Weeks of preparation made this “impossible” shot National Geographic’s best travel photo of 2017

National Geographic announced the winner of its popular Travel Photographer of the Year contest this week, awarding Mexican photographer Sergio Tapiro Velasco the top honor. His stunning photo of a lightning bolt crackling over an erupting volcano earned him the first prize. Thanks to Velasco’s perfect timing, the dramatic scene is crisply cast against a starry night sky.

Hardly a lucky grab, this photo was the result of years of studying the highly active Volcán de Colima, which lies on the border between Jalisco and Colima states in western Mexico. The lightning observed from the volcano is a phenomenon totally separate from the lightning we associate with storm clouds, though the science hasn’t been settled as to its exact cause.

According to National Geographic, Velasco had been waiting for the conditions to be just perfect for his photo:

For more than a decade, Velasco has been studying and photographing the Volcán de Colima, which is one of the most active volcanos in Latin America and also known as the “Volcano of Fire.” Before he captured this striking photograph, Velasco had been carefully tracking an increase in activity and closely watched the volcano for almost a month.

While shooting on a completely clear night just 12 kilometers away from the crater, Velasco heard a booming noise and witnessed the biggest volcanic lightning he’d ever seen. Until he reviewed the photos he’d taken, Velasco had no idea if he’d actually captured the spectacular event.

The resulting images astounded Velasco. He said in an interview with National Geographic:

“What I was watching was impossible to conceive, the image showed those amazing forces of nature interacting on a volcano, while the lightning brightened the whole scene. It’s an impossible photograph and my once in a lifetime shot that shows the power of nature.”

Weeks of preparation in the blink of an eye. (Sergio Tapiro Velasco/National Geographic Travel Photographer of the Year)

Here are some of the contest’s other winning images, which did not involve staking out a volcano:

Marble Caves of Patagonia. (Clane Gessel/National Geographic Travel Photographer of the Year)
Fireflies in the forest of a small remote village in the Tamba area of Japan (Yutaka Takafuji/National Geographic Travel Photographer of the Year)
Caribbean reef sharks. (Shane Gross/National Geographic Travel Photographer of the Year)
Museum visitors curiously viewing Rembrandt’s “Syndics of the Drapers’ Guild” (Julius Y./National Geographic Travel Photographer of the Year)
Tongi Railway Station, Gazipur, Bangladesh. (Moin Ahmed/National Geographic Travel Photographer of the Year)
Surfing in Tavarua, Fiji. (Rodney Bursiel/National Geographic Travel Photographer of the Year)
Besakih Temple in Bali, Indonesia. (Michael Dean Morgan/National Geographic Travel Photographer of the)
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