Our dazzling galaxy shines in Milky Way Photographer of the Year images

An estimated 100 billion stars make up the Milky Way. Our home galaxy stretches 100,000 light-years across, an astounding size that can be difficult to fathom until you sit outside on a dark night, look up, and are hit with the sight of a brushstroke of stars and space dust splashed against the sky.

Each year, the Milky Way Photographer of the Year awards honor the photographers who capture the beauty of our galaxy from down here on Earth. Capture the Atlas selected 25 winners from more than 5,000 entries submitted from around the world. The final list includes photographs shot in 19 different countries, including Australia, New Zealand, Chile, Argentina, France, Switzerland, Spain, Italy, Bulgaria, Slovenia, Egypt, Oman, Yemen, Jordan and the United States.

Photographer Tom Rae said of his photo, snapped against the backdrop of New Zealand’s highest mountain: “It embodies the dedication, sleepless nights, and the fulfillment of completing my vision. The image features icebergs in the cyan-blue glacial lake, red airglow painting the sky, and the glow of billions of stars in the Milky Way—a glimpse into the vastness beyond.”

“Lightning Lake”
Location: Aoraki, Mount Cook National Park, New Zealand

The Milky Way emerges from New Zealand’s highest mountain, Aoraki/Mount Cook, on a winter night—a shot I’ve longed to capture, knowing it would encapsulate the mountains and sky elements perfectly. In rare alpine weather conditions, I embarked on a journey up the glacial valley one night. Upon reaching the lake, the scene that unfolded made me feel like I had landed on another planet. This night, among many spent documenting this incredible part of the world, stands out for me.

It embodies the dedication, sleepless nights, and the fulfillment of completing my vision. The image features icebergs in the cyan-blue glacial lake, red airglow painting the sky, and the glow of billions of stars in the Milky Way—a glimpse into the vastness beyond.
Image: Tom Rae

desert rock formations under stars and a reddish cloud of space dust
“Starry Hoodoo Wonderland”
Location: Kanab, Utah, USA

This photograph represents the camaraderie within the night photography community. During the Nightscaper Photo Conference in Kanab, Utah, I had the opportunity to meet fellow photographers, many for the first time, and reconnect with others from afar. In this group, I found my people—those passionate about photography, star therapy, astronomy, and the beauty of dark skies.

Many of these individuals have become friends. Additionally, this trip marked my first encounter with hoodoos. Visiting the Toadstool Hoodoos with a group, I focused on enjoying the experience and fellowship rather than solely capturing the perfect shot.

However, I returned the following night to capture a blue hour foreground shot, aiming to replicate the scene from the previous night. Sharing this photograph and being recognized among such talented photographers is a privilege.
Image: Stephanie Thi 

a geothermal pool in the foreground with the milky way above
“Milky Way at Morning Glory Pool”
Location: Yellowstone National Park, USA

Morning Glory is a renowned hot spring within Yellowstone National Park, shaped by hydrothermal features that foster vibrant habitats for microscopic organisms. Originally azure blue like the famous Grand Prismatic Spring, human interference and pollution have turned its waters a striking green. Unlike other springs, Morning Glory remains calm, enabling the reflection of starlight at night.

In this photo, the pool mirrors Scorpius, notably Antares, against a clear dark sky and brilliant Milky Way. The high elevation and minimal light pollution enhance the celestial spectacle. On a warm summer night, I finished this photo with one hand, and with the other hand tightly gripping bear spray! But despite the fear of wildlife, it was a very enjoyable night spent alone with the stars all around.
Image: Jerry Zhang

an outcrop of sandstone in the flat desert with a half circle of the milky way above
“Rainbow Valley” 
Location: Rainbow Valley Conservation Reserve, Northern Territory – Australia

My recent journey to the Central Australian Outback was an incredible experience, exposing me to the harsh vastness of the outback and some of the darkest southern night skies in the world. This image captures the breathtaking scene at Rainbow Valley Conservation Reserve, where the southern Milky Way gracefully spans above a remarkable formation of colorful sandstone rocks. This area exudes a unique charm, with its vibrant hues and stunning geological formations creating a mesmerizing landscape.
Image: Baillie Farley

a twisted juniper tree stretches up towards the sky where a red and pink milky way is seen
“Mother Juniper”
Location: Jebel Shams, Oman

The wisdom of the juniper reveals itself in its aged roots, twisted and sculpted over millennia, enduring the ravages of time and countless obstacles. Amidst the ever-changing tides of time, one constant remains: its profound connection with the night sky and the Milky Way. Their paths intertwine and converge, culminating in a perfect alignment. In that fated instance, I found myself beneath the juniper’s boughs, gazing up at the cosmic dance above, capturing its essence in the stillness of the night.
Image: Benjamin Barakat

a person stands between two rock formations. in the space between the large rocks, you see the milky way in the sky
“The vanity of life”
Location: Wadi Rum Desert, Jordan

The concept behind this shot is to highlight the stark contrast between the vastness of the cosmos and the minuscule nature of humanity. The composition intentionally draws the viewer’s focus to a small figure, underscoring our insignificance in the grand scheme of the universe, while the majestic Milky Way core dominates the background.

Whenever I venture out to capture the night sky, I’m filled with a sense of humility and gratitude for my existence. It’s as if my problems diminish in comparison, and I’m reminded of the immense love I have for my family and the beauty of life itself, making everything else seem trivial.
Image: Mihail Minkov

a mountain and lake scene with a shooting star and the milky way
Location: Graubuenden, Switzerland

This lake is one of Switzerland’s most beautiful, renowned for its striking blue color, perfect for Milky Way photography from late July. My original plan was a split shoot with an underwater housing and model Marina, but the housing broke on the first try. Fortunately, the lake offered other beautiful compositions. Situated at 2000m altitude, it gets very cold after sunset; we had forgotten our jackets in the car 1.5 hours away.

To keep warm, we walked around the lake while waiting for the Milky Way. Clouds came and went, threatening to obscure the stars, but luck was on our side. I had a clear view of the Milky Way for just 30 minutes before it vanished behind clouds again. I created two versions of this photo: a landscape version and one with Marina, available on my Instagram.
Image: Alexander Forst

large red swirls and a green horizon over rock formations
“Bluff Hut”
Location: Mungo River Valley, West Coast, New Zealand

Sometimes, the best images come completely unplanned, which is precisely what happened on this trip to Bluff Hut, nestled in the Southern Alps on New Zealand’s South Island.

Only accessible by a challenging hike or helicopter flight, I had no intention of ending up here, as I had a different shoot planned at another hut. However, with weather closing in at my intended location and no backup plan, I trusted the chopper pilot to choose the best spot for clear skies that evening. Thankfully, he didn’t disappoint, and I was able to capture the Milky Way arching majestically over the hut from one of the darkest places on the planet.
Image: Rachel Roberts

ripples of color and dots of stars above a large house on farmland
“Atmospheric fireworks”
Location: Dordogne, France

Last winter, I ventured to the foot of a medieval castle in France to capture the Milky Way’s “winter” arc. Alongside the stunning celestial vault, an exceptional airglow illuminated the sky, resembling multicolored clouds. This natural phenomenon occurs due to a chemical reaction in the upper atmosphere, emitting faint light known as chemiluminescence.

The panoramic view spans 180°, showcasing the entire Milky Way arc. From left to right: Sirius and the constellation of Orion, Mars, the Pleiades, the California Nebula, Cassiopeia, the double cluster of Perseus, and the Andromeda galaxy. Capturing this image required a large panorama of 40 exposures, totaling nearly an hour of exposure time using my Canon 6D Astrodon and Sigma 28mm f/1.4 lens.
Image: Julien Looten

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