What is the most reliable source of beauty in photography? If you believe Instagram users and what they upload, then apparently it’s good meals. Many others would probably argue that it’s the human body. Sculpture and architecture are both pretty good contenders, too. But here at Toptenz, nature is the real best model a photographer could hope for. Epic vistas, gorgeous arrays of color, dramatic situations of life and death, all there waiting for the camera person determined or lucky enough to find it.
Since many of the best nature photos are taken under harsh conditions, there are often compelling stories behind the eye-catching images. Some of these photos feature wildlife of all kinds, but more than a few of the best don’t need it. We owe a particular thanks to National Geographic for the content of this article.
10. Kingfisher Dive
This photo of a royal kingfisher’s beak just barely touching the surface of the River Tarff in Kirkcudbright, Scotland may look like a miracle of timing. That’s especially the case if you know that kingfishers can reach speeds of 25 miles per hour during the relatively short distance that they dive while fishing. But photographer Alan McFadyen, who only got into the habit of photography as the result of a back injury, got it in pretty much the hardest possible way. Really, it would be fair to call his approach “obsessive.”
Over the course of six years he spent 4,200 hours (the equivalent of 25 weeks round the clock) trying to photograph the royal kingfisher in a “different and more unique” pose than the many other images of it he saw online. Although surely he didn’t hit the button that many times, he estimated that it took 720,000 exposures to get this one just right. Most amazingly of all, if you check out his Flickr page, he’s still taking photos of the kingfisher, even though you’d think after the first seven hundred thousand he’d have gotten everything he would have wanted. Admittedly, those images of the bird perched on a “private fishing” sign are pretty adorable.
9. Fish Whirlpool
The way that this group of large fish seem to be circling around themselves so close together seems practically paranormal. You almost expect this be from some story written by horror icon H.P. Lovecraft which results in the fish attacking the photographer en masse. In fact it’s just a regular spawning gathering of bigeye travellies in Cabo Pulma, Mexico, near Baja, California in 2012. What we’re seeing here is pretty much an extremely elaborate courtship ritual.
The picture was taken Octavio Aburto for a National Geographic contest. He called it David and Goliath, and the David in this particular picture is his friend David Castro. As big as this particular school of fish appears, it should be noted that as far back as 2010, Cabo Pulma has been considered a badly threatened wildlife habitat. Aburto even took part in some conservation photography projects.
8. Tanzanian Pride
This photograph didn’t just win Mike Nichols a prize for best single image in 2014. The U.K.’s natural history museum and the BBC together agreed that it won him photographer of the year. The lions featured in it are part of the Vumbi pride and they’re resting in the famous Serengeti National Park. If you’re wondering where the males are, male lions in the Serengeti often don’t bond within a pride of females so much as they do with an independent group of males that will sometimes cooperate with a group of females, so they’re probably off in their own group somewhere. You know, just bros being bros.
This was no lucky snapshot for the 16-year National Geographic photographer. He’d been in close proximity to that pride for all of six months. Furthermore, to get the particular ethereal quality provided by the light in this photo (his words for it were “primal, almost biblical”), Nichols used an infrared camera. Of all things, he immodestly entitled this photo “The Last Great Picture.” Probably if he’d been much less careful around that pride of lionesses, it would have been just that for him. Although to his credit, when he would do night photography with the lions (which also resulted in some very striking images, though none were as majestic as the main one) he would more safely use a camera mounted on a robot.
7. Lightning Volcanoes
As much as lightning and the idea of being anywhere near a volcanic eruption tap into our primal fears, a photo that combines the two elements directly might seem to someone who’d never seen something like that before a bit over-the-top. In fact, lightning in the ash of volcanic eruptions has been observed over 150 times, including during the infamous destruction of Pompeii. Makes sense, as lightning is caused by friction from air molecules rubbing together through clouds as a result of intense air currents. Given that volcanic eruptions release extremely hot air, it’s ideal for generating lightning too.
Francisco Negroni has been exceptionally good at capturing exciting images of this phenomenon. In 2015 he took three photos of the eruption of the Cordon Caulle Volcano in the Rivers Region of Patagonia, Chile. All of them look extremely ominous and dynamic, but there’s the extra element of the trees in the foreground which raise it above the rest. They not only provide a bit of color variety with their greens and yellows versus the orange and purples of the sky. They contrast well in being so peaceful-looking compared with the furor in the air above and behind them.
6. Cedar Lake Tadpoles
This looks like a shot that would be featured in a trailer for a Pixar or Disney Animation movie about tadpoles. It makes the stalks of completely normal lily pads look like majestic trees or columns. It makes tadpoles, something that typically aren’t usually interesting or pleasant, look as endearing as the titular character in Finding Nemo. Like in Mike Nichols’ aforementioned “The Last Great Picture”, the diffuse light gives it a somewhat magical quality. The depth of field makes the photo look epic in scale even though we know those tadpoles are only about a centimeter long. It certainly doesn’t just look like something that came out of a swamp. In fact, it’s not just from a swamp, but a Canadian swamp.
That swamp was part of Cedar Lake on Vancouver Island. Eiko Jones took this photo in 2013 and submitted it to National Geographic as a fan and won Photo of the Month. Jones has since taken many other beautiful underwater images (particularly on the Campbell River) and also done work for television. His photo collection “Water Dogs” in particular should not be missed as it contains a numerous images that are both cute and amusing.
5. Orangutan in the Rain
You can always count on corporate photography contests to generate some eye-catching images, particularly when microscopes are involved. The Sony World Photography Awards in 2015 exposed many wonderful images to the world. Many of them were about architecture and design. Some were portraits of gatherings of people. Indonesia in particular produced some real knockout photos. The one that came in second place was a very pretty image of a spider on its web covered in rain drops. But the nationwide winner is really a classic portrait, much more intimate and relatable than most of the competition.
This photo was taken by Andrew Suryono in Bali just when he was about to put his camera away because it was starting to rain. Then he saw an orangutan holding a taro leaf over its head and it was worth potentially wrecking his camera equipment to capture the moment. The spray of the raindrops off the leaf makes the rainfall look so much harder than usual at a glance. The slumping body language and stoic facial expression makes it seem as if the orangutan is annoyed or depressed by the miserable weather, but seems to be trying to make the best of it. Anyone who is currently trying to put on the best face while going through a difficult time can empathize, which will probably help this one become as universal as the “Hang In There” cat poster as time goes by.
4. Blue Hole
Blue holes are basically open underwater caves. You’ve probably already seen photos of the most notorious one, The Great Blue Hole in Belize. There’s something foreboding about these holes. It looks like you should be able to see something but cannot. Or from the air they look unnatural, as if something dug them for a sinister purpose. But when you go down into them, there’s usually nothing more out of the ordinary than calcite deposits. For adventurous scuba divers, there is plenty of temptation to do so. World famous diver Jacques Cousteau explored the one in Belize and said it was one of the best diving spots in the world.
This photo comes from National Geographic photographer Wes C. Skiles and it was taken in one of the approximately 1,000 blue holes in the Bahamas, and one of the less than 200 anyone had ever explored. Those calcite protrusions from the ground and ceiling include stalagmites, stalactites, and the tube-shaped ones are known as straws. It’s such a vast array of deposits that it makes it look like a completely alien environment, with some holes in the foreground almost making these look like homes designed by Dr. Seuss. The turquoise color of the artificial lighting mixed with the small amount of sun coming in from the sides adds to the surreal nature of what we’re seeing as well.
3. Icecap Waterfalls
When we think of melting ice caps, we don’t usually imagine them melting in a way that would result in waterfalls. We’ve seen the footage of avalanches and the giant icebergs breaking off, but it’s not often that you see that much ice melt off a cap fast enough that it wouldn’t distribute itself more evenly. Yet here’s Paul Nickelin’s photograph of Nordaustlandet Island in Norway from 2013 for National Geographic showing just such a phenomenon.
Unsurprisingly, Nickelin used the photograph and his experience seeing an unprecedentedly large number of dead polar bears during his trip as evidence of the dangers of encroaching climate change. “I can only aspire to drive change through imagery and storytelling,” as he put it. The same thing was done in 2011 by Gizmodo for photographs taken by Sisse Brimberg and Cotton Coulson for National Geographic. Whatever the accuracy of that claim (and Nickelin and National Geographic in general are certainly in a better position to give an informed opinion than anyone at Toptenz on the subject) it remains a highly effective photograph. The dark blue with patches that are almost black of the ice cliffs and water and the cloudy skies give the image a very ominous feeling. That the waterfalls themselves are still a fairly bright white makes them seem like they’re the truth, shining plainly for anyone to see.
2. Siberian Ice Grotto
Not all people that try to take great photos of ice have anything the least bit noble in mind. Andrey Grachev’s 2015 photo was taken seemingly out of nearly suicidal recklessness. With a guide, he drove and then walked across precariously thin ice to the island of Kharantsy in Bakhil Lake, Eastern Siberia to take this photo from inside a rarely-visited sea cave. The Telegraph reported that the ice could have given away at any moment, which makes what look like cracks in ice in the bottom of the picture kind of uncomfortable to look at.
For all that, it remains a beautiful image. The sun on the horizon again makes this look like something out of a fantasy story. Frozen chunks of ice make the surface stretching out to the horizon make it seem all the more fragile. The hanging icicles are a nice combination of pretty and slightly unnerving looking with how sharp they are.
Honorable mentions should also go to the other two photographs he took during this outing. This one, with its shiny surfaces ice surfaces, is almost as pretty as the ice grotto photograph and this photo of the ceiling really drive home just how intimidating those icicles can look. So it was certainly a trip that resulted in many gorgeous images. Still, we’re not sure it was quite worth risking life and limb.
1. Snoqualmie Pass, WA
While we’ve seen that some photographers devote years to getting just the right image and others risk their lives or travel far out of their way, Mark Lehrbass was simply out on a road trip to a wedding in 2015 when he pulled over in the evening light outside Seattle, near Red Mountain, to take this photo. The popular Reddit forum /r/earthporn has voted it their number one image of all-time.
That’s the Milky Way in the middle of the sky, and where it meets the horizon is the famous Mt. Rainier. On the left side of the image are the lights from headlights on the interstate. The reason it’s so diffuse and yet so bright is that there was smoke from wildfires settling in that was reflecting all the light. You can also see the impact of the wildfires in the middle of the image, too. Off to the right side of the image is light pollution from Seattle. It’s a wide array of light sources that have come together for a Lehrbass’s photo. Although it should be noted that he had to give it a four minute exposure to get things as well-defined as he did, so don’t go expecting to get so lucky by just pulling over and taking a snapshot with your iPad.
To find out if Dustin Koski took any equally beautiful photographs, you’ll have to visit his Facebook page. Then follow him to see if he ever posts any in the future.