50 of the most incredible photos captured in 2020

  • The free photography app Agora is celebrating the most incredible images captured this year through its #BestPhotoOf2020 contest.
  • More than 35,000 photos were submitted from photographers in over 135 countries who hope to win the $US25,000 prize.
  • Some of the images show nature, animals, and humans who were impact by major events of 2020.
  • You can now vote on your favourite photo through the Agora app until December 28.
  • Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.

2020 has been a whirlwind year — just look through the nominees of Agora’s latest contest for proof.

The free photography app is celebrating the most incredible images captured this year through its #BestPhotoOf2020 contest. More than 35,000 photos were submitted from photographers in over 135 countries since March, and Agora users can now vote on their favourites until December 28. The winning photographer will receive a prize of $US25,000.

Here’s a look at the 50 finalist images in this year’s contest.

“A polar bear swimming in the high arctic” by Jenny Wong


Wong captured this image on Canada’s Baffin Island to show how polar bears are being affected by climate change. She told Agora that if she wins the contest, she’ll donate 20% of her earnings to Polar Bears International.

“I had spent a few days tracking this bear, who displayed curious and brazen behaviours towards snowmobiles and people,” she told Agora. “When I saw him jump into the ocean from the ice through my telephoto, I popped my drone up and hoped he’d be curious enough to swim by to take a look.”

“A United Struggle” by Gerard Nartey


Nartey told Agora that his black-and-white photo – which he took in Accra, Ghana – has become “increasingly meaningful” over the past few months, as he feels it represents “unity, strength, and determination”

“Due to the pandemic and the implementation of social distancing, it occurred to me that such gatherings of people will be a rare sight for a while,” he said. “Coupled with the Black Lives Matter movement and mass demonstrations all over the world that have been a major part of 2020, I found this photo symbolic and meaningful to the fight for racial equality and unity.”

He added: “It now also illustrates the furor of the #EndSars demonstrations in Nigeria. If I win, I would invest in my photography to travel and meet new people, landscapes, and stories of as many places as I can.”

“Afghan Girl in 2020” by Akos Dutka


Dutka needed to re-create a well-known image for his photography class, so he decided to mimic Steve McCurry’s “Afghan Girl” portrait from 1984 with the help of his wife. He even asked her to wear a blue face mask to add a modern twist.

“It was a difficult task to re-create, but my wife’s beautiful, expressive eyes made it easier,” he told Agora. “If my photo wins the top prize, I would take my wife on an exotic journey because she deserves it.”

“Ao Dai” by Duy Sinh


Sinh’s photo, taken in Quảng Ngãi, Vietnam, shows a woman wearing a traditional áo dài. He now hopes the image will encourage others to “honour and show respect for the unique cultural traditions of each country.”

“Áo Dài portraits are usually only taken with a terrestrial camera, but using a drone for this photo showed a different, broader, and wider view with the scenery of the vast meadows,” he told Agora. “I would love to use the prize money to contribute to supporting the current climate-change relief work in my country.”

“Colour can affect people’s emotions” by Agyeman Duah


Duah told the photography app that he wanted his nominated image to show how “colours affect people’s emotions.” He pointed out that yellow can make people feel happy, while blue can have a “calming effect.”

He took the vibrant photo at the Trust Sports Emporium in Accra, Ghana.

“Daecheong Lake” by @pqiiiipq (South Korea)


This image was taken at South Korea’s Daecheong Lake during a fall morning. It shows “beautiful scenery” covered in fog, as the photographer told Agora, as well as a person on a small boat in the background.

He also said he’d use the prize money if he wins the contest to support his neighbours, provide for his family, and update his camera equipment.

“El lago de los sueños” by Andrea Mengo Caballero


Caballero told Agora that she aimed to “represent the place where our dreams are created” with her nominated image, taken at the Ruta de los molinos de La Mancha in Spain.

“I saw a storm coming up the coast” by Luke Simpson


Simpson captured this shot of lightning and storm clouds above Australia’s Fraser Island during the area’s storm season.

“I had never really shot lightning before and I saw this storm cell approaching, so I thought I’d use long exposure to try and capture a bolt or two,” he told Agora. “When out in nature it is always my intention to capture the epic and effortless beauty of our natural world.”

“Family Moment” by Ilaria Ronchi


Ronchi’s image shows a male lion playing with its cub within the Etosha Pan national park in Namibia. Speaking to Agora, she described the occasion as the “most exciting moment” she’s experienced on any safari so far.

“Normally, during safaris, you end up being surrounded by several tourists, especially when you look for big creatures,” she said. “What I found surprising about this moment was the random decision of going, right after sunrise, to a more quiet part of the park. Who would have expected to be surrounded by a pride of around 40 lions?”

“El rescate” by Wilmer Valdez Hinojosa


Hinojosa photographed the rescue mission seen in this photo using aerial photography techniques while on Spain’s El Hierro island.

“Kelitsadi Lake” by Nika Pailodze


Pailodze told the photography app that he wanted to emit a feeling of peace with this image of a woman standing in a lake in Kazbegi, Georgia.

“This photo was taken 3,080 meters above sea level, which makes the weather so cold and difficult to enter in the volcanic lake – despite what the conditions of the day and garments of the model might suggest,” he said.

“Elders take great care of young kids” by Zay Yar Lin


Lin visited the Suri village in Ethiopia to photograph its people and culture during a difficult time for the community, as he told Agora. He aimed to show his belief that children are “the future of Suri culture and tradition.”

“I asked and explained my plan to local guides, and villagers actively participated to create this shot,” he continued. “I’m satisfied with their pose in this shot, even though I didn’t have good communication with them as I don’t understand their language.”

“Empty Streets” by Lee Mumford


During an early-morning job in San Francisco, California, Mumford had the opportunity to photograph a colourful sunrise.

“As I patiently waited, I couldn’t believe my luck as everything started to fall in place,” he told Agora. “The perfect light, the iconic tram, the famous hilly road of California street, the Oakland bay bridge, and eventually, the famous ‘Karl the Fog’ started to roll in.”

“I didn’t post this photo until a few months later, when the pandemic was in full swing and forcing the entire world into lockdown,” he continued. “As this image was taken during the early hours of the morning with little traffic, it gives the sense of emptiness,” something that’s become “a very common sight throughout this year.”

“Farmers” by Jorge Bacelar


Bacelar photographed this shepherd and a newborn goat in Estarreja, Portugal.

“I am a veterinarian and with my photography, I try to record moments of affection and to show the respect that farmers have for their animals,” he told Agora.

“If I win, I would use the money to renovate an old house of mine, converting it into a museum for my daughter’s paintings and for my photographic work,” Bacelar continued. “My daughter died in January this year. This would help me to honour her memory and honour the farmers with whom I work.”

“Freediving mist” by Victor de Valles Ibañez


Ibañez told the photography app that the sea surrounding Menorca, Spain, was “very flat and calm” when he took this image. It wasn’t until he entered a local cave that he found a cloud of fog with sun rays beaming through.

“After setting my camera down and starting the continuous shooting, I went to the surface through the sun rays and managed to get the right shot,” he said. “In my photos, I want to transmit those moments in which I freedive alone, calm in a beautiful and special place with rare and unique conditions.”

“Garbage disposal area” by Wibowo Rahardjo


Rahardjo’s photograph shows a landfill shortly after it had caught fire in the Karanganyar region of Indonesia. Speaking to Agora, the photographer said this is an annual occurrence, as there’s often methane gas trapped in the buried garbage.

“It amazes yet saddens me that there are people who, despite the health hazards, tirelessly look for scraps or items they want to go on to sell in order to be able to provide for their families,” he said.

“Atlanta Protest” by Zek Harris


In Atlanta, Georgia, Harris photographed a protest organiser as they spoke into a megaphone to share their “passion for wanting to end the inequality faced by Black people in America.”

The photographer also told Agora that he’d use the prize money to support himself, further his photography, and make student-loan payments.

“Historia de Venezuela” by Donaldo Barros


Barros’ nominated image shows two Venezuelan soldiers and a nun named Esperanza. He told the photography app that it was a particularly “aggressive” day when he captured the photo.

“When the protest died down, I saw a nun walking towards me who asked for help to get to the highway where these two men were,” he said. “When she reached the military, she told them: ‘My name is Esperanza, and hope this is the last thing you lose.’ It had been a terrible day, but I feel that Sister Esperanza’s words reached the hearts of the military.”

“Behind that photo is an entire country that continues to suffer today,” he continued. “Winning this award, living in a country like Venezuela, would be a direct light of the universe.”

“Maria’s silhouette” by Paula Aranoa


Aranoa took this black-and-white shot in August at her daughter María’s house in Buenos Aires, Argentina. It’s meant to tell the story of a “very long confinement of a young woman full of dreams to be fulfilled,” she told Agora.

“It is a story that was replicated by many, to whom I give a standing ovation,” she said. “If I get to win, I would share this prize with my daughter as she is part of this and deserves it.”

“Black is beautiful” by Prince Ude


Ude’s photograph, which shows three young women lying side by side, was taken at Nigeria’s Landmark University.

“The increased activity in racism and racial profiling has pushed the narrative that being Black is more of a curse than a blessing,” he told the photography app. “This picture is a reminder that being Black is beautiful.”

“Mikurajima” by Reiko Takahashi


Takahasi photographed this friendly dolphin pod off Japan’s Mikura-jima island.

“I have wanted to swim with them for some time and was so happy to feel their welcome,” she told Agora.

“My friend Jane, the real soldier” by Elena


The photographer told Agora that she invited her friend Alyona to her Zaporizhia, Ukraine, apartment to capture this image before she had to go for surgery.

“Alyona is 27 years old and fighting aggressive cancer,” she told Agora. “It was the hardest photo shoot in both of our lives. During this shoot, I tried to pull myself together and support my friend.”

If she wins the contest, she plans to donate her prize money to Alyona and others who have cancer.

“My son seeing the world differently” by Kyta Willets


In Pensacola, Florida, Willets photographed her son as he looked out a car window after 1,000 miles of driving.

“What he sees is so uniquely different from what the rest of us are seeing, and thus he has an intriguing quietness to him that I felt compelled to capture,” she told the photography app.

“If I win, I think I would use part of the money to go to some type of photography school,” Willets said. “I have always loved learning and photography school could be a lovely fit for me right now in my life. I would use the other part of the money for childcare while I am in school.”

“My wife, my pearl” by Sergey Savenko


Not only is Savenko’s wife the subject of his nominated photo, taken in the shallow Koyashskoe Salt Lake in Russia, but she’s also wearing a reflective dress they made together.

“Through this shot, I wanted to achieve a minimalistic picture with no human structures that transmits tranquility and unity with nature,” he told Agora. “The dress, which looks more like a pearl, does not have its own colour, but reflects the environment and fits perfectly in harmony with the rest of the picture.”

“We got a nasty surprise on this shoot, given that the salt on this lake sinks underfoot, scratches the skin, and causes pain, meaning we had to throw out the shoes which we were wearing,” he continued. “Then when the dress dried out, it turned to stone, like wet clothes in a severe frost.”

“Northern gannets” by Joe Shelly


“After a few days at the Bempton Cliffs on the Yorkshire coast, I was lucky enough to capture two pairs of gannets rubbing beaks simultaneously,” he told the photography app. “If I win, I would donate a part to help protect our beautiful British wildlife, and use another part to help me with my dream of becoming a wildlife filmmaker.”

“Praying COVID-19 virus go away from the world” by Swe Tun


Tun, who photographed a group of monks meditating in Myanmar, told Agora that he’d donate the $US25,000 prize to “meditation and COVID-19 centres” if he wins.

“We can learn a lot and be inspired by their way of life,” he added about the monks.

“Remember to look down” by Jon Cleave


Though Cleave’s photograph looks a bit like a painting, it’s actually an aerial shot of a geothermal plane in Iceland.

“What’s most interesting is, without the advancement of new technologies scaling us to new heights, we’d miss out on these mesmerising, birds-eye views, and accessing these melting pools by foot are virtually impossible,” he told Agora.

“So unexpectedly capturing these fleeting moments and fresh perspectives are hard to come by,” Cleave continued.

“Sacred soul” by Asim Ijaz


Ijaz was on a road trip in Pakistan when he stumbled across the man seen in his photograph. He asked him to pose at the door of a shop and then used natural light to help him achieve the dark background.

“During the shoot, he just stared at me, not bothered at all by my shooting,” Ijaz told Agora. “His attire was so traditional – a pure village guy.”

“Sedge Harvest” by Hòa Carol


Carol’s nominated image, taken in Vietnam’s Phú Yên Province, shows farmers harvesting sedge, a plant similar to grass that they use to make floor mats.

“I associate these mats with my childhood, as every family in Vietnam uses this kind of mat to sleep on,” he told the photography app. “If I win, I will take my wife on a trip and donate a part of the prize to charities.”

“Skywatchers” by Mathsēo


Mathsēo’s photo shows a section of the Northern Extended Millimetre Array, an astronomical facility, in France. The photographer told Agora that he spent three hours walking to the location on a “beautiful night” to capture the shot.

“It was a pretty tough hike, especially with all the photography and camping gear,” he said. “When we got to the top, there were a lot of clouds, but they quickly dissipated at sunset to leave us a perfectly clear sky all night.”

“Sleepy Polar Bear” by Paal Uglefisk Lund


Lund had been heading to a glacier cave on his boat in Svalbard, Norway, when he noticed the polar bear in his photo, as he told Agora. He waited to get closer, and the animal eventually laid down for a nap.

“Once it got to sleep I wanted to create a peaceful yet powerful image, because polar bears are afraid of loud, unfamiliar sounds,” he said. “I also wanted to contrast his snow-less bed with the snowy mountains behind him that reflect the global-warming crisis. Luckily, there was a small breeze, which allowed us to very slowly get a little closer for the shot.”

“Smile of Mum” by Vuong Manh Cuong


This black-and-white image, taken by Cuong in Khánh Hòa, Vietnam, shows a Raglai woman cooking. He originally took the image for the Help-Portrait program, of which members dedicate their time to photographing people in need.

“This woman was extremely happy to be photographed for the first time, if not also a little embarrassed,” he told Agora. “It was a special moment for me as it is for her.”

“Speed in flight” by Fito Tejada


“Through this photo, I tried to convey the importance of taking care of the environment and the beauty of the Guatemalan fauna,” Tejada told Agora about his image, which was taken in San Rafael Piel de la Cuesta.

“Standing before giants” by Ester Turri


Turri aimed to show the giant size of the Cadini di Misurina mountains in Italy with her photograph. And though you might only see mountains and fog at first glance, you can actually spot the photographer’s friend standing in the middle of the frame.

“We woke up at 2 a.m. and drove a couple of hours to make sure to get to this spot for sunrise,” she told Agora. “Sunrise itself was a bit disappointing, however, as the sun was getting higher in the sky, some huge, low clouds started dancing around the peaks, creating this eerie atmosphere.”

“I quickly asked my friend to stand on that spot and as soon as the peaks were out again, I took this photo,” she continued.

“Taking a camel ride through the desert at sunset” by Stephen Akpakwu


Akpakwu had been on a solo safari through the Dubai Desert in the United Arab Emirates when he decided to send his drone into the air to take this shot.

“If you look closely, I’m on the second camel from the front, simultaneously trying to get the shot and stay upright,” he told the photography app. “I hope this photo conveys the sense of wonder and adventure I felt at the time.”

“The bright city lights shone down on him like a spotlight” by Liam Man


Man first saw the person in his picture while outside the Sunbeam Theatre in Hong Kong.

“It had been raining all day and most of the city’s residents were inside this evening,” he told Agora. “I thought it was interesting that one of the only people out on the streets was this man. It was still drizzling while this shot was taken, and I noticed that he valued his umbrella more as a walking stick than as a rain shield.”

“I quickly positioned myself to frame him with the bright city lights in the background as a commentary on how the world is constantly changing,” he added.

“The City Sparkles” by John


A photographer named John aimed to capture “a glimpse of the classic concrete jungle in the central area of Hong Kong” from the perspective of a god, as he told Agora.

“If I win, I will share the joy and money with my family and friends, and donate parts of it to my preferred charity,” he said. “After that, I will spend the rest to better equip my photography gear and capture more stunning photos.”

“The Door of Faith” by Mahabub Hossain


Hossain’s powerful image shows men “holding the door of the holy Kaaba in Saudi Arabia” to “ask God for forgiveness for their sins.”

“The movement of man in front of the door signifies going to God,” he added.

“The gateway to another world” by Irina Sigl


Sigl’s underwater photo shows her niece swimming through a lake in Upper Bavaria, Germany.

“Although I have spent lots of time swimming, and have been photographing since I was a child, this was still a completely new experience for me,” she told Agora. “I purposely didn’t take underwater photography classes or watch tutorials beforehand, as I wanted my experience of exploring, experiencing, and feeling the element of water anew with all my senses to be reflected in my pictures.”

“The Grand Mosque” by Patricia Soon


While speaking to the photography app, Soon said she used a long-exposure technique to “define the curves of the beautiful domes of the mosque and the dark clouds” to add “a sense of calm to the symmetrical structure.”

The image was taken at the United Arab Emirates capital, Abu Dhabi.

“The shadows” by Cao Ky Nhan


Nhan told Agora that his aerial image, captured in Vũng Tàu, Vietnam, was taken during a full moon in January.

“From above, the people’s silhouettes seem to pour into the sand,” he said.

“The wreck of an illegal fishing vessel” by Jordi Sark


According to Sark, the wrecked ship seen in his photograph was an “infamous fishing vessel” that “sailed for years” and was “wanted by 13 different nations for fish poaching.”

“Now, its wreckage rests in this fine border between sea and land as a display of Indonesian maritime power, and as a symbol of the fate that awaits those who try to do the exact same,” he told Agora about the boat in his photo, taken on Indonesia’s Pangandaran beach.

Sark added: “It took me 3 hours to take this photo because I waited until the shadows were exactly where I wanted them to be.”

“Twin boys together at home during the world pandemic crisis” by Heather McHenry Wilson


Wilson’s portrait shows her two sons, Luke and James, as they rested next to each other in Lena, Illinois. She told Agora that she aimed to show her children “being connected, being together, and understanding one another in a world that often feels so divided.”

“Surprisingly this photo was not staged, although it may look like it was,” she said. “The boys were together on the landing of our stairs and they were laying together. Right as I shot the image one boy closed his eyes while the other looked straight at me. I often find them together like this. Close, connected, touching.”

“Two elements” by Sergey Tolmachev


Tolmachev’s vibrant photograph, taken in Moscow, Russia, shows a water droplet with fire behind it.

“I have been fascinated by water drops for a long time,” he told Agora. “One day, when it was raining, I looked at the drops and it seemed to me that they were falling in a special way. That was the first time I saw crowns instead of drops.”

“I came home and decided to experiment with the ‘fall’ of water and to shoot this exciting process,” he continued. “To do so, I had to create my own nozzles. Later, I started to add other elements into my works, such as fire, gold powder, smoke, etc.”

“Uneven Powers” by Leo Wies


Wies had been visiting Indonesia’s Kelingking Beach to watch the sunset when he took this aerial photo.

“When I saw this scene, I couldn’t help but think of the unequal powers that met face to face in this particular moment,” he said, referencing the giant waves and much smaller person. “I really wanted to emphasise the feeling of a fragile human, being so close to an uncontrollable powerful part of nature.”

Wies added: “Many friends asked me if I used my drone to take this photo, but in reality, I was standing at the edge of the cliff and took the photo with a telephoto lens on my regular camera.”

“What would the world be like if we all had the same face?” by Pavel Kun


“I took this conceptual shot to incite reflection of the following hypothesis: imagine for a moment how much our lives would have changed if we all had the same face,” he told Agora about his photo, taken in Russia’s Surgut State Pedagogical University.

“Perhaps we wouldn’t know the words racism or tolerance?” he continued. “Perhaps we would pay more attention to the inner, rather than the outer, side of a person? But when I go deeper, I understand that even in this case, people would have figured out how to divide each other into social groups.”

“When the muddy river meets the ocean” by Joao Galamba


In Dili, East Timor, Galamba was able to capture muddy river water flowing into a blue sea after the first rain of the year. Surprisingly, he hadn’t planned to take the photograph, and he only had a drone with him because he’d borrowed it from a friend for another project.

“Where life begins and love never ends” by Giovani Dressler


Dressler told the photography app that his nominated black-and-white photo shows the moment a 10-year relationship began “a new stage” in January.

“After nine months of waiting and 10 hours of labour, this photo portrays the exact moment when Alícia was embraced by the arms of her Mum and Dad,” he said. “The start of a family, the start of a new love story.”

“Winter in the city of Nur Sultan” by Andrei Pugach


According to Pugach, it was negative 4 degrees outside in Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan, when he took this photo from the sky. He told Agora that he could feel the snow under his feet, and his hands quickly grew cold, even with gloves.

“If I become a winner, I will invest the prize money in my equipment, as well as to go to new places, taking others with me, in order to escape the hustle and bustle for a moment and show them the uniqueness and beauty of what is sometimes near, but that we persistently do not notice,” he said.

“Winter Road” by Katharina I.


The photographer told Agora that her winter photo, taken in Allgäu, Germany, was challenging to shoot as a result of frigid temperatures that nearly caused her to lose her drone.

“This shot is special to me not only because I captured it on my birthday, but because I have wanted to shoot at this location since I was a little child, before drones were well known,” she said.

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