Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Etienne Francey's Freeze Frame

"Freeze Frame," 2013; Photo: Etienne Francey/Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Wildlife photography has the power to transform the way people view the natural world — whether it's illuminating little-seen worlds or stimulating serious debate. That's why amateur, professional and youth photographers alike are encouraged to submit their strongest wildlife images to the 51st annual Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition.

This competition, which was founded in 1965 by the BBC Wildlife Magazine (and later turned into a collaborative, co-owned effort between BBC Worldwide and England's Natural History Museum in 1984), is one of the most prestigious photo contests in the world.

Organizers boast that the competition is "at the forefront of contemporary photography, championing the ethics, while also recognising and awarding artistic composition, narrative form, and technical excellence."

Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Paul Souder's Water Bear

"The Water Bear," 2013; Photo: Paul Souders/Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Every year, the competition is judged by an expert international jury of acclaimed photographers and photo editors. With 21 categories under consideration, photographers from a variety of specialties have the opportunity to be recognized.

In addition to enjoying the public exposure of being named the year's best wildlife photographers, winners will be flown to London to participate in the awards ceremony and their images will appear in a limited edition hardcover book. For the two grand prize winners (one adult and one youth), there will also be a substantial cash award.

In 2014, more than 42,000 entries were submitted for consideration, but in the end, it was American photographer Michael "Nick" Nichols who was awarded the competition's top honor for his arresting image of a pride of female lions and their cubs lounging atop a rock in the Serengeti.

Continue below to see some wintry-themed submissions from past years, and be sure to visit the competition website to enter your own photographs. Submissions will be accepted from Jan. 5 until Feb. 28, so time is of the essence!

Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Sandra Bartocha's snowy forest

Photo: Sandra Bartocha/Wildlife Photographer of the Year

"The Magical Forest," 2010

Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Steve Mills' birds

Photo: Steve Mills/Wildlife Photographer of the Year

"The Assasin," 2011

 
Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Cyril Ruoso's tiny endangered primate

Photo: Cyril Ruoso/Wildlife Photographer of the Year

"Tiny Warm-up," 2011

Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Paul Nicklen's penguins

Photo: Paul Nicklen/Wildlife Photographer of the Year

"Frozen Moment," 2012

 
Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Patrick Bartuska's wildscape

Photo: Patrick Bartuska/Wildlife Photographer of the Year

"Moonrise Over Nuptse," 2011

Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Ross Hoddinott's snowy bird

Photo: Ross Hoddinott/Wildlife Photographer of the Year

"Territorial Strut," 2011

 
Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Chris O'Reilly's Streetwalker

Photo: Chris O'Reilly/Wildlife Photographer of the Year

"Street Walker," 2010

Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Stefano Unterthiner's geese

Photo: Stefano Unterthiner/Wildlife Photographer of the Year

"Arrangement of Swans," 2011

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Catie Leary is a photo editor at Mother Nature Network. Follow her on Twitter and Google+.

Catie Leary ( @catieleary ) writes about science, travel, animals and the arts.