Smithsonian Magazine just announced the winners of its 19th annual photo contest, and the results are simply spectacular. In six categories, the winners capture pandemic life, American identity, far-flung locales, and the intricacies of nature

About the contest

Over the 19 years that Smithsonian Magazine has run the photo contest, it has seen over 470,000 submissions and representation from nearly every country in the world. This year, there were over 47,000 entries from more than 180 countries. 

The six categories are:

  • Natural World – Animals, plants, landscapes, geological features, and scientific processes
  • Travel – Locales, people, and activities anywhere in the world that convey a sense of place
  • People – Portraits
  • The American Experience – Events, objects, and activities that portray what it means to be American
  • Altered Images – Photos digitally or traditionally manipulated for artistic purposes 
  • Mobile -Any photograph made with a mobile device 

There are 10 finalists per category, with one Grand Prize winner selected from the top 60. The public also votes for a People’s Choice winner from the pool of finalists. The Grand Prize winner takes home $2,500, and category winners each receive $500. 

The winners

Grand Prize

In the left bedroom, a woman hunches under a comforter on her phone. In the right bedroom, a man waves hello to family via video call
“Lockdown but Not Disconnected.” Sinsee Ho

Taken during the Lunar New Year, Sinsee Ho of Malaysia captured the dichotomy between the realities of pandemic life and this traditionally celebratory time of year for millions. 


Man leans against a huge rhino in africa
“Najin Resting With Her Caretaker.” Matjaz Krivic

For a moment, the viewer stops in their tracks with eyes drawn to the majestic rhino consuming the frame. We move a little to the left, however, and find the human component nearly dwarfed in a way that gives a fresh perspective. Matjaz Krivic, an environmental photographer, captured this duo in Kenya, where there are ongoing efforts to protect wildlife against poachers. 

Natural World

Two ants dwarf a cluster of aphids on a branch
“The Ants and the Aphids.” Prathamesh Ghadekar

“My prime interest is in microfauna,” winner Prathamesh Ghadekar told the magazine. A wedding and events photographer by day, he has a soft spot for animals others think of less fondly. “[I like] anything that was really small and neglected.”


Colorful office doors are illuminated by harsh white lights in the pitch black of night
“Transition-2.” Chen-Tung Tai

Related: How to create striking abstract architectural photography

The harsh juxtaposition between the white glow of the lamps and nightfall makes for a compelling image that still manages to be saturated with color. Chen-Tung Tai garnered access to this private building via an acquaintance. The colorful piece of architecture is located on Odaiba, an island formerly used to defend Japan against naval attacks, and is now an entertainment destination. 

American Experience 

A member of an indigenous dance troop wears traditional feathers and dress for a performance
“Indigenous Swirling Colors.” Craig Lefebvre

To capture this moment (and movement), Craig Lefebvre arrived an hour before the performance at Tlaquepaque village in Sedona, Arizona, to assess the light and crowd. The end result is this winning image of dancer Kenneth Shirley who belongs to the dance group Indigenous Enterprise, which fuses hip-hop with Native dance styles. 


A man puts prayer beads around his neck as seagulls fly through the sky above
“Fill the Frame.” Sunil Choudhary

“I’m not a regular visitor at Yamuna Ghat but whenever I visit Delhi during winters I start my day there,” Choudhary wrote to the magazine. “This man came out from a holy dip and the water droplets on his body [beckoned me] close to him. I waited there for a moment and suddenly he put on his beads garland, and when both his hands were in the right place I got a movement of seagulls to fill my frame. Tiny water droplets, the movement of birds, and [the] position of hands along with the beads made this frame to me.”

Altered Image 

A long exposure captures the blurred movement of a dance troop wearing white tulle skirts
“Floating Flowers,” performed by B. Dance. Garry Platt

Slightly haunting yet ephemeral, Garry Platt captures the magic and mystery that is performing art.

“The dancer in the middle held that pose for a second while the other dancers were moving. My shutter speed was very slow; half a second or something like that, so it got that effect where the central dancer is perfectly still and the rest are in this blurred movement,” he explained to Smithsonian

Readers’ Choice 

Toddler boy leans over to look into a metal milk jug while assisting his father with milking the cows
“Teach Me, Dad.” Shayna Stevens

Shayna Stevens’ family works on a Massachusetts dairy farm, and the youngest of her children has earned the nickname “Dad’s little shadow.” She grabbed this photo on family milking night.

“It’s so important to me that the kids have photos of these memories when they’re older,” she shared. 

Some of our other favorites 

Among the Trees

A man's face is obscured by branches an leaves in a studio for a jolt of surrealism
“Among the Trees.” Michael Nessralla

The jolt of surrealism immediately draws our thoughts to Salvador Dalì, Frida Khalo, and René Magritte. 


Black and white photo of the eiffel tower at sunrise as three pigeons fly across the sky
“Liberté.” Nina Kloss

Paris in B&W hardly needs explanation, but what seals the deal here is the movement of the pigeons across the frame. There’s something freeing about seeing birds in flight, and the title of this work is aptly “Liberté.”

Moose and Their Mountains

Four moose at the foot of mountains in Jackson Hole, Wyoming
“Moose and Their Mountains.” Brian Clopp

The vast wilderness invites endless possibilities and the spirit of adventure. As John Muir once wrote, “the mountains are calling.” 

How to enter next year

Submissions for the 20th annual Smithsonian photo contest open in September. Keep tabs on their contest page for details.