Chris Packham's Countryfile Calendar tips

Veteran Countryfile Calendar judge Chris Packham looks back at some of his favourite winners and discusses what it takes to create an outstanding photograph.

13th June 2014
©Brian Hancox

Every year, the thousands of entries in the Countryfile Photographic Competition offer up some truly wonderful images and worthy winners. I remember them all: they are tattooed onto my memory as pictures that I wish I’d been able to take myself.

I analyse and reanalyse the reasons that they succeed so that I can not only enjoy their near-perfection, but also critically learn what it is that makes them work. Which elements and constructions have been adeptly fused by the artists?

Cows on the Beach by Elaine Readman, 2008

If I were to paint this image, this is how I’d like it to look, because the composition is outstanding. The key to this success is the simplicity of the elements that make up this striking picture – a row of uniformly coloured mountains, some strips of land in the middle distance and a  plain, pale beach. These are all pinned together by the photographer’s choice of a telephoto lens, which has flattened the perspective into a calm, layered pattern. On which – so very neatly spaced and placed – are the  four cows. Critically, none is overlapping, and they are pretty much all looking in the right direction, too. Very simple, but very effective.

© John Bogle

Damselfly by John Bogle, 2008

This is as close as we will probably get to looking an alien in the eyes. It’s a fabulous and engaging portrait. Damselflies are fragile animals, but here the pretty little predator reveals its monstrous side – and it’s all down to the sheer weirdness of its face. Focus is used skillfully: the face is sharp, thus commanding all our attention. It is made all the more accessible by the picture’s imperfect symmetry – only the tangle of legs works against this. Of course, the vivid complementary blue and green colours really help us into this super study of a spectacular yet familiar insect.

©Brian Hancox

Mountain High by Brian Hancox, 2010

Clearly this photo required a bit of effort to take, but effort alone is never any guarantee of a decent photograph. That said, if you don’t climb to the mountaintops, you’ll never get one of these – a captured moment when nature’s elements conspire to help you. Here the sky, rich with texture and criss-crossed with vapour trails, makes a fascinating palette of colour and lines. The light blanket of cloud also ideally overlays the silhouette of the summiteers, whose simplified ‘blackness’ is essential to its success, because they don’t compete with all the other chaos. And there’s the dog, too.

© Gary Gray

Flower Power by Gary Gray, 2009

This splatter of vibrant colour has no point of focus and no individual subject. It’s a rich mosaic that, overall, has a very powerful effect – it makes me want to be there. Its intensity is alluring. You can almost hear the bees buzzing, you can practically smell the flowers. It’s so tempting because such flower-filled meadows are now a national rarity. What a find. And it would make a cruelly difficult jigsaw!

© Nick McKeown

Perfect Poise by Nick McKeown, 2009

A truly beautiful subject will obviously be an asset when taking a better photo and thus butterflies are a popular choice. What makes this a clear cut above the rest is its composition and lighting. The orange-tip butterfly is superbly set on the ideally shaped flower. There are no distractions or overlapping elements in the plain black background, and it is crisply backlit, which has enlivened and electrified the freshness and vitality of the moment. What also makes it special for me is that this is no rarity – it could have been taken in many gardens.

© Irene McIlvenny

High Flier by Irene McIlvenny, 2013

When I saw this photo emerge from the pile of competitors’ entries, I fell instantly in love with it. It is magnificent. The bird looks stunning, with its wings out in a shape that displays its curves and lovely profile. The lighting is delightful and the positioning, between deliciously softly sculptured clouds, is spot on. It’s an exercise in simple balance and meticulous picture making. It is gentle, and epitomises the animal’s natural place in the sky. A brilliant nature photograph.

© Mark Blake

Winter Weasel by Mark Blake, 2012

Here it’s all about taking your chance. The photographer has seized a very brief and slippery opportunity. Weasels are super-fast. Even getting a focus on this ferocious animal is an enormous challenge, let alone freezing it in such a pleasing pose, forefeet stretched, rears tucked up, tail out. And all against the sparkling champagne backdrop of fresh, untouched blue snow. The viewpoint is interesting, too – it has been captured from ground level, not looking down on it.

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