Portraits of the Wild

Defenders of Wildlife’s 2010 photo contest winners. The grand-prize photo won a tour to Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks with expert wildlife photographer Jess Lee.

by Charles Kogod

© David Bolin

© David Bolin
“It was the most mesmerizing sound that I had ever heard,” David Bolin recalls of listening to wolves howling in Denali National Park. Bolin, a photographer from Black Forest, Colorado, was visiting the iconic Alaska park in September 1995 when he first heard that call of the wild.

A decade later, Bolin and his wife were visiting the park again on a snowy January day, and they noticed a group of four or five wolves moving in and out of the woods. The couple spent two or three hours taking pictures of the animals despite the blustery conditions. As the afternoon light was fading, David made this haunting portrait with a long lens attached to his camera.

Bolin’s wife, Debra, first realized this shot was special. She was downloading the images to their laptop computer and called it to his attention. “She’s an artist and has a better eye than I do,” he says. To Bolin, the image speaks of the wolf’s will to live—its tenacity in the face of adversity.  

The picture obviously struck a chord with the judges of Defenders’ photo contest, who named this as one of 10 finalists, and with the 17,041 people who picked this as their favorite image in an online poll conducted in March.  As the contest’s grand-prize winner, Bolin will be going on an all-expenses-paid photography tour of Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks this fall, courtesy of professional wildlife photographer Jess Lee.

Bolin’s winning shot was one of more than 10,000 entries in this, our first photo contest. We were astounded and elated by the quality and variety of the photos you sent us. From Alaska to Antarctica, and from the Serengeti to the Great Plains, your photos spanned the spectrum of Earth’s wild creatures and wild lands.  We present here a portfolio of some of the winning images.


Grizzly Bears, © Jim Chagares

© Jim Chagares

Jim Chagares, a portrait photographer from Richmond, Indiana, took this photograph of three bears feasting on a salmon from the observation platform at Brooks Falls in Katmai National Park and Preserve in Alaska. Chagares used a 500mm lens to frame this tight composition. “I learned from the old masters,” says Chagares about his artistic training, which leads him to search for classical compositions of his subjects—whether people or wildlife.


Red Fox, © Ron Charest

© Ron Charest

Ron Charest, of Dover, Delaware, wanted to get an image of a red fox in mid-pounce when he was photographing the animals at Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge in winter. His subject was moving quickly in pursuit of prey he couldn’t see, so he fired off many shots without having time to check the results in the field. When he got home and looked at the first few images on his computer, he was initially disappointed that he hadn’t gotten the photo he hoped for. Then he saw this frame and was astonished to see the fox’s meal “looking right at me.” “I’ve never seen anything quite like this,” Charest says of his winning shot.


Seals, © Nathan Renn

© Nathan Renn

Driving south of Big Sur, California, last September, photographer Nathan Renn spotted a turnoff overlooking a large group of seals on the beach below the road. He pulled off and put a zoom lens on his camera and watched the seals, hoping to catch a memorable moment. He saw a seal scratching and had just enough time to compose and shoot one frame. “That’s a good one,” he said to himself when he saw the image on his camera viewing screen. The Flagstaff, Arizona, resident knows his wildlife: He volunteers for local groups that relocate prairie dogs to safe locations and seek to return Mexican gray wolves to the Grand Canyon region.

Wild Places:

Sunset: Key West Wildlife Refuge, © Matthew Potenski

© Matthew Potenski

Marine biologist Matthew Potenski, of Sayreville, New Jersey, doesn’t mind getting wet if it helps him get a great photo. While watching “one of the most dramatic sunsets I’ve ever seen in my life” in Florida’s Marquesas Keys (part of the Key West National Wildlife Refuge), Potenski realized that the scene needed something else to make it special. He saw a single mangrove that he used as a foreground to offset the dramatic sky. To get his framing perfect, he sat in around three feet of water (being careful to keep his camera raised above water level) and under-exposed the image slightly to capture the intensity of the lighting. This image literally displays the calm before the storm, Potenski says, because a powerful hurricane ripped through the area a day later.  

Wild Places:

Forest, © Pat Ulrich

© Pat Ulrich

Hiking through a forest at Tomales Bay State Park in northern California, Pat Ulrich thought the best light was gone for the day. So the resident of Albany, California, packed away his camera and tripod, and was headed to the car when suddenly the sky changed and “magic came out of nowhere,” he says. He fumbled to get his camera out of his bag and managed to shoot several hand-held images of sunlight streaming through the branches of the coastal live oaks. Getting the correct exposure of the dark trees, white fog and direct sunlight was challenging, so he took his shots at different settings and ended up liking the frame that was slightly overexposed. He felt the quality of the light and the fog accentuated the mysterious feeling of the forest.

Wild Places:

Forest Landscape, © David Bahr

© David Bahr

It was raining so hard that David Bahr of Nederland, Colorado, almost cancelled his camping trip to the nearby Indian Peaks Wilderness Area, located in Arapaho and Roosevelt national forests. It looked like one of those weekends “you’re sure you’re going to be tent-bound the whole time,” he says. But he decided to go anyway, and spent the night listening to the sound of rain pounding on his tent. At dawn, the rain stopped and the clouds broke just long enough for him to put his camera on a tripod and make this dramatic landscape looking east from the Continental Divide. Bahr always carries a tripod with him, even though it means extra weight in his pack. “It makes all of the difference because the early morning light is my favorite and I like to use as low an ISO [film speed] as possible,” he says. Bahr exposed this frame for around 15 seconds trying to coax details out of the shadows but not overexpose light areas in the center of the frame.



Cape Buffalo, © Garrett Ziegler

© Garrett Ziegler

Barn Owl, © Preston Hone

© Preston Hone

Upper Mammoth Hot Springs, © David Cobb

© David Cobb

British red fox, © Charles L. Joseph

© Charles L. Joseph

Eagles, © Phyllis Picardi

© Phyllis Picardi

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