This striking image won our ‘Pictures of the Year’ photo contest

See all 10 of the top photographs and find out how perseverance—and a ton of patience—got Karthik Subramaniam the grand-prize-winning shot.

By Nina Strochlic
Published 20 Feb 2023, 10:45 GMT
Karthik Subramaniam
A bald eagle arrives to steal a perch on a tree log that offers a strategic view of the shoreline at the Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve in Alaska. When other eagles drag freshly caught salmon in from the water, these bystanders swoop in to take a share. "Hours of observing their patterns and behavior helped me capture moments like these,” says photographer Karthik Subramaniam, a software engineer with a passion for wildlife photography.
Photograph by Karthik Subramaniam

“Wherever there’s salmon there’s going to be chaos.” This was Karthik Subramaniam’s motto as he camped out near the shore of the Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve in Alaska, waiting for action.

It was the final day of his week-long photography trip and just a few hours before his ferry departed, but the software engineer-turned-hobbyist photographer stayed, watching as bald eagles swooped in and out of the fishing grounds. Haines, Alaska, a southern tip of land sandwiched between two inlets, hosts the largest congregations of bald eagles in the world every fall, when around 3,000 arrive in time for the salmon run.

Subramaniam noticed there was a log where a few lingered. This choice spot put the eagles in proximity to the shore, where their peers would sometimes arrive with the spoils of a successful hunt: a freshly caught salmon. When a fish appeared, the bystanders would descend for their portions.

As Subramaniam trained his lens on a branch, there was a commotion: an incoming eagle swooped in, intimidating its current resident, and claiming the prime spot. He titled the resulting image “Dance of the Eagles” as an homage to a fictional dragon war in George R.R. Martin’s novel A Dance with Dragons, and submitted it to the National Geographic Pictures of the Year contest.

For years, Subramaniam has been photographing landscapes and his travels, but, in 2020, grounded by the pandemic in his San Francisco home, he started experimenting with wildlife photography. He scoured the local natural reserves—driving an hour to Point Reyes National Seashore and walking the city’s parks—in search of birds and other creatures. Hearing that two bald eagles were nesting on top of an elementary school two hours from home, Subramaniam began going there on the weekends, camping out for as long as it took to capture them flying out to hunt.

The patience he learned in that trial period paid off. On Friday, his photograph of the eagles in Alaska was announced as our grand prize winner, earning it a spot in the May issue of this magazine. What Subramaniam appreciates most about the photo is the tension of the moment. “It opens up the question: what happened next?” he says. The reality is less mysterious: the triumphant eagle got bored when no salmon appeared and soon surrendered the spot to the next hungry observer.

Honourable mentions

In May 2021, the Fagradalsfjall volcano erupted in the Reykjanes Peninsula in Iceland for the first time in over six thousand years. The lava flow continued for six months, spreading hard black rock across the landscape. It was, says Riten Dharia, who captured this image, "an exhibition of the raw and awesome power of nature."
Photograph by Riten Dharia
King penguins crowd together in the viewfinder of Rhez Solano on the beaches of Gold Harbour in South Georgia. The island sits in the remote southern Atlantic Ocean, not far from Antarctica, and hosts some 25,000 breeding pairs of king penguins, along with gentoo penguins, and elephant seals.
Photograph by Rhez Solano
There are around 4,500 salt wells terraced into the hillside at the Salt Mines of Maras in Peru. The archaeological record shows that salt extraction likely began here before the Inca Empire, perhaps as far back as 500 AD. Today that tradition continues with the families who own wells, each of which produces some 400 pounds of salt per month. “The salt wells receive water through channels sourced by a salty underground spring nearby and once the water evaporates, the crystallized salt remains,” says An Li, who captured this picture. “Here, a salt miner is using a wooden rake to extract the salt."
Photograph by An Li
Asiilbek, a nomadic Kazakh eagle hunter, preps his golden eagle, Burged, for a horseback hunt in the grasslands outside of Bayan-Ölgii, the westernmost province of Mongolia. The eagle’s training begins when fledglings are captured from their cliff edge nests and taught how to hunt for hare, fox, and even deer. The tradition stretches back 3,000 years. “For this image, I was lying on my stomach in the prone position looking through the electronic viewfinder at the edge of the stream,” says photographer Eric Esterle. “The ground shook as Asiilbek's horse passed less than a few feet away, splashing me with ice cold water. I remember covering my camera with my body and putting my head down.”
Photograph by Eric Esterle

Heading home from an airport run one early October morning, photographer Tihomir Trichkov cut through North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Parkway and spotted the sun rising gently over the valley. It was blanketed in a thick fog, with the fall colours popping out underneath. He zoomed a long lens into the scene and captured this. “I was staring at a whispering mystery, creating impressionism with a camera,” Trichkov says. “It had rained the day before; there was a ton of moisture in the air. I named it ‘Legends of the Fog’ as I hear whispers when I stare at it."

Photograph by Tihomir Trichkov
An aerial view taken by photojournalist Tayfun Coskun shows the salt marsh ponds at Alviso Marina County Park in San Jose, California. These unique urban marshlands are being threatened by rising sea levels, and conservation projects are racing to turn back time and restore the region for wildlife and fish—and also for absorbing floodwaters and capturing carbon dioxide.
Photograph by Tayfun Coskun
Wildlife biologist Bruce Taubert was studying the eating habits of Arizona’s small desert owls when he got lucky: he found a rare screech owl next. For several nights, he photographed the owls carrying food back to their chicks using an infrared trip beam that triggers a high-speed flash. This owl collected a Mediterranean gecko on its nightly run. “Mediterranean geckos are nonnative in Arizona and their distribution is expanding,” Taubert says. His theory on how they got there? “It may be that the geckos were delivered to [nearby] houses by landscape companies bringing in exotic plants.”
Photograph by Bruce Taubert
On a road trip through the Austrian Alps, Alex Berger spotted a one-lane road that wound into the mountains and looped back on the map. He followed it alongside a small stream lined with walls of forest when he spotted this golden tree blooming from between the trunks. There’s “a fantasy-ish inspired dimension for me,” says Berger, “which gives me goosebumps.”
Photograph by Alex Berger
Sometimes a sleepless night is key to great photography. At approximately 3:40 a.m. on a frigid summer morning, photographer W. Kent Williamson snapped this image from Tipsoo Lake in Mount Rainier National Park, Washington. From across the still water, he could see a line of headlights as weary climbers approached the peak’s 14,411-foot summit—the culmination of a multi-day climb. "The night sky was unusually clear, and the Milky Way could be seen just above the mountain,” Williamson says. “I was surprised to see how bright the climbers’ lanterns were.”
Photograph by W. Kent Williamson

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