I felt in over my head as I sat down at the Canadian Geographic executive boardroom table. Across from me was Mike Beedell, a photographer whose work has appeared in magazines ranging from Time to National Geographic. To my right was Laura Stanley, Canadian Geographic’s photo editor. I was there to round out the three-person judging panel for the 2012 Canadian Wildlife Photography of the Year competition.

A jumping spider (from the Salticidae family) with its prey, a fly (a species of Musca) on a leaf.
Jumping Spider
Winner—Category: On the Prowl
Macro photography comes with its challenges, especially focus and depth of field. In this photo, Alain Fréchette captured the subject in sharp focus. Shiny black spider eyes draw the viewer’s attention immediately. The unlucky fly’s wing is also in focus and enriches the image with its pattern and shine. Image: Alain Fréchette © Alain Fréchette

What would I bring to this expert table? My day-to-day duties have me coordinating the Canadian Museum of Nature’s DNA research lab. Would my opinions be of use in narrowing down 500 images to the 15 winning photographs?

As a young kid, I pleaded with my mother to let me take photos with her camera. Eventually she deemed my arms strong enough to hold up the heavy thing, my finger nimble enough to press the shutter release button. I have enjoyed taking photos ever since.

With a camera in my hands, I can become transfixed by seeing the world through the viewfinder. And then snap, snap, snap, snap. I have to remind myself to come up for air, to see the “full picture” sometimes and not just that limited little view.

Roger Bull stands amid a jumble of rock faces, holding a camera.
Rookie photo-contest judge Roger Bull in the Barron River Canyon, Algonquin Park, Ontario. Image: Rafael Texidor © Rafael Texidor

The museum releases me from the DNA lab sometimes to dabble in other things. I’ve ventured North to help collect and photo-document Arctic plants. And the exhibits team seconds me now and then to help develop photo-based exhibitions that showcase the museum’s research.

But, I have never been more than an enthusiastic amateur photographer. For my co-judges, the evaluation of images is central to their every day. In Mike and Laura, critical reasoning and intuition were at the ready as the first of the 500 candidate photos flashed onto a large wall-mounted screen. I had to make it up as I went along.

A blood star (Henricia leviuscula) on eelgrass (Zostera marina) floating in very shallow water.
Blood Star
Winner—Category: What’s in the Water
Colour, contrast and composition work together to make this an excellent image. With the arms of the blood star and the jumble of eelgrass underneath, there is a vivid sense of movement even though the subject was static. Image: Iain Reid © Iain Reid

Grizzly bears, eider ducks, hemlock trees, swimming salmon seen from under water: image after image flicked by, each one needing a decision. Should this one go to the next round, yes or no? With three judges, each with one vote, no tie results were possible. Hands were wrung whenever the last judge to vote was forced to break a tie, either eliminating a photo or letting it continue.

A Bohemian Waxwing (Bombycilla garrulus) eats a berry in a tree.
Bohemian Waxwing
Winner—Category: Junior Photographers (15 years old and younger)
Patience paid off for 15-year-old Jenaya Launstein: the berry poised in the bird’s beak adds magic to the scene. Her composition is top notch with its frame of branches and berries.
Image: Jenaya Launstein © Jenaya Launstein

Intuition ruled this first elimination round. Four hundred and fifty images rejected by gut reaction. After two hours we were down to 50 photos, 10 for each of five contest categories.

For the final voting round, we switched from intuition to reasoning. Aspiring contest winners, take note! Visual impact, composition, technical quality, content and originality: these are the final criteria used to pick the best of the best. Over a quiet hour, we privately considered each photo, deconstructing overall impact into the four criteria. The combined scores gave us the three winners for each category, which are now on display in the museum’s Stone Wall Gallery until July 7, 2013.

A couple of bulrushes are bent by snow weight against a backdrop of a mistly lake, mountains and a low sun.
Winner—Category: From the Ground Up
Shapes and light bring this image alive. Shooting into the sun can be tricky but the flood of light is well controlled here. Depth of field is used to good effect: the bulrush arch is framed by the sharp-focus frost foreground and soft-focus mountain background.
Image: Victor Liu © Victor Liu

A photo is a fleeting moment captured. A small peek at the world through someone else’s eyes. Deconstructing these personal views of nature felt a bit cold-hearted. But it wouldn’t be a contest without winners! And the process gave me insight into the elements of an exceptional photo, one that turns heads, making us stop and look: “I’ve never seen that before! Amazing…”.

A Blue Jay (Cyanocitta cristata) takes off from snow.
Blue Jay
Winner—Category: Things with Wings
A moment of movement is captured in this photo. Achieving this without blur would have required a fast shutter speed along with patience, good timing and luck! Snowy scenes can make contrast a challenge, but Monique Lavoie succeeds well with a good balance between darks and brights. Image: Monique Lavoie © Monique Lavoie