2021 Natural Landscape Photography Awards: The Winners

2021 Natural Landscape Photography Awards: The Winners

Why does the world need another landscape photography competition? Well, the Natural Landscape Photography Awards, the first competition of its kind, aims to promote landscape photographers who strive for realism and authenticity in their images.

This new competition has established important parameters for entry images that restrict certain digital editing techniques and compositing. The result is an inspiring showcase of images from a talented array of photographers who aim to stay true to the natural beauty of the landscape. 

2021 marking its inaugural year, the Natural Landscape Photography Awards was founded by Matt Payne, Tim Parkin, Alex Nail, and Rajesh Jyothiswaran. As talented and acclaimed photographers in their own right, they wanted to create a place where the in-field talent of photographers is celebrated, and where post-processing is applied in a way that remains true to the scene experienced. 

One of photography’s unique features is its ability to clearly represent the visual experience of
the world. The competitions we see online sometimes reward the technical skills of post-
processing, compositing and graphic design over the challenges of working within the limits of the real world. -Matt Payne, Founder

 The competition has been a massive success for its first year, with 13,368 photographs submitted by over 1,300 photographers from 47 countries around the world. The judging panel consists of eight industry leaders, including world-renowned photographers Joe Cornish and William Neill, who all share the vision and values of the competition's founders. 

Photographer of the Year, Winner: Eric Bennett 

Eric Bennett, the winner of Photographer of the Year, had this to say regarding the competition: 

As a photographer who strives to show people the value of wilderness, I have always enjoyed seeing and creating more subtle and personal photographs that portray nature in a realistic manner. As these kinds of images tend to have a quieter impact, they often end up being largely ignored in most photography competitions. This is why I have not entered many competitions in the past, since I felt my artwork would be judged based on factors that I do not value myself.

However, I decided to submit my photographs for the Natural Landscape Awards because I liked that the competition was focused on awarding images based on composition, lighting, and originality as opposed to post-processing techniques or outlandish compositing. I had no idea that I would end up receiving the Photographer of the Year Award, as the intent behind entering was only to show my support.

To be given this award by such a prestigious and well respected group of photographers whom I have always looked up to is a great honor for me. I hope that the Natural Landscape Awards can continue for many years to come, remain true to its values, and also inspire other photography competitions to award photographers based on similar principles of artistry.

 Photograph of the Year, Winner: Steve Alterman 

Landscapes come in many sizes. Sometimes the best images are literally at your feet! Fellsfjara is the black sand beach opposite the famous glacial lagoon in southeastern Iceland. As icebergs from the lagoon wash out to sea, many of them are stranded on the beach, destined to melt away. Early one morning, I encountered a small, fairly flat, iceberg close to the ocean. Small waves occasionally broke over it and disappeared into the black sand. After watching this particular scene for a few minutes, I noticed that the early morning sun sparkled on the small pebbles on the beach and that the tip of the iceberg, coupled with the small orange rock and the pebbles, created a stunning graphic. Maneuvering the tripod and camera into a position to capture the scene was a bit of a challenge, but happily, in the end, it worked out nicely.

Grand Landscape, Winner: Michael Frye 

I’ve lived in or near Yosemite for over 35 years, so I know the park intimately, and have photographed it in every season, in almost every conceivable weather.

After so many years, it can be challenging to find fresh ways of photographing this place. I’m often photographing more intimate views of Yosemite, because there’s an infinite variety of subject matter to work with. I’ve also made many photographs of Yosemite at night.

But I’ve also tried to photograph grand landscapes of Yosemite Valley from different perspectives. The classic views are classic for a reason – they work. But I thought that surely there must be some other spots that would also work, where the landforms would fit together in a pleasing way – and where the view wouldn’t be blocked by trees!

I had visited this view of El Capitan on perhaps a dozen occasions, hoping for some exceptional light. Usually I had gone home disappointed. But on this March afternoon, after a small snow squall moved through the valley, I was treated to some of the most beautiful light and mist I’ve ever seen on El Cap.

Intimate and Abstract, Winner: Franka Gabler

Every autumn I make several trips to the Eastern Sierra Nevada mountains to photograph the change of seasons. The mountain pass I use to drive there is usually open until the end of October – when it closes for the season. The weather plays an important role and influences how fall colors develop, so the vegetation looks slightly different every year.

One of my favorite scenes to photograph is when aspen trees are almost bare – their fair bark glows, and the surrounding vegetation has a chance to show off its subtle hues. On this crisp autumn morning, I was drawn to this quiet scene, observing nature preparing for rest. I was alone, at dawn, waiting for light to become bright enough to capture subtle colors and textures. There was just a tiny amount of yellow foliage left on the aspen trees, adding a discrete splash of warm color, contrasting mostly cool hues of the Sierra willow brush.

The scene made me feel melancholic – that’s why I titled the photograph “Autumn Blues.”

Nightscape, Winner: Paul Hammett

The 30 minutes spent taking this image was like no other time with a camera.

Setting up my tripod as thunder boomed around me, hopes of getting an image turned to excitement as the storm moved over the Matterhorn.

I was briefly frustrated trying to nail focus and settings in the dark. Occasional flashes of nearby lightning helped me recompose, refine focus and adjust settings. But I cursed each of them as a missed opportunity to get a shot. Once happy with the camera set up, I could take time to fire off numerous 10 second exposures and just watch the show.

Each lightning strike gave me the shivers. When these two hit the summit, I knew I had something special in the camera.

Excitement, awe, relief, pride. All in 30 minutes. This range of emotion is rare when taking a landscape image. I’m very lucky to have both witnessed the event and captured it with a camera.

Aerial, Winner: Paul Hoelen 

There’s something about taking to wing and leaving the normal plane you travel on that allows you to create a whole new perspective and relationship with the landscape around you, particularly in the vast desert areas of Australia where this image was taken. It is the flattest continent on earth and from the ground it can stretch into an almost featureless plane. As you rise into the sky all its remarkable structures and hidden intricacies begin to reveal themselves in greater complexity and depth. The true immensity of the landscape, interconnectivity of nature and perhaps even an echo of the dreamtime stories of its creation are brought to light.

By taking the horizon away and any sense of scale, as I’ve done here, the viewer is invited to move away from their more literal mind into more figurative paths of interpretation. Positioning a fixed wing aircraft into just the right angle over your chosen subject can be a difficult task at times, with many factors coming into play, but that makes it all the more satisfying when all the elements come into place. The image presented here as you see it, is basically straight out of camera.

Youth, Winner: Jai Shet 

I took this picture in Joshua Tree National Park in May 2021. Among a group of Joshua trees, I spotted one of them was missing a branch which made for a perfect place to align the moon. In my photo, the tree appeared to hold the moon like a lantern, using its ghostly light to reveal the landscape. The silhouettes of background Joshua trees seemed to subtly lean in toward the moon as though they desired to hold it themselves.

Project, Winner: ASH by Matt Palmer 

ASH documents unprecedented fires in Tasmania from 2019. Areas photographed include Hartz Mountains National Park, Franklin Gordon River National Park, Great Lakes, and Tasmania’s East Coast. The project documents the destruction of these fires, the thin line between survival and destruction, and the re-emergence of life, albeit affected by a habitat that has lost many fire vulnerable species.

As you can see, the winning images are inspiring examples of how nature can be stunning and surreal without the aid of unnatural and overblown editing techniques. That being said, the purpose of this competition is not to disparage any particular style or art form. Everyone is entitled to create their art in whatever mode inspires them. This competition is nothing more than the founders' attempt at recognizing the incredible work of photographers who may have been overlooked on popular photo-sharing websites due to a more subtle and restrained processing style. We should all be excited to see the influence this competition will have on the art of landscape photography in years to come. Be sure to check out the NLPA website to view the full competition results, including runners-up and founder's awards! 

All images used with permission

Devin is a landscape photographer based in the western United States. He enjoys capturing images of mountains, forests, waterfalls, deserts and seascapes. His passion for landscape photography extends to post processing and education. He offers live feedback and instruction for Lightroom and Photoshop via his website.

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This is incredible and a very welcome site. The amount of saturation, clarity, dehaze, and masking on this site, on other sites, and in other competition gets overwhelming. Nice breath of fresh air and truly stunning images.

Cheers Jake. I agree this competition was greatly needed and has definitely helped me re-evaluate some of my own work as well.