The 2016 Earth & Sky Photo Contest Winners

A stunning collection of nightscape photos (night sky above landscape) are selected as the winners and honorable mention photos of the 7th International Earth & Sky Photo Contest. The contest was open to anyone of any age, anywhere in the world; to both professional and amateur/hobby photographers. Organized since 2009 by The World at Night (TWAN), the contest is a collaboration with the National Optical Astronomy Observatory (NOAO) and Global Astronomy Month, a program of Astronomers Without Borders (AWB). The contest public message is to preserve last remaining natural night environments and night skies in the world, supporting efforts by the International Dark Sky Association (IDA) and other organizations in the field.

David Malin of the judging panel, a world-known pioneer in scientific astrophotography, explains that “The Annual TWAN contest continues to attract a large number of entries. This year more than 1000 and almost 900 images were selected for judging in six categories and sub-categories by nine experienced judges from a variety of backgrounds. The judging process was lengthy and exacting, and we are confident that the images we have selected represent some of the finest night-time landscape photography anywhere. The winning images were chosen on their aesthetic merit and technical excellence, and we believe they accurately reflect the state of the art in TWAN-style photography. The competition encourages photographers with imagination to push their cameras to their technical limits, and to produce eye-catching images that appear perfectly natural and are aesthetically pleasing.” TWAN founder and the contest chair, Babak Tafreshi, adds “The sky above us is an essential part of our nature, a heritage for us and other species on this planet. The contest main goal is to present the night sky in this broader context that helps preserving the natural night sky by reconnect it with our modern life.”

The images were taken in 57 countries and territories including Algeria, Antarctica, Australia, Austria, Bahamas, Belgium, Bolivia, Brazil, Canada, China, Colombia, Croatia, Czech Republic, Egypt, England, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Guatemala, Guam, Hungary, Iceland, India, Indonesia, Iran, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Jordan, Kenya, Lithuania, Madagascar, Malaysia, Malta, Morocco, Norway, New Zealand, Paraguay, Peru, Philippines, Poland, Reunion (France), Romania, Russia, Scotland, Sri Lanka, South Africa, Spain, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Sweden, Switzerland, Tanzania, Thailand, Ukraine, and USA.

According to the contest theme of “Dark Skies Importance,” the submitted photos were judged in two categories: “Beauty of The Night Sky” and “Against The Lights.” The selected images are those most effective in impressing public on both how important and delicate the starry sky is as an affecting part of our nature, and also how bad the problem of light pollution has become. Today, most city skies are virtually devoid of stars. Light pollution (excessive light that scatters to the sky instead of illuminating the ground) not only is a major waste of energy, it also obscures the stars, disrupts ecosystems and has adverse health effects.

Contest Winners


The first prize in Against the Lights category (and the overall contest winner) goes to Alex Conu, who lives in Norway and is originally from Romania, for his image “Northern Lights above Lofoten” taken from a mountaintop in Lofoten Islands, Norway. “Mount Reinebringen is a pretty popular hike and the view from the top is worth the effort. On 2015 October 7, I knew something was brewing so I decided to camp on top of Reinebringen and shoot the northern lights above Reine, one of the most scenic villages in Norway.”

Contest judge Jim Richardson comments that “Scenes from Mt Reinebringen are often beautiful, but this one stood out. Somehow the aurora twisting in the sky seems to echo the winding lights along the shores of the coastal town in the far north.” Judge David Malin adds “The delicate tracery of the aurorae perfectly complement the enclosed harbor. Apart from the aesthetics, the pin-point stars and well-judged exposure reveal a high level of technical competence.”

The photo wins a set of Advanced Polaris (AP) Vixen in Japan, a new released portable star tracking mount for both astrophotographers and visual observers. The smartly designed collapsible mount takes the simple equatorial mount to a new level where you can customize it for various purposes. The mount core can be used standing alone as an ultra portable drive for a camera while joining other segments it becomes a telescope mount.


The first prize in Beauty of the Night Sky category goes to Stephanie Ye from China, for “The Tail of Aurora” captured in March 2015 from northern Norway. “If the moon can be compared to a young lady, the aurora shall be the silk ribbon which surrounded her. In Tromso, the city of aurora, the sky had finally cleared after five days of snowstorms. Thus, we drove all the way towards a lake in the suburban area. Surprisingly, in that very night, we witnessed a scene of marvel with the setting moon and aurora.”

Contest judge Jerry Bonnell notes that “It truly seems to capture a breathtaking moment as clouds part and cosmic connections are reflected in the landscape.” David Malin adds “The sky and sea are lit by a setting crescent moon in the middle of the picture while all the other colors are from glowing gas, including the vivid yellow from street lights reflected on low cloud. This adds an unexpected fiery glow to an other wise tranquil wintery scene.” Jim Richardson notes that “Magical nights like this unlock something in us, something that speaks to the way our lives are intertwined with the earth, the atmosphere, the solar system and the cosmos. It was this interplay of elements (and especially the addition of the moon) that drew me to this image.” Judge Tunc Tezel adds “Interesting palette of colors with correct amounts is what I see here in the first glance. A second, more dedicated look will reveal much more. Every element in the frame complements others without overcrowding.”

The photo wins a 500€ gift certificates from Astronomik, the manufacturer of finest astronomical filters including the well-known clip filters for Canon DSLR cameras (such as light pollution filter).

The second place winner in the Light category is Carlo Zanandrea from Italy for “All that Glitters is not Gold” taken in December 2015 showing constellation Orion rising over lights and fog in the province of Treviso in northeastern Italy. According to contest Jerry Bonnell “Stars seem to float above a rising sea of terrestrial lights that extends to the horizon.” Tunc Tezel adds “I like the composition of this picture. But also I noticed that some of the stars in the frame were selectively brightened which looks artificial. That is why I voted for another entry by Zanandrea of the same location with a more natural processing.”

The photo wins 250 gift certificates from Astronomik filters.

“The Photographer” by Nicholas Roemmelt from Austria is the second place winner in the Beauty category, taken in March 2015 in Stockiness, Iceland. “It was not easy for my buddy Nikki Haselwanter to literally “freeze” for 15 seconds for the shot on the top of that sanddune with wind gusts of 25m/s. Blizzards kept on hitting the coastline that night and it had been challenging not to been blown away. But during clear gaps of few minutes we could witness the wonderful northern lights behind the Icelandic Vestrahorn.”


Contest judge Yuri Beletsky notes: “Gorgeous composition with a story of a photographer and beauty of the night sky. A reminder that photography is all about creativity and capturing a moment.” Jim Richardson adds: “The aurora and the mountains got top billing in this picture, but it was the supporting actors that got my vote. Stunning as the aurora was, it was the photographer silhouetted against the sky, the stream wandering its way through the frame, and the texture of the dunes that brought subtlety and humanity into the picture.”

The photo wins $250 gift certificates from Astronomik filters.


“Ancient Ground, Modern Sky” is the third winner in the Light category, captured in August 2015 by Amirreza Kamkar from Iran.

“Standing at night in the Pasargadae world heritage complex of ancient Persia palaces was a special experience. The sky of this ancient place, now has been lightened with light pollution of the nearby cities.”  Judge Jim Richardson notes that “Depicting light pollution is often difficult. But this image goes one step further, suggesting how out view of the sky has changed over the millennia, leaving us to lament that we will never see the night sky over Pasargadae as the residents of this ancient city saw it 2,500 years ago.” Yuri Beletsky adds: “Beautiful stitched panorama from a truly amazing location. Excellent example when the light pollution plays significant aesthetic role in the image, while it draws our attention to importance of preserving our remaining dark skies.”

The photo wins a Milky Way Binocular from Vixen-Europe (the distributor of Vixen telescopes and binoculars in Europe). The uniquely designed binocular (manufactured in Japan) has 42mm aperture but only 2X magnification reaching up to 25 degrees field of view, for more clear sighting of constellations, Milky Way features.

“Sacrament of Unification with Nature” is the third winner in the Beauty category by Boris Dmitriev from Russia. “This is all that we love on travel and outdoor recreation, with the unique nature of midland Russia. Bogs, lakes and rivers and there is practically no light pollution.”

The photo wins a Milky Way Binocular from Vixen-Europe.

In the photo composite submissions, where frames of various exposure or focus settings are blended, the winner in the Beauty category is “Viking Lights” by Adam Woodworth from USA, captured in Newfoundland, Canada (June 2015). “Up until very recently, L’anse aux Meadows was home to the only confirmed Viking site in North America.  This village is a replica of what may have once been there.” Judge Yuri Beletsky notes: “Clever use of focus stacking technique allowed the author to emphasize connection between stunningly dynamic night sky and the heritage site on the foreground.” Tunc Tezel adds: “A picture with great color distribution and also superb composition. Even though it is a composite of two separate back-to-back exposures for sky and foreground, the right amount of image processing brought us this very natural looking result, which the photographer must have enjoyed with own eyes.”

The photo wins The Complete Sky & Telescope Seven Decade DVD Collection by Sky & Telescope magazine.

The Light category winner of photo composites is “Milky Way Like a Dolphin” by Alvin Wu from China. The rising arc of the Milky Way is captured on MaunaKea observatory, Hawaii  in April 2015 and shows the Gemini North telescope in the foreground. According to judge Jim Richardson “Night sky photographers have become ever more sophisticated in the ways they bring us visions of the night — and this is a perfect example. Nine images of the sky (to get the perfect image of the Milky Way) with eight images of the observatory (to record the telescope dome and the city lights below). The combined composite image brought to life something we humans can see only faintly with our bare eyes.”

The photo wins one year subscription to the Astronomy magazine.

In the photo sequence submissions, that also include star trails, the winner in the Beauty category is “Total Solar Eclipse from Svalbard” by Thanakrit Santikunaporn from Thailand. The sequence has captured the eclipse phases every 3 minutes over frozen landscape of Svalbard, Norway (latitude 78d north) on 2015 March 20. “The first time I could observe a solar eclipse from start to end without cloud and in an extremely different environment and temperature from where I live.” Judge Jim Richardson notes: “I found this image riveting. Seeing the course of the sun and moon, low across the sky in Svalbard, dancing their way towards the moment of eclipse and then slipping away while people in the darkness below stood transfixed; it made a fascinating scene.” Tunc Tezel adds “A total Solar eclipse would not be on top of one’s list when thinking of star trail (time lapse) photography. Here is a perfect execution in difficult Arctic condition. The photographer must have taken extra care with the equipment, which could have otherwise easily frozen during this long sequence.”

The photographer wins 10% discount on attending the next TWAN astrophotography workshop on La Palma, Canary Islands (Astromaster 2016, Sep 21-26).  The 5-day intensive workshop covering landscape astrophotography, image processing & timelapse techniques.

The Light category winner of photo sequences is “Mountain Liupan Startrails” by Sun Guocai from China, captured in Ningxia region (Oct 2015).

The photo wins one year subscription to the Astronomy magazine.

There are also two selected outstanding runner-up images in each category which received votes only slightly less than the winners:

– “Emerald Crown” by Tommy Eliassen from Norway and “Baobab Night” by Taha Ghouchkanlu from Iran (photographed in Madagascar), in the Night Sky Beauty category.


Click the photos to enlarge

– “Ocean in the Sky” by Sergio Montufar from Argentina (photographed in Guatemala) and “The Forgotten Giant” by Jean-Luc Dauvergne from France with the image of a lunar eclipse and Eiffel Tower.


Click the photos to enlarge

Honorable Mention Photos

About 70 other outstanding images are also selected by the judges. Some of these images were voted by several judges and were competing closely with the winner photos. These entries are awarded by honorable mention in the contest video (and on YouTube) and on TWAN Guest Gallery

Notes on Original Ideas and Editing 

A large number of images with excellent technical achievement didn’t reach the winners list because of less attractive composition or lack of original idea. Images with a person lighting the sky with a flashlight or panoramas of the rising arc of the Milky Way were quite popular in the entries, but we highly encourage nightscape photographers to try other ideas too.

This year we introduced two new technical sub-categories in the contest for photo sequences (star trails) and photo composites (exposure or focus blends with a fixed tripod). From next year aurora photos will be judged in a separate sub-category too. There were a large number of Aurora images in the 2016 entries and several appear as winners. Another new sub-category will be “Stargazers” with images that highlight people at night. And finally a section for “New Visions of the Night” which highlights creatives nighttime images which can have less direct relation to the contest theme.

Compared to previous years there were fewer entries with over-cooked processing where the natural colors of night sky were altered by extreme white balance shift or applying too much color saturation. According to the contest chair Babak Tafreshi: “Digital processing is essential in any style of photography today, specially when dealing with challenging low-light conditions but its valuable to preserve the natural look and colors of the sky and the originality of a photograph (compared to digital art). I highly recommend avoiding the habit of saturated processing. Some of the entries shows the Milky Way central bulge in all colors of the spectrum, from romantic blue, to purple and red, compared to its natural pale-yellow color. This was not a major issue in the analog time where we were limited in processing and the night sky photography community was small and well informed about the nature of their imaging subject. If we consider night sky a part of our nature it should be treated the same way in photography. A photo of a blue sunset is clearly a wrong camera white balance or was taken on Mars! However due to our disconnection with the night sky in modern life most public and media are not familiar with natural sky looks and get excited with such exotic looking images and by sharing and publishing those the issue gets worse. The real winner images in our contest are not those with exotic colors and saturation but the creative and well planned photos captured in the right place at the right time, a scene which will not easily repeat with the same configuration of the Earth and sky.”

The Judging Panel 

  • David Malin (considered the world’s most distinguished night sky photographer; TWAN member & consultant)

  • Jim Richardson (National Geographic photojournalist for over 30 years, recognized for his exploration of environmental issues and advocacy for the night sky)

  • Jerry Bonnell (NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center scientist, the co-founder and editor of Astronomy Picture of the Day or APOD, one of the most visited and globally influential astronomy webpages)

  • Connie Walker (Science education specialist at the U.S. National Optical Astronomy Observatory, president of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, director of the Globe at Night program)

  • Dennis Mammana (astronomy writer and TWAN photographer in California)

  • Gernot Meiser (TWAN photographer and coordinator in Germany)

  • Yuri Beletsky (astronomer and TWAN photographer in Chile)

  • Tunc Tezel (TWAN photographer in Turkey, one of the contest coordinators)

  • Babak Tafreshi (the contest chair, the founder & director of TWAN, a National Geographic photographer)


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