Nature in all its many forms may be a ubiquitous subject in photography, but it takes exceptional talent to be considered among the top nature photographers. Fortunately, history has presented us with true visionaries in the field, and their work continues to be the gold standard.

It would be impossible to list them all here, but these six have set the bar for what can be achieved when you bring a camera and an imagination to the outdoors.

1. Ansel Adams (1902-1984)

Ansel Adams was a landscape photographer who is often referred to as the “grandfather” of the genre. His work is defined by its use of full tonal range—a photography technique that seeks to capture the entire spectrum of color in the frame, from the darkest blacks to the lightest whites. 

Even more so, Adams is known for his conservation photography, including his active role as an early member of the Sierra Club. His work was instrumental in facilitating the expansion of the National Park system, and in 1963 he was awarded the Conservation Service Award by the Department of the Interior, followed by the Presidential Freedom Award in 1980.

teton and river
Source:Wikimedia Common
“The Tetons and the Snake River,” photographed by Ansel Adams in 1942.

2. Galen Rowell (1940-2002)

Photojournalist Galen Rowell brought the wilderness to the people through images that took the viewer along on his adventures through the great outdoors. Rowell was known for centering himself in the scene, giving enhanced context to his photos by positioning the adventurer within the realm of exploration. He was also deeply committed to environmental advocacy, and won the Ansel Adams Award for Conservation Photography in 1984. To get a feel for his techniques, check out Rowell’s 1986 how-to book Mountain Light: In Search of the Dynamic Landscape.  

3. Cristina Mittermeier (1966-)

Cristina Mittermeier is a marine biologist, activist, and photojournalist who has pioneered the field of ocean conservation photography. Her passion for ocean health and activism can be seen throughout her work, as well as through her dedication to supporting other photographers in their conservation goals. In 2005, Mittermeier founded the International League of Conservation Photographers (ILCP), a platform for environmentally focused photographers; and in 2014, she co-founded SeaLegacy, an art collective working to turn the tides on oceanic destruction.

4. Ami Vitale (1971-)

Ami Vitale is a renowned photojournalist and documentary filmmaker who tells compelling stories about the wild creatures we share the planet with. Through her lens, Vitale has allowed us to witness such awe-inspiring feats as the release of pandas and white rhinos back into the wild, and has also helped spread awareness about human-wildlife conflicts around the globe. She’s received ample amounts of much-deserved recognition for her talents and her mission—most recently winning the National Geographic Photo of the Decade award in 2020.

man with rhino
One of Ami Vitale’s best known photographs, showing a rhino named Kilifi and his caretaker Kamara at the Lewa Conservancy in Kenya.

5. Eliot Porter (1901-1990)

It was a failed book proposal for a collection of black and white images of birds that spurred Eliot Porter on to becoming the master of color photography he is known as today. He was one of the first professional photographers to shoot with Kodachrome, an early color film released in 1935, and his work is saturated both literally and figuratively with an appreciation for the many colors of nature and the creatures within it. Published works include American Birds: 10 Photographs in Color (1953) and In Wilderness is the Preservation of the World (1962).

6. Art Wolfe (1951-)

Perhaps the best way to encapsulate Art Wolfe’s career is to share a quote from William Conway, the former president of the Wildlife Conservation Society, who once referred to Wolfe as a “prolific and sensitive recorder of a rapidly vanishing natural world.” Wolfe has spent his career devoted to capturing epic—and, in some cases, fast disappearing—landscapes across all of the continents, and has had his work published in more than 60 books, including Rainforest of the World and The Art of Photographing Nature. He is a fellow of the ILCP, and the former host of Travels to the Edge with Art Wolfe, a public education television series.

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