True Squirrel Love Wins 2021 Close-Up Photography Challenge

True Squirrel Love Wins 2021 Close-Up Photography Challenge
Photo: © Alex Pansier | cupoty.com

Good things often come better in pairs. That sentiment held true during this year’s Close-up Photographer of the Year Challenge which saw contestants from around the world submit remarkable images of couples navigating the natural world.

Dutch photographer Alex Pansie took home the main prize this year with his almost appallingly adorable image (featured above) of two European ground squirrels munching on poppy on a Vienna lawn. Second place, meanwhile, went to British photographer Barry Webb with his image of slime moulds on a dead apple branch. And Julia Briggs, with hers featuring intricately detailed leaf skeletons, pressed up against a black background, won third.

“These stunning pictures show the power of two, whether that’s two ground squirrels working together or two stag beetles battling for mates in a woodland arena,” CUPOTY Co-Founder Tracy Calder said in a statement. “Yet again, entrants have shown that close-up photography can help us see the world anew and discover beauty in subjects that are often overlooked.”

The CUPOTY Challenge has run annually for three years with a different theme each year. Its creators say the competition, founded in 2018, is intended to encourage photographers to slow down and connect with the natural world. CUPTOY’s fourth instalment is just around the corner with entries accepted starting in late February and ending in late May.

3rd Place Winner: “Leaves of Lace,” by Julia Briggs

Photo: © Julia Briggs | cupoty.comPhoto: © Julia Briggs | cupoty.com

Briggs says: “The amazing detail and intricate patterns found in leaf skeletons remind me of lace, and that’s what I was trying to capture here. I placed two leaves on a black background next to a glass door in my conservatory, which gave me in plenty of natural light. Having positioned the camera on a tripod directly overhead, I began experimenting with different compositions. Eventually I settled on this arrangement because I liked the way the ends of the leaves seemed to bend towards each other. To bring out even more detail I used a burst of flash, which I diffused.”

Technical information:

Camera: Nikon D750

Lens: Sigma 105mm f/2.8

ISO: 100

Aperture: f/22

Shutter speed: 1/200sec

2nd Place Winner: “Mature Comatricha,” by Barry Webb

Photo: © Barry Webb | cupoty.comPhoto: © Barry Webb | cupoty.com

Webb says: “These tiny (2mm tall) slime moulds were found on a dead apple branch, from a log pile in my back garden in Buckinghamshire. The spores have dispersed, leaving the delicate, thread-like capillitium. I carefully lifted the branch onto a garden bench and arranged some moss behind it to create a pleasing, natural background. The picture was taken in natural light and is the result of 56-shot focus stack.”

Technical information:

Camera: Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mk II

Lens: Olympus M.Zuiko Digital ED 60mm f/2.8 Macro (with extension tubes and Raynox 250)

ISO: 200

Aperture: f/4

Shutter speed: 1/5sec

1st Place Winner: “True Love,” by Alex Pansier

European ground squirrels are classified as vulnerable, mainly due to habitat loss. These two were busy eating a faded poppy on a lawn in Vienna. I really enjoyed watching them working together, like father and son. For me, observing and photographing nature is a great way to unwind and share the beauty that’s all around us. I prefer compositions that are simple and pared back, and I usually shoot on dark and moody days, although this image has a lighter feel.

Technical information:

Camera: Sony A9

Lens: Sony 400mm f/2.8

ISO: 400

Aperture: f/3.5

Shutter speed: 1/500sec

Continue on to all the finalist images.

“Bee Together,” by Joris Vegter

Photo: © Joris Vegter | cupoty.comPhoto: © Joris Vegter | cupoty.com

Vegter says: “In 2020 I found a bee sleeping in a flower. I hadn’t seen this kind of behaviour before, so I took a lot of pictures of it. The summer was almost over by then and I didn’t find another sleeping bee that year. In 2021, however, I set myself the goal of finding more bees sleeping in flowers. It took a lot of searching, but I eventually struck gold when I came across these lovely Gold-tailed Melitta bees. The pair were sleeping in such a lovely embrace that it made my heart melt. Many species of wild bee are endangered, so the more we understand and love them the better their chances of survival.”

Technical information:

Camera: Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mk II

Lens: Olympus 60mm f/2.8 Macro

ISO: 400

Aperture: f/8

Shutter speed: 1/50sec

“The Fight,” by Pål Hermansen

Photo: © Pål Hermansen | cupoty.comPhoto: © Pål Hermansen | cupoty.com

Hermansan says: “Male European stag beetles (Lucanus cervus) use their sizable mandibles to impress potential mates and fight off rival males. I spotted these two sparring in southern Sweden, one of only a few locations in Scandinavia where populations can still be found. In early June the males appear in the oak forest, but their arrival is tinged with sadness because this iconic species is now on the IUNC red list as it’s considered ‘Near Threatened’. Numbers are declining across most of Europe due to habitat loss.”

Technical information:

Camera: Sony A7R III

Lens: Laowa 15mm f/4 wide angle macro

ISO: 500

Aperture: f/16

Shutter speed: 1/30sec

“The Kiss,” by Angi Wallace

Photo: © Angi Wallace | cupoty.comPhoto: © Angi Wallace | cupoty.com

Wallace says: “The details and pretty textures on the buds, leaves and unfurling flowers of the cyclamen in my garden really appealed to me. In this instance, the little nodding heads were forming a wonderful heart shape. I decided to isolate the blooms while keeping the surroundings soft and dreamy. To do this, I placed an out of focus print I‘d made of some flowers about 2ft behind the cyclamen and added more pots of flowers in between. I then carefully placed petals in front of my lens to give a subtle pink haze. It took a focus stack of 18 images (and a burst of fill-flash) to get what I wanted.”

Technical information:

Camera: Nikon Z6

Lens: Sigma 105mm f/2

ISO: 50

Aperture: f/4

Shutter speed: 1/200sec

“Harlequin Shrimps,” by Adriano Morettin

Photo: © Adriano Morettin | cupoty.comPhoto: © Adriano Morettin | cupoty.com

Morettin says: “These Harlequin shrimps (Hymenocera picta) are feasting on a blue star (Linckia laevigata) in the Lembeh Strait, Indonesia. Breeding pairs stay close together, remaining active and hunting for echinoderms (starfish) during the day. They stand on top of their prey to immobilise it and then flip it over to access its tube feet. To showcase the beautiful details of the shrimps and highlight the lace-like patterns of the starfish, I used a flash (SEACAM Sea Flash 150) with snoot (a Retra LSD).”

Technical information:

Camera: Nikon D800E (in SEACAM underwater housing)

Lens: Nikon 60mm f/2.8 Micro

ISO: 100

Aperture: f/22

Shutter speed: 1/250sec

“Diderma Floriforme,” by Barry Webb

Photo: © Barry Webb | cupoty.comPhoto: © Barry Webb | cupoty.com

Webb says: “These, 3mm, Diderma slime moulds were found on the Ashridge Estate in September 2021. They were on the underside of a large, rotten beech branch on the woodland floor. I was fascinated to see how the peridium had split into petal like structures. When I researched their ID and discovered that they were called floriforme (flower shaped) it was easy to see how they had been given this name. This is a 100 shot focus stack.”

Technical information:

Camera: Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mk II

Lens: Olympus M.Zuiko Digital ED 60mm f/2.8 Macro (with Kenko extension tubes and Raynox 250)

ISO: 200

Aperture: f/3.5

Shutter speed: 1/4sec

“The Pear-fect Pair,” by Heidi Egerman

Photo: © Heidi Egerman | cupoty.comPhoto: © Heidi Egerman | cupoty.com

Egerman says: “This image is part of a series called Harvest. The pears were grown in my garden and picked before they reached the peak of ripeness. I left the stems and leaves on to add interest. To give the feeling of an old Dutch Masters painting, I used a light painting technique. The room was made extremely dark before setting a long exposure on the camera and ‘painting’ specific areas of the arrangement with a flashlight (diffused). This technique takes a lot of trial and error to get right, but I think it’s worth it.”

Technical information:

Camera: Canon EOS 600D

Lens: Canon EF-S 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6

ISO: 200

Aperture: f/11

Shutter speed: 1/10sec

“The Couple,” by Henrik Spranz

Photo: © Henrik Spranz | cupoty.comPhoto: © Henrik Spranz | cupoty.com

Spranz says: “Liverleaves are early bloomers and one of the first wildflowers I photograph every year. On this occasion (at the beginning of April) the sky was hazy, so I decided to photograph the liverleaves on a hilltop, set against the sky. I paired natural light with flashlight to achieve attractive bokeh, while still keeping the overall feel of the image soft and natural. I used a wide aperture (f/3.2) on a long macro lens (180mm) to increase this dreamy feel. Focusing in these conditions isn’t easy, but with the help of Live View and Manual Focus it’s manageable.”

Technical information:

Camera: Canon EOS 5D Mk III

Lens: Sigma 180mm f/2.8 APO Macro

ISO: 100

Aperture: f/3.2

Shutter speed: 1/250sec

“Teamwork,” by Roman Willi

Photo: © Roman Willi | cupoty.comPhoto: © Roman Willi | cupoty.com

Willi says: “I saw two ants carrying a weevil in Monteverde, Costa Rica, and quickly took a shot from afar – I wanted to make sure I got at least one picture of this special moment. When I approached closer to get a better picture, the ants were already gone. As a result, the image is cropped quite a lot. I used flash and a DIY diffuser to freeze the action.”

Technical information:

Camera: Sony a6500

Lens: Laowa 60mm f/2.8 Ultra Macro

ISO: 100

Aperture: f/9

Shutter speed: 1/100sec

“Hidden Treasures,” by Javier Lafuente

Photo: © Javier Lafuente | cupoty.comPhoto: © Javier Lafuente | cupoty.com

Lafuente says: “Having located two Spanish festoon (Zerynthia rumina) butterflies at sunrise in Bustarviejo (a small village in the mountains of Madrid, Spain), I knew I had to act fast. At times like this you only have a few minutes to set up your equipment and fire off a few frames before the insects warm up and fly off. I used a piece of white cardboard for the background, which I illuminated with two Godox HSS flashes. I had a desired image in mind, and I’m pretty confident with flash, which helps when time is against you!”

Technical information:

Camera: Canon EOS R6

Lens: Canon 100mm f/2.8L Macro

ISO: 400

Aperture: 1/640sec

Shutter speed: f/8

“German Wasps,” by Alan Clark

Photo: © Alan Clark | cupoty.comPhoto: © Alan Clark | cupoty.com

Clark says: “German wasps (Vespula germanica) are similar in appearance to Common Wasps but tend to be larger. They can often be seen gnawing on exposed wood, which they chew, mix with water from puddles and then turn into building materials for their nests. These two were spotted in a garden in Lancashire in 2020 and photographed from a hide near their nest. I used two flashes to freeze the action.”

Technical information:

Camera: Canon EOS 7D Mk II

Lens: Canon 180mm f/3.5L Macro

ISO: 400

Aperture: f/16

Shutter speed: 1/180sec

“Toad Love,” by Rob Blanken

Photo: © Rob Blanken | cupoty.comPhoto: © Rob Blanken | cupoty.com

Blanken says: “Loads of common toads (Bufo bufo) come to mate in a small lake in Drenthe, the Netherlands, where this image was made. Here, the male is clutching the female in a tight embrace. When they’re not mating, common toads tend to live away from water, preferring moist, shady places like damp wood piles and deep leaf litter. When I spotted these two, I especially liked the egg string, which looked like a present from the male to the female. I converted the image to black & white to give it a more intimate feel.”

Technical information:

Camera: Nikon D850

Lens: Nikkor 105mm f/2.8

ISO: 320

Aperture: f/20

Shutter speed: 1/250sec

“Over the Mineral World,” by Carlos Pérez Naval

Photo: © Carlos Pérez Naval | cupoty.comPhoto: © Carlos Pérez Naval | cupoty.com

Pérez Naval says: “Natural wonders occur all around us, but most of the time we don’t even notice. I spotted these two yellow ladybugs (Psyllobora vigintiduopunctata) on a wall close to my school in Calamocha, Teruel, Spain. The insects themselves are pretty enough – with their bright yellow bodies and black spots – but it’s the mineral world below them that really makes this picture for me. The ‘drawings’ in the rock are actually mineral precipitations of manganese oxide.”

Technical information:

Camera: Nikon D700

Lens: Nikon 105mm f/2.8

ISO: 2000

Aperture: f/16

Shutter speed: 1/60sec

“Blue Beauty Morning,” by Roelof de Hoog

Photo: © Roelof de Hoog | cupoty.comPhoto: © Roelof de Hoog | cupoty.com

De Hoog says: “Damselflies like running water, so early one summer’s morning I headed to a brook to see what I could find. After a while I came across two males warming themselves up. They were in the ideal position for a picture that I had in mind – facing each other with a nice, uncluttered background. I used a wide aperture to create some attractive bokeh behind the insects — it made them look as though they were spot lit. Accurate focusing is crucial in a shot like this, so I took two pictures with different focal points and blended then together so that both damselflies were sharp.”

Technical information:

Camera: Canon EOS 6D

Lens: Canon EF 100mm f/2.8 USM Macro

ISO: 1000

Aperture: f/2.8

Shutter speed: 1/320sec

“Hey! What’s That?” by Noelle Bennett

Photo: © Noelle Bennett | cupoty.comPhoto: © Noelle Bennett | cupoty.com

Bennett says: “These magnificent birds are New Zealand King shags – they’re an endemic New Zealand species occurring in one small area: Marlborough Sounds. It’s a situation that hasn’t changed for more than 240 years. Unfortunately, this type of restricted distribution makes a species incredibly vulnerable. The only way to see King shags is by boat, which makes my lifestyle ideal, because I live on a yacht! Naturally, photographing from a boat presents its own challenges – even when it’s calm there is usually some sort of swell, which creates movement. A tripod is no use here! The birds tend to inhabit rocky areas and, let’s face it, boats and rocks don’t mix well, so a long lens is essential. The final image is a composite, but each of the additional layers (there are two of them) was produced from the original single file.”

Technical information:

Camera: Panasonic DMC-GH4

Lens: Panasonic Leica DG 100-400mm f/4-6.3

ISO: 200

Aperture: f/5.8

Shutter speed: 1/2000sec

“Eating Perch,” by Luc Rooman

Photo: © Luc Rooman | cupoty.comPhoto: © Luc Rooman | cupoty.com

Rooman says: “This photo was taken during a night dive in Domein Muisbroek, Antwerp during the open Belgian underwater photography championship that I eventually won. It’s actually a lucky shot because the big perch didn’t swallow the smaller perch right away, allowing me enough time to take a series of photos before the smaller fish is eaten.”

Technical information:

Camera: Nikon D810

Lens: Nikon 60mm f/2.8

ISO: 100

Aperture: f/16

Shutter speed: 1/125sec

“Mushrooms in the Spotlight,” by Ria Bloemendaal

Photo: © Ria Bloemendaal | cupoty.comPhoto: © Ria Bloemendaal | cupoty.com

Bloemendaal says: “I took this photo in October 2021 at the Wamberg Estate in Berlicum, Netherlands. It was three o’clock in the afternoon and the natural light was not special. My eye fell on these two little mushrooms. In the foreground was a seedling of an American oak. It seemed as if the American oak gave shelter to the little mushrooms, which really captured my imagination. I used a fill light to brighten the mushrooms and it brought out a beautiful orange glow of the brown beech leaf in the foreground.”

Technical information:

Camera: Canon 6D

Lens: Canon 100mm f/2.8 Macro

ISO: 100

Aperture: f/2.8

Shutter speed: 1/20sec

“Sonchus Asper Flower Stem Section,” by Gerd A. Günther

Photo: © Gerd A. Günther | cupoty.comPhoto: © Gerd A. Günther | cupoty.com

Günther says: “This photomicrograph is of a flower stem of Sonchus asper (spiny sowthistle), a common thistle with wonderful yellow blooms. All over the plant stem, in a high density on the flower stems, these plants have tiny little hairs with red, small tips. Two of them are shown here with a cross section of a flower stem.”

Technical information:

Camera: Canon EOS 5D MkII

Lens: Leica microscope with 10x objective

ISO: 200

Aperture: N/A

Shutter speed: 1/60sec

“Dysdercus Concinnus Coitus,” by Hugo Camacho

Photo: © Hugo Camacho | cupoty.comPhoto: © Hugo Camacho | cupoty.com

Camacho says: “Cotton bugs (Dysdercus concinnus) mating in the woods. Rajada Stone Reserve, San Antonio del Tequendama, Cundinamarca, Colombia.”

Technical information:

Camera: Nikon D750

Lens: Laowa 100mm f/2.8 2x Ultra Macro

ISO: 100

Aperture: f/16

Shutter speed: 1/60sec

“Two Toads,” by Mathieu Foulquié

Photo: © Mathieu Foulquié | cupoty.comPhoto: © Mathieu Foulquié | cupoty.com

Foulquié says: “Two common toads (Bufo bufo), mating in the Buèges river, France. Wildlife will always offer you the most beautiful spectacle and the most unexpected encounters, even a stone’s throw from your home.”

Technical information:

Camera: Nikon D7100

Lens: Nikon 10.5mm f/2.8

ISO: 200

Aperture: f/13

Shutter speed: 1/100sec