Capture the Atlas, a well-respected resource for photography tutorials and workshops, recently announced the winning entries of its Milky Way Photographer of the Year competition. The 25 winners of this sixth annual edition were personally selected by the site’s co-founder, Dan Zafra.
‘Dan Zafra is a great guy doing amazing things for the community, and he inspires me in my own work and pushes my creativity and explorations beyond the norm. I’ve been lucky to be selected for the third year in a row this time, and I’m very grateful for that,’ winner Benjamin Barakat tells DPReview.
‘This opportunity has helped me in many ways in my own career and business. I’m now hosting tours internationally, and this is something I decided to pursue full-time only two years ago. Without being selected for the past three years, I don’t know if I would have had the same exposure or personal motivation to be where I am today.’
Barakat’s winning image wasn’t the only one based in Socotra, an island of Yemen, located in the Indian Ocean. When asked what was so special about this remote location, he explains that ‘Socotra offers one of the darkest skies on planet Earth, and the biodiversity of plant life and landscapes makes it a photographer’s paradise. In case you didn’t know, 70% of Socotra’s plant life doesn’t exist anywhere else on this planet.’
A gallery with all the winning images from the competition can be viewed on the Capture the Atlas website. Zafra and team also offer up a variety of helpful resources for both beginner and professional astrophotographers, as well as workshops around the globe. Click on for some of the best winners from this year’s competition.
‘The Bottle Tree Portal’ by Benjamin Barakat
Location: Socotra, Yemen
Artist Statement: Nights on the mystical island of Socotra are unforgettable, especially under the embrace of the most alien-looking and beautiful trees I have ever seen. Their gnarled and twisted trunks seemed to tell stories of ancient times while the blooming pink flowers added a touch of ethereal beauty.
However, what truly took my breath away was the darkness. It was as if someone had flipped a switch and turned off all the lights in the world. The stars shone so brightly that it felt like I could touch them. The horizon was so dark that it looked like the zenith.
In that moment, I felt small and insignificant, but incredibly alive, connected to the primal forces of nature that shaped this magical place over millions of years.
Setting: Foreground: ISO 6400 | 5x 60 seconds | F2.4 / Sky: ISO 800 | 6 x 90 sec | F2.4
Canon EOS R Astro-modified
TTArtisan 11mm F2.8
iOptron Skyguider Pro
‘Winter’s Airglow’ by Larryn Rae
Location: Southern Alps, New Zealand
Artist Statement: This was some of the craziest airglow I have ever seen! Airglow is when atoms get charged and excited in the upper atmosphere by the sun and emit this wonderful color and cloud-like pattern.
This image happened by pure accident while I was waiting for a friend to arrive at another location. I thought while waiting that I would take some shots at this lake on the way, and as soon as I had the first image on the screen, I knew I was about to capture something pretty amazing! An hour later, after scouting a good composition, I had my panorama in the bag. This is a testament to expecting the unexpected and to always taking a shot, even when it’s not your planned destination!
Settings: ISO 6400 | 31 x 20 sec | F2 | image panorama
Canon EOS 5D Mk III
Sigma ART 24mm F1.4
‘Cafayate Star Factory’ by Gonzalo Javier Santile
Location: Cafayate Salta, Argentina
Artist Statement: To capture this shot, I arrived before the blue hour and as soon as the first stars appeared, with some light still shining on the landscape, I took the images for the foreground. After that, when it was completely dark, I shot the vertical photos of the sky.
As the Milky Way was already very low at that time of the year I had to hurry as I only had one chance to get the images of the sky once it got dark. I aligned my tracker and the action began.
In the image, you can see the rock formations and ‘windows’ of this area of Cafayate Desert known as Las Ventanas (‘The Windows’) and the small cacti that are the only vegetation here. I was able to capture the reddish colors of the nebulae and more details in the night sky thanks to the combination of a star tracker and an astro-modified camera.
Settings: Foreground: 22mm | ISO 100 | 2 sec | F8 / Sky: 22mm | ISO 2500 | 43 sec | F2.8
Nikon D750 Astro-modified
Tamron 15-30mm F2.8
iOptron SkyGuider Pro
‘The Cactus Valley’ by Pablo Ruiz García
Location: Atacama, Chile
Artist Statement: It was my first trip photographing the Milky Way in the Southern Hemisphere. I chose the Atacama Desert, one of the coolest and most mind-blowing places on the planet to experience the night sky.
Some of the spots I was really excited about capturing in my photos were the Gum Nebula and the Magellanic Clouds. It was the first time I could photograph them because we can’t see them up north.
The photo I’m sharing with you was taken in the Cactus Valley, a stunning area of the Atacama Desert where it’s easy to compose photos with the night sky. I managed to include both nebulae, along with the iconic cacti of the valley.
Settings: Foreground: 14mm| ISO 2500| 90 sec | F2.8 | focus stacking x3 / Sky: 14mm| ISO 1250 | 180 sec | F2.8 | tracked
Nikon Z6 A
Nikon Z 14-24mm F2.8
Rollei Gamma Mk II
‘The Eyes of the Universe’ by Mihail Minkov
Artist Statement: I’ve always wondered what the night sky would look like if we could see the two Milky Way arches from the winter and summer side by side. This is practically impossible, since they are part of a whole and are visible at different times of the day.
However, this 360-degree time-blended panorama shows us what they would look like. The two arches of the Milky Way represent one object in the starry sky, with part of it visible in winter and part of it in summer. Therefore, they are called the winter and summer arches. The winter arch includes objects that we can observe from October to March, primarily associated with the constellation Orion.
On the other hand, the summer arch features the Milky Way core, visible from March to September, which is the most characteristic and luminous part of the night sky, representing the center of our galaxy.
Settings: Foreground: ISO 3200 | 80 sec | F2.8 | 21 single exposures / Sky: ISO 640 | 180 sec | F2.8 | 9 single-tracked vertical exposures for each of the arcs (18 total)
Sony a7 III Astro-modified
Tamron 17-28mm F2.8
iOptron SkyTracker Pro
‘Alien Forest’ by Marcin Zając
Location: Mono Lake, California
Artist Statement: These strange, cream-colored rock towers located near Mono Lake are called tufas. They formed when underwater springs that are rich in calcium mixed with the waters of the lake, which are rich in carbonates. The resulting reaction formed limestone. Over time, the buildup of limestone formed towers, and when the lake’s water level dropped, the towers became exposed.
Settings: Foreground: ISO 100 | 30 sec | F11 / Sky: ISO 200 | 4 minutes | F1.4 | panorama
Sigma 40mm F1.4 Art
iOptron Skytracker Pro
‘Night under the Baobab Trees’ by Steffi Lieberman
Artist Statement: Astro landscape panorama from Madagascar. Here you see the complete Milky Way arc over the imposing baobabs.
This photo means a lot to me, and I can’t even begin to tell you how difficult it was to take it. From the road conditions to the armed security guards protecting you while you take photos, everything about it was an adventure.
Settings: Foreground: ISO 800 | 20 seconds | F6.0 / Sky: ISO 1600 | 120 seconds | F2.8
Sony a7R III Astro-modified
Sony FE 12-24mm F2.8 GM
Rollei Lion Rock
‘The Cathedral Light Show’ by Roksolyana Hilevych
Location: Tenerife, Spain
Artist Statement: Sometimes it takes a bit of luck. This was definitely the best moment I’ve ever had during a nighttime session; this only happens once in a lifetime. However, I really hope to be able to see the fireball again someday!
It was the first and only time I saw such a bright meteor. It lit up everything around it, making it seem like daytime for a few seconds. Luckily, at the moment it appeared, I was photographing the core of the Milky Way.
Right after I finished capturing the Milky Way with a star tracker, I took a close-up shot of the tajinastes in full bloom. The photo also includes this particular mountain in the background that resembles a cathedral.
Settings: Foreground: ISO 1200 during Astronomical Twilight | 30 sec | F5.6 | 3 Focus-stacked shots / Sky: ISO 400 | 200 sec | F2.8
Camera Gear: Canon EOS 5D Mark IV
Sigma 14-24mm F2.8 Art
Fotopro Sherpa Plus
Omegon Mount MiniTrack LX4
‘Celestial Shield’ by Iván Ferrero
Location: Ávila, Spain
Artist Statement: Taking advantage of a free night with clear skies, I embarked on a two-and-a-half-hour drive to reach Mironcillo, home to this castle perched at 4500 feet. This castle is steeped in legends of forbidden love and parental restrictions, though its true origin remains unknown. The rough dirt road forced me to abandon my car and trek for about thirty minutes.
Once it got dark, I captured a panoramic shot of the ground before tracking the Milky Way as Orion took its position. Despite challenging weather conditions, with biting cold and strong winds, the sky cooperated. I kept the tripod low to prevent blurring and ensure stability.
Editing the sky involved individually stacking the 40 panels in Sequator (two shots per panel + 15 dark frames), blending the panorama using PTGui and extracting information with Pix Insight. Finally, I merged the resulting sky with the ground panorama using Photoshop.
Settings: Foreground: ISO 1600 | 76 sec | F2.8 | 9-photo panorama / Sky: ISO 1600 | 30 sec | F2.2 | 4-row panorama
Sony a7R III
Sony a7S Astro-modified
Samyang 35mm F1.4
Sunwayfoto T3640 CM
‘Wind River Nights’ by Brandt Ryder
Location: Wind River, USA
Artist Statement: The Wind River Range, unlike the Tetons, is one of the hidden gems of Wyoming. This location had captured my imagination for years, but I tended to shy away from it because it is notorious for having some of the worst mosquitoes in the world. Regardless of this, this past June I finally made the trek, and the trip was one I’ll remember for a lifetime, bugs and all.
This image was taken at a sheltered lake deep in the wilderness where the reflections were so pristine that it’s nearly impossible to separate the sky from the earth. Memories like this hold an extra special place in my heart as I was able to share this spectacular spot with my 7-year-old.
I can still hear her words ringing in my ears: ‘Daddy this must be the most beautiful place on earth.’ Yes, little one, it is, it is.
Settings: Ground: ISO 100 | 3.2 sec x 4 focus-stacked | F11 Sky and reflection: ISO 2000 | 13 seconds x 12 stacked for noise reduction | F1.4
Sony a7 IV
Sony a7 III Astro-modified
Sony 24mm F1.4 GM
Gitzo Traveler tripod
‘Gigi Hiu Shining In The Dark’ by Gary Bhaztara
Location: Sumatra Island, Indonesia
Artist Statement: The sharp-looking rocks on this beach make this piece of shoreline one of the most unique in the world. Water has shaped these rocks for millions of years.
I’ve visited this breathtaking spot more than 30 times; now it just feels like home.
Gigi Hiu Beach is located in a rural area, south of Sumatra Island. When shooting at this location, I have to make sure the tide conditions are perfect because the waves coming from the Indian Ocean can be big and crash hard against the coast, which can be dangerous.
I think this beach is one of the most visited places when photographers around the world come to Indonesia to find a dark zone for night shooting; there is no light pollution here.
Settings: Foreground: 16mm | ISO 100 | 1 sec x 4 frames focus-stacked | F22 Sky : ISO 2000 | 25 sec x 8 images stacked| F2.8
Sony a7R III
Sony FE 16-35mm F2.8 GM
‘The La Palma Astroexperience’ by Jakob Sahner
Location: La Palma, Spain
Artist Statement: La Palma and the Canary Islands are ideal for astrophotography due to the trade wind clouds that sit at around 1000 meters. Being above these clouds makes it clear enough for capturing images, provided there is no haze or high cirrus clouds.
On the first night of the trip, I was exhausted from a long journey and no sleep, but I couldn’t resist going out to capture the clear sky, as it was the first time I’ve experienced this much cloud cover. However, I would caution that exploring the terrain at night can be dangerous and should only be done by those familiar with it.
Settings: Foreground: 6-panel panorama with 30-second single exposures / Sky: 9-panel panorama with 8×30 seconds per panel in RGB and 3 extra images with 15×30 seconds for H-Alpha around the Milky Way core | All images were taken at ISO 2000 and F1.4.
Sony a7S Astro-modified
Sigma 40mm F1.4 Art
SkyWatcher Star Adventurer 2i
Remote Shutter Release
‘Lut Glow’ by Isabella Tabacchi
Location: Lut Desert, Iran
Artist Statement: This is a rock formation in the Lut desert in Iran under the Milky Way. We spent the whole night, from sunset to sunrise, taking photos of that incredible sky. I was able to capture a green airglow under the Milky Way, behind the impressive rock formations in the warmest place on Earth.
Settings: Foreground: ISO 3200 | 299 sec | F3.5 | focus-stacked / Sky: ISO 3200| 23 seconds | F3.5
Hasselblad X1D II
XCD 30 mm
Gitzo Mountaineer S1 tripod
The Scenery I Wanted to See’ by Mitsuhiro Okabe
Location: Yamagashi Prefecture, Japan
Artist Statement: Mount Fuji, Japan’s iconic symbol, dominates the backdrop of this image, set during cherry blossom season. Amidst the landscape, you can see a sacred temple dedicated to honoring the spirits of the departed. And there, against the dark canvas of the night sky, the ethereal beauty of the Milky Way came into view.
Settings: Foreground: 14mm | ISO 2000 | 30 sec x 20 photos to reduce noise | F7.1 / Sky: 14mm | ISO 500 | 20 sec x 40 photos | F5
Sony a7R III
Sigma 14-24mm F2.8 Art
K&F Concept D255C1