From a slime mold measuring just one millimeter tall to a moth resting on a window, the images honored in the Close-Up Photographer of the Year contest draw attention to nature’s little details and spotlight tiny animals that most people would probably walk right past.
This year marks the fifth annual competition, which drew almost 12,000 entries from 67 countries. Over the course of 20 hours, a jury of 23 experts parsed through the images to select the winners.
The contest’s photographers allow the public “to see and learn from their work and to recognize how incredible and surprising the world is,” says Tracy Calder, a co-founder of the competition and member of the jury, in a statement.
“It’s often easier for people to get behind conservation stories featuring ‘cute’ or more obvious animals and plants: rhinos, pandas, orchids,” she tells CNN’s Nell Lewis. “But the lesser-known insects and plants we often consider weeds have a huge role to play in keeping everything balanced. Close-up photography often showcases these.”
The photographs honored in this year’s contest zoom in on such animals and plants—sometimes to a microscopic scale. The top 100 impressive entries can be seen on the competition’s website.
Below are the 11 winning images, which demonstrate the understated beauty in Earth’s miniature living things.
The Bird of the Forest by Csaba Daróczi
Hungarian photographer Csaba Daróczi spent much of last winter capturing images in a forest near his home. Each week, he would find a new subject in the trees and visit it repeatedly until he had a satisfying picture.
The idea for this winning photograph, shot with a GoPro 11, was conceived when Daróczi spotted a hollowed-out tree. The stump was just about one and a half feet across, and when he placed his camera inside, it captured a view of the forest’s trees as silhouettes against the sky, framed by the edges of the hole. He took a few initial shots through the opening.
“I was amazed by the results,” Daróczi says in a statement. “After a few days, however, I decided the composition might be improved if I included an animal in the frame.”
So, he put the camera in the stump once again and positioned a sunflower nearby to attract mice and birds. His winning image, capturing a Eurasian nuthatch flying overhead, was the stunning outcome.
The Ice Crown by Barry Webb
Though it’s only one millimeter tall, the slime mold in this photograph looks like imposing royalty. The tiny fungus appears to be “wearing an ice crown,” British gardener and photographer Barry Webb writes on Instagram.
Webb found this miniature sight atop leaf litter on the ground in Buckinghamshire, England, on a frigid January day.
“I had to be very careful not to breathe on it,” he says in a statement. “During a previous attempt with another slime mold, my breath had melted the ice when I inadvertently got too close.”
Wood Ants Firing Acid Secretion by René Krekels
Wood ants have an unusual protective strategy—when threatened, they can spray formic acid from venom glands in their abdomens.
Usually, this defense would be directed at a predator, such as a bird or another ant. But as Dutch biologist René Krekels studied these creatures in the Netherlands, he became the target of their acidic spray.
“Luckily it wasn’t that destructive, and it provided me with a great opportunity to photograph them defending the nest,” Krekels says in a statement.
Beach Grass by Gerhard Vlcek
Taken through a microscope, this cross-section of beach grass is only 30 micrometers long. Austrian photographer Gerhard Vlcek sliced the plant into ultra-thin pieces and stained them to produce the colors in the image.
“I had to use the tiniest brush to manipulate the less than one-millimeter parts in different staining and chemical solutions before positioning the stems on the slide,” Vlcek says in a statement. “After that, taking the photograph was the easy part!”
Jumping Stick by Tibor Molnar
American IT manager and photographer Tibor Molnar had imagined this shot in his mind for a while. But when traveling to Ecuador, where these jumping stick insects can be found, he finally had the opportunity to capture it.
Though the creatures look like walking sticks, they’re more closely related to grasshoppers. The insects are known for their elongated faces with eyes on a stalk, but that’s not the only goofy thing about them: “When they jump, they are not particularly graceful,” Molnar says in a statement. “They tend to tumble around completely off-balance.”
The Wedding Guest by Csaba Daróczi
Though it looks to be frozen in midair, this oak peacock moth has landed on a window during a wedding. Daróczi, who also won the overall prize, was documenting the event, and he noticed the venue’s lights had lured several insects to the window.
Guests were taking pictures bathed in this red glow, and Daróczi waited his turn to capture the moth’s portrait, with dancers in the background.
Small Wonders by Carlos Pérez Naval
On this wall in the Spanish village of Calamocha, a mineral called pyrolusite adorns the surface. “These magnesium minerals create stunning formations, which look just like petrified trees, but they are so small that they’re tricky to spot,” 17-year-old photographer Carlos Pérez Naval says in a statement.
He was able to create this interesting composition when he spotted a Moorish gecko on one of the mineral walls, earning him the title of Young Close-Up Photographer of the Year.
“I wanted to capture a gecko in the ‘petrified forest’ for a long time, but they only recently appeared in my village, probably carried in fruit baskets from hotter areas,” he adds. “Due to climate change, they can now survive here.”
Undertow by Csaba Daróczi
Each year, Daróczi photographs water violets at this creek near Izsák, Hungary. But on this visit, the violets’ flowering was delayed, so he knew he wouldn’t be able to capture the pale blossoms. At this spot, however, he noticed the plants made for an appealing photograph of greenery in the water.
“I was about to go home when I saw a tree had fallen over the canal, and under its reflection the plants were clearly visible,” he says in a statement. “I found it a very exciting subject and played with it for a while.”
Reflexion by Ria Bloemendaal
While visiting Trompenburg Botanical Garden in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, Ria Bloemendaal, a retired remedial educationalist and photographer, noticed these reflected blossoms. The blurred flowers and branches look as though they have been painted with watercolors.
“I saw this beautiful reflection in the water and it immediately inspired me to make an ‘impressionist painting,’” says Bloemendaal in a statement.
Asymmetrical Threads by Elizabeth Kazda
American artist Elizabeth Kazda wanted to repurpose her many spools of colored thread into an aesthetic photograph. She wrapped them in a pattern around an open picture frame, then put the frame on a rotating platform. As it spun, she captured 64 in-camera exposures of the threads in various positions.
“This is a meticulous process that requires patience,” Kazda says in a statement.
Dreamtime by Simon Theuma
This small, commensal shrimp almost appears to be swimming over a tapestry, but in reality, the technicolor backdrop is the body of a mosaic sea star.
Australian photographer Simon Theuma lit up the scene with a strobe light, concentrated into a focused point with a photography tool called a snoot. He named the image “Dreamtime” for its evocation of colorful Aboriginal art.
“The Dreamtime Aboriginal art reminds us of the delicate balance that exists in the grand tapestry of our natural world—this ancient wisdom serves as an important reminder to preserve what we have,” Theuma says in a statement.