Benjamin Olson didn't expect the fox to stick around.

A conservation photographer by trade, Olson, 29, had spent an August day on the Gunflint Trail fruitlessly scouting for moose.

Driving away, he spotted a young female fox hunting. He waited for the animal to bolt off, and when she didn't, he started snapping photos — first from his car, then from a roadside ditch.

"The only conclusion I could come to was that she had never seen a human before," he said.

One of the photos from that day — the fox in profile, yawning — went on to win an award from Nature's Best Photography magazine.

Now in its 21st year, the magazine's Windland Smith Rice International Awards competition draws submissions from around the world — typically between 20,000 and 25,000 annually, said Deborah Freligh, art director and co-publisher at Nature's Best.

There's one grand prize winner each year, plus winners in categories such as oceans, birds and landscapes. Eighty-two images — including Olson's, which won in the wildlife category — were chosen this year for an exhibition at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C.

"We're looking for great shots that have great light and clarity and good composition and all those kinds of things, but then something memorable — something that sets it a little bit apart from the rest that we see," Freligh said.

The clarity and lighting in Olson's photo are a combination that a photographer may capture "once in a lifetime," Freligh said.

Nature's Best previously recognized Olson for his photo of a snowy owl, taken during the infamously harsh winter of 2014.

A passion for wildlife

The recognition is a boon for Olson's photography career, said his mentor, wildlife photographer Melissa Groo.

"A lot of people enter, and only a few — very few — make it to the very end. And he has twice now," she said. "So I would say that's a pretty remarkable achievement."

Olson, who lives in Burnsville, was always interested in the outdoors. But it wasn't until he was a teenager — after his grandfather gave him a camera — that he developed a passion for photography.

"As an avid outdoorsman, I started trading in my fishing poles and my hunting equipment and started doing photography," Olson said.

Olson received a biology degree from Bemidji State University and an associate's degree in photography from Dakota County Technical College.

He's been a professional photographer for about six years.

Though he travels for his work, Olson has a particular passion for photographing the wild places of Minnesota, Groo said.

"He seems to have a real special connection to the wildlife of Minnesota," she said, "and a real art and skill in going out and finding it."

Emma Nelson • 612-673-4509