It’s more than just taking a pretty picture — the image needs to tell a story. It needs to have meaningful impact.

When Noppadol Paothong applied for membership into the International League of Conservation Photographers (ILCP), he knew the process would challenge him.

“It’s an exclusive group of photographers,” the 2001 graduate said of the ILCP. “Most of them are world-famous, and have been featured in National Geographic. The application and review process takes four or five months, and the requirement wall is very high.”

Founded in 2005, the organization accepts the world’s most elite wildlife, nature and culture photographers who “in addition to displaying remarkable photographic skills, have each demonstrated a deep commitment to conservation efforts around the world.”

Paothong is too modest to not laugh a bit when asked what it feels like to be considered an “elite” photographer.

But for those familiar with his work, it’s a well-earned description.

A native of Thailand, Paothong came to the United States and enrolled as a student at North Idaho College in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, where he began shooting photos for the school newspaper. In 1998, he was recruited by Dr. Chad Stebbins to attend Missouri Southern, where he became photo editor for The Chart.

As someone who had always been “a wildlife photographer by heart,” Paothong says he wasn’t sure what his new home would have to offer.

“I began wandering around and discovered all of the nature and beauty in Missouri,” he says. “It’s very rich in natural resources and wildlife.”

Paothong, who graduated in 2001 with a communications degree, served as a staff photographer for the Joplin Globe for five years, and later at the Springfield News-Leader. Since 2006, his keen eye for nature has been showcased within the pages of The Missouri Conservationist, a publication of the Missouri Department of Conservation.

In 2012, he published “Save the Last Dance,” which capped a decade-long project to capture stunning images of the North American grassland grouse. He spent the next five years work on a spin-off published last fall – “Sage Grouse: Icon of the West.”

“I wanted to focus on a single species,” he says. “I didn’t want to try to be political but showcase its history and connect the past to the present – from the Native Americans and early pioneers to the present – and show the biodiversity of the West. By protecting one species, we’re also protecting more than 300 others.”

The book has earned several national awards including a grand prize from the 2018 Next Generation Indie Book Awards and a bronze medal from the Independent Publisher Book Awards in the Environment/Ecology/Nature category.

For Stebbins, watching Paothong’s photography skills develop since leaving Missouri Southern has been a pleasure.

“I knew he was a good photographer, but I had no idea he would go on to become a world-class photographer and a master of the profession,” he says. “He’s an inspiration to all of us. When he arrived in Idaho from Thailand, he had to take intensive English language classes so that he could survive in a different world.

“He had this incredible talent, but he had to work diligently to improve upon it, refine it and eventually make a living from it.”

Paothong says he doesn’t plan to immediately jump into another book project — though he isn’t completely shutting the door to the idea, either.

“I may stumble on something I’m passionate about like this project,” he says. “I’ll continue to be an advocate for wildlife and something will come around.”