A gecko “smiles” in the darkness behind a bright green leaf, his eyes sparkling with a mischievous air
All photos courtesy of CPOTY

40 Stunning Photographs of Nature, Up Close and Personal

The breathtaking results of this year’s Close-Up Photographer of the Year competition

The winners of the second annual Close-Up Photographer of the Year competition were chosen from over 6,500 submissions from 52 different countries. The competition seeks to reward the very best close-up, macro, and micro photographs that “help us see the world anew,” and this year it awarded prizes in multiple categories, including “Animals,” “Insects,” “Plants and Fungi,” “Micro,” “Intimate Landscape,” and “Young.”

The overall winner was a photograph by French marine molecular ecology professor Galice Hoarau, who captured a stunning image of eel larva near the Indonesian island of Lembeh during a blackwater dive. Each of the featured images uses close-up photography to show the natural world in a new light, uncovering the hidden beauty of plants, animals, and natural phenomena that are often ignored or neglected. The following photographs are selected from among the top 100 contest winners.

“Running on Water” by Svetlana Ivanenko

Finalist, “Animals”

A photo shot from above of still water with tree branches reflected in it, and a bright yellow spider walking on the water
Photo: Svetlana Ivanenko

Raft spiders can be found in bogs and pools, but they also inhabit the water margins of ditches, ponds and slow-moving streams. To catch prey, they “walk” on water with their appendages outstretched, sensing vibrations that will help them to detect potential victims. I found this lovely specimen on the surface of a marshy pool in Plesheevo Lake National Park, Yaroslavl region, Russia.

“Red-spotted Newt Courtship Behavior Underwater” by Steven David Johnson

Finalist, “Animals”

A very clear, richly detailed photo of two newts embracing in a dance-like way underwater, one curled above the other
Photo: Steven David Johnson

I made this image in the early days of a long-term series about vernal pool life and the fascinating creatures that inhabit temporary ponds in the southern Appalachian Mountains and surrounding lowlands. Most aquatic salamanders breed at night, but red-spotted newts are one of the exceptions. Because their skin contains powerful toxins, they can be out and about in broad daylight with relatively little concern for predators. I photographed this pair of newts engaged in courtship behavior just below the surface of a vernal pool in Virginia.

“Bufo Bufo” by Mathieu Foulquié

Third Place, “Animals”

A photo of a frog shot at eye level, with a clear look at both her underwater limbs and her eyes popping above the surface
Photo: Mathieu Foulquié

This common toad (Bufo bufo) took a liking to me, probably because I looked like a frogman myself. He didn’t stop following me during my two-hour dive in the Buèges karst spring (Hérault, Occitanie, France), so he became the perfect model.

“Gecko” by Juan Jesús González Ahumada

Finalist, “Animals”

A gecko looks out from a hole in a piece of blue foam, as if looking to see if any cars are coming before crossing the road
Photo: Juan Jesús González Ahumada

Geckos like to sun themselves to regulate their temperature. They also like to take advantage of any gap in my house to hide themselves! This individual is peeking out of a hole in an old gymnastics bench in the storage room.

“Flower Spider Net” by Jose Pesquero

Finalist, “Animals”

An unusual photo shows close up overlapping peach and brown shapes, with a spider backlit with a glow suspended in the middle
Photo: Jose Pesquero

I always search for an unusual environment or unique atmosphere in my work. Sometimes the natural environment or background provides a good opportunity, while at other times I like to isolate the subject and combine a second shot in-camera, as I have done here. After shooting a first shot of the spider with my macro lens, I took a second shot of some flowers with a manual focus vintage lens, hiding the centre area of the image that I wanted to preserve from the first shot.

“The Elusive Pygmy Seahorse” by Jade Hoksbergen

Finalist, “Animals”

A tiny bright orange seahorse is displayed on a white background, along with an unusual orange habitat
Photo: Jade Hoksbergen

The smallest members of the seahorse family, pygmy seahorses, are tiny inhabitants of sea fans on coral reefs. This species, Hippocampus denise, just 2cm tall, is so carefully concealed that they were only discovered in 2003. Pygmy seahorses have a prolific sex life during their short existence, with the males responsible for carrying, and releasing fertilised eggs. I spent several dives observing these fragile animals, and used a white slate, carefully positioned, to create an unusual canvas for this seahorse and habitat.

“Madonna and Children” by Geoff Hyde

Finalist, “Animals”

A “daddy long legs” bug shot up close, with a collection of her eggs held carefully in front of her
Photo: Geoff Hyde

Macro photography amazes the most when it’s the everyday item that is shown in a new light. Here, we see the very common Daddy Long Legs, or Cellar Spider (Pholcus phalangioides) — the spider that makes all those cobwebs around the house! Who would have thought they are so beautiful, and that the mother cares for her young so devotedly. Here, she is carrying her eggs around, which she will do for several weeks, and even once the eggs hatch, she will carry all the tiny spiderlings for some time too. Taken in Sydney, Australia.

“Eel Larva” by Galice Hoarau

Overall Winner, “Close-up Photographer of the Year” | Winner, “Animals”

On a black background, a glowing bright blue ribbon of an eel snakes downward from the top of the frame
Photo: Galice Hoarau

I spotted this eel larva off the island of Lembeh (Indonesia) during a blackwater dive. What makes blackwater diving so magical is the abundance of rarely seen planktonic creatures you spot as they take part in one of the largest daily migrations of any animal on Earth. After sunset, small pelagic animals (like this larva) rise close to the surface to feed where the sunlight has allowed planktonic algae to grow.

“Diamond squid” by Galice Hoarau

Finalist, “Animals”

On a black background, an iridescent and beautifully multi-colored squid glows in shades of pink, blue, and green
Photo: Galice Hoarau

I photographed this diamond squid (Thysanoteuthis rhombus) off the island of Siladen (Indonesia) during a blackwater dive. Blackwater diving is essentially diving at night in the open ocean, usually over deep or very deep water. Divers are surrounded by darkness, with only a lit downline as a visual reference. Peering through the darkness with your torch can be quite stressful the first time you do it, but it gets fascinating very quickly.

“Cheshire Gecko” by Bernhard Schubert

Finalist, “Animals”

A gecko “smiles” in the darkness behind a bright green leaf, his eyes sparkling with a mischievous air
Photo: Bernhard Schubert

The impudent expression of this cat gecko (Aeluroscalabotes felinus) reminded me of the Cheshire Cat from Alice in Wonderland. In fact, this creature gets its name from the way it curls up its tail to cover itself while asleep, similar to a cat. I found this individual during a night walk through the Kubah National Park on the island of Borneo (Malaysia). I carefully placed an external flash under the leaf and the gecko so that some parts of its head were illuminated.

“Spider in the Swamp” by Csaba Daroczi

Second Place, “Animals”

Some dark plants are rooted in a shimmering, iridescent swamp, in one bright opening a spider sits as if on display
Photo: Csaba Daroczi

I was preparing to take pictures of bogbean (Menyanthes) at the Turjanos nature conservation area near Kisőrös, Hungary, when I glimpsed this composition in the marshland. I carefully set up my tripod, and prayed for the spider not to move. It allowed me a few pictures before disappearing into the foliage.

“Motherhood” by Laurent Hesemans

Finalist, “Animals”

A wolf spider mother covered in baby spiders is pictured up close, her multi-eye head covered in tiny little versions
Photo: Laurent Hesemans

Unique amongst arachnids, wolf spiders are dedicated mothers. The egg sac is transported on the abdomen and once the tiny spiders emerge they climb on top of their mother where she continues to carry and protect them for several weeks until they are large enough to fend for themselves. During this time, mom will continue to hunt and multitask, seemingly unfazed by the dozens of children clustered on her abdomen. I was fortunate to meet this mother in a garden in Windhoek, Namibia.

“The Boss” by Marco Maggesi

Finalist, “Animals”

A toad, photographed at his own level, looks tough in a tunnel lit with yellow light and covered in graffiti
Photo: Marco Maggesi

This underpass runs under one of the main roads in my home city of Genoa, Italy. It’s close to a stream, which makes it rather humid. As a result, it has been colonised by toads, who find abundant prey here. It’s a remarkable demonstration of the resilience of these animals, who manage to find enough to sustain them in the urban environment. The tunnel is close to where I live, so I headed out one autumn evening to photograph them.

“In the Rain” by Tommaso Redaelli

Finalist, “Young”

A blackbird seems to dance or run along a fence in the rain, droplets pictured, and his orange-capped eye stands out
Photo: Tommaso Redaelli

I was studying in my house during the coronavirus lockdown when it started raining. Tired of the situation, I got my camera and walked in my backyard to see if there were any interesting things to photograph. After a couple of minutes, I saw a blackbird on a roof in front of me. I took some photos but when another blackbird came, it started running towards it and made the whole photo more interesting. What I liked about the photo was the contrast between the orange and black, and the white droplets of rain creating movement in the scene.

“Little Ball” by Tamás Koncz-Bisztricz

First Place, “Young”

A very tiny bug is pictured, she is bright yellow and seems “fuzzy,” around her is silver and white light and water
Photo: Tamás Koncz-Bisztricz

I regularly visit a meadow near my hometown of Csongrád-Bokros, Hungary, observing the site in all seasons. The meadow is grazed by Hungarian grey cattle, which keeps the place in relatively good condition. One frosty winter’s morning I headed out to take some extreme macro shots at the surface of some frozen water that had pooled in the tracks left by a tractor. Crouching down, I spotted some yellow globular springtails (Sminthurus maculatus) which feed in the sunrays reflected from the ice. I used LED torches to illuminate one of them, and came away with a picture that celebrates this tiny creature.

“Rock Star” by Giacomo Redaelli

Second Place, “Young”

A beautiful white and black songbird with a small red eye
Photo: Giacomo Redaelli

I had already photographed great crested tits close to home, but this time I wanted a picture of one against a blurred white background to make the red eye of the bird stand out. To create the picture I had in my mind’s eye I had to travel four hours to a wood in Switzerland. It was very cold and the snow covered almost everything.

“Fight” by Giacomo Redaelli

Finalist, “Young”

Two yellow birds suspended in mid air seem to be fussing at each other, their open mouths just a centimeter from each other
Photo: Giacomo Redaelli

On a cold December day I went to a photographic hide near where I live, in Lombardy. There, during winter, it’s possible to see greenfinches, and sometimes they perform choreographic fights. Photographing them while fighting in flight is a real challenge. Getting the right compromise of shutter speed, aperture and ISO, and capturing them both in the frame and in focus requires a lot of effort.

“Sunset” by Anya Burnell

Finalist, “Young”

A butterfly perches on a clearly-focused piece of grass, with a glowing orange sunset framed perfectly behind her
Photo: Anya Burnell

I spotted this Common Blue butterfly perching on some dry wheatgrass ready to roost as the sun was setting. I set up low in the grass, and cleared the area surrounding the subject so there were no distractions in front of the butterfly. Timing was crucial, as there was only a brief moment when the sun aligned perfectly behind the butterfly. I really enjoy being among nature in the great outdoors, and this has inspired me to take many photographs of butterflies.

“Mandala With Miniature Tulips” by Elizabeth Kazda

First Place, “Plants and Fungi”

A kaliedoscopic flower arrangement on a lightbox includes purple tulips encircling a yellow star-like flower
Photo: Elizabeth Kazda

My goal with this photo was to create art that challenges the viewer to look at the natural world with fresh eyes. I collected some miniature tulips from my garden and placed them on a lightbox. The vivid yellow centres were so striking that I decided to create a composition that would show both a side view and a centre view of the plants. The tulips were photographed and rotated at eight equidistant positions to complete a full rotation; it’s a technique that I call Precise Incremental Rotation. An in-camera multiple exposure of eight frames was used to create the effect.

“Blue Hour” by Csaba Daroczi

Finalist, “Plants and Fungi”

A purple violet-like wildflower stands out in what looks like late-evening light, with a dark turquouise glow and black trees
Photo: Csaba Daroczi

I found a large group of red helleborine, completely by chance, one sunny afternoon while walking through the woods near my home. There were so many flowers it was hard to select which one to photograph, but I was drawn to the trees behind this one.

“Slime Moulds on Parade” by Barry Webb

Second Place, “Plants and Fungi”

An unusual type of mold is pictured along part of a tree, the figures look kind of like little cartoon characters on fire
Photo: Barry Webb

This image is a stack of 34 focus bracketed images. It shows a line of 2.5mm high, fruiting bodies of the slime mould Metatrichia floriformis growing on a decaying beech trunk. Initially, I liked this group because it showed different stages in their development. But when I looked through the magnifier, I noticed that the fruiting bodies resembled people standing in a line — the holes in the stems looked like little legs!

“Vortex Blossom (Old Abutilon)” by Bruno Militelli

Finalist, “Plants and Fungi”

A flower is photographed with crystal-clarity from above, you can see a deep yellow interior and red/yellow patterned petals
A flower is photographed with crystal-clarity from above, you can see a deep yellow interior and red/yellow patterned petals
Photo: Bruno Militelli

I found this flower while I was walking the street with my dog. The fascinating structure of this Abutilon reminded me of a Chinese lantern and I knew I wanted to photograph it from the centre to show its perfect symmetry. To get this result, I used three exposures focusing on different parts of the flower: the pistils with the pollen, the petals and the inner part near the base.

“Slime Mould Spheres” by Barry Webb

Finalist, “Plants and Fungus”

On an old branch, mold is forming in a perfect, shiny, white globe shape on the end of two small black shoots
On an old branch, mold is forming in a perfect, shiny, white globe shape on the end of two small black shoots
Photo: Barry Webb

This image was taken on a decaying Beech branch in a mixed woodland in Buckinghamshire, UK. There was a patch of orange jelly fungus, growing on the same piece of wood, a few centimetres behind the slime mould. The tripod was positioned carefully so that I could use the orange colouring of the fungus as a contrasting background to the white slime mould spheres. The great advantage of focus stacking is that it allows you to use a large aperture to create a pleasing, soft background.

“A Dream of Spring” by Mark James Ford

Finalist, “Plants and Fungus”

A beautiful light lavender flower bursts in bloom with a blurry lavender background of other flowers
A beautiful light lavender flower bursts in bloom with a blurry lavender background of other flowers
Photo: Mark James Ford

The Liverwort (Hepatica nobilis) heralds spring. This apparently simple flower, upon closer inspection, shows its wonderfully subtle graduations of blue and lilac depending on the age and size of a particular flower head. Finding more than just a few isolated flowers (here in the Rheingau, Germany) is a wonderful opportunity to try and capture the essence of a single flower buried within a multitude of evening spring colour, which, through hints of form and structure, emphasise the accompanying flowers.

“Micrasterias Radiosa Desmid” by Gerd A. Günther

Finalist, “Micro”

A fascinating algae form is photographed with clarity, it looks almost like a garden maze photographed from above
A fascinating algae form is photographed with clarity, it looks almost like a garden maze photographed from above
Photo: Gerd A. Günther

This is a Micrasterias radiosa, a microalga belonging to the huge group of desmids. These microalgae are also called ornamental algae, because all forms have at least one axis of symmetry. These algae are much sought after by microscopists because of their outstanding beauty. The form shown here comes from the algae collection of the University of Cologne, with which I have been working with for many years.

“Glass Worm” by Andrei Savitsky

First Place, “Micro”

A “glass worm” is pictured, it looks like glowing shapes and threads in multiple bright metallic colors, on a black bground
Photo: Andrei Savitsky

Glass worms can vary in length from about half an inch to two inches. On the right side of this particular image you can see the large tracheal bubbles that serve as hydrostatic organs (or swim bladders). To create the picture here I made a panorama of eight frames, each of which was focus stacked. To make the image as detailed (and aesthetically pleasing) as possible I used darkfield and polarisation techniques.

“Jewel of the Air — Chrysis Ignita” by Jan Rosenboom

Finalist, “Micro”

A very brightly colored fly-type bug includes shades of shiny, radiant blue, green, purple, and pink
Photo: Jan Rosenboom

When I first saw a cuckoo wasp last year I just knew that this kind of wasp would be the perfect subject for an insect image. Their colours are so amazing, even with the naked eye, and yet so few people know they exist. This is always my goal, to share my fascination with the threatened insect world and hopefully convince people that they are not just important but beautiful too.

“Liquid Silk” by Mike Curry

Finalist, “Intimate Landscape”

An abstracted image of blue lines and water waves
Photo: Mike Curry

The sense of energy at Canary Wharf in London is palpable. With so much activity around, capturing these images requires a focus that isn’t immediately obvious to passersby — I can spend hours examining a small body of water, waiting for something out of the ordinary. This image was inspired by my childhood fascination with kaleidoscopes and spirographs, and the endless variation of colours and shapes they created.

“Cast in Stone” by Mark James Ford

First Place, “Intimate Landscape”

A photo of melting lava shows a yellow and black ground with glowing red lava shown in a wiggling line, glowing below
Photo: Mark James Ford

Trekking across the baking lava of the Kalapana lava field in Hawaii, was an experience not to be forgotten. Incredible organic structures of black, blue, gold and bronze seemed to overwhelm the senses, but eventually the increasing presence of sulphur dioxide and other acidic gases, acted as a reminder that I was walking on an erupting volcano. I had just seconds to capture this image of a lava flow setting into the form it would retain for millions of years. The glass-like rock was still glowing below the surface, but soon enough a new lava flow started centimetres from my feet and I was forced to retreat.

“Frost Lantern” by Don Komarechka

Finalist, “Intimate Landscape”

A photo resulting from a scientific experiment shows a glowing blue bubble with a jagged color pattern
Photo: Don Komarechka

What if you could make a freezing soap bubble into its own light source? By combining invisible ink that fluoresces blue with dish soap and white corn syrup, you can create a bubble that freezes beautifully. Add in a custom-built ultraviolet flash and you’ll see it illuminate from within, glowing like a lantern of frost.

“Balance” by Petar Sabol

Finalist, “Insects”

Two breathtaking butterflies are perched opposite each other, glowing with light and offset by a beautiful green
Photo: Petar Sabol

Searching for amazing insects is pure heaven for me, so I felt great when I came across these two Eastern festoon butterflies. The butterflies were still as they hadn’t reached a high enough temperature to fly yet, but it was already quite warm so I knew I didn’t have much time. I carefully set up my camera and tripod, took a few test shots, improved the composition and background as much as I could, and that was it.

“Before Take Off” by Perdita Petzl

Finalist, “Insects”

A beautiful orange butterfly is photographed very clear while hanging on a green bud, bright flowers in the back are blurry
Photo: Perdita Petzl

I shot this twin-spot fritillary (Brenthis hecte) in beautiful flowering dry grassland in Croatia. At first, I photographed it from the side, in the classic way, but as the temperature rose and the insect began to warm up it turned its back to the sun giving me with an opportunity to photograph it from the front. After a while it slowly opened its wings, preparing to take off. I had a few seconds to adjust the focus and take a few pictures before it flew away.

“Blue Eyes, Green Eyes” by Minghui Yuan

Finalist, “Insects”

A photo of a small blue dragonfly stoping to take rest on a lotus seed pod that looks like a funny face
Photo: Minghui Yuan

In the Lotus Garden of East Lake in Wuhan, a blue-eyed dragonfly rests on a small lotus head. The lotus leaf in front obscures the chaotic environment below. I took a low position and shot with a large aperture. Both the blue eyes of the dragonfly and the ‘eyes’ of the lotus are united in their gaze.

“The Hug” by Stefan Gerrits

Finalist, “Insects”

Two butterflies are photographed touching feelers, upside down hanging on something and on a bright white background
Photo: Stefan Gerrits

Finland is a vast country with countless lakes, forests and large areas of heathland. The Silver-studded Blues (Plebejus argus) love these dry heath forests and can be easily found there. The challenge, however, is to find many in the same area for the best photographic opportunities. No more than 20km from where I live, in a dry heath forest, there must have been hundreds of blues waiting to be photographed. I simply couldn’t believe it. It’s a cliché but so true: “often beauty can be found closer than you think.”

“Orange Damselfly” by Petar Sabol

Finalist, “Insects”

A closeup shot of a bug’s face with a lot of character, showing two big bulbous “eye” shapes jutting off to the sides
Photo: Petar Sabol

Little damselflies are common in the area where I live, as there are good natural habitats for them — small ponds, a river and a water canal. When I was taking photos of this damselfly it was a rather cold morning and the low temperature kept it still. There was no wind either, so I was working fast in case it started up. The background colour gave me a nicely balanced image.

“Constelacion Libelula” by Joan Marques Faner

Finalist, “Insects”

A dead dragonfly rests on still water, the reflections of the sun above make her body look like it is framed by stars
Photo: Joan Marques Faner

During the time of confinement in Spain for COVID-19, more than 60 dragonflies were born in the pond that I built in my garden for birds to drink from. But not all survived. Some fell into the water when they did not have enough energy to fly and drowned. By closing the diaphragm a lot I achieved two effects: that the dragonfly came out all in focus and that the reflections of the sun looked like stars.

“Lady in Red” by Jacky Parker

Finalist, “Insects”

A striking red and orange closeup photo of a ladybug descending the edge of an orange poppy leaf
Photo: Jacky Parker

“I’m always on the hunt for ladybirds in my garden, so I was thrilled when I came across this seven-spot variety climbing over the bud of an oriental poppy. I grabbed my camera and set it to continuous shooting mode. After taking several shots as the insect moved along the petal I finally got what I was looking for.”

“Stick Insects and Volcano” by Chien Lee

Finalist, “Insects”

Two stick insects, one on top of the other, a rephotographed on a verdant hill with a snow-capped volcano in the background
Photo: Chien Lee

High up in the frigid páramo tundra around Cotopaxi volcano was the last place I expected to find a stick insect. Yet, here among the frost-encrusted vegetation was one of the most fascinating species I had ever encountered. I wanted to photograph this species amid its beautiful alpine landscape, hence the use of a wide-angle lens.

“Fragile” by Mike Curry

First Place, “Insects”

A photo of a wall with layers of peeling blue and green paint and one standout black and orange butterfly
Photo: Mike Curry

I was visiting Goole, the town where I was born, in November 2018 as my Dad was very ill in hospital. To take my mind off things I went for a walk with my wife Justine. There had been no time to pack really so all I had with me was my iPhone XS. We were walking towards the docks when I saw some beautiful peeling paint on an abandoned building site. I went over to photograph it when Justine asked if I had noticed the butterfly too. I hadn’t as I was miles away, but had already captured this image serendipitously. It felt a surreal moment as my dad particularly liked butterflies and always commented that they represented relatives who had passed away, making it even more poignant. Unfortunately he passed away shortly after, so this is a special photograph for me.

“The Signal” by Chien Lee

Third Place, “Insects”

A branch shows a beetle on the hunt, trailed by a long squiggly line of bioluminescent green glow
Photo: Chien Lee

Bioluminescence is abundant in the Bornean rainforest at night, a feature that becomes evident as soon as you turn off your headlamp, but few organisms emit a light as strong as Lamprigera beetles. During a night walk in the mountains of southern Sarawak, I found this large specimen crawling through low vegetation, presumably on the hunt for snails, their preferred prey.

You can view more winners and finalists in the Close-Up Photographer of the Year competition here.

Formerly editorial director @BuzzFeed. Currently editor @Tenderly and writer at large. Email: JackAShepherd at gmail

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