It was only after we had winnowed down more than 1,000 entries to the three winners in our 19th annual Photo Contest that we noticed something they had in common. Sure, they all had nice composition. They all transported the viewer elsewhere. They offered an unusual perspective. They all had that element of serendipity — the kite-flying children leaning in unison, forming an almost balletic tableau; the star shooting across the glowing heavens as a volcano blazes; the diving, hungry birds parting for an instant to beautifully frame a boatman on the Ganges.
Each winner, we noticed, captured something — or things — flying across the sky: kites, a meteor, birds. They all moved. And like so many of your photos this year, they moved us. Certain animals stole our hearts; in addition to a surfeit of cute penguins, there was an unexpectedly lovely crop of reptiles and a pair of devoted (or so we imagined) leopard brothers. There were stunning landscapes — especially those that mixed water and mountains — that were a balm for the spirit. There were unusual perspectives: a shot of Okinawa’s bridge spanning aqua waters. And humanity found in unexpected moments: a pile of crates falling in Florence. This year’s photos are a visual feast.
In April, Romito, 30, took a 10-day trip to Israel and the Palestinian territories in April to photograph the daily lives of children living amid armed conflict. Romito, who works as an accountant at his family’s firm in Brescia, Italy, said the image of children flying kites in Tel Aviv works on two levels. “I saw the protests and war between the two populations and asked myself, what if these planes were real?” he said. He shot the image with his iPhone 8, and later decided to make it black and white to match his dramatic subject matter. “Every time I hear news from there, I feel afraid — even though it is not my war, it is not my country — because I’ve seen it and I want others to realize what the situation is like there,” he said.
Palmieri, 23, captured this scene during a two-week trip to Hawaii with his girlfriend in July. After climbing nearly 10,000 feet to the Mauna Kea Visitor Center on the Big Island, the diabetes researcher and pancreatic-cell biologist had a panoramic view of a peaceful skyline with the glow of Kilauea, lately a very active volcano, in the distance. “I was taken aback by the contrast more than anything,” Palmieri said. With a Rebel Canon EOS XT, a tripod, a wide-angle lens and a 25-second exposure, he was able to capture the outline of the Milky Way, the volcanic eruption and a lone shooting star. “When you travel, so much of what you take back are the surprises that you encounter while you were there, and that was the most exciting surprise I could’ve had while I was there,” he said.
Last fall, Bock, 21, embarked on a four-month study program in India. Early one morning, her host family in Varanasi invited her on a boat ride along the Ganges to feed migratory birds. While the rest of the boat dispersed crackers to the birds, Bock, who is studying international affairs at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Ore., picked up her Canon Sure Shot and began clicking. “You couldn’t look at any one of them, because they were everywhere” she said. “It was wild.”
Environmental scientist Badaoui often drives by migratory birds passing through the Yolo Bypass Wildlife Area for work in Davis, Calif., but this time was special. “I was actually on the highway when I saw the formation. It had this tornado shape to it that took my mind away,” Badaoui, 38, said. “Every second the shape changes, so I knew I had to pull over to capture it.” He was able to jump into action and capture the birds’ movement with his Nikon D71000. And he was rewarded: As he lifted his camera a lone egret flew right into the heart of the flock. “The light, the moment, nature . . . it’s all so unpredictable,” he said. “You never know what to expect. That’s why I always carry my camera with me, so I can capture it.”
In May, Todorov took to the skies to capture this unusual bird’s-eye view of the Mojave Desert — and hundreds of thousands of cars reacquired by Volkswagen after the company’s emissions scandal in 2015. To get the aerial shot, Todorov leaned from an open window of his 1976 Piper Warrior and shot frames with a Nikon D810 camera and a 70-200-millimeter lens. Because the location was within the boundaries of an airport, he had to talk to an air traffic controller at the same time. “It does feel like a wild ride,” said Todorov, 43, a music professor at San Francisco State University and a professional violinist. “Luckily, I can multitask.”
Nakata captured this aerial shot of the Miyako-Irabu bridge in Okinawa, Japan, with his drone — a DJI Mavic Pro — at around 131 feet. “The life of the island was inconvenient until this bridge was made,” Nakata, 38, said. “I incorporated the truck into the photo because I wanted to convey that [it] was carrying the dreams and hopes of the islanders.” The 3,540-meter bridge connects the remote islands on Okinawa. While it “brought enormous convenience for the people on the island,” it also “spoiled the beautiful scenery of the ocean,” Nakata said. “I wanted to convey that beautiful nature and convenient living of humans are contradictory.”
Norvell managed to snap this cleverly camouflaged leaf-tailed gecko with his Fujifilm X-T1 camera in August of last year. “I’ve always wanted to go to Madagascar mostly because I knew nothing about it,” said Norvell, who captured the photo at Andasibe-Mantadia National Park. He had the benefit of walking through it with a nature guide, who pointed out the location’s unusual inhabitants, both big and small. The fast-moving gecko immediately caught his attention. “I was spellbound by its amazing eyes,” Norvell said. “They seemed like something out of ‘The Hobbit,’ you know, like the Eye of Sauron.” The 41-year-old transplant hepatologist is not the first contest winner in the family: his father John Norvell received an honorable mention last year.
Sometimes, accidents make for the best pictures, retired federal worker Moss said. He took this serendipitous shot on a Canon 5D Mark IV during his first trip to Italy in March. “We had just walked across the Arno River on one of Florence’s many bridges when I noticed this guy carrying a tower of way too many crates down the street,” Moss, 64, said. “Sensing something interesting might happen, I got my camera ready and was rewarded with this image.” Luckily for the stumbling man, the crates were empty. “One man’s mishap is another man’s action shot,” Moss said.
After years of having Alabama’s Tumbling Rock Cave Preserve on her travel bucket list, Lester, 30, decided to make her dream a reality. “Life and work gets in the way and sometimes you need to stop and make time to explore the places you really want to visit,” she said. In July, she and a friend decided to make the trip. Despite a rainy and overcast drive to the site, they arrived to find a memorable scene.“I couldn’t click the shutter fast enough!” Lester said. She knew the streaming light from the keyhole would make for incredible composition, and began shooting with her Canon Mark IV on a tripod. “To me, it looks like the heavens are singing down upon him, or, maybe it’s like ‘Beam me up, Scotty!’ ” Lester said. “Whatever you take away from it, it’s showing off nature at its finest.”
In June, Muth and his son, a student at Virginia Commonwealth University, took a 10-day photography vacation in Iceland. Rather than stay in hotels, the pair decided to rent a camper and stake out awe-inspiring photo locations such as this one. “If someone is passionate about landscape photography, go here. It’s one of those places I would go back to 10 times and still not be able to capture enough,” Muth, 45, said. This vista was shot with a Canon 5d Mark III camera using a tripod just after sunrise near a small mountain range in Stokksnes. The pair woke up at 3 a.m. to capture the landscape. “Not a lot of sleep, but it clearly paid off,” Muth said. “The right weather, the right light, the right time, everything came together all at the same time. I was incredibly lucky.”
On Booth Island during a 10-day trip to Antarctica with National Geographic and Lindblad Expeditions in December 2017, Sliter, 70, made this image. “I just happened to be below the rise of the hill and looked up and saw these gentoo penguins heading back to their nesting site,” said the former Capitol Hill staffer, who retired in 2017 from the Stennis Center for Public Service Leadership. In a crouch, he clicked away with his Olympus digital camera. “I was especially taken by these guys because they aren’t only exhibiting the starkness and beauty of Antarctica, but also where Antarctica is headed,” said Sliter, now an artist in residence at the Torpedo Factory Art Center in Alexandria, Va.
During a two-week, mother-son trip to South Africa, Squire, 29, shot this image. On a windy evening just before sundown at the Phinda Private Game Reserve, he noticed two cheetahs huddled next to each other. “As they were looking around, I happened to catch them gazing directly at each other,” Squire explained. “They looked like they were trying to figure out where to set up shop for the night.” The cheetahs, which Squire later learned were brothers, looked identical. “It looks like I took one of the cheetahs and mirrored it in Photoshop,” Squire said. Using his Canon EOS-1D Mark IV and a 300-millimeter lens, he was able to shoot the cats without startling them. “The negative space between them kind of resembles a heart shape,” Squire said, “which symbolizes their brotherly love.”
He hadn’t planned to stop in Rhyolite — a ghost town in Nevada — while visiting Death Valley National Park in January. But an abandoned pickup truck piqued Levay’s interest and he decided to stay and shoot the area with his Nikon D850 camera. “I just leaned in a window with a very wide-angle lens so you could see as much of the landscape outside as possible from the passenger’s seat perspective,” Levay said. “In post-processing, I was able to preserve the details in the sky and the deep shadows in the car’s interiors.” The 65-year-old, who has dabbled in photography since his teens, retired after 35 years as an image processor for NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope just last week. His retirement plan? More shooting, ideally of national parks and more dramatic landscapes.