In a Rapidly Evolving World of AI: This Contest Is More Important Than Ever

In a Rapidly Evolving World of AI: This Contest Is More Important Than Ever
This year's Natural Landscape Photography Awards have just been announced, and like previous years, the results are breathtaking. Bigger than just the results themselves, though, is what this contest represents and exemplifies in a world where we have become accustomed to questioning what is real and what isn't.

There are a lot of contests out there to choose from, especially in the space of landscape photography. The NLPA was created several years ago to provide a space for photographers to submit work with authenticity and ethical representation of nature. This was developed at a time when it felt like the majority of highlighted work via social media, contests, and the online photography world at large was overwhelmingly saturated with perfectly manicured images. While there is absolutely nothing wrong with this choice in artistic expression, it left many in the space feeling like their work was far less visible than it once was.

The NLPA has some of the most strict and rigorous processes to uphold a level of authenticity, to continually highlight the work of artists intending to capture the world as true as it comes. This is stated in their contest mission statement:

The competition aims to represent landscape photographers who recognize the power that comes from truthful depiction of the natural world, whether shooting digitally or on film. While other competitions may allow complete freedom in digital manipulation, this competition is for photographers who choose to work within the more traditional bounds of the medium, while still expressing themselves creatively. It addresses the idea that the unique quality photography has over other artistic mediums is its grounding in reality. The competition showcases the skill of these photographers in revealing the wonder of the natural landscape.

Within the last year, we've seen rapid evolution in the ability to use AI to manipulate, fix, and even generate breathtaking images. While that has opened up new worlds of accessibility to the creative vision of photographers, it's highlighted how important a contest like the NLPA has become. Some highly regarded contests such as the International Landscape Photographer of the Year have added diction to dissuade the use of AI-generated content. However, like many contests, they don't do raw image verification. The lack of any raw verification is quite standard among most contests. Thus, how would you actually know if AI was or was not used?

Since the inception of the NLPA, the contest has not only grown in submissions but also become increasingly respected among the landscape photography community. Below you'll find this year's winners of each category for 2023. I highly recommend checking out the full galleries to see just how incredible the competition and work is among these artists. Most importantly, you can witness this collection of work knowing that there is a distinct level of authenticity behind each photograph.

Photographer of the Year, Winner: Blake Randall

I am deeply honored to receive the Natural Landscape Photography Award’s Photographer of the Year award. Since its inception, the NLPA awards have set the gold standard for landscape photography – preserving the authentic experience of capturing our planet’s unaltered natural beauty in contrast to the growing popularity of AI and computer-generated imagery. The competition has consistently showcased an exceptional lineup of talented photographers, many of whom I have looked up to and who have been a personal inspiration to me since I started my photography journey. The images presented in the competition reflect the kind of photography I aspire to achieve, making this award extra special and something I will be proud of for the rest of my life.

I extend my heartfelt gratitude to the judges and NLPA founders for selecting my work and creating an outstanding competition. Congratulations to all my fellow winners who join in celebrating the true artistry of photography!

Photograph of the Year, Winner: Gabriel Stankiewicz

Gabriel Stankiewicz

Blizzard - the default weather during my trip to Senja, Norway back in February 2023. It provided conditions for playing around with more intimate scenes and with gusts of wind that occasionally knocked me over as I am not the best at balancing with snowshoes on. Although the mere process of landing in deep, fresh snow is enjoyable, getting up in that wind with snowshoes on was a mission each time.

For this photograph, I was focused on the distribution of trees for balance and depth, and the right placement of the frozen stream in the background, which is what makes the image special to me.

Project Winner - PINUS PINEA, Winner: Tiago Mateus

The Stone Pine or Pinus Pinea is a species of pine native to the old world, more precisely in the Mediterranean region. Portugal has about 9% of the total world’s area of this species, which can also be found in other countries bordering the Mediterranean, such as Spain, France, Italy and Turkey. In Portugal the vast majority are concentrated in the Setúbal peninsula, where I live. In this photographic project I am not interested in portraying Pinus Pinea planted, pruned or straightened, explored in plantations or ornamental. I want to portray the wild Pinus Pinea which is free to grow, survive, break and fall, which has a story to tell us of its legendary strength and tenacity along the Atlantic coast or its relationships with other trees in the coastal pine forests. These trees, known for their resistance to summer drought, grow easily in weak sandy soils, heroically resist strong coastal winds and the salty air. Throughout their life they suffer countless fractures caused by storms or by the weight of their crown, which gives them striking strong personalities and, in most cases, incredible shapes that tell us the story of their lives and their fight against the elements.

Grand Scenic, Winner: Björn Nehrhoff von Holderberg

Björn Nehrhoff von Holderberg

During an unusual warm period for a Northern Norway winter a stromfront hit the coast of Steigen with it´s towering mountains. Hiding the van from the raging winds I found shelter close to a tidal island. When it suddenly started snowing with extremely large snow flakes I was sure that this would be perfect for a longer exposure shot with snow streaks and so I walked to the rocky edge of the tidal island to take the shot.

Intimate Landscapes, Winner: Takahashi Hiroto

Takahashi Hiroto

Abstracts and Details, Winner: Eric Bennett

Eric Bennett

Common Places, Winner: Matt Redfern

Matt Redfern

Captured near my home in Oregon during late fall, I found this scene in a small lake frozen after low temperatures and before the first heavy snowfall. I spent hours walking very slowly around the lake photographing smaller details of ice and leaves. Eventually I encountered an area of the lake with a collection of deadfall where I ultimately found this image. An old decaying trunk, fallen leaves, textured ice, and snowflakes come together to resemble a snowy tree. These elements, once living, now contribute to life differently, highlighting the beauty in their transformation from life to decay.

Mountains, Winner: Alexandre Deschaumes

Alexandre Deschaumes

This is the "Mont Maudit" mountain in Mont Blanc massif, Chamonix, French alps. High-altitude strong winds create these very fine orographic clouds that change their appearance very rapidly. The also special light of the moment contributes to the slightly surreal atmosphere of the image.

Water Worlds, Winner: James Hider

James Hider

As the early morning light of a hot summer’s day hits the ridge line, the water of the Piemans Creek drops over 100 metres, deep within Victoria’s Alpine National Park.

Black and White, Winner: Harry Lichtman

Harry Lichtman

A brutal winter storm blew through New Hampshire's Crawford Notch and set up conditions for this simple scene that was nearly black and white to begin with. Blowing snow created waves and drifts reminding me of surf on the ocean. Careful positioning of the camera created the balance among the trees and highlighted the snow using the dark areas of the river. The beautiful power of nature.

Nightscape, Winner: David Hunter

David Hunter

This is a photo taken of a Native American summer solstice marker. The image was taken with special access permission within Petrified Forest National Park during a two week artist-in-residency at the park.

Environmental, Winner: Martin Bürner

Martin Bürner

A bushfire makes its way across the dry forrest floor in Northern Territory (AUS). The flames divide the scene into a burned and a not yet burned area and guide us into a smoke-filled scene flooded by the warm light of the setting sun. A truly striking scene to witness as a person and to capture as a photographer.

Aerial, Winner: Peter Eastway

Peter Eastway

Lake Frome is considered to have some of the whitest sand in the world. Its ultra flat surface is punctuated by raised islands of yellow sand, blown across from the surrounding deserts and shaped by winds and rare floods. From above, it is an organic mosaic of natural patterns. This photograph was taken just after sunrise, looking directly into the light and allowing lens flare to add a splash of extra colour to the composition.

Phew, well if that doesn't inspire you, I don't know what will. You might be asking yourself after seeing some of these images just how edited they might be considering the restrictive nature of the contest. While you can find all the rules on their website, the key is just remaining true to any given scene. This doesn't mean photographers don't have artistic license within their editing, and yes you are perfectly allowed to erase a transient object such as a small footprint or something similar from your image. The key is just remaining authentic to representing what you capture. This is why the tedious process of raw verification is so important. I didn't even dive into their judging process, which approaches subjectivity in a unique way.

My personal experience entering this contest has ultimately pushed me to grow as a photographer. I think there is a time and place for many different mediums or expressions within the art we want to create. For me, it's inspired me to edit less and see more. If you've never entered a contest before, I highly recommend you try. Just the process of curating your own work can truly make you see things in a new light, maybe something deserving of a full article.

You should absolutely dive into the other winners from the contest as well as check out the yearly book that NLPA puts out, which includes even more photos than what you'll find in the contest galleries. Congratulations and gratitude goes to any name that makes it into these results!

All images used with permission, courtesy of Natural Landscape Photography Awards.

Alex Armitage's picture

Alex Armitage has traveled the world to photograph and film some of the most beautiful places it has to offer. No matter the location, perfecting it's presentation to those absent in the moment is always the goal; hopefully to transmute the feeling of being there into a visual medium.

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Maybe my taste is in my mouth, but I think that last month's Fstoppers landscape competition's entries and results were better than these. IMO.

There are many appealing pictures in the Fstoppers contest. However, there are also many highly processed pictures or even composites. The winning image is IMO higly processed. I believe (might be wrong) that the orange color is highly due to color grading in post rather that a real sun light. The image has some orange and teal style that is very popular at the moment. Also, many places have been shot to death (Seceda, the slovenian church, the Iceland mountains...) so there is less originality. In the natural landscapes contest, I like that some not famous places are shot and the quality comes more from light and composition rather than perfect subject + post-processing.

"Maybe my taste is in my mouth". I am SO going to steal that! :-D

Competitions are only important to the competitors.

Definitely one of the best competitions out there. Amazing caliber of work and a very well run contest.

All really excellent work.

I don't like all this post processing and composites or even Photoshop. I prefer to keep my own processing down to a bare minimum. So to see and enter a competition like this is just really great.

It has inspired me to improve my work within my limitations.

I really like the Mountain winner. I hope the photographer had that printed and mounted! Some of us like minimal, some like near over the top. The way we process is to either make us, the individuals that took the shot happy, or for a client with a specific requirement, or to sell to the general public. After that, it's background noise.

Contests are a crap shoot because the judging has the human element and the biases and prejudices that go along with that. I've been a judge and it is not easy to eliminate all that one believes. We aren't robots, so the subjective part of a contest can sway judges. It's human nature and virtually impossible to eliminate.

I don't enter many, but it is a good exercize to give you an idea as how your work stacks up. BUT....if you don't have a thick skin, then contests are not your cup of pixels.

there's not one photo which is not manipulated via ai applied filters, etc - if not entirely made by ai in this contest shown here. so, I was right time ago: ai will win hands down in the future :) ladies & gentlemen, the camera will decide on the take in next future, ai will do the rest. and that's good. (given the extremely kitchy styles especially in 'nature' photography photographers have derailed in the last 10 years)

I'm happy to show you the raw file for any of these entries to prove there was no AI used. Pick a photo...

Beautiful work here. It isn't often I see something on Fstpppers, or any other photo site these days, that really motivates me. But this does. Let's have more like it.

In my opinion, most of the so-called photo competitions on the subject of landscape have long since ceased to have anything to do with photography. The International Landscape Photographer of the Year competition should better be called International digital Landscape Artist of the year. Basically, you can take any landscape photo from the internet, regardless of whether it was taken with a smartphone or a „real“ photo-camera. The only thing that counts is the image editing skills of the entrant and his artistic interpretation. I am deliberately avoiding the term photographer here. The results no longer have anything to do with the underlying landscape photograph. The only thing that counts is the so-called artistic interpretation. That's why this is a competition of digital artists and not photographers.

Many people will remember a time when only slides were accepted for competitions. The photographer chose a certain slide film for a certain lighting situation and then only the photographer's performance was responsible for the result. With the exception of Kodachrome films (K-14 process), all slide films were developed according to the same standard, the E-6 process. The photographer therefore had to know the properties of the slide film used as far as the basic colour and contrast was concerned. These basic colours could be more or less influenced with filters. But even this could only be seen visually after development. When taking the picture, the photographer had to bring in and determine his knowledge of exposure and composition. There was no way to change this afterwards. These were the things that characterised a landscape photographer in these days.

I dare say that of almost all the competition images at International Landscape Photographer of the Year, hardly any of the participants produced a truly impressive photograph by using only a basic raw development. I have nothing against average landscape photos being edited by a digital artist according to all the rules and possibilities of digital image processing. But it should no longer be called a landscape PHOTO and the image creator should no longer be called a photographer. Today, the term photographer is used in an overly inflationary way and is therefore absolutely arbitrary. Just because I can operate a smartphone and create a digital image with this device doesn't mean I should call myself a photographer. And if someone is of this opinion, nobody should be surprised why the social esteem of photographers is at an all-time low.
PHOTO competitions should be subject to strict rules of image development in order to honour the photographer's achievement. Everything else should no longer be called photography but digital art.

Welcome to the world of digital photography. The genie is out of the bottle, so that's that. I still love Ansel Adams' work even though I know he spent hours in the darkroom perfecting each image. But, photographic results are quite subjective with a scattering of the 'rules' photographers use as a baseline for their work. What I like may not correspond with what you like...human nature.

Many people remember a time when steering wheels were flat and connected to a long steel shaft that ended near the front bumper. Great hulking cars with fins and chrome and no air bags, crush zones, no seat belts and so on. Classic cars. Things evolve. We either embrace them or poo poo them.

Photography evolves. I had no intention of going mirrorless, but I did and I'm glad I did. Film shooters had a fun time moving onto digital. The contestants for these competitions had to use a camera of some sort and when we use a camera, we take photographs. That pretty much makes us photographers....some really good, some okay, some not so good, but still photographers.

I suspect a terse answer from you and that's okay. Your opinion is worth just as much, or little, as mine. Photography today isn't what it was in the days of slides. Where it is far superior today is we can choose how our finished product looks. Heck, we can even make our digital photos look like something out of the thirties. It's a great time to be a photographer!

A digitographer and digitography perhaps.