When the Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition was first established in the 1960s by the editors of Animals, the predecessor of BBC Wildlife Magazine, it consisted of only three categories and received roughly 500 entries. Now, nearly five decades later, the contest has become a truly global affair, with this year's battle for the coveted title attracting over 43,000 submissions from across the world. Having been assessed by an international panel of fifteen expert judges, chaired by renowned photographer Jim Brandenburg, the overall winners have been chosen and the best of the entries whittled down to a final selection of 100 breath-taking images that are now on display at the Natural History Museum until 23rd March 2014.

On entering the exhibition, visitors are met with a theatrically dark space that is cleverly laid out in an almost maze-like form that serves, on a practical level, to separate the works into their various categories. More symbolically, however, the design also seems to represent the idea of journeying through the home countries of the sights on display.

The stunning back-lit panels on which the images are presented bring the scenes to life with dazzling vitality, allowing their colour and clarity to sing out from the uniformly black backdrop of a specially-constructed display system of wood and fabric 'walls'. Mirroring the diversity of the Natural History Museum's collection, the panels create the tangible illusion of windows that look out onto a fantasy world in which species from the arctic co-exist with those from the African savannah: an impossible menagerie, the ultimate Noah's Ark.

The black-and-white text panels are unobtrusive and elegant, allowing the photographs to speak for themselves. The information provided is appealing on a range of levels – targeted both at those who wish to read more about the environmental and geographical aspects of the exhibition, and at photo-geeks such as myself who are seeking an in-depth account of camera models, lens types, shutter speeds and aperture sizes. Balanced and considered, the show provides a harmonious blend of nature and science; beauty and technology; tradition and modernity.

With the competition's numerous categories ranging from such documentary-type classes as 'Animal Portraits' and 'Behaviour' to the more ambiguous titles of 'Wildscapes' and 'Creative Visions,' the contributing artists have been able to let their imaginations run wild – excuse the pun – in their interpretations of the natural world. Dutch photographer Jasper Doest's entry, Snow Moment (winner of the Creative Visions category), was the real highlight for me: a wonderfully surreal and cinematic image that captures a Japanese macaque shaking snow from its coat in the middle of a hot spring pool, creating a flurrying blizzard of white against the dark and steaming background of the water. Also drawing a crowd was Hungarian Bence Máté's image, The Great Gape, which earnt a commendation in the Underwater Worlds category with its refreshingly original and beautifully composed fish-eye view of a pelican's cavernous bill plunging into the waters of the Grecian Lake Kerkini in search of a catch.

The overall winner is Essence of Elephants, by South Africa's Greg du Toit – a highly imaginative portrayal of a group of elephants gathered around a watering hole on the Northern Tuli Game Reserve in Botswana. Taken from the hidden vantage point of a sunken hiding-place with the artful use of a polarising filter, the photograph presents a striking ground-level view in which the creatures and their environment appear through a haze of cool blue light that lends a further contemporary twist to what would otherwise be an already well-documented scene. Original, thoughtful and creative, it is an image that deserves to have led the man behind the lens to the title of Wildlife Photographer of the Year.

Conversely, while du Toit's winning entry featured a fairly common subject, Udayan Rao Pawar from India claimed the junior version of the award by capturing a species under threat. Entitled Mother's Little Headful, the image depicts a female gharial – a member of the crocodile family – with her brood perched on her head: quite a snap, in more ways than one.

This breathtakingly beautiful exhibition is a must for wildlife and photography enthusiasts alike. Well-presented, interesting and exciting, it brings to light the thought-proving question of which is more valuable: the technical skill used to create the image, or the quality of the moment it depicts? Most importantly, however, the photographs serve as valuable reminders that, no matter how busy we are, we should all take more time to stop and marvel at the world around us.

Wildlife Photographer of the Year, at Natural History MuseumMadeleine Lawson reviews the Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition at the Natural History Museum, London.4