Lila Garnett, Audubon’s photo editor, has been a photo editor, consultant, and director for more than 15 years, working at such places as Time, Life, Civilization, Organic Style, and OnEarth before coming to Audubon. One of three judges for this year’s Audubon Magazine Photography Awards, she looked at thousands of images and shared her experience with her fellow editors.
How many submissions did you get this year?
People submitted entries through Nature’s Best Photography magazine, our partner in the contest. This year we received 1,350 entries and a total of 9,361 photos. Our initial edit got that number down to 1,918 images. These were posted in a lightbox platform, so that each judge could rate the entries online before getting together for a final edit.
Who were the judges this year?
They were Kevin Fisher, Audubon’s creative director, Steve Freligh, editor and publisher of Nature’s Best Photography, and me.
How does each of you go about judging each image?
We all approach the judging process from different angles, so it was an interesting process to compare our individual choices and agree on the final contenders. I personally made three passes during the initial rating phase before we met to view and judge the images as a team.
Do you know ahead of time which category a photo is in?
When photographers enter the contest, they have to enter in the professional, amateur, or youth division, so the judges know that. As far as subject matter is concerned, we offered two categories this year: birds, and birds in their habitat. We decided which images were strong contenders in each category.
How do you reconcile differences of opinion among the judges?
Amicable negotiation! There was plenty of common ground between us. We reconciled differences via majority opinions and dialogue. Each of us found photographs to defend passionately, and others that didn’t, in the end, measure up.
Do you enjoy the judging process?
Yes, it was lot of fun. Distilling nearly 2,000 photos down to just seven winners is a lengthy process—and challenging to the eyeballs—but it was exciting to see those winners emerge. Most of the entries came in online, but we do offer a mail-in option for prints. Our Grand Prize winner, by Carol Graham Fryer, was a mailed entry by an amateur photographer, so it was not included in the viewing platform. None of us knew the story behind the picture, but we all found it visually captivating. There is a wonderful tension between the detail of the moss and the hawk’s feathers, and an overall vertiginous sense that’s simultaneously thrilling and disorienting. Such a complex, mysterious picture!
Are there any images that didn't win but stand out in this year's entries?
Yes, and some of these appear in the January-February issue. Patricia Corapi’s black-crowned night-heron did not win a prize, but it made a great cover. Kathryn Okinaga-Gipe was on the 31st floor ledge of a high-rise when she got her shot of a peregrine falcon—which could be straight out of a Hitchcock film. And One Picture, the magazine’s last page, also a night-heron, astonished us all. It’s unusual to get close to a bird with a short lens, and the perspective gave the whole image a hilarious sci-fi quality. Other finalists will be included in our Top 100 gallery.
What struck you about the images this year?
Once we had managed a fairly tight edit of finalists, it became apparent that many of the more interesting pictures did not look like traditional bird photography. The majority of our submissions came from amateurs, and the amateur eye is expanding the visual gamut. We saw a lot of broken rules and off moments. While many did not meet our standards for compelling imagery, the images that did had a peculiar, intimate quality, almost like being “behind the scenes” in nature. We hope that our photo awards will motivate people to approach photographing birds in new ways, and encourage them as well to consider habitat an important part of the mix.