Photographers Name the Top 40 Nature Images of All Time

July 15, 2010


To observe the 40th anniversary of Earth Day, April 22nd, the International League of Conservation Photographers ( challenged its members to come up with the definitive list of the top 40 nature photographs of all time. 

Describing the effort as "both an honor and a tremendous challenge," the organization cautioned that "it may not be possible for anyone to create a definitive selection of the 40 best," but "we decided to try anyway."

More than a hundred of ILCP's member photographers, all of whom devote a significant portion of their professional careers to advance conservation goals, were each asked to nominate three unranked images as their own personal choices. The organization "encouraged (them) to consider aesthetics, uniqueness, historical and scientific significance, or contribution to conservation efforts" in their selections, according to a statement, but they "were not permitted to self-nominate."

Sixty-five members responded to the survey, cumulatively nominating approximately a hundred different images. Once all were received, determining the top 40 essentially became an exercise in numerical tabulation, according to ILCP Executive Director Justin Black, who supervised the project. While information on which pictures were the most popular was not released, Black did report that the greatest number of nominations any top 40 selection received was nine, while the least was two.

As with any such historical effort (like choosing the greatest baseball team ever), the results heavily represent contemporary photography. Altogether, the work of 25 different photographers was included in the final all-time selections, 18 of whom are still living.

Given the ILCP's strong links with National Geographic, where approximately a third of their fellows have worked, it's not surprising that about half of the top 40 photos, shot by 10 of the 25 selected photographers, had previously appeared in that magazine. Former NG contributor Jim Brandenburg topped the list with four selections, followed by Frans Lanting, Michael Nichols and Chris Johns, the current Geographic Editor in Chief, with three each.

Given the ILCP membership's strong emphasis on photojournalism, Black said, "I'd have been surprised if the selections reflected more of an historic or artistic perspective." But those genres are represented in the collection as well, including two images each by Ansel Adams and Eliot Porter, and one each by Edward Weston, George Shiras (the oldest selection at over 100 years) and Minor White, whose complex black-and-white abstract of a Utah geological formation stands in vivid contrast to much of the other included work.

Perhaps the most unexpected image to be included in the top 40 nature photographs of all time was not taken by a working photographer at all, but rather by an astronaut. As one of the first three humans to orbit the moon aboard Apollo 8 in December, 1968, William Anders photographed the Earth half in darkness rising beyond the moon's horizon, the first human view of the planet from distant space.

Although chosen as the greatest nature images of all time, the online picture gallery hosting them was significantly short-lived, lasting less than two months "due to licensing restrictions," Justin Black explained. "A number of the images were from non-ILCP photographers or institutions, and display rights were granted for a limited time only."

Nevertheless, a selection of the top 40 can still be found on the NatGeo News Watch at:, and at press time, thumbnails of all forty images were still available online at: .


Roger Archibald is photo editor for the SEJournal. 

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