And The Award For Best Picture Goes To....

More than 450 photographers submitted a shot to SciFri's Winter Nature Photo Contest, and thousands of fans helped choose a winner. Contest judge Clay Bolt discusses the winning entry, and what makes for a prize-winning shot. Plus, tips for budding nature photographers.

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IRA FLATOW, HOST:

I'm Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY. Now, for the moment we've all been waiting for. The judge has spoken, the people have voted, and we have a winner of our winter nature photo contest. We'd like to thank all of you for entering the contest. Over almost 500 entries. And here to talk about the winner is our senior producer Annette Heist who was a big - chief honcho on this contest.

(LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: Put a lot of work in on this.

ANNETTE HEIST, BYLINE: Hi, Ira. It was a lot of work for everyone. The web people: Julie Leibach and Leslie Taylor. So thanks for the team. And the winner - drum roll, please. Jim Stroner of Minnetonka, Minnesota gets bragging rights for his photo of a Black Bear peeking out of its den.

FLATOW: It's a great photo.

HEIST: It's a great photo. Have some snow in there, and we're going to actually talk with Mr. Stroner in a couple of minutes, if he hasn't quit his day job and flown off to the Bahamas.

(LAUGHTER)

HEIST: He'll be on to join us to tell us how he got that shot.

FLATOW: And if you want to see the photo, go to our website at sciencefriday.com/photocontest to see the photo. And there are other - 10 other finalists on that contest. All of them had great shots. It was tough picking the winner.

HEIST: They - there were some really great shots. And joining us now to talk more about the winning photo and some of those runners-up is the judge of the contest, Clay Bolt. He's a professional photographer based out of Greenville, South Carolina, and he's also one of the organizers of Meet Your Neighbours. And we can talk more about that with Clay. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY, Clay.

CLAY BOLT: Thank you. It's a pleasure to be here.

FLATOW: Let's talk about some of the shots you've picked for your top 10. Let's go through them. They're on our website and people can go there to look at them. The first one is called, T(ph)? It's taken in the city. It shows some birds flying near a river. It was taken by Georgia Avery.

HEIST: "Seeking Shelter" it's called.

FLATOW: "Seeking Shelter."

BOLT: Yes.

FLATOW: Why did you like that?

BOLT: Well, this photo works for me in a lot of different ways. I mean, it's obviously a beautiful winter scene...

HEIST: Can I interrupt for one second?

BOLT: Yes.

HEIST: Can I describe just a little bit for people who might not be near a computer? Photo - photography on the radio.

(LAUGHTER)

HEIST: It's taken in a town. There are some buildings in the background - looks kind of European. And we see some birds and - OK, Clay, take it from there.

BOLT: Thanks. So obviously it's a, you know, a beautiful winter scene. Lots of movement, sort of a decisive moment of these beautiful sea gulls flying across the frame. But I think what I really liked about this image is that the photographer chose to focus on a species of wildlife that we tend to overlook. You know? If you think about people who live cities, you know, they - we have squirrels and pigeons and all these other things that people just basically ignore, because it's so commonly seen. And so, you know, one of my focuses with what I do is to try to help people realize that wildlife lives everywhere, not just the national park or somewhere like that. So the photographer did a really good job of capturing the beauty of a species that we sometimes take for granted.

FLATOW: And there's the second shot, that's one of our 10 finalists, that shows a surfer on a very lonely beach carrying a surf board. Done by Deb Braun, and is called "Out of Time He'll Fly." And it's black - it almost black and white, it looks like.

BOLT: It, yeah, it is. And, you know, I think this is not - this one of the least obvious winter images that I chose. But to be honest, one of the things that makes a great photograph is that, you know, this - the photographer allows the viewer to bring something to the image. And so for me, I'm not a person who likes to laud in the sun. I'm very pale. I sunburn. I love to go to the beach in the winter time and I really identified with this lone surfer out on the beach. No one else there. Seems to have it to themselves, and I just thought it was a beautiful composition and really like the image.

FLATOW: Yeah. There was one that I - that was my personal favorite that I really liked. It's the "Early Morning Duck Hunt."

BOLT: Oh, yes. Yeah.

FLATOW: Beautiful picture.

BOLT: Yeah. It really is. A beautiful simple composition, and that's one of the things that I really like and one of the things that - I think that beginning photographers tend to put too much information into the image. Whereas if you - if this image of two duck hunters and a dog walking down a road early morning, frost is on the plants. And it just - it really speaks volumes with very little graphic elements. So fantastic photograph.

FLATOW: It's by Kevin Farron and the exact title is "Frosty Morning Duck Hunt," and it really says winter. It's beautifully framed. I mean, and there's a gorgeous giant sun in the mist.

BOLT: Absolutely.

FLATOW: It's almost as if there were actors paid to do this.

(LAUGHTER)

HEIST: It does look like it's from a movie, from a movie set, yeah.

FLATOW: And it's like a - well, not just a movie set, but it's like the billboard on the front of it, you know, what names would be on it.

BOLT: It'd make a great magazine cover.

HEIST: Yeah, it is beautiful. So there's another one that you chose, Clay, that when I looked through the 500 entries, this one didn't catch my eye. But after you, sort of, pointed it out when we spoke, I thought this was a really nice picture, one of a dog reflected in a window. Now a lot of people submitted shots of their pets, but this one was special. Tell us why you chose it.

BOLT: Right. So people love to take photographs of their pets in wintertime, looking out the window longingly. But what I really liked about this image is they actually made the photograph from the outside looking in, and it's nice because you don't immediately see the dog looking through that window. You see the icicles covering the branches, and then suddenly this cute little dog appears.

And, you know, I think a great photographer can take a subject that's been a million times and actually put a unique spin on it. And I think that the photographer did a good job.

FLATOW: It's called "Let Me Out," and it's by Theresa Heizelman. I think that's how you pronounce it. And what do you think they all have in common that makes them all finalists or winners?

BOLT: I think all of the images shows either brought something to the table as far as, you know, a unique perspective. Most of the images that I chose are rather quiet images, which is something that I typically like. And I think that's one of the things that, you know, down on South Carolina, we don't get very much wintery weather. But all of these images really spoke to me as far as what it feels like in wintertime.

HEIST: And you can see them, if you want to follow along at home, by going to sciencefriday.com/photocontest.

FLATOW: And you can call in now, if you'd like to talk about the photos and talk with Clay Bolt, our photographer judge: 1-800-989-8255. You can tweet us, @scifri, S-C-I-F-R-I. And go to our website and look at them. Let's continue. Let's talk about our winner.

HEIST: I think we have him on the line, is that right, Jim Stroner, the photographer of our winning photograph. He's from Minnetonka, Minnesota, but I think he's talking to us from Florida. Are you there, Mr. Stroner?

JIM STRONER: Yes, I'm here.

HEIST: Hi. Congratulations.

STRONER: Thank you very much.

HEIST: How do you feel? Are you on your way to Disney World?

(LAUGHTER)

STRONER: No. I'm actually at the National Training Center photographing my niece's college softball game.

FLATOW: There you go.

HEIST: So the shot that you took is of a bear coming out of a den. We described it earlier, with some snow on it. Tell us how you got that shot.

STRONER: Well, the bear is part of a long-term research study out of the Wildlife Research Institute in Ely, Minnesota, and we were out visiting her den, adjusting a camera system that we actually have in her den recording the birth of her cubs. And she was in the den nursing her cubs and then she finished nursing her cubs. And I thought there might a chance that she might come to the opening of the den.

So I moved quickly around to the side of den where the opening was, laid down into the snow and waited. And I was lucky enough to have her come out, lick some snow, and then step partly out of the den.

HEIST: And you were ready there with your camera?

STRONER: I was ready.

FLATOW: How many pictures did you take to get the final one?

STRONER: Of her actually coming out of the den, there was three shots.

FLATOW: You're like Ansel Adams.

(LAUGHTER)

HEIST: Shot of a lifetime.

STRONER: All I was thinking is I hope I got the exposure right. I hope it's in focus.

HEIST: Uh-huh. How long have you been taking photographs?

STRONER: I've been taking digital photographs seriously since about 2005, but I've been taking pictures most of my life. I started out as a young child.

HEIST: OK. It's a beautiful photograph. Clay, what did you think of it?

BOLT: Well, I think it's a great moment. And I think that's one of the things that photographers can do for the viewers, is take them into a place or show them something that they wouldn't normally see otherwise. And for me, I love black bears. We have, you know, a good population there where I live, and I would love to see a moment like this. So Jim has done a fantastic job of showing us this cool moment in nature.

HEIST: All right. Well, thank you, Jim, for talking to us. Congratulations.

STRONER: Thank you very much.

FLATOW: Good luck with your day photos.

(LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: Clay, let's get back to you. Let's talk a bit about what you like the most. What was your favorite picture?

BOLT: I have to say, you know, of all the winners, I really loved the photograph of the boreal owl. It was a beautiful picture. And I just love the simplicity of the photograph. Again, you know, just a couple of elements that really makes it work, the snow falling, you know, out of focus. And so I was really sort of amazed by this image.

HEIST: I have to agree. I think that was probably my favorite out of the - of all the entries that we got. I want to ask you, Clay, about the Meet Your Neighbors project. I know that you're one of the founders. And we have some of the photos that you have associated with that project on our website if people want to go look at those. Tell us what the Meet Your Neighbors project is.

BOLT: So it's an international nature photography project, and the focus of the project is to help connect people with the wildlife that lives within their own community. I think so often we're informed about nature from television about things that are in far away places. And so each of our photographers - and we're actually in over 40 locations around the world at this point. Each of our photographers not only make these beautiful images, but they go out into their communities. They give talks. They lead workshops.

They have exhibits to show people that you have salamanders in your backyard or damselflies or whatever it may be to make these species real for people. And the point of that is to help, you know, if someone gets that connection, and particularly with children, I believe if a child can get hooked into nature at an early age, the likelihood that they're going to grow up and care about conservation, care about wildlife is going to be greatly increased. And it also just enriches peoples lives.

And so the idea that someone could go out into their backyard and see these really amazing species that are quite often common - we usually focus on common species - is a great joy. And the project seems to continue to grow after four years.

FLATOW: Well, we should warn people that, unlike Jim Stroner, who's a professional, you should not go poking into a bear's den trying to take a picture...

HEIST: Right. So there are - I did talk with him about that bear, and that bear is a research bear. It is habituated to some of the researchers. And so, yeah, you don't want to try to duplicate that shot.

BOLT: Right. And the good thing is most of our species will not eat you. We're focusing on insects...

(LAUGHTER)

BOLT: ...and very tiny things. Unless, you know, it's a very big - we do have some large bugs down here in South Carolina, but not quite that big.

HEIST: I wanted to ask you to describe a little bit about the field studio style that your photographers shoot - in which your photographers shoot. Can you tell us a little bit about that?

BOLT: Sure. So we all - we photograph all of our species on a brightly lit white background. And sometimes the people see this, they say to me, that's not natural. That's not nature. But the reason we do this is to help people who are not used to finding these small creatures. We're trying to give them a head start. So provide a bridge so that they'll look more closely. And so all of these species are photographed out in the field in what we call the field studio.

It's usually a piece of white plastic that I call Acrylite. In the UK and Europe, they have a material that's called Perspex they use. So basically, we put the subjects on this set, we have a flash underneath the set and one above, and it creates this beautiful monolight portrait of, you know, something that might just be an insect. But once you photograph it in this style, it has this beautiful luminosity to it that really catches peoples' attention.

FLATOW: Uh huh. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. I am Ira Flatow along with Annette Heist and Clay Bolt. Our number, 1-800-989-8255. Megan from Jacksonville, Florida. Hi, Megan.

MEGAN: Hi. Good afternoon, everybody.

FLATOW: Hey, there.

MEGAN: Thanks for having me on. This is a subject that's very near and dear to me, and I just wanted to thank you for covering it. I'm a wildlife photographer here in Jacksonville, Florida and I was thinking, as I'm listening to the show, we don't really get true winters here in Florida. Even though it's chilly, we still get enough warmth to be able to go out and experience wildlife: everything from squirrels and ducks, to raccoons and owls.

And I've been privileged enough to be able to photograph those furry and feathery friends for many years. And it's just fascinating to watch them change along with the seasons, and to be able to be a part of that as a respectful and artistic observer. So thanks for covering this subject.

FLATOW: Do you have a favorite picture of your own that you've taken?

MEGAN: Yes. I was telling that when I called in. They were the raccoon up in a tree in one of our state parks who was chewing on a piece of Laffy Taffy and was having the time of his life...

(LAUGHTER)

MEGAN: ...was looking straight at me as I was taking all of these pictures, and then he proceeded to lay down like, you know, just a big, fat raccoon and just take a nap and could care less that I was down there. And that photograph ended up in a collection of my other works showing at a museum here in town for local wildlife, and it just touched my heart so much. It was fantastic.

FLATOW: Wow.

HEIST: That's great.

FLATOW: Good luck to you, Megan. Thanks for calling.

MEGAN: Thanks. Have a great day.

FLATOW: You too.

MEGAN: Bye.

FLATOW: You got to believe, Clay, that there are a lot of amateur photographers out there who would just love to take wildlife photos. Can you give us one or two pointers about the best way to do that?

BOLT: Absolutely. Well, I think one of the very best things you can do is become a student of science. Learn about the species that you want to photograph, because, you know, it - oftentimes, people say to me, oh, you must have been really lucky to see that. But actually, if you're into photographing wildlife, it oftentimes takes a lot of planning to actually photograph those species.

So understanding when they would be active, where they would live, what their habitat is like, those kinds of things will really help you. And also, just take your time. Relax. Don't feel like every shot have to be, you know, an award-winning picture. The photographers you see in National Geographic and these other magazines shoot thousands of frames. So don't be so hard on yourself. Just take your time and enjoy the process and it will improve your pictures.

FLATOW: I guess learning your equipment, too, what your camera can, cannot do, best way to use it.

BOLT: Absolutely, yeah. I think that just has to be second nature, so that when you're out in the field, you're not fumbling around with exposure and things like that. I mean, you don't really - after a while, you don't really even think about your camera so much anymore.

HEIST: Yeah. I'm still waiting to get to that point...

(LAUGHTER)

HEIST: ...after 20 years. But it's not enough to have the right exposure and good composition. I feel like the photographs that you chose for us and you're a trooper looking at almost 500 photographs, they really have an almost intangible quality that is - well, I guess, hard to describe.

BOLT: Yes. I mean, I - and that's the thing. You know, you can have the best camera in the world, but if you don't really have a connection with your subject, it's going to come through in your picture. It's more than just composition and exposure. It's trying to find that unique perspective and putting a little bit of yourself into your image and not trying to just copy someone else's work that may have won an award or something like that. And I think all of the winners have done that with their work.

FLATOW: Anyway, intangible is good because all artwork gives you a feeling, right? When you look at it, it makes you feel something, good artwork.

BOLT: Yeah.

FLATOW: You really can't describe what the feeling is sometimes.

HEIST: Individual.

FLATOW: Yeah. It's up to everybody. Thank you, Clay, for helping us out here.

BOLT: It was my pleasure. I had a great time doing it.

FLATOW: We ought to give you a coffee mug or something.

(LAUGHTER)

BOLT: Hey, that would be good. I love coffee.

(LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: All right.

HEIST: Thanks, Clay.

FLATOW: Thank you, Annette.

BOLT: Thank you.

HEIST: Thanks, sir.

FLATOW: Thanks for all your hard work on this one.

HEIST: Thanks, everyone.

FLATOW: Annette Heist, senior producer. Clay Bolt is a photographer based in South Carolina. You could see more of his work and all the photographs, all the photographs we talked about are at our website at sciencefriday.com/photocontest. Greg Smith composed our theme music with help today from NPR librarian Kee Malesky. And our photos are up there, go up to our website. It's sciencefriday.com.

Also, Flora Lichtman's Video Pick of the Week is up there. How do you make a pretzel underwater? You'll see that incredible stuff. How to make a knot in water? It's up there on our website. Also, you can get on our mailing list at sciencefriday.com. We also have a new iPhone/iPad app. Brand-new app that's out today. We want you to download it, tell us what you think.

Also, go to Facebook, we're talking all week along @scifri and - Twitter, @scifri. And join our community, we'd love to have you. Have a great weekend. We'll see you next week. I'm Ira Flatow, in New York.

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