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Wildlife photographer captures elephants — and wins a prize

Image: "Essence of Elephants"
Greg du Toit's ghostly picture of elephants at a waterhole in Botswana took top honors in the Wildlife Photographer of the Year Competition. Greg du Toit

This year's Wildlife Photographer of the Year didn't flinch from shooting elephants. With a camera, that is.

"My goal was to throw caution to the wind, to abandon conventional photographic practices in an attempt to capture a unique elephant portrait," South African photographer Greg du Toit told the judges of the annual international contest for wildlife photography.

Du Toit took his shot from a sunken freight container that provided a ground-level view of elephants at a waterhole in Botswana's Northern Tuli Game Reserve. He used a slow shutter speed, a polarizing filter and a cool white-balance setting to give an "almost ghostly" air to the photos. And just when he clicked the shutter, a baby elephant rushed right past du Toit's lens.

The result? A prize-winning picture that du Toit calls "Essence of Elephants."

"Greg's image immediately catapults us to African plains," said photographer Jim Brandenburg, the chair of the judging panel for the Wildlife Photographer of the Year Competition. "This image stood out for both its technical excellence and the unique moment it captures — it is truly a once-in-a-lifetime shot."

Du Toit's image won out over almost 43,000 other entries that were sent in from 96 countries for the 2013 competition, conducted by London's Natural History Museum and BBC Worldwide with guidance from judges around the world. Top images were selected in 18 categories, focusing on subjects ranging from individual animal oddities to wide-sweeping landscapes.

A 14-year-old from India, Udayan Rao Pawar, was recognized as this year's Young Wildlife Photographer of the Year for a croc-filled picture titled "Mother's Little Headful." The scene shows gharial crocodiles in the Chambal River in India's Madhya Pradesh state, an area increasingly under threat from illegal sand mining and fishing. (Madhya Pradesh is also where this week's fatal temple stampede took place.)

Udayan told the judges that he camped close to the river overnight to get an early-morning shot.

"When dawn broke, I saw this scene," he said. "The mother rose to the surface from the murky depths of the river in response to the guttural calls of the hatchlings, which then rushed toward her and climbed over her exposed head." (See that shot, and nine others, in the slideshow above.)

Du Toit, Udayan and the other winners got the good word during a gala awards ceremony at the Natural History Museum on Tuesday night. Their pictures are to be featured in a museum exhibition opening Friday. Eventually, the exhibit will go on an international tour — but in the meantime, you can catch some of the prize-winning shots in our slideshow or on the Natural History Museum website.

More prize-winning pictures:

Alan Boyle is NBCNews.com's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the NBC News Science Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter and adding +Alan Boyle to your Google+ circles. To keep up with NBCNews.com's stories about science and space, sign up for the Tech & Science newsletter, delivered to your email in-box every weekday. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for new worlds.