Capturing Images of Nature: The Stories Behind Derek Nielsen’s Award-Winning Photography
After more than 15 years traveling the world capturing images of nature, in 2020 I submitted a few images into international competitions—and was blown away by the response from the international art community. Five of my favorite images were acknowledged as award-winning images of nature.
Today, I want to share with you the immense, hidden journey behind each of these images, in the hopes that it inspires you—and many others—to consider how you can aid in the conservation of these landscapes and animals.
One way to help the cause (and fill your space with stunning images of nature at the same time) is purchasing some of the art on the site. For every sale of my award-winning photography, as well as all my works, I donate a portion of the proceeds directly to environmental organizations doing work to help the subjects represented in each photograph.
3 Antarctic Stooges | International Monochrome Photography Awards
In the beginning of 2020, while the world was just learning about COVID-19, I was on my way to explore the frozen continent of Antarctica aboard the G Expedition. I made the journey in the hopes of capturing multiple images of nature, of course. But there was one shot in particular I thought would tell the story of the tundra’s scale: a lone penguin traversing the vast ice.
A bonus of the trip was a sea kayaking excursion, which provided an extremely intimate view of the wildlife. As the adventure went on, I worried less about falling into the open, frozen waters, and more about the composition of each image. And, while our group was paddling around enormous chunks of ice and populous penguin colonies, I spotted it: a lone penguin atop a large, floating iceberg. However, when I paddled closer for a better look, I realized it was not one, but three penguins. I sat for a few moments, letting the current pull me along, as I composed image after image.
My favorite of the bunch, 3 Antarctic Stooges, shows that trio of penguins in contrast to a smooth, crisp sheet of ice smoothly crossing the scene from left to right. What I personally love most about this image is the different expressive movements—each creature has its own unique personality.
Frozen Paradise | International Monochrome Photography Awards
and International Photography Awards
To me, Frozen Paradise encapsulates the overall sensation of experiencing the landscape of Antarctica. Ice, rock and dramatic skies—the bold images of nature you find in Antarctica lend themselves quite well to black and white photography. The deep blue waters and black mountains make a perfect contrast to the bright white ice.
The second, color image captures the color gradients your eyes will absorb while traveling the frozen continent: shades of blue, black and white. Following a gorgeous morning of exploration, I snapped this panoramic image from the deck of a ship, while waiting for the rest of the passengers to board. This photo has mystery, invokes the imagination and reignites my love for travel everytime I see it.
Giant Crossing | International Photography Awards
With the natural beauty of Borneo as its backdrop, Giant Crossing is one of my favorite photographs in my entire collection. In the world’s third-largest island nation, rivers flow through dense jungles filled with all kinds of exotic animals.
While we were on a longboat tour searching for anything we could find, I spotted what appeared to be a large boulder at the back of a clearing in the tall grasses. Thinking it might be an elephant, I asked the boat driver to switch from the roaring gas motor to the quieter electric motor. As still and quiet as possible, he guided the boat to a small channel off the main river. There, the giant emerged right in front of us. All of us, including the elephant, were surprised. But, because we remained calm, he did not run off or charge.
Instead, we slowly backed away towards the main channel and waited patiently for him to reemerge. And, after a few minutes, he did, approaching the riverbank to feed and plot his crossing. Snap, snap, snap. This image was created. Shortly after this image, the great creature gently entered the water. I had never seen an elephant swim before. As this magnificent animal crossed right in front of me, I knew it was an encounter I would never forget.
Emperor on Ice | International Photography Awards
Emperor on Ice is an image I never dreamed I’d be able to capture. The truth of the matter is I was lucky to capture it at all. At one point on the same 2020 trip to Antarctica where I captured 3 Antarctic Stooges, I was on a small transport boat called a Zodiac, used to safely explore ice-filled waters and tender to the mainland. We were looking for interesting ice formations, whales, penguins and different types of seals when our driver heard over the radio, “big bird has been sighted. Big bird has been sighted.”
The driver asked us to secure ourselves and our belongings and quickly sped off. When we arrived at “big bird’s” location, we got in line behind a few other tourist-toting Zodiac’s, carefully so as not to disturb the reason for the gathering: an EMPEROR PENGUIN! Truly a surprise, as lone members of the species are not typically not found as far from their colonies as this one was.
After feverishly grabbing a lens and camera, not wanting to miss a rare photographic opportunity, I rifled off dozens of images to document the moment. After a few minutes, the emperor walked around on his dimpled, striated iceberg in search of an entrance back into the water. It was at this moment I captured the example of award-winning photography seen above. Then, he found his entrance to the sea and just like that he was gone.
The Emotions of Antarctica | International Photography Awards
I find The Emotions of Antarctica to be one the most moving images of nature I’ve ever captured. So many things had to align perfectly that evening for this image to even be possible.
While on expedition along the Antarctic coast, I camped on the mainland for one night. When this one night would take place was up to the expedition leader and captain of the ship, and based on several factors, weather conditions being most important. Indeed, our first attempt was cancelled due to high winds. But the night before I captured this image, we were treated to a magnificently large full moon rising over the mountains, and permission was granted to make camp the following night.
After arriving on shore, setting up tents and storing our gear, we headed down to the water’s edge for a concert by the ship’s brilliant musician, Pablo Cantua. While I took in the surroundings and set up my camera and tripod, I listened as he sang and played an acoustic guitar. I attached my 300mm lens and waited for the moon to rise full over the mountains and ocean as it had the night before. And then it was there: a big ball of fire, rippling and tinted by the atmosphere. In my entire life I have only seen a handful of things as beautiful—and none accompanied by newfound friends and beautiful music. The experience moved me on an emotional level. The purity of it all. A place where nature is free to rule with very little contact from the outside world.
It wasn’t until the next morning, while reviewing my images from the night before, that I noticed I’d captured a humpback whale breaching the water. My jaw dropped. I couldn’t believe my eyes. Just when you think you’ve found the perfect composition, nature always finds a way to make it better.
Award-winning photography is just the beginning
While my photography career began almost two decades ago, it wasn’t until about a year ago that I realized the impact my work could have on the planet’s wildlife and landscapes I love. Thus began my true calling, to educate the world about the importance of preserving our greatest resources has just begun. And Derek Nielsen Photography was born, photography for change and the merging of my two greatest passions: conservation and art.
When you purchase any of my award-winning photography, or any of the works in my gallery, at least 10% of the proceeds will go to help preserve and protect the subject matter.
I plan to keep nominating my images of nature for awards, too, in the hopes that it will bring further attention to the plight of our planet—and the ways in which we can all help.