In 2013, photographers across the world captured amazing shots of nature from North Pole to South Pole, in jungles and deserts alike. Though it’s hard to pick the cream from such an extremely talented crop, here are some of the photos we liked the best:

A polar bear peers up through icy Arctic waters. Paul Souders/National Geographic

This photo by Paul Souders took home the grand prize in National Geographic’s 2013 photo contest as well as the grand prize in this year’s National Wildlife Federation contest.

“A polar bear peers up from beneath the melting sea ice on Hudson Bay as the setting midnight sun glows red from the smoke of distant fires during a record-breaking spell of hot weather,” Souders wrote in his caption. “The Manitoba population of polar bears, the southernmost in the world, is particularly threatened by a warming climate and reduced sea ice.”

Souders told the NWF he spent about an hour following the bear, allowing her to get comfortable with his presence. This particular photo was taken with the camera suspended from a seven-foot-long pole.

A hibiscus flower blooms amid surroundings coated with ash from the eruption of Mount Sinabung in Indonesia. Roni Bintang/Reuters

This haunting tableau of a hibiscus flower, vivid against its ash-coated surroundings, was taken by Reuters photographer Roni Bintang after the eruption of Mount Sinabung, which erupted in November and September of this year. This photo was also featured as one of Reuters’ best photos of the year.

“I don’t know the exact explanation for this beautiful scene,” Bintang told Reuters. “I thought, maybe, the volcanic ash had covered the flowers while they were still buds, and that would explain why their color was not affected by the ash by the time they bloomed.”

Death Valley sand dunes at sunset resemble geometric forms. Greg O'Connor/National Geographic

Greg O’Connor submitted this gorgeous view of the Ibex Sand Dunes in California’s Death Valley National Park to the National Geographic contest.

A European bee-eater grabs a bite to eat. Mateusz Piesiak/NWF

Young Polish photographer Mateusz Piesiak snapped this shot of a European bee-eater mid-meal, earning top marks in the NWF’s youth category.

Microbes take on the appearance of a crystal tree in this haunting snapshot. Frank Fox/Nikon Small World

Sometimes beauty comes in very small packages – as seen in this photo from German photographer Frank Fox, who captured this arrangement of Vorticella protozoans for the Nikon Small World photo contest.

A ladybird beetle's foot becomes a psychedelic waterfall under magnification. Jan Michels/Nikon Small World

Another amazing close-up from the Small World Contest comes from Jan Michels of the Institute of Zoology at Christian-Albrechts University of Kiel in Germany. His photo of the front leg of a ladybird beetle, magnified 20 times, earned seventh place in that competition.

A baby lion gets a little rambunctious. Michel Hagege/NWF

French shutterbug Michel Hagege observed this baby lion playing with its mother’s tail at Kenya’s Masai Mara National Reserve. This shot took first place in the Baby Animals category of the NWF’s contest.

mineral river
Pollock painting? No, nature photograph! David Koster/National Geographic

David Koster’s photo of a river in Landeyasandur, Iceland, colored by minerals, almost looks like a piece of fine Abstract Expressionism.

owl land
Coming in for a landing... Csaba Tokolyi/National Geographic

“An Eurasian Eagle Owl comes to land on his falconer's hand against the backdrop of a snow-covered Czech forest,” photographer Csaba Tokolyi writes in this image submitted to National Geographic.

Egrets cluster in an ethereal display. Réka Zsimon/National Geographic

“On a good day in the field, a birder might see flock of birds,” writes Reka Zsimon in the caption for this stunning photo of great egrets wading near the Danube river in Hungary. Zsimon earned an honorable mention in the National Geographic photo contest.