An Audubon Magazine Photography Awards Judge Discusses the Process

Steve Freligh gives a behind-the-scenes look into the inner workings of the annual event.

Every year our art department partners with Nature’s Best Photography to sort through thousands of images submitted to Audubon’s photography awards. The editor-in-chief and publisher of Nature’s Best Photography, Steve Freligh, lends his expert eye to help choose the winning photos—and those that simply stand out. We spoke with him about what it means to be a judge. 


Can you tell me a little bit about your background with Nature’s Best Photography?

Nature's Best Photography was launched in 1995 with the mission to celebrate nature through the art of photography. As one of the founders, I brought more than 10 years' experience in photography and publishing to the creative team (just three people at the time) and understood the power of imagery to engage and motivate the public.


How long have you been judging images? 

I began judging my own pictures when I was in my teens as I shot for local papers and myself. I loved taking pictures and critiquing what I did right and what went wrong with each and every shot. It wasn't until I was hired as a photo editor for a major publication in my mid-twenties that I had the opportunity to review and edit large bodies of work submitted by some of the most talented nature photographers from around the globe. I learned a lot from these shooters and gained unique insight into the challenges they face in the field, and I believe they have made me a better editor, judge, and publisher.

What do you look for when you’re sorting through pictures?

I usually go through the entire collection of submitted images before I begin the judging process. That way I have a general sense of the overall quality level and can make better decisions as I select entries for the next round of judging. I look for images that catch my eye immediately, whether it's the light, color, or composition of the shot that separates it from the rest. I then inspect them further for technical qualities of clarity and focus before rating the entry.


Was there one image that stuck out for you this year?

I was impressed by so many of the entries this year, but the shot of a mitred parakeet from Ben Knoot was one of my favorites from the beginning. It's always nice to see young, emerging photographers deliver exciting new perspectives of nature.


How long does it usually take you?

I take judging very seriously and try to allow plenty of time for the judging process. I would say on average it takes about a month for the initial judging of the Audubon Magazine Photography Awards and then longer as the judges review the high-resolution files to make the final selections. Often I go back to review the total number of images I selected and the votes I have given them to make sure I've made the best choices. 


When do you know that you’re looking at a winner?

Winners seem to stand out right away. They display strong technical and creative qualities and reveal interesting behavior and often artistic perspectives. It's a process of elimination through votes by the judges, followed by direct discussions and debates between judges on specific preferences and personal favorites. Ultimately, it is a unanimous decision. 


What are some of the interesting aspects of working with Audubon?

I have always been a fan of Audubon magazine, and as an emerging photographer in my teens, I often used the publication for inspiration. Throughout my career I continued to admire the portfolios of featured photographers in Audubon, and today it is a true pleasure to be working with such a creative and experienced staff in judging bird photography at its best.

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