Jaw-dropping landscapes, majestic creatures and luminous fungi took home prizes in the 2022 photo contest held by The Nature Conservancy, a global environmental nonprofit.
In this year’s competition, photographers from 196 countries and territories put more than 100,000 entries in front of a panel of judges.
“The diversity of images from around the world gave a glimpse into our fragile planet and all the life that inhabits it,” said judge and conservation photographer Ami Vitale in a statement. “We are left with a profound message of how interconnected all of us are and what it means to our own survival to intermingle with wildness.”
The images are meant to be a reminder, not just of the beauty of nature, but of humanity’s influence on it.
This year, the nonprofit’s photo contest included a climate category for the first time, asking photographers to submit images that capture the impact of human-caused climate change across Earth’s communities and ecosystems, as well as images that show hope for the future. They also accepted entries in the landscape, people and nature, water, plants and fungi, and wildlife categories.
“To witness, let alone capture, such stunning images in nature is a feat more difficult to achieve than most will ever understand,” contest judge Coyote Peterson, host of YouTube’s Brave Wilderness, said in the statement.
The organization posted the full list of winners, including celebrity judges’ picks and all of the honorable mentions. Here’s a selection of the images that earned accolades.
Grand Prize, “Branching Out”
Li Ping, the winning photographer from China, said he began photography in earnest in 2009. Though he usually focuses on nature, his subjects also include architecture and cultural landscapes.
To capture this early-morning view, Ping slept in a roadside parking lot overnight. Shortly after sunrise, he sent up a drone to immortalize the empty road and branching gullies, which were created by rainwater erosion.
“I was inspired by the magical presence of nature, which can go beyond individual lives,” he said in a statement.
First Place, Landscape
Rime ice, or supercooled water droplets that freeze on surfaces that are below zero Celsius, coats the branches of trees on Mount Adi in Navarro, Spain.
Francisco Javier Munuera González, a Spanish photographer, climbed the mountain to capture this image. “We ascended through the forest immersed in fog,” he said in a statement. At the top, the haze cleared for a few minutes, providing this breathtaking view “caused by the low temperatures.”
Second Place, Landscape
A lone bolt of lightning touches down in the mountainous landscape of Indonesia’s Bromo Tengger Semeru National Park. According to the photographer, Hendy Wicaksono of Indonesia, this park is one of the ten priority tourist destinations in the country. In the foreground, just left of center, a thin plume of white smoke rises from the crater of Mount Bromo, an active volcano. The volcano is surrounded by about 10 square kilometers of sand.
Wicaksono captured this photo from nearby Mount Penanjakan, where tourists go to watch the sunrise. “When you reach the top of the climb, you will feel tired,” as hikers usually begin around 4 a.m., Wicaksono wrote on Instagram, in Indonesian. But it all “will pay off with an amazing view when the sun starts to shine from the eastern horizon.”
First Place, People and Nature
Polish photographer Janusz Jurek set out to capture an atypical beach shot. While visiting Greece, “I wanted to photograph the sea landscape, as everyone does, only turned 180 degrees,” he says in a statement. After facing his back toward the water, Jurek was met with this scene.
“A huge factory broke into the sea, taking the beach away from restful people,” he says in the statement. “Industry pushes people off the ground. It pushes more and more. We are taking more and more.”
Second Place, People and Nature
Komang Arnawa of Indonesia captured a fisherman sorting his haul in the village of Kedonganan in Bali. A tangle of netting spreads across the foreground, and as the fisher works the nets, tiny fish go flying.
The Kedonganan Fish Market (also known as the Jimbaran Fish Market) is a popular tourist attraction and Bali’s largest fresh market for seafood.
First Place, Climate
The multi-colored fan-throated lizard earns its name from the flap of skin on its neck called a dewlap, which it extends to impress a mate. This subspecies called Sarada superba is only found on India’s Chalkewadi plateau and is identifiable by its blue, orange and black throat.
In India’s Satara district, this wind farm on the Chalkewadi plateau is one of the largest. Photographer Sandesh Kadur of India says the turbines’ existence might actually promote the welfare of these little reptiles. “Researchers believe that windmills may affect predator behavior, giving a chance for these tiny lizards to thrive in this rocky plateau,” Kadur says in a statement.
Second Place, Climate
Warm weather and nutrient-rich waste can spell disaster for the health of aquatic ecosystems. This mix of human-influenced factors has caused algal blooms and “red tides” in California, killing fish and other wildlife.
In India, a similar combination led to overgrown sea vegetation in the lake pictured. In the aftermath, Indian photographer Amish Jain captured a moment when someone was working to clear these plants from the water.
First Place, Water
Kristin Wright of the United States captured this aerial view of an Icelandic river “braided” with streaks of bright-colored sediment. The longest river in Iceland, called Þjórsá, begins at the Hofsjökull glacier and stretches nearly 143 miles to the Atlantic Ocean.
Wright took this photo from a small airplane, a perspective that “reveals the bright and varied colored sediment tracing the river’s path towards the ocean,” she says in a statement.
In February, Wright shared on Instagram that her pilot for the shoot that captured this image, Haraldur Diego, had passed. “There was nothing better in this world than flying over Iceland with you,” she wrote. “I rarely love my photographs. But the photos I made with him, in his airplane, I truly loved.”
Second Place, Water
Within these pink-water lagoons in Yucatán, Mexico, lies one of the country’s most important salt-generating plants. Photographer Nick Leopold Sordo of Mexico, who describes himself as a “scientist, conservationist, [and] shark diver” on Instagram, took this colorful image of the salt mines.
The lagoons are adjacent to Río Lagartos natural park, which—in keeping with a pink theme—”is an important site for the American flamingo,” Sordo says in a statement.
First Place, Plants and Fungi
These eerie mushrooms create a haunting scene in Australian forests as they produce their own light, earning them the nickname “ghost fungus.” Aussie photographer Callie Chee walked the forest in the daylight and marked the trees and ground so that she could find her way back to these mushrooms after dark.
As it turned out, finding these fungi at night wasn’t too difficult. “The glow is very much visible to the naked eyes in complete darkness,” Chee says in a statement. The key, though, is being in the right place at the right time. “Finding them and photographing them can be challenging as they grow and glow for only a few weeks in a year.”
On Instagram, she described a two-hour-long “back-breaking shoot in the dark with a few spiders for company” to capture these mushrooms.
Second Place, Plants and Fungi
American photographer Xiaoling Keller captured this photo of Soaptree Yucca plants at New Mexico’s White Sands National Park.
The hardy, drought-tolerant plants are relatives of the Joshua Tree and flower in late spring to early summer. Then, the white blossoms become the brown seed pods seen in Keller’s image.
First Place, Wildlife
A lion named Morani walks with a friend along the savannah in Maasai Mara, Kenya. The friend, on the right, is distinctly older than Morani, says Anup Shah, a photographer from the U.K., in a statement.
The pair’s movement broke a serene scene. “There is a hint of a faint breeze. Otherwise, a pure stillness reigns,” Shah says in the statement.
Second Place, Wildlife
An African elephant shrouded in a cloud of dust is “one of the best spectacles in wild Namibia,” Greek photographer Panos Laskarakis says in a statement.
The animal, which Laskarakis calls a “supergiant,” is just visible through the haze. Elephants use their trunks to throw dirt and mud onto their bodies, providing protection from the sun and from bugs.
This winter scene in Stokksnes, Iceland, showcases contrasting hues. The ice-covered mountain, called Vestrahorn, stands out from the dark sands in the foreground.
“I like the difference in colors between the white mountains and the black dunes with the yellow grass,” Italian photographer Ivan Pedretti says in a statement.
This Oregon attraction is known as Thor’s Well, or the Drainpipe of the Pacific. Some say it started out as a sea cave that collapsed, leaving behind a seemingly bottomless pit that water flows into.
American photographer Tom Fenske captured this view of the formation at sunset. “When the tide is just right, the ocean seems to drain away through the hole,” he says in a statement.
A giraffe bends over to drink water in the Zimanga Private Game Reserve in this low-angle shot captured by Jenny Zhao of the United States.
The oxpecker birds seen on the giraffe’s back and flying near it have a mutually beneficial relationship with the tall mammals. The giraffe gets cleaner skin as the birds snack on parasites nestled on it. In 2018, photos revealed yellow-billed oxpeckers nesting in giraffes’ fur overnight. Zhao’s image captures the cooperation between the creatures.