting in a pond as soft mist mingled with sulfur steam from nearby fumaroles and dust from an erupting volcano to the west, and I was able to create an image that evokes the era when reptiles dominated life on land.”–Frans Lanting.

Copyright Frans Lanting / Frans Lanting Photography

ILCP President and photographer Cristina Mittermeier said, “One of the brightest contributions of photography to the preservation of special landscapes and creatures around the world is that images are able to shed light on some of the darkest, most remote corners of our planet. I’ve seen first-hand how photographs like these arrest the eye, invite reflection, provoke emotion, and become a shared experience that gifts us with a larger vision of the world.”


Petrified sand dunes and reflection, Paria Canyon, Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, Arizona..Pulitzer-prize winning photojournalist and landscape photographer Jack Dykinga made this photograph as part of a campaign to create National Monuments in both the Paria Canyon and Escalante Canyon drainages. He had tried on six separate occasions to make this image following seasonal rains, dissatisfied each time with the quality of the reflections in the standing water.

His final effort paid off after driving south from Salt Lake City and arriving near Paria Canyon around midnight. Dykinga camped at the mouth of one of the side canyons and began hiking in around 3:30 a.m. in order to arrive on location in time for dawn and calm water.

The Abrams publishing house rewarded the effort in Dykinga’s book Stone Canyons of the Colorado Plateau (1996), creating a cover free of any type because publisher Lou Gotlieb so loved the image. Following the successful creation of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and Vermilion Cliffs National Monument, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt sent Dykinga a letter of thanks, noting the book’s help in raising public awareness of these special places.

Copyright Jack Dykinga

The first-of-its-kind charity auction of some of the greatest nature photographs will take place on April 22, 2010 to coincide with the 40th anniversary of Earth Day and will be held at Christie’s, Rockefeller Center, New York and carried live globally via Christie’s LIVE on, ILCP said.

“The evening sale is slated to be a star-studded event with top celebrities serving on the Green Auction Host Committee that includes: Leonardo DiCaprio, Harrison Ford, Tobey Maguire, François-Henri Pinault, Salma Hayek, Bob Fisher, Candice Bergen, Ed Norton, Evelyn Lauder, Alec Baldwin, Zaha Hadid, Brooke Shields, and Matt Lauer.

“Supporters will also be able to bid on select items after the evening event through Christie’s partner, Charitybuzz, the leading destination for online charity benefit auctions. The companion silent auction which will be hosted at and run through May 6th. Christie’s will waive all fees and commissions for the auction.”


Seeing Double. July 2006, northern tip of Baffin Island. Its image mirrored in icy water, a polar bear travels submerged–a tactic often used to surprise prey. Scientists fear global warming could drive bears to extinction sometime this century.

Copyright Paul Nicklen

Related blog post and video: Nat Geo photographer Paul Nicklen shares secrets of polar wildlife pictures


Split Rock and Cloud, Eastern Sierra, California, 1976  Galen Rowell (1940-2002) was a master of incorporating fleeting qualities of natural light in compelling compositions. He saw this splendidly illuminated cirrus cloud floating quickly on the wind while climbing one evening in the Buttermilk region of California’s Eastern Sierra Nevada.

Rather than simply capturing an image of the cloud out of context with the place, Galen wished to incorporate a sense of the boulder-strewn granite landscape around him. He imagined a composition that paired the cloud with a strongly graphic silhouette, and traversed the rugged landscape to find a foreground subject in a suitable position to photograph against the sky while the cloud passed overhead. He waited only thirty seconds after setting up his tripod-mounted Nikon before the cloud floated through the perfect position.

Copyright Galen Rowell/Mountain Light

Visit to bid on items in the silent auction, including signed prints of some of the Top 40 images.

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Author Photo David Max Braun
More than forty years in U.S., UK, and South African media gives David Max Braun global perspective and experience across multiple storytelling platforms. His coverage of science, nature, politics, and technology has been published/broadcast by the BBC, CNN, NPR, AP, UPI, National Geographic, TechWeb, De Telegraaf, Travel World, and Argus South African Newspapers. He has published two books and won several journalism awards. In his 22-year career at National Geographic he was VP and editor in chief of National Geographic Digital Media, and the founding editor of the National Geographic Society blog, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society's mission and initiatives. He also directed the Society side of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship, awarded to Americans seeking the opportunity to spend nine months abroad, engaging local communities and sharing stories from the field with a global audience. A regular expert on National Geographic Expeditions, David also lectures on storytelling for impact. He has 120,000 followers on social media: Facebook  Twitter  LinkedIn