From stars circling above the Table Mountain to the magnificent glory of the Milky Way over Washington's Mount Rainier, the winners of the 6th International Earth & Sky Photo Contest highlight the natural beauty of the night sky as well as its growing battle with light pollution.

The sky above us is our laboratory to explore the universe, as well as an essential part of our heritage. The World at Night (TWAN) program and its annual Earth & Sky Photo Contest aims to present the night sky in this broad, relatable context. Perhaps from this perspective we can learn to preserve the natural night sky and reconnect it with our modern lives.

The contest entries are nightscape images — photographs showing the night sky and the terrestrial landscape — with special attention to astronomical perspectives and celestial phenomena. Out of the 1,000 entries we received, we approved 839 images taken in 54 countries and territories for judging. The 10 winners of the 2015 contest come from China, Iceland, Malaysia, Russia, South Africa, and the United States. An additional 70 outstanding images were awarded Honorable Mentions and appear in the contest video.

Stunning Nightscapes: Earth & Sky Photo Contest 2015 from Babak Tafreshi on Vimeo.

Lights That Dominate the Natural World

The contest's theme is “Dark Skies' Importance,” in support of the International Dark Sky Association and other efforts that protect the natural night sky and fight against light pollution. Light-polluted aren't just a pain to astronomers, they're a massive waste of energy, disrupt ecosystems, and adversely affect our health.

The contest winners in the “Against the Lights” category are eye-catching views of nighttime illuminations that are striking and beautiful at first glance, but also deliver a message about how light pollution spoils an essential part of nature. The first winner in this category (and the overall contest winner) is “Star Trails Above Table Mountain,” by Eric Nathan of South Africa.

Contest judge and a long-time National Geographic photographer, Jim Richardson, said of the photo, "The play of light patterns here, with the circling stars set against the urban labyrinths of Cape Town, makes this image a delight to explore, while at the same time showing the power of city lights to dominate the natural world.”

Challenging Classic Photography

In a post on the 2012 contest, I noted that an increasing number of nightscape images appear to be over-processed, often with extremely saturated colors that do not represent the natural night sky. This year we had fewer saturated images, perhaps a sign that more nightscape photographers understand this concern and are avoiding altering the reality of the night sky.

Some new techniques blur the border around realistic nightscape photography. For example, a  number of outstanding entries didn't succeed because they blended multiple exposures, such as exposing a dark foreground for several minutes, while using a much shorter exposure on the sky (or vice versa). Though this kind of composite technique was not accepted in the TWAN program for the 2015 contest, next year's contest will offer a new category for "soft" composite images, such as HDRs, exposure blends, and multi-focus images (focus stack).

We will announce the 7th International Earth & Sky Photo Contest in early March 2016, and as part of the Global Astronomy Month, the deadline will take place on Earth Day, April 22nd. If you plan to participate I recommend that you start now, as images must be taken between January 2015 and April 2016. We also welcome all nightscape photographers and time-lapse imagers to the first International Nightscape Conference that will be hosted in the Canary Island of La Palma, Spain. This is an opportunity to bring together photographers and other artists who connects the Earth & Sky, bridging art and science.


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