To be considered for this list of the top 10 most influential nature photographers of all-time, these famous nature photographers had to have left a lasting impact either on society or on future photographers. Most of these photographers can be considered revolutionary in their own right as opposed to evolutionary which is the category in which the majority of photographers fall under. There are many photographers in recent years who have made a name for themselves in the digital era but it is too soon to know who from this era will leave a lasting historical impact on future generations. For illustrative purposes, I've included a selection of my own nature photography within this article.
- Ansel Adams (1902 - 1984)– The grandfather of landscape photography. He is the one nature photographer that transcends the genre and even photography for that matter. His images are so well-known that photographers and tourists-alike are still trying to fill his tripod holes 60 – 70 years after his most famous images were made. Perhaps his greatest legacy were his environmental conservation efforts with the Sierra Club that led to creation of Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks among other areas, and also the art education institutions that he helped to create.
- Galen Rowell (1940 - 2002)– A well-rounded photojournalist with a special ability to connect with a vast audience through his writings, Rowell influenced countless photographers in multiple genres beginning with rock climbing, wilderness adventure and then eventually landscape photography in the 2nd half of his career. The list of current working photographers that have followed in his footsteps reads like a who’s who in outdoor adventure and landscape photography and number too many to list. He was one of the first to utilize 35mm cameras exclusively in outdoor photography and popularized the use of graduated neutral-density filters.
- William Henry Jackson (1843 - 1942)– One of the early pioneers of landscape photography, Jackson’s photos were instrumental in the creation of the National Parks system beginning with Yellowstone National Park in 1872. Not to go unmentioned should be the fact that this was essentially the first of a long-tradition of using nature photography as a catalyst for environmental conservation efforts.
- Eliot Porter (1901 - 1990)– In contrast with Ansel Adams’ big landscape style, Porter’s photos were more “quiet” and focused on the intimate landscape scenes that are easily overlooked. It is easy to overlook his body of work in favor of postcard views but one needs to only look at the photographers that he influenced to see that his work has left a lasting impact. Photographers including William Neill and Charlie Cramer have styles that bear a strong resemblance to Porter’s vision.
- David Muench (1936 - Present)– Like Ansel Adams did with black and white landscape photography a generation prior, Muench is synonymous with color landscape photography. The now-common use of prominent foreground elements leading the eye through the frame to the background in the distance was a style that Muench pioneered back in the 50’s and 60’s. You would walk into any library or bookstore in America in the past 40 years and be hard-pressed to not see his books or calendars even if you don’t know his name.
- Carleton Watkins (1829 - 1916)– Created some of the earliest known images of Yosemite National Park which helped to spark interest in the western landscape.
- Philip Hyde (1921 - 2006)– A top Sierra Club photographer in the 50 – 70’s, Hyde’s photography was instrumental in campaigns to save southwestern landscapes from flooding due to dams including the Grand Canyon and Dinosaur National Monument which led to the birth of the modern environmental movement. A number of leading nature photographers cite him as an inspiration for their life’s work.
- Robert Glenn Ketchum (1947 - Present)– He is arguably the most prominent conservation photographer working today. His photography is actively used to further environmental causes in the American political system. His aerial photography of Alaskan landscapes are especially stunning.
- John Shaw (1944 - Present)– The author of several best-selling nature photography how-to books he is often credited with helping beginning photographers to improve their photography and is still a leading figure in the workshop market today.
- Arthur Morris (1946 - Present)– A sign of an influential photographer is one that is often imitated, and one would be hard-pressed to see any bird photography that doesn’t bear Morris’ influence. He is arguably the most prolific bird photographer of all-time and runs a successful birding workshop business.
More Highly Influential Nature Photographers
- Art Wolfe (1951 - Present)- A prolific nature and travel photographer with dozens of published books to his credit. He was the host of Travels to the Edge with Art Wolfe which ran on PBS for several seasons.
- David Doubilet (1946 - Present)- Legendary diving photographer, best known for his work on behalf of the National Geographic.
- Subhankar Banerjee (1967 - Present)- His body of work from the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge brought international attention to the political battle over the use of ANWR public lands.
I tried my best to remove my bias from creating this list by judging solely on resume and lasting impact on future generations of photographers. It is no secret that Galen Rowell was my biggest influence in photography but even if he weren’t, I would probably still rank him in a similar fashion. There are many contemporary nature photographers with amazing nature photography these days so perhaps in ten years there might be some new names on this list that reflect the digital era. On the flip side, just because they are on this list doesn’t necessarily mean that I am a fan of their photography either but their accomplishments deserve to be recognized. With that said, I believe that valid arguments could be made for the ordering of any of the top four photographers on this list. Another list worth considering in the future is a list of top environmental photographers.
Article was originally written in 2009.
About the Author
Richard Wong - The youngest photographer on this list, I've been a fine art landscape and nature photographer for 20 years with many publishing credits in most major publications. I authored this article which has been read by more than 200,000 people since originally written. My website: rwongphoto.com offers museum-quality fine art landscape and nature photography including Lumachrome HD TruView acrylic face mounts and ChromaLuxe edge mount prints. I also offer speaking engagements for various groups and online photography classes.
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GARY CRABBE / ENLIGHTENED IMAGES June 25, 2009 at 11:48 am
Great List, Richard.
Really nice to see the includes of Jackson & Watkins, as well as Ketchum. Many young photographers might not have looked past the 1980’s or 1990’s for names.
I’ll give one nod to James Balog as far as influential with what he’s currently doing with his Extreme Ice Survey. He’s certainly set himself up with the goal of trying to educate and influence an entire planet.
RICHARD WONG June 25, 2009 at 1:00 pm
Thanks Gary. I felt that photographers that had an influence on changing views in society should get the recognition in this context more so than photographers who take the most “awesome” pictures which is more subjective because in that case Frans Lanting and others would also be on the list.
James Balog certainly had a real great documentary on PBS about his work someone I intend to keep following in the future. I’ll have to look into him a little more.
RON NIEBRUGGE June 25, 2009 at 9:56 pm
Thank is a great write up Richard – good idea, these kinds of lists are great for debate, discussion etc.
Personally, Art Wolfe would have made my list instead of a few different photographers, but otherwise, can’t really fault your list.
RICHARD WONG June 25, 2009 at 10:01 pm
Thanks Ron. Understandable and no argument from me on Art Wolfe.
CIAOJune 25, 2009 at 10:30 pm
SOME PHOTOS WOULD BE NICE
FRIDAY ROUNDUP - THIS WEEK'S NOTABLE POSTS AROUND THE WWW |OUT OF FOCUS| A BLOG BY YOUNES BOUNHARJune 26, 2009 at 7:26 am
[…] Wong has made a terrific compilation of his top 10 most influential nature photographers. A really awesome list, some expected names, some I didn’t even know (gosh, I did thinkÂ […]
TODD CAUDLE June 26, 2009 at 11:20 pm
Really solid list, Richard. Inevitably someone worthy will be left out (Jack Dykinga, Carr Clifton), but that, I think, is more a function of personal preference.
LEANN GREENE June 27, 2009 at 7:29 am
I wouldn’t critique the list as it is subjective. Your choices did give me some interesting characters to google though-thank you for more insight.
ENRIQUE AGUIRRE June 27, 2009 at 4:51 pm
I would remove Morris or replace him with Tim Fitzharris (the low angle shooting + clean backgrounds was his way earlier).
As a European I would have to include Frans Lanting, he has influenced a generation of shooters.
But my real ‘issue’ with the list is the absence of Jim Brandenburg, I can’t conceive modern nature photography without him.
RICHARD WONG June 27, 2009 at 4:52 pm
Thanks Todd and Leann.
Carr Clifton is an interesting name that I was thinking about myself since he has been so prolific with the landscape calendars.
For some of the older names you might learn more about them by seeing their stuff in the history or art museums.
RICHARD WONG June 27, 2009 at 4:55 pm
Hi Enrique. Others mentioned Lanting too on the NPN thread, so I’m wondering if he is a bigger influence amongst European photographers than he is in America? The reason I ask is because most cite him as perhaps the best wildlife photographer but I haven’t seen much talk about him being the guy that inspired them to go out shooting, stylistically or anything like that.
RICHARD WONG June 27, 2009 at 4:59 pm
Here is the NPN thread, and I just noticed the answer to my previous question.
MARK June 28, 2009 at 4:52 pm
Richard, when I first read your post, I was thinking it should be easy to narrow it down to a top 10. But when actually putting names in there, it can be difficult because there is probably a top 15 or 20 or so trying to squeeze in there!
Carr Clifton wouldn’t be a bad choice. Art Wolfe would be in mine also, along with Jim Brandenburg or perhaps Thomas Mangelson. Of course, I would want Joel Sartore and Brian Skerry in there as well from all their Nat Geo work. Very hard list to compile afterall.
RICHARD WONG June 28, 2009 at 6:11 pm
Hey Mark. I had the same thoughts. I felt really solid about the first eight photographers but had to think much harder about the last two and after seeing all of the varied responses I would probably swap out one or two from my original list. That seems like another blog post.
ENRIQUE AGUIRRE June 29, 2009 at 12:52 pm
I don’t think any of the current front line EU shooters can truthfully say that they have not been influenced by Lanting, he still rules at Nat Geo
RICHARD WONGJune 29, 2009 at 4:35 pm
Yeah he’s definitely the man. I ran into him at his gallery at the grand opening and was really impressed by seeing his stuff printed large. His book, Life, is truly an amazing piece of work and perhaps his best yet.
ARTHUR MORRIS July 2, 2009 at 5:52 am
Hi Richard, Thanks a ton for including me on your list; it is beyond a great honor. I do hope that our paths cross some time.
later and love, artie
RICHARD WONG July 2, 2009 at 10:39 am
You’re welcome Artie. You are a fantastic photographer.
MIKE GAVIN July 7, 2009 at 7:29 pm
I did not see Edward Weston on anyone’s list. I would put him in any list of most influential.
RICHARD WONG July 7, 2009 at 9:14 pm
Hi Mike. To my knowledge, Weston wasn’t really a nature photographer. If he was, probably not to the effect that the others were.
GERRY MENEZESJuly 12, 2009 at 1:16 am
I am sure the lists of other photographers will reflect a personal taste. It has too…that’s why it’s an “influence”. Yes to Adams but more for his role in the craft of photography. Eliot Porter and Galen Rowell are both really strong influences. These four are manditory for inclusion: Edward Weston, taught us how a print should look, not to mention giving us Brett; Henri Cartier-Bresson, he taught us how to see; Joel Meyerowitz, he taught us to see in color and Jerry Uelsmann taught us photography is art. The following three are personal choices…but just look at their work and you will get hooked too. They are Christopher Newbert, look at his book “Within A Rainbowed Sea” and you will be blown away; Art Haseltine, the only underwater photographer I have ever heard that uses a medium format camera to shoot black and white film for underwater images and the best large format photographer working today is Christopher Burkett.
RICHARD WONG July 12, 2009 at 2:02 am
Hi Gary. No doubt that the Westons and Cartier-Bresson are influential photographers in other genres no doubt but the post was about listing the top nature photographers. As with Mike’s comment, the Westons were known for their art / still life work and Cartier-Bresson was a street photographer but had no involvement with nature photography. That part is not subjective.
I’ll be sure to check out your personal choices. I’m always interested to see what else is out there. I’m familiar with Burkett’s work already and agree that he is good.
GERRY MENEZES July 14, 2009 at 7:20 pm
I took advantage of the lose interpertation of landscape and inclued all work done outdoors and without a huge array of lights, assistants, etc. I hoped you were looking for influences that worked alone in the outdoors and contributed to the genre of nature photography. Without Cartier-Bresson, we would not understand how to use the “miniature camera” without strobes and tripods. I don’t think I need to defend myself with Weston: he was a photographer of nature. And, please take the time to check out Newbert. He is the best underwater photographer, bar none; he is the standard. His images are the ones everyone looks at and becomes speechless. Thanks for your time.
RICHARD WONG July 14, 2009 at 10:24 pm
I hear where you are coming from Gerry. Thanks for elaborating. I see Cartier-Bresson having an influence over most photographers for his “decisive moment” philosophy. It could be argued that capture the light just at the right moment is pure Cartier-Bresson just as the little twinkle in a grizzly bears eye.
I just had a chance to check out Newbert’s work and there is a lot of fascinating stuff on his site. Very exotic and I like how he makes the marine wildlife look artistic in some photos.
GERRY MENEZES July 15, 2009 at 4:33 pm
Christopher Newbert’s “Within a Rainbowed Sea” is a must have. To fully appreciate his work, get a copy of the book. Mahalo and Aloha.
RICHARD WONG July 15, 2009 at 5:45 pm
Good to know Gerry. I will look up those books on Amazon when I get a chance. I’m always on the lookout for good photo books.
HARRY July 24, 2009 at 1:13 pm
hugo van larwick
ARMANDO SOLARES July 24, 2009 at 2:02 pm
One of my personal favorites, Clyde Butcher. Google him. For urban nature, Claudio Edinger.
RICHARD July 26, 2009 at 3:25 pm
Thanks guys. Clyde Butcher is in Outdoor Photographer magazine from time to time and has some nice b&w work from the Everglades.
RICHARD August 6, 2009 at 12:58 pm
Thanks Sabyasachi. Regarding the websites, not all of the photographers had websites when I looked into them or weren’t as informative as the links that I provided here.
TOM October 13, 2009 at 12:55 pm
You use the term “influential.” That makes a difference to me. The list of “influential” nature photographers is different than the list of “greatest.”
So my list would include Art Wolfe. He’s prolific, good teacher, good communicator, inspires many beginners and amateurs, conservation ethic is strong.
If Weston qualifies per one commenter, how about Ernst Haas? http://www.ernst-haas.com/ Very inspirational to me.
I second the Mangelsen and Brandenberg mentions.
Art Morris is the great bird photographer but not sure that gets him on my “most influential nature photographers” list.
The rest of your list is solid.
Don’t see how Subhankar Banerjee has the body of work or influence to make the list.
RICHARD WONG October 13, 2009 at 2:22 pm
Thanks for the input, Tom. Regarding Art Morris, if you’ve seen several of the nature photography forums online then you could probably have a good idea for why I included him on the list because there are a lot of bird photographers out there and most seem to have been influenced by him to some degree.
As for Banerjee, his ANWR book being passed around the Senate helped bring the topic of oil drilling on the North Slope into mainstream discussion and it has been a point of contention since. To me that is pretty significant.
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DAVID LELAND HYDE November 29, 2009 at 3:33 pm
Thank you Richard for putting together an excellent list. Though my list would differ some, I am glad you included my father, Philip Hyde, who has often been under appreciated for his contributions to photography. I am surprised you did not include Edward Weston, Brett Weston, Minor White, John Sexton and possibly Carr Clifton and Jack Dykinga. Clifton, Sexton and Dykinga are perhaps not as influential as some, but they would fall into the category you mention of making by far the best photographs. The Westons and Minor White, it has been argued, were not strictly nature photographers. However, they not only made some of the greatest landscape photographs of all time, but have influenced all of photography. Back when Adams, the Westons, White, Porter and Hyde were first working, nature photography was not even a term. In fact, photography was not even recognized as an art. People before them had made photographs of nature, but without these pioneers, those photographers would remain in obscurity, as perhaps would the whole genre. Edward Weston was an example not just in photography but in lifestyle. He did not jet set all over the globe or own a lot of fancy equipment. He lived a very simple life, close to nature. When Ansel Adams started the first fine art photography program at the California School of Fine Arts, where Philip Hyde was in the second class, the art students in other departments flew into an uproar, protesting that photography did not belong and would ruin the reputation of their school. Photographers today think the field is tough with all of the competition, but back then there was no market. The photographers I mention, helped to establish the West Coast Tradition, involving Straight Photography, simple, clean compositions and often, natural subjects. I know there are talented and even influential Europeans, Australians and East Coast Photographers, but if we are talking about nature photography, it was pioneered in the Western U. S. Adams, Porter and Hyde went on to help the Sierra Club and other environmental groups protect more wilderness than anyone else in photography ever did or probably ever will. Adams was an advocate for photography and wilderness his whole life. Porter and Hyde brought color to the medium. Porter’s books were the best sellers. Hyde was young, poor, desperate and talented. He was able to drop everything and run off to unknown places at David Brower’s bidding and thus more of his images were used in the famous Exhibit Format Series than any of the others.
RICHARD November 29, 2009 at 6:50 pm
Thanks for sharing further insights, David. If there is anyone qualified to speak on subject, it would be you since you were probably there first-hand during this time.
I agree about the Western landscape photographers. Others might feel slighted but the genre and the modern environmental movement was pioneered in the West for the most part. Your dad definitely had a big role in that.
DAVID LELAND HYDE November 30, 2009 at 11:39 pm
I was born in 1965 when my dad (Philip Hyde) was 44. I missed the earliest “pioneering” but certainly met many of the cast of characters. As background for my book about Dad, I’ve done some reading both in books and correspondence about that piece of the history of photography and how it intertwined with the beginnings of modern environmentalism. There are valid and diverse perspectives. In what I said above, I certainly don’t intend to invalidate Europe’s development of photography or environmentalism, or that of other regions. I’m saying that the photographers who gathered to protect the national treasures of the American West, played a major role in popularizing both photography and conservation on a global scale. They taught the people who are teaching photography now, while their photographs led to views changing about the environment, to the point that it is now cool care about the planet.
TOM TILL December 3, 2009 at 12:05 pm
This is a great idea. I have been amazed for years about the ignorance of especially younger nature photographers about the icons who created this art form. Many have never heard of Eliot Porter or Phil Hyde, which is criminal. My only comment on your selections would be that Porter has to be number two (and not the new number two) because I believe he invented color nature photography. To me, the true artist is the person that does something first, and all color work flows from him. I also believe that he, along with David Muench created the large number of baby boomer nature photographers. These people used large format, have done an amazing body of work, and won many environmental battles with their images. True, Galen inspires a lot of people, and I am may be just splitting hairs here, but I think Porter is the more influential force. Also, Art Wolfe has to be in there. More people have been exposed to nature photography though just his tv show than any other photographer except Adams. Thanks for your thought-provoking blog.
RICHARD WONG December 3, 2009 at 12:53 pm
Thanks Tom. I had been waiting to hear some thoughts about placement of the top four and you make great points about Porter and Muench. I find it fascinating that Muench has been around since the 50’s and is still active. His career spans almost the entire history of color photography.
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STEVE SIEREN August 17, 2010 at 10:12 am
I haven’t heard of Jackson or Morris, met Ketchum. It’s a good list, I would create something very similar but I grew up in the in similar locations and at about the same time you did Richard. I don’t think people in other countries or the opposite side of the country would have a similar list?
RICHARD WONG August 17, 2010 at 1:38 pm
Thanks Steve. I would say that Jackson should be essential knowledge for all nature photographers. True that international photographers would have some names that I didn’t list but I have a feeling that most lists would have about half of the names listed here if they did their homework and understand how the genre came to be what it is now.
NANCE September 12, 2010 at 11:30 am
what about Tina Modotti? Gotta have some ladies representin’
NANCE September 12, 2010 at 11:34 am
Oh, and Imogen Cunningham, of course
RICHARD WONG September 12, 2010 at 3:59 pm
I get your point, Nance, but I don’t think that any nature photographer would consider either of those two as nature photographers. Now that photography is more popular amongst the general public maybe we will have more women become influential in this genre in the coming years.
G. WHALEN October 26, 2010 at 5:19 pm
No way does Galen Rowell deserve to be #2 and Jack Dykinga not even be on the list. That is nuts.
- ELIOT DRAKE January 27, 2017 at 5:38 pm
Carr Clifton and Dykinga are Muench clones, excellent but no new ground. Same goes for Galen Rowell. He simply applied Muench’s approach to 35 mm. (Wow,looking at the posting dates, I really came late to the party!)RICHARD WONG January 31, 2017 at 8:52 am
I see the resemblance in Clifton & Dykinga’s work but I feel that Rowell’s approach to photography was more of a street photographer / photojournalist than Muench. The only similarities I see there are the fact they both shoot landscape photos.