24 close-up photos that show the hidden beauty of nature

  • The Close-up Photographer of the Year contest celebrates close-up, micro, and macro images of the natural world.
  • More than 6,500 photos were submitted this year by photographers in 52 countries.
  • The winning image, taken by French photographer Galice Hoara, shows an eel larva photographed during a blackwater dive. 
  • Other nominated photos show everything from geckos and frogs to crystallized fungi.
  • Visit Insider's homepage for more stories.

There's beauty to be found in all areas of the natural world — especially when you take a close look.

This was highlighted in the recent Close-up Photographer of the Year contest, held in association with Affinity Photo. The competition began in 2018, and was founded by photography journalists Tracy and Dan Calder. Now held annually, the contest urges photographers to "slow down, enjoy their craft, and make long-lasting connections with the world around them," according to a press release sent to Insider.

More than 6,500 close-up, micro, and macro photos were submitted this year by photographers in 52 countries. The winning image, taken by French photographer Galice Hoara, shows an eel larva photographed during a dive. 

Here are the winning images, as well as some other nominees, that might give you a new perspective on animals, insects, fungi, and more.

Overall Winner and Animals Category Winner: "Eel Larva" by Galice Hoarau

Hoarau, who is a professor of marine molecular ecology, was blackwater diving off Indonesia's Lembeh Island when he spotted this eel larva. His image of the creature later led him to win approximately $3,246 (£2,500) and the Close-Up Photographer of the Year (CUPOTY) trophy.

Speaking to CUPOTY, he said the eel is one of the many "rarely-seen planktonic creatures" you can find while blackwater diving, which makes the experience "so magical."

Second Place Animals Category: "Spider in the Swamp" by Csaba Daroczi

Daroczi, a teacher, told CUPOTY that he was planning on photographing Menyanthes — plants also known as bogbeans — when he noticed this spider. He captured the shot at the Turjanos nature conservation area near Kiskőrös, Hungary.

"I carefully set up my tripod, and prayed for the spider not to move," he told CUPOTY. "It allowed me a few pictures before disappearing into the foliage."

Third Place Animals Category: "Bufo Bufo" by Mathieu Foulquié

"This common toad (Bufo bufo) took a liking to me, probably because I looked like a frogman myself," marine biologist Foulquié told CUPOTY.

Foulquié added that the frog "became the perfect model" because it "didn't stop following" him while he dived in Hérault, France, for two hours.

Animals Category Finalist: "Gecko" by Juan Jesús González Ahumada

Though you might assume the gecko seen in Ahumada's photo is lounging in his natural habitat, it's actually sitting inside "an old gymnastics bench in a storage room," as the photographer told CUPOTY.

Young Close-up Photographer of the Year Category Winner: "Little Ball" by KONCZ-BISZTRICZ Tamás

Speaking to CUPOTY, the 16-year-old photographer said he took his winning shot at a meadow near his hometown of Bokros, Hungary, on a "frosty" winter 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," he told CUPOTY. "Crouching down, I spotted some yellow globular springtails (Sminthurus maculatus), which feed in the sunrays reflected from the ice."

He added: "I used LED torches to illuminate one of them, and came away with a picture that celebrates this tiny creature."

Second Place Young Close-up Photographer of the Year Category: "Rock Star" by Giacomo Redaelli

This bird, called a great crested tit, was photographed by 17-year-old Redaelli in Switzerland after four hours of travel. He told CUPOTY that the area was "very cold" and covered in snow.

"I walked for almost an hour in this beautiful landscape before I heard a familiar call," he said. "I stopped, took my camera out of the bag, and waited without moving. I couldn't tell where the call was coming from."

"After a while, a crested tit flew to a branch right in front of me," Redaelli continued. "I moved as slowly as possible, trying not to scare it away, and brought my camera up to my face. I was so happy to see the bird in the viewfinder. I focused on the eye and got a few nice shots."

Third Place Young Close-up Photographer of the Year Category: "Butterflies in the Light" by Emelin Dupieux

"I live in the middle of nature," 14-year-old photographer Dupieux told CUPOTY. "My house is surrounded by meadows, and every spring the flowers bloom, welcoming a multitude of insects — especially butterflies. Among the most frequent visitors are fritillaries. I often see them resting on the flowers of Armeria arenaria, and feeding on the nectar."

"I wanted to capture the beautiful synergy between insect and plant, so I arranged some flowers in a harmonious way, placed a white background behind them, and overexposed the image in-camera," she added.

Young Close-up Photographer of the Year Category Finalist: "Big Eyes" by Bori Papp

At 12 years old, Papp is one of the youngest photographers featured in this year's contest. He captured this fly while visiting Hungary's Malomvölgy Lake with his parents in April 2019.

"I took some shots of flowers and water drops, but the most interesting subject was a fly with extremely big eyes," Papp told CUPOTY. "I tried to get closer and closer, very slowly and calmly."

Insects Category Winner: "Fragile" by Mike Curry

As he told CUPOTY, Curry was visiting his hometown of Goole, England, in November 2018 while his father was in the hospital. He came across the butterfly in his photograph while taking a walk with his wife during the trip.

"We were walking towards the docks when I saw some beautiful peeling paint on an abandoned building site," the photographer said. "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."

Curry added: "It was a surreal moment as my dad particularly liked butterflies and always commented that they represent relatives who had passed away, making it even more poignant. Unfortunately, he passed away shortly after, so this is a special photograph for me."

Second Place Insects Category: "Water Scorpions" by Juan Jesús González Ahumada

Ahumada told CUPOTY that water scorpions often rise to the surface of water to interact with other creatures at night. He also added that the bugs "aren't dangerous."

"The caudal tube that helps them to breathe — and resembles a tail — is harmless," he said. "The pincers, however, help them to grab their prey, which they then kill with their beaks. To show their wonderful outlines and reduce them to silhouettes, I placed two flashlights under two water scorpions in the pond."

Third Place Insects Category: "The Signal" by Chien Lee

Lee was in Sarawak, a Malaysian state on the island of Borneo, when he photographed this Lamprigera beetle with a glowing trail behind it.

"I found this large specimen crawling through low vegetation, presumably on the hunt for snails, their preferred prey," he told CUPOTY. "To capture the bright, continuous trail of light from its abdomen, I used a long exposure as it made its way along a stick, coupled with a single rear-sync flash."

Insect Category Finalist: "Lady in Red" by Jacky Parker

"I'm always on the hunt for ladybirds (ladybugs) in my garden, so I was thrilled when I came across this seven-spot variety climbing over the bud of an Oriental poppy," Parker told CUPOTY.

"I grabbed my camera and set it to continuous shooting mode," she continued. "After taking several shots as the insect moved along the petal, I finally got what I was looking for."

Plants & Fungi Category Winner: "Mandala with Miniature Tulips" by Elizabeth Kazda

With this photo, Kazda aims to "create art that challenges the viewer to look at the natural world with fresh eyes," as she told CUPOTY.

"I collected some miniature tulips from my garden and placed them on a light box," she said. "The vivid yellow center was so striking that I decided to create a composition that would show both a side view and a center view of the plants."

"The tulips were photographed and rotated at eight equidistant positions to complete a full rotation — a technique that I call Precise Incremental Rotation," Kazda added. "An in-camera multiple exposure of eight frames was used to create the effect."

Second Place Plants & Fungi Category: "Slime Moulds on Parade" by Barry Webb

Webb took this image while visiting Buckinghamshire, United Kingdom, in the month of February. The organisms seen in the photo are "fruiting bodies of the slime mold Metatrichia floriformis growing on a decaying beech trunk," as he told CUPOTY.

"Initially, I liked this group because it showed different stages in their development," he said. "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!"

Third Place Plants & Fungi Category: "Ballerina" by Henrik Spranz

"Almost every year in early spring, I visit a place in Austria where one of the early bloomers – the dogtooth violet (Erythronium dens-canis) – grows," Spranz, who works as a software developer, told CUPOTY.

The photographer also said she usually always arrives at the location early to "ensure the best light," even though the violets are still closed at that time. 

Plants & Fungi Category Finalist: "Little Winter Wonderland" by Alexander Mett

To capture this shot of "mushrooms with icy caps," Mett told CUPOTY that he had to "lay flat" on the cold, icy ground of Herbstein, Germany.

Intimate Landscapes Category Winner: "Cast in Stone" by Mark James Ford

Ford took this close-up shot of lava while trekking Hawaii's Kalapana lava fields — which he described to CUPOTY as "an experience not to be forgotten."

"Heat was rising from every crack in the rock, and before my very eyes, the rocks would turn orange and suddenly begin to flow," Ford said.

"I had just seconds to capture this image of a lava flow setting into the form it would retain for millions of years," he continued. "The glass-like rock was still glowing below the surface, but soon enough a new lava flow started centimeters from my feet and I was forced to retreat."

Second Place Intimate Landscapes Category: "The Bullet" by Anna Ulmestrand

Ulmestrand told CUPOTY that she was interested in photographing an abandoned mill and nearby pond where she lives in Sweden. Unfortunately, there are "no paths or rocks to step on" in order to get there.

"Thankfully, I discovered a solution in the form of a portable fire ladder," she said. "Walking from the car to the mill took time, and was even harder because I was wearing thick clothes and carrying the ladder."

"To get into position, I tied the ladder to a tree and used it to climb down," Ulmestrand continued. "Once down there, I noticed that there was no mobile phone reception! As usual, I had no idea what I was going to find, apart from plenty of ice, but I wasn't disappointed when I spotted this frozen air bubble inside an icicle."

Third Place Intimate Landscapes Category: "Ice Landscape" by Edwin Giesbers

"My house was fitted with thermopane glass in the summer," Dutch photographer Giesbers told CUPOTY. "When winter set in, moisture became trapped inside the window due to a defect in the glass."

"One night it froze, creating beautiful ice crystals," he continued. "The morning sun lit the crystals and a dark building in the background made the shapes stand out even more. The image reminded me of a Scandinavian landscape with pine trees and a sky full of stars."

Intimate Landscapes Category Finalist: "Sand Falls" by Csaba Daroczi

When he's not working as a teacher in Hungary, Daroczi often visits a sand mine near his home, as he told CUPOTY.

"In spring 2020, I was drawn to some strange shapes in the sand," he said. "As I started to take photos, sand from above began to cascade onto the shapes below. I thought it would make a good picture, so I quickly placed my camera on the tripod and selected a slow shutter speed to capture the movement."

Intimate Landscapes Category Winner: "Glassworm" by Andrei Savitsky

Savitsky usually works as an electrician in Ukraine, though he's also skilled in microphotography. His winning image shows a glassworm — a type of transparent larva. 

Second Place Intimate Landscapes Category: "Recrystallized Callus Remover 3" by Marek Miś

"Callus remover — used to remove areas of thickened skin — is one of my favorite substances for crystallization," Miś told CUPOTY. "I've been taking photographs of this substance for a long time now and almost always find something new to capture."

The Polish photographer and biologist added that this particular crystallization reminded him of a village filled with tents.

Third Place Intimate Landscapes Category: "Green Hydra Multi Exposure" by Heather Angel

Angel's photograph shows green hydras (Hydra viridissima) — a type of cnidarian — that was "attached to a petri dish raised from a black background so it could be lit from below."

Intimate Landscapes Category Finalist: "Jewel of the Air – Chrysis Ignita" by Jan Rosenboom

Rosenboom, a student in Germany, photographed a cuckoo wasp for this colorful image. She told CUPOTY that she hopes to share her "fascination with the threatened insect world" while also convincing viewers that bugs are "important" and "beautiful." 

However, taking the photograph required a lot of work. She told the competition that she had "a long search" to find one of the insects, which eventually led her to one that was "several decades old" and needed to be cleaned under a microscope.

"This meant removing dozens of millimeter-sized grains of dust with very small tools — requiring a lot of patience and a very steady hand," she said. "Also, as the insect was old and dried out, I had to 'revitalize it' using a wet chamber overnight."

Rosenboom went on to say that she also needed to position the wasp under a microscope, find "the perfect camera angle," and mount the wasp on a pin, among other challenges.

View Close-up Photographer of the Year's full list of winners and finalists here.

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