The best winning pictures from the 2019 Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition — and the stories behind them

A soaring eagle, a shocked marmot and an underwater garden like you've never seen before are among the finest pictures from the Natural History Museum's 2019 Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition.

The winners of the competition were announced at a ceremony on Tuesday night, with the top prize going to Yongqing Bao. The Chinese photo took this priceless image of a fight between a fox and a marmot: ‘The intensity of life and death was written on their faces – the predator mid-move, her long canines revealed, and the terrified prey, forepaw outstretched, with long claws adapted for digging, not fighting.’

© Yongqing Bao - Wildlife Photographer of the Year

© Yongqing Bao – Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Some 48,000 entries were received from 100 countries, with pictures sent in by photographers young, old, professional and amateur.

The best of those images are all on show in the exhibition which opens at the Natural History Museum in London on Sunday, October 18.

The 2020 competition opens for entries on Monday 21 October and closes at 11.30am GMT on 12 December 2019. The competition is open to photographers of all ages and abilities. Find out more and enter here.

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The huddle by Stefan Christmann

Winner 2019, Wildlife Photographer of the Year Portfolio Award

© Stefan Christmann - Wildlife Photographer of the Year

© Stefan Christmann – Wildlife Photographer of the Year

More than 5,000 male emperor penguins huddle against the wind and late winter cold on the sea ice of Antarctica’s Atka Bay, in front of the Ekström Ice Shelf. It was a calm day, but when Stefan took off his glove to delicately focus the tilt-shift lens, the cold ‘felt like needles in my fingertips’.

Physical adaptations – including body fat and several layers of scale-like feathers, ruffled only in the strongest of winds – help the males endure the cold, but survival depends on cooperation. The birds snuggle together, backs to the wind and heads down, sharing their body heat. Those on the windward edge peel off and shuffle down the flanks of the huddle to reach the more sheltered side, creating a constant procession through the warm centre, with the whole huddle gradually shifting downwind.

From mid-May until mid-July, the sun does not rise above the horizon, but at the end of winter, when this picture was taken, there are a few hours of twilight. That light combined with modern camera technology and a longish exposure enabled Stefan to create such a bright picture.

Humming surprise by Thomas Easterbrook

Winner 2019, 10 years and under

© Thomas Easterbrook - Wildlife Photographer of the Year

© Thomas Easterbrook – Wildlife Photographer of the Year

On holiday with his family in France, Thomas was eating supper in the garden on a warm summer’s evening when he heard the humming. The sound was coming from the fast-beating wings of a hummingbird hawkmoth, hovering in front of an autumn sage, siphoning up nectar with its long proboscis.

With the moth moving quickly from flower to flower it was a challenge to frame a picture. But Thomas managed it, while capturing the stillness of the moth’s head against the blur of its wings.

Snow-plateau nomads by Shangzhen Fan

Winner 2019, Animals in Their Environment

© Shangzhen Fan - Wildlife Photographer of the Year

© Shangzhen Fan – Wildlife Photographer of the Year

A small herd of male chiru leaves a trail of footprints on a snow-veiled slope in the Kumukuli Desert of China’s Altun Shan National Nature Reserve. These nimble antelopes – the males with long, slender, black horns – are high-altitude specialists, found only on the Qinghai–Tibet Plateau.

For years, Shangzhen has made the arduous, high‑altitude journey to record them. On this day the air was fresh and clear after heavy snow. Shadows flowed from the undulating slopes around a warm island of sand that the chiru were heading for, leaving braided footprints in their wake. From his vantage point a kilometre away (more than half a mile), Shangzhen drew the contrasting elements together before they vanished into the warmth of sun and sand.

Face of deception by Ripan Biswas

Winner 2019, Animal Portraits

© Ripan Biswas - Wildlife Photographer of the Year

© Ripan Biswas – Wildlife Photographer of the Year

It may look like an ant, but then count its legs – and note those palps either side of the folded fangs. Ripan was photographing a red weaver ant colony in the subtropical forest of India’s Buxa Tiger Reserve, in West Bengal, when he spotted the odd-looking ant. On a close look, he realised it was a tiny ant-mimicking crab spider, just 5 millimetres long.

The lens — reverse-mounted, to allow such an extreme close-up — was so near to the creature that the diminutive arachnid seems to have been able to see its reflection and is raising its legs as a warning.

Pondworld by Manuel Plaickner

Winner 2019, Behaviour: Amphibians and Reptiles

© Manuel Plaickner - Wildlife Photographer of the Year

© Manuel Plaickner – Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Every spring, for more than a decade, Manuel had followed the mass migration of common frogs in South Tyrol, Italy. Rising spring temperatures stir the frogs to emerge from the sheltered spots where they spent the winter (often under rocks or wood or even buried at the bottom of ponds). They need to breed and head straight for water, usually to where they themselves were spawned.

In South Tyrol there are relatively few ponds where massive numbers of frogs still congregate for spawning, and activity peaks after just a few days. Manuel immersed himself in one of the larger ponds, at the edge of woodland, where several hundred frogs had gathered in clear water. He watched the spawn build up until the moment arrived for the picture he had in mind – soft natural light, lingering frogs, harmonious colours and dreamy reflections. Within a few days the frogs had gone.

Land of the eagle by Audun Rikardsen

Winner 2019, Behaviour: Birds

© Audun Rikardsen - Wildlife Photographer of the Year

© Audun Rikardsen – Wildlife Photographer of the Year

High on a ledge, on the coast near his home in northern Norway, Audun carefully positioned an old tree branch that he hoped would make a perfect golden eagle lookout. To this he bolted a tripod head with a camera, flashes and motion sensor attached, and built himself a hide a short distance away. From time to time, he left roadkill carrion nearby.

Very gradually – over the next three years – a golden eagle got used to the camera and started to use the branch regularly to survey the coast below.

For their size – the weight of a domestic cat but with wings spanning more than 2 metres (61/2 feet) – golden eagles are surprisingly fast and agile, soaring, gliding, diving and performing spectacular, undulating display flights. Audun’s painstaking work captures the eagle’s power as it comes in to land, talons outstretched, poised for a commanding view of its coastal realm.

The architectural army by Daniel Kronauer

Winner 2019, Behaviour: Invertebrates

©Daniel Kronauer / Wildlife Photographer of the Year

©Daniel Kronauer / Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Daniel tracked the colony of nomadic army ants as it moved through the rainforest near La Selva Biological Station, northeastern Costa Rica. While it was still dark, the ants would use their bodies to build a new daytime nest — called a bivouac — to house the queen and larvae.

Most of their nests were hidden by vegetation but one night the colony assembled in the open, against a fallen branch and two large leaves that were evenly spaced and of similar height, prompting a structure spanning 50 centimetres and resembling ‘a living cathedral with three naves’.

Daniel very gently positioned his camera on the forest floor within centimetres of the nest, using a wide angle to take in its environment, but wary of upsetting a few hundred thousand army ants. ‘You mustn’t breathe in their direction or touch anything connected to the bivouac,’ he says. The result was a perfect illustration of the concept of an insect society as a superorganism.

The equal match by Ingo Arndt

Joint Winner 2019, Behaviour: Mammals

©Ingo Arndt / Wildlife Photographer of the Year

©Ingo Arndt / Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Fur flies as the puma launches her attack on the guanaco. For Ingo, the picture marked the culmination of seven months tracking wild pumas on foot, enduring extreme cold and biting winds in the Torres del Paine region of Patagonia, Chile. The female was Ingo’s main subject and was used to his presence. But to record an attack, he had to be facing both prey and puma. This required spotting a potential target – here a big male guanaco grazing apart from his herd on a small hill – and then positioning himself downwind, facing the likely direction the puma would come from. To monitor her movements when she was out of his sight, he positioned his two trackers so they could keep watch with binoculars and radio Ingo as the female approached her prey.

For half an hour, she crept up on the guanaco. The light was perfect, bright enough for a fast exposure but softened by thin cloud, and Ingo was in the right position. When the puma was within about 10 metres, she sprinted and jumped. As her claws made contact, the guanaco twisted to the side, his last grassy mouthful flying in the wind. The puma then leapt on his back and tried to deliver a crushing bite to his neck.

The garden of eels by David Doubilet

Winner 2019, Under Water

©David Doubilet / Wildlife Photographer of the Year

©David Doubilet / Wildlife Photographer of the Year

The colony of garden eels was one of the largest David had ever seen, at least two thirds the size of a football field, stretching down a steep sandy slope off Dauin, in the Philippines – a cornerstone of the famous Coral Triangle. He rolled off the boat in the shallows and descended along the colony edge, deciding where to set up his kit. He had long awaited this chance, sketching out an ideal portrait of the colony back in his studio and designing an underwater remote system to realise his ambition.

He gradually perfected the set-up, each time leaving an object where the camera had been so as not to surprise the eels when it reappeared. Several days later – now familiar with the eels’ rhythms and the path of the light – he began to get images he liked. When a small wrasse led a slender cornetfish through the gently swaying forms, he had his shot.

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