Wildlife photographers know that getting a perfect image of an animal requires skill, yes, but also an incredible amount of luck. The subjects often don’t cooperate, and if they do, the light, weather, and field conditions have to align—usually just long enough for a single frame.
National Geographic published thousands of images of wildlife in print and online in 2016. Our favorites were the ones that captured a vulnerable animal at a vulnerable moment. Two National Geographic photographers, Charlie Hamilton James and Tim Laman, were named Wildlife Photographers of the Year by the Natural History Museum in London for their work photographing threatened orangutans in Borneo (Laman) and dwindling vulture populations across Africa (James). Joel Sartore’s Photo Ark portrait series continues to add new species to the photographic record of life on Earth.
What makes a successful wildlife image? “So much of it is context and environment,” says photo editor Jehan Jillani, who curated this final edit of 20 images. “A lot of these are endangered or at risk animals, so the best photos demonstrate in one frame why they’re worth attention.” Or in other words, showing in a single shot what makes them special.