Wild thing: The world's best wildlife photographs

These images from the world's most prestigious wildlife photography competition capture the drama and beauty of animals in their natural habitat
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There are hundreds of small towns in France. Few of them can lay claim to be the world capital of anything. Montier-en-Der can.

Over the last 12 years, Montier, a pleasant town of 2,000 people in Champagne in eastern France, has become the Woodstock of wildlife photography, the Glastonbury of still images of wild animals, birds, insects and flowers. Each autumn, Montier organises a festival of nature photography. From small, local beginnings, the festival has grown to become the largest of its kind in the world. Up to 40,000 lovers of photography and animals – 20 times the population of the town – will flock, herd or migrate to Montier for the 13th festival this November.

Everything began, implausibly, in London in 1996. The Natural History Museum allowed the town to exhibit a selection of winning entries from its prestigious annual wildlife photography competition (once sponsored by the BBC, now by Veolia). Montier organised a small festival with the Natural History Museum photographs as its centrepiece.

The festival became an annual event and grew to include displays by first local, then French and, finally, animal and nature photographers from all over the world. Guest exhibitors in the past have included the French master of the aerial image, Yann Arthus-Bertrand. This year's guests include the British photographer Stephen Dalton, a specialist in "freezing" high-speed animal movements, and the American Frans Lanting, perhaps the most commercially successful wildlife photographer of all time.

From the outset, Montier-en-Der launched an international wildlife and nature photography competition of its own. It does not, yet, rival the international prestige of the annual Natural History Museum contest, but its renown has grown year by year. In these pages, the Independent Magazine has been given permission to publish, before any other publication, a selection of the winning entries in this year's Montier competition and some of the best images to be shown at the 2009 festival by leading wildlife photographers.

To qualify for this honour, The Independent loaned its Paris correspondent – me – to Montier for three days of the most arduous, educational and enjoyable work that he has ever endured. I was one of the five judges in this year's contest and, it has to be admitted, the least qualified. The festival invites a non-specialist to its jury each year. My fellow jurors included award-winning French wildlife photographers Louis-Marie Préau and Alain Pons, another much admired French photographer, Sophie Zenon, and a local but internationally known wildlife artist, Jean Chevalier.

From almost 6,000 photographs, submitted by professionals and amateurs in 18 countries, we had to select around 80 images to be displayed, and rewarded with prizes, in this year's festival. The categories were animals, birds, insects, flowers, landscapes and series, with an overall winner.

How do you compare a photograph of an ice flea with a photograph of a tiger? Do you reward the photographer for the rarity of the creature that he or she has captured? Or for the enterprise, drama or composition of the photograph?

Alain Pons, one of my fellow judges, is a renowned photographer of "big game". His book Impressions of Africa, drawn from 30 years of work, has just been published in English by EM books. "A wildlife photographer," he told me, "must first of all be a photographer. Afterwards, he or she should also be a naturalist. But the quality of the photography is, to me, finally, more important than the rarity or scientific interest of the species."

"Of course enormous patience is needed to take wildlife photographs. Animals do not pose, like catwalk models. But it is the photographer's job to transcend the subject and turn any situation into something of beauty. Into art."

The quality of the images in this year's contest – especially those of birds and insects – was impressively high. A striking feature was the drama and beauty the photographers captured, almost literally, in their own back yards. Anyone brought up (like me) on David Attenborough's Zoo Quest TV series associates nature photography with shots of leopards and komodo dragons. There was plenty of dramatic material in this year's contest, including a shot of two bears fighting and a series of images of a killer whale trying to snatch a sea lion from a beach. But some of the most memorable images were of common European species – buzzards, grebes, hares, foxes – going about their everyday, but usually secret, lives.

The president of the jury, Louis-Marie Préau, a past winner of the bird section of the Natural History Museum wildlife competition, is himself a specialist in the photography of French wildlife. "The image of nature photography was once dominated by exotic locations and rare species, but in recent years there has been a growing interest in the beauty of what lies around us," he says.

But near and common does not necessarily mean easy. A wildlife photographer might spend weeks gathering information about the movements of familiar animals in order to achieve the perfect image. Even photographing birds or insects in your own garden requires deep technical expertise and exquisite patience if you are to achieve the kind of images entered in the Montier competition.

Both M. Pons and M. Préau, and the wildlife artist Jean Chevalier, were keen to uphold the moral code of wildlife photography. The rules are laid down by the Montier contest. First, no photograph of an animal in captivity is permitted. Several images were rejected because they showed symptoms of breaching this guideline. (In one case, the grass beneath the stag's feet looked suspiciously neat; in another case, insects seemed to have been trapped against an artificial, white background.)

More importantly, perhaps, the wildlife photographer's code insists that an animal is always more important than its image. Nothing must be done which could damage the subject of the photograph or harm its habitat. There was lengthy discussion of a stunning image of a buzzard hovering over its own nest in a corn-field. Was this an unwarranted intrusion, which could lead the bird to abandon its nest? It was eventually established that the photographer had used a remote-control camera. The image was, reluctantly, accepted for judging.

There was also some debate on the perils of wildlife photography for photographers. Several have ended up inside the bears that they hoped to capture on film. One bear specialist avoided being eaten for many years but died when a bear tripped on the guy-rope of his tent and fell on top of him.

The principal organiser of the Montier-en-Der festival (five full-time staff and 500 volunteers) is Olivier Varin. "The growth of the festival has been extraordinary," he says. "There is a huge interest in nature photography, both amateur and professional, with many more women taking part and many more young people. In part, this is connected to increasing concern for the environment. It is also true, I think, that digital photography has made it possible for amateurs to do things – although not necessarily to do them well – which were only accessible to professionals in the past."

The number of entries in the Montier competition grows each year. So does the number of countries of origin of competitors. The organisers are keen, however, to encourage more British entries. British wildlife photographers tend to look no further than the Natural History Museum contest (whose best entries are still shown each year as part of the Montier festival). There is no reason, M. Varin points out, why British photographers should not enter both.

There will be around 2,500 photographs on show in this year's festival from 19-22 November. This includes the 80 best in this year's competition, the best from the Natural History Museum contest, and 80 exhibitions by individual photographers and associations. There are also lectures on photography and the environment, 100 attractions for young people, and what is claimed to be the biggest nature bookshop in the world. Tickets from 10 euros for a day. Children free. For futher information contact 00 33 3 25 55 72 84 or visit festiphoto-montier.org