13 otherworldly photos that were actually taken on Earth

Enjoy some close encounters of the photography kind.
Pitcher plant with two dead spotted salamanders captured for photography awards
Don't believe your eyes if they tell you these are aliens. The overall winner of the fourth annual Close-up Photographer of the Year awards features a Northern pitcher plant and its spotted salamander dinner. Samantha Stephens/Close-up Photographer of the Year 04

Earthlings, get ready for your closeups.

Close-up Photographer of the Year has revealed its fourth annual contest winners, and the results are a doozy. With 11 different categories, the Top 100 features everything from octopuses and Atlas moths, to trails of pheromones and the delicate cross sections of leaves.

The story behind the overall winner (seen above):

“Northern pitcher plants (Sarracenia purpurea) are carnivorous, allowing them to survive in nutrient-poor bog environments. Here there is no rich soil, but rather a floating mat of Sphagnum moss. Instead of drawing nutrients up through their roots, this plant relies on trapping prey in its specialised bell-shaped leaves, called pitchers. Typically, these plants feast on invertebrates—such as moths and flies—but recently, researchers at the Algonquin Wildlife Research Station discovered a surprising new item on the plant’s menu: juvenile spotted salamanders (Ambystoma maculatum).

This population of Northern Pitcher Plants in Algonquin Provincial Park is the first to be found regularly consuming a vertebrate prey. For a plant that’s used to capturing tiny invertebrate, a juvenile spotted salamander is a hefty feast!

On the day I made this image, I was following researchers on their daily surveys of the plants. Pitchers typically contain just one salamander prey at a time, although occasionally they catch multiple salamanders simultaneously. When I saw a pitcher that had two salamanders, both at the same stage of decay floating at the surface of the pitcher’s fluid, I knew it was a special and fleeting moment. The next day, both salamanders had sunk to the bottom of the pitcher.”

– Photographer Samantha Stephens

The next entry period for the Close-up Photographer of the Year awards will open in March. But before you start prepping your cameras, get a little inspiration by scrolling through more of the recent winners below.

European toad mating pile in Prague pool captured for photography awards
“The ratio of male to female European toads (Bufo bufo) is seriously unbalanced. With almost five times as many males, fights often break out in the desperate effort to mate with a female. In this pool near Prague in the Czech Republic, I observed up to 15 males at a time forming large clusters around a single female. These large clumps would then sink to greater depths and the female in the middle would often drown.” Vít Lukáš/Close-up Photographer of the Year 04
Soap bubbles iridescent on black captured for photography awards
“The universe is something that stirs the imagination, from our childhood games to science-fiction films. In this image I tried to induce the viewer to imagine the existence of extraterrestrial worlds with unusual life forms, by only using macro photography and a bubble film made primarily of three liquids: water, soap and glycerine. After testing many mixtures with different proportions, I got the images I was looking for. Each small change created very different patterns and colours. Curiously, this kind of worm-like formation is a unique situation in the bubble’s life and only happens for a few seconds before it pops.” Bruno Militelli/Close-up Photographer of the Year 04
Striped yellow butterfly flying away from a sunny pool capture for photography awards
“On the afternoon of August 23, 2021, on a rural road in Haining County, Zhejiang Province, China, I saw many butterflies near a small puddle. To ensure that they were not disturbed, I took photos from a distance first. I found that the butterflies did not fly away because of my presence, so I slowly approached and took dozens of photos and selected this image.” Guanghui Gu/Close-up Photographer of the Year 04
Slime mold strands encased in ice captured for photography awards
“In January last year, following two days of freezing fog and sub-zero temperatures, I found some mature Comatricha, growing on an old fence post lying on a pile of discarded, rotting timber. I was attracted to the way the ice had encased the slime mould, creating strange, windswept, leaf-like shapes. The tallest one was only 3mm high, including the ice. The final image is the result of 55 focus-bracketed images combined in Zerene Stacker.” Barry Webb/Close-up Photographer of the Year 04
Pink worm making knots on a rock capture for photography awards
“It was early autumn as a friend and I were exploring the rainforest creeks of the Australian Sunshine Coast Hinterland by night when we stumbled upon this remarkable scene. Emerging from the abdomen of a fire back huntsman spider was this long cylindrical worm. I had read about these horrific creatures before, but this was the first time I had witnessed a Gordian Worm. Named after the impossible knots they form when out of water, these parasitic worms thankfully only infect invertebrates. After hatching, their microscopic larvae swim free in water and are ingested by drinking insects. They grow inside the stomach of the insect until they move through the stomach lining and begin devouring the non-vital organs of its victim. Reaching maturity, the worm releases a mind controlling agent, forcing its now zombie like host to walk to water where it bursts through the abdomen and drops into the water to complete its life cycle. I was able to scoop the worm out of the water placing it on the rock as it knotted up and allowed me to photograph it. It’s often a challenge photographing in environments with slippery rocks and flowing water as it is hard on the gear and difficult to find a comfortable position to shoot from. I was using my regular macro set up with an external flash and a homemade diffuser to soften the light. I often explore natural areas by night trying to document some of the remarkable and less seen wildlife that occurs in these places.” Ben Revell/Close-up Photographer of the Year 04
Jellyfish hunting underwater with tentacles captured for photography awards
“This is a Lucernaria quadricornis (Stauromedusae), a stalked jellyfish, photographed beneath the ice of the White Sea in Russia – the only freezing sea in Europe. The green colour of the water is a sign of spring as algae grows. The “leg” of the jellyfish helps it to attach to a stone or seaweed. Its tentacles project up or down, waiting for prey. If its hunt is successful, it catches the prey and collapses its tentacles into a fist. If the hunting site is no good, Lucernaria walks away on its ‘leg’ or sometimes its ‘hands’.” Viktor Lyagushkin/Close-up Photographer of the Year 04
Jumping spider on yellow flower captured for photography awards
“The scorching hot rocks on Mjältön, Sweden provide an ideal habitat for these large jumping spiders. All along the rocky beach I found several of this species Aelurillus V-insignitus. These spiders can reach an impressive size, as big as your fingernail, which makes the species one of the largest jumping spiders in Sweden. This is a female, she can be identified by her grey colour and size – the males are slightly smaller, with a darker palette. Also, a pattern shaped like a V is found on the male’s head, which is what gives them their Latin name. This particular specimen was quite energetic, and I had to spend some time with it in order to get the shot I wanted. When the spider got interested in my flash, it looked up, and I then took the opportunity to get a photograph.” Gustav Parenmark/Close-up Photographer of the Year 04
Pink and purple fish in Red Sea captured for photography awards
“In this image I have tried to portray the dream like feeling one feels underwater. It was taken in the Red Sea, Egypt, where these beautiful fish, the Red Sea anthia, abound. I used an in-camera double exposure to create the image. A retro Meyer optic Oresten lens was used to capture the bokeh bubble effect, which was combined with a more traditional shot of the fish with a Sigma 17-70mm lens.” Catherine Holmes/Close-up Photographer of the Year 04
Drongo bird chasing termine swarm in blurry dark scene captured for photography awards
“Before the start of the monsoon every year, some species of termite swarm in the late afternoon and early evening – this behaviour is known as nuptial flight. One day I witnessed this event near a petrol pump in the town of Cooch Behar, India. There were thousands of termites drawn to the powerful street light, and one black drongo. This bird spent almost 20 minutes swooping through the termites, snatching and eating them as it went. I shot multiple exposures to capture this event, which I had never seen before. Three frames were recorded and combined in-camera. The first one with a high shutter speed and in Kelvin white balance, the second with a high shutter speed isolating the drongo and the third with a slow shutter speed in Tungsten white balance.” Anirban Dutta/Close-up Photographer of the Year 04
Sahara sand viper snake making trail in desert captured for photography awards
“After three luckless attempts of searching for Sahara sand vipers (Cerastes vipera) in rainy conditions, we finally had a dry day and night that brought us success. We followed the tracks of this snake for over a hundred metres through the dunes of the Negev desert in Israel. At times, our eyes were almost directly over the sand so as not to lose the trail. We even saw that it had crossed our foot tracks from earlier in the night. After quite a while we finally found this specimen digging itself into the sand to get into an ambush position, right next to the tracks of a dune gecko (Stenodactylus petrii) that had turned around at the right moment before becoming a meal.” Paul Lennart Schmid/Close-up Photographer of the Year 04
Wrinkled peach mushroom with orange beads on green captured for photography awards
“The wrinkled peach mushroom (Rhodotus) is classified on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species as an endangered mushroom species due to the reduction of elm and ash wood caused by fungal diseases and removal of dead woods. In the UK they are illegal to pick or destroy. A rare sight and a huge wishlist encounter for any fungi enthusiast. This was found in a London Park in 2021. These mushrooms are deceptively small. The ones pictured in this image are only 1-2cm in height at most. The syrupy looking liquid dripping from the mushroom is called guttation, which is the mushroom purging excess water from its fruiting body as it grows. Because of the pigment in this fungi, the guttation is a vibrant orange color.” Jamie Hall/Close-up Photographer of the Year 04
Golden barnacles on reddish mussels crowded on beach captured for photography awards
“This image was taken in 2020 on the east coast of Australia near Inverlock in Victoria. I was actually there to photograph a well-known sea stack however the conditions were not great so I spent time looking at the interesting details along the beach. As I was walking along these huge flat rocks near the water’s edge, I came across this patch of mussels. I was initially drawn to the golden barnacles, which gave a nice contrast to the mussels and to me looked like little specks of gold. I wanted to find a nice even distribution of these golden barnacles across the mussels below. As I wanted to be able to capture the entire scene in one frame without the need to focus stack, I looked for a relatively flat and level area of mussels to photograph. The sun was peaking through at times making it difficult to photograph with the harsh direct light hitting this section, so I waited until the sun was behind the clouds in order to get a nice even distribution of flat light to reveal the intricate details of this scene.” Jeff Freestone/Close-up Photographer of the Year 04