Michael Nichols

Photo: Michael "Nick" Nichols/National Geographic

National Geographic magazine is known for its out-of-this-world photography, so it's no wonder that three of the magazine's contributing photographers would dominate the 2014 Wildlife Photographer of the Year Awards, one of the world's most prestigious photography competitions. Now in its 50th year, the awards are presented by the British Natural History Museum and BBC Worldwide.

Michael Nick NicholsThe competition attracted more than 42,000 entries from amateur and professional photographers around the globe, but it was American photographer Michael "Nick" Nichols who nabbed the grand prize title for his beautiful photo "The Last Great Picture," which was previously featured in National Geographic magazine. The stunning image, seen above, also won the competition's award for best black and white photo.

"Nick set out to create an archetypal image that would express both the essence of lions and how we visualize them – a picture of a time past, before lions were under such threat," National Geographic explains. "Here, the five females of the Vumbi pride — a 'formidable and spectacularly cooperative team' — lie at rest with their cubs on a kopje (a rocky outcrop), in Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park."

Watch the video below to learn how Nichols was able to get so up-close and intimate with these big cats:

Two other Nat Geo photographers, Brent Stirton and Tim Laman, also won titles in the competition. Continue below to learn more about their work, and head on over to the Wildlife Photographer of the Year website to see all the winning photos.

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Tim Laman's photojournalist of the year

Photo: Brent Stirton/Reportage for National Geographic

Brent StirtonSouth African photographer Brent Stirton won the special title of Wildlife Photojournalist of the Year for his work documenting both the hunting and conservation of wild lions in Africa.

In the photo above, we see the Maasai Lion Guardians, who use radio collars to track the lions.

National Geographic explains:

"Retaliatory and traditional spearing by Maasai warriors is the greatest threat to the survival of lions in southern Kenya. The Lion Guardians conservation program recruits Maasai men, many former lion killers, into a system that monitors lions, confers a sense of ownership and pride in them and forms a vanguard to prevent other Maasai from hunting lions in retribution for cattle-killing. The guardians track the lions and collect DNA samples for analysis. They have named all the lions in their area and have produced identity cards, which further reinforce notions of lion identity within Maasai communities."
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Birds of Paradise

Photo: Tim Laman/National Geographic

Tim LamanAmerican photographer Tim Laman received the competition's special portfolio award for spending 10 years documenting all 38 species of birds of paradise.

National Geographic explains how he got the shot:

"Birds of paradise spend most of their time in the dense rainforest, and so images usually have to be taken with telephoto lenses. But Tim wanted to show a bird performing against the backdrop of the rainforest, which meant a treetop vista and a wide-angle lens. In the rainforest of Wokam Island, in the Aru Islands, Indonesia, he finally found a display tree overlooking the forest where several greater birds of paradise were performing. Climbing into the canopy of a neighbouring tree, he built a leaf-covered hide from where he could watch the action. Then before dawn, he climbed the display tree, mounted his camera (camouflaged with leaves and with a laptop lead strung over to the hide tree) and focused it on where a male was likely to display. From his hide he could then watch and wait, controlling the camera from his laptop. The male was predictable, performing regularly just before dawn and from the same perch. But it was only at this particular sunrise that quite such an amount of mist rose in the distance. As the male paused in his performance, tail and wings fluffed and fanned, Tim managed to create his dream shot and what would be his most treasured picture of the 10-year project."
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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.

The stories behind 3 amazing, award-winning wildlife photos
National Geographic photographers dominate one of the world's most prestigious photography competitions.