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The Top Photos From the National Geographic Photo Contest

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The National Geographic Photo Contest! What photos outranks all the rest? Take a look at these unique pieces of work.

Our Top The Top Photos From the National Geographic Photo Contest

One of the most amazing photography contests today is the annual one presented by National Geographic. The 2013 National Geographic Photo Contest was one of the best, showing a wide variety of images that all strike the core of who we are as a people and a global community. But, subsequent years have also produced some fantastic photos that will undoubtedly pique your interest.

While each of these photos is unique and stunning, some are more brilliant than others. Each one of them elicits unique emotions every time you look at them.

Here are the top photos that we’ve selected from the final contest winners. But for more information about the annual contest and to see all the winners, click on the appropriate links.

Best Photos Selection

1. A Polar Bear Rises

The Ice Bear

Taken on Hudson Bay in Canada, photographer Paul Souders became the Grand prize winner for the 2013 National Geographic Photo Contest with his stunning bear photo. This striking image of a polar bear rising from the depths of the water entitled The Ice Bear also won another competition, the Nature contest, making it quite a sensation.

These polar bears, located near Manitoba province, are the southernmost polar bears in the world today. Because of the threats of global warming, the lives of these bears are in danger.

That’s why this image is so striking – the midnight sun is setting on the bay that should be filled with ice… but isn’t. This prevents the polar bear from being an effective hunter.

Is the bear submerged as a new hunting ploy? Has it been hunting underneath the ice for a meal? The questions that arise have answers that should cause all of us to look at our lives to see if we are each giving our best effort to care for our own little corner of the planet.

2: Egrets Take Flight

Flying Egrets

Using motion to track the flight of Hungarian egrets, photographer Réka Zsirmon earned an honorable mention for her image of these majestic birds from a tidal area of the Danube River entitled Flying Egrets. Seeing a flock of birds take off in flight together will always be a birder’s delight. But this image captures the essence of the egret in every form.

There are glimpses of birds in the air with the extended stops that Zsirmon used to capture this photo, yet the simple majesty of an egret standing on the shores of the river is also there. The background can just be seen through the egrets’ motion, providing both a backdrop and depth to the overall image. For these reasons, this Honorable Mention in the overall contest is the second entry on our list of award winners.

 3: The Bovine Version of a Tanning Bed

Cows and Kites

Any photographer worth their salt will tell you that they’ll go to any lengths to get the perfect shot that they’ve happened to see. For Andrew Lever and his image entitled Cows and Kites, he had to crawl on his belly in nearly 100-degree desert heat to capture the image of these cows taking a break in the sun. In the background, kites are being flown on this beautiful, nearly cloudless day to provide color contrast in the background as foothills to the mountains beyond.

The effort to get this image is almost unimaginable. For starters, Lever had to park his vehicle some distance away and then walk in the extreme heat to make sure that he didn’t spook the cows with his presence,

Have you ever gone barefoot on a beach on a hot day? Imagine covering yourself in that hot sand without getting sand in your camera to get the perfect image. For his efforts, this Honorable Mention takes third place on our list.

 4: A Graveyard of Trees


Highlighted by a powerful lightning strike, the first glance at Julie Fletcher’s image entitled “The Graveyard” makes you think that it has been highly altered somehow. From the multiple streaks of lightning to the almost fluorescent green of the swampy water that covers this graveyard of trees, the image is very surreal.

“I cannot describe the eerie feeling I had when I walked in on this scene,” Fletcher told National Geographic. “I followed a massive storm front several hundred kilometers hoping to capture something special, but this blew my mind. The amusing milky green water scenery is a natural phenomenon that results from an electromagnetic activity as lightning hits the water surface.

With the concept of death being framed by life, this Honorable Mention in the 2013 National Geographic Photo competition takes the fourth spot in our top images.

 5: A Small Bit of Happiness

Life Along a Polluted River

The Buriganga River is highly polluted, and this image shows us why. On the shores of this river near Dhaka, Bangladesh, is a burning heap of junk that must be leaking all sorts of debris and toxins into the water.

This is the same water that those in poverty use every day for drinking, bathing, and cooking. Yet there, in the midst of what many of us would consider some of the worst living conditions ever, a young boy stands there with a colorful set of balloons – a happy treasure.

The capital city often has very little to celebrate. A recent election was marred by tremendous violence as 21 people lost their lives, with countless other abuses resulting from the same. Yet there, in this world of chaos and disorder, this young man plays with these balloons, happy in his small world, even while the rest of the city around him suffers in worry from night raids.

This moving photograph from Andrew Biraj called Life Along a Polluted River deserves recognition, and that’s why we’ve included it here.

6. Maasai Mara Zebras and Wildbeasts

National Geographic became the first brand on Instagram to hit the 100 million mark for its amazing photo gallery. And to celebrate this achievement, they created a contest for photographers dubbed natgeo100contest.

The contest saw photographers from around the world submit over 90,000 stunning photos. And this photo by Ketan Khambhatta took the day.

The beautiful photo, taken in the Maasai Mara National Reserve, shows a group of wildebeests in full flight mode as they cross the Mara River. From another section of the river, several zebras try to detect whether there are crocodiles nearby so that they too can cross the dangerous river.

As Muhammed Muheisen (National Geographic photographer) put it, Khambhatta’s photo was so dynamic that someone wouldn’t stop looking. And by looking at the photo, you can see just why he made that comment. It’s a clear depiction of the true nature of the hassle that these animals undergo to survive in their habitats.

The photo earned Khambatta the grand prize.

7. Matabishi by Adam Keifer

Matabishi the ape
Matabishi Gorilla by Adam Keifer; source National Geographic

This was another big scorer in the National Geographic Instagram contest, as it reached the finals. The photo shows Matabishi, one of the orphaned juvenile mountain gorillas, enjoying a warm embrace from Matthieu Shamavu, a National Park Ranger.

The image was taken at DRC’s (Democratic Republic of Congo) Senkwekwe Center, the world’s only rehabilitation center for such gorillas. Adam’s photo shows how these animals can be pretty tender and gentle, despite being known to be aggressive. It also depicts the complex bond present between humans and the natural world.

Taking care of our environment and its inhabitants should be our goal. This way, we can maintain peaceful coexistence between all species.

8. The Dreamy Arctic Scene

The dreamy arctic scene
Dreamy Arctic scene by Weimin Chu; source National Geographic

Weimin Chu took this photo at a fishing village known as Upernavik, located on an island in West Greenland. The photo shows a small village with buildings, roads, and everything covered in snow. The view is simply stunning.

However, there’s one aspect of this village that makes the photo even more striking; despite the white snow covering the roofs of these buildings – you can still identify the various colors that adorn the houses.

Interestingly, this varying painting is not for decorative purposes only. It has a more elaborate function – differentiate the buildings, especially when snow covers everything in it.

Generally, the town paints their houses this way to make it easier for people here to identify them quickly based on their purposes. For example, red color is meant for storefronts while blue marks fishermen’s houses.

The photo won the grand prize in the 2019 National Geographic’s Travel Photo Contest.

9. The Whale Tail

Back and Tail of a Humpback Whale
Humpback whale tale by Reiko Takahashi; source National Geographic

Photographer Reiko Takahashi has always been fascinated by marine life and underwater photography. However, until 2017, she was still a semiconductor engineer working in the corporate world. She only took a few short days a year to escape the office and pursue his real passion – marine life.

In 2018, as she enjoyed a snorkeling trip in a beautiful place near Okinawa, she got a chance to capture this stunning photo. Little did she know that it would be her ticket to the 2018 National Geographic Travel photography and even win the grand prize.

The photo, which stunningly captures the tail of a humpback whale as it swims near the coast of Kumejima Island, is undoubtedly breathtaking. And it certainly deserved the award.

10. The Pilot’s Aerial Desert Photo

Pilot's aerial desert
Pilot’s aerial desert by Jassen Todorov; 2018 National Geographic

This simple but stunning photo won photographer Jassen Todorov 2018’s National Geographic Photo Competition grand prize. The image captures a breathtaking aerial view of thousands of vehicles parked in the Mojave Desert, next to the Southern California Logistics Airport.

Generally, the airport is known as a storage place for retired airplanes. However, in 2015, Volkswagen recalled several vehicles that were said to have subverted emission tests. Since then, the company has used the land adjacent to the airport as a parking lot.

Since the cars were recalled in their thousands, the scene created an amazing view from the skies. And this image became one of the winning images in the 2018 National Geographic photo competition.

11. The Orangutan Photo by Jayaprakash Joghee Bojan

National Geographic has several photography contests for different categories. This breathtaking photo made it to the contests and won the Nature Photographer of the Year Contest 2017 award.

The portrait captures a seemingly sad Orangutan ape hiding behind a tree submerged in water. Just looking at this animal evokes feelings of sadness, hopelessness, and defeat. And this has all resulted from increased human encroachment into their territory.

Generally, there is rampant cultivation of palm oil in Borneo, Indonesia. And the cultivation is not favoring these animals.

The encroachment has seen these animals restricted to a smaller area and has even changed their usual behavior. For instance, this endangered ape species has resorted to wading through rivers infested with crocodiles to look for food and survive.

Their plight can all be summarised in this single photo.

12. Sardine Run

The sardine run
The sardine run by Greg Lecoeur; source National Geographic

This image was taken on South Africa’s waters, depicting a perfect hunter-prey relationship between sardines and their hunters. Normally, sardines are largely preyed upon by numerous predators, including dolphins, sharks, penguins, marine birds, and even penguins. And this portrait shows just that.

During their migration, sardines usually fall prey to these predators. And capturing the action firsthand, on camera, is absolutely stunning.

The image shows dolphins trying to drive the sardines up near the water surface, separating some from the larger group. The stunning view of the fishing birds diving bullet-fast deep into the water for a piece of the cake is also fantastic.

While it took Greg Lecoeur around two weeks to get the perfect shot, the image was worth every minute. In the end, it became the winning image for the 2016 Nature Photographer Award by National Geographic.

13. Landscape Pacific Storm

Landscape Pacific
Landscape Pacific storm by Santiago Borja; source National Geographic

This is one of the scenes that you might never see in real life. But, Santiago Borja makes sure you have experienced it through this breathtaking image.

He captured this photo in the Pacific ocean, as a cumulonimbus storm rose on the ocean surface to form an amazing view. It sat on top of a temperature inversion, creating a stunningly thick overcast clouds layer.

The storm’s updrafts quickly reach the tropopause, spreading out to form this unique anvil. According to Santiago, some updrafts pierce the tropopause turning into overshooting tops.

It’s undoubtedly an amazing photo that deserved that 3rd place in the 2016 Nature Contest on National Geographic.

See related: 21 Tips for Beating Post-Travel Blues

14. Crow Chasing Puffy Owl

Crow, puffy owl fight
Crow chasing puffy owl by LaurenceChia Boon; source National Geographic

The portrait might not have clinched the category winner award, but it certainly had a place among the top photos. This shot is quite a sensation, taken on a clear day along Pasir Ris Park riverbank, east Singapore.

The photo shows a crow aggressively chasing away a puffy fish owl, which contradicts what many of us would think. For example, while the owl might be bigger than the crow, it’s evident that the latter is more aggressive.

As you look at the photo, you can see how interesting nature is and how every species has a place in it. Laurence Chia Boon helps the world see the wild’s dynamics in their raw form.

15. Proud Momma

Peacock bass swim
Peacock mother and her brood by Michael O’Neill, source National Geographic

Now, these are many kids to look after! And this proud mother does it tirelessly.

Michael O’Neill took this shot in a freshwater lake in Miami, Florida. And just how the peacock bass swims amidst its young is stunning. The mother protects the young ones from various predators (the ones she can) until they come of age and go their way.

This type of fish species came from South America in the 80s to help control the increasing number of tilapia fish in Florida. Generally, this fish is famous for its fighting spirit, and it was ideal for curbing the overpopulation of the invasive tilapia species.

You can even tell by its looks that it’s a no-nonsense mother.

16. Osprey Catching a Fish in Aviemore, Scotland

Osprey fishing
Osprey fishing by Hari Kumar Prasannakumar; image source, National Geographic

While the moment is always horrifying for the prey, watching some of the world’s top hunters do their thing is always stunning. This photo by Hari Kumar Prasannakumar offers such a moment.

Ospreys are birds of prey. They usually migrate from Africa to Scotland annually. And will hunt a variety of animals, from rodents to fish. This specific osprey is hunting for fish in full flight, wings spread, and claws out.

The view is completely breathtaking. And the judges in one of the most famous photo competitions – the National Geographic Photography contest – couldn’t agree more. They referred to it as an “Extremely impressive shot.” 

17. Ice Fishing in Hokkaido, Japan

Ice fishing in Hokkaido
Ice fishing in Hokkaido by Clare Waring, Image Source National Geographic

In 2021, National Geographic invited photographers from around the world to submit photos in at least six categories. Clare Waring won the People Category with her photo of a person fishing in a frozen sea in Japan.

While she aimed to snap the red-crowned cranes and other wildlife, her adventure led her to this stunning moment. The freezing fisherman seen in the photo sits quietly, waiting to catch fish without being deterred by the biting cold.

It is a baffling moment that shows how determined the fisherman was to take something back home. And it certainly won her one of the most coveted awards in photography.

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