The Photo Contest turns 20 this year and, like so many of us, it doesn’t look quite the same as it did in 1999. This time out, for example, three of our winning images were captured with iPhones — and one with a drone. But no matter how much and how quickly technology changes, the fundamentals of great travel photography remain the same. The 13 winning entries showcased here have a visual breadth and emotional immediacy that convey the wonder of exploring the world. They range from the play of light across the Grand Canyon to the fuzzy dice hanging from the rearview mirror of a Havana cab to the enigmatic expression on the face of a first-time visitor to Versailles. A picture may be worth 140 characters rather than 1,000 words these days, but the power of travel photography is ageless.
A commissioned officer for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Roberts had heard that the U.S. Forest Service in Oregon maintained several owl-nesting boxes in the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest and made the 6 1/2-hour trek this May to see for himself. He and a fellow photographer staked out the nests for two days before the subject of his winning shot emerged. A small bird disturbed the owl, who was serenely perched on a branch, and Roberts shot a burst of photos with a Canon EOS 5D Mark III in manual mode and the Canon EF 100-to-400-millimeter lens. “It happened so fast,” Roberts said. But the moment was over almost as soon as it began. “It flew directly over my head and went across the clearing, and we never saw it again,” he said.
“I like this photo because the impalas stand out,” the 73-year-old retired banker said. Imhof took the photo in April during an evening game drive in the &Beyond Nxabega Okavango Tented Camp in Botswana. He used a Nikon D80 and Tamron 18-to-250-millimeter lens, which he set at 100mm. The group was originally supposed to ride in a riverboat through the Okavango Delta to observe the animals, but a dry spell meant that a Jeep would have to suffice. The dusty landscape, combined with the setting sun, created a haze that served as the perfect backdrop for the animals’ pronounced horns.
Our third-place winner, a 66-year-old retired state police officer, captivated our panel with this rich skyscape. Balun researched the best spots on the East Coast to photograph the Milky Way. He made this image in July, around midnight, at the Bodie Island Lighthouse in North Carolina’s Outer Banks. “There was no moonlight at all, and you can see the stars as long as there’s no light pollution,” he said. Balun mounted his Nikon D810 full-frame camera on a tripod and used a 24-t0-70-millimeter lens with a 20-second exposure. This cosmic tapestry is appropriately titled “Calling All Stars.”
“I wanted to capture Honolulu’s unique mountain ridges and how people fit into that landscape,” the 40-year-old creative director for a nonprofit organization said. (The photographer’s image of Yellowstone’s Grand Prismatic Spring was awarded an honorable mention in our 2016 contest.) The wash of sunlight emphasizes the gentle curves of the street and the ridge’s edges. However, photographing the landscape wasn’t as serene: Okawa captured this image with her Nikon D850 (she used a 24-to-120-millimeter lens) during a turbulent small-plane ride last August, right after Hurricane Lane came near the island.
Wyne, a 61-year-old retired police officer, had been to the Grand Canyon many times but made the four-hour drive from his home when he heard about the possibility of knee-deep snow in February. “There wasn’t a single footprint or person out there this day,” he recalled. Framing the sun over the mountaintop wasn’t easy, and the inclement weather tested Wyne. “It was the coldest I’ve ever been in my life,” he said of the 8-degree temperature. Wyne waited for hours with his Nikon D810 and took advantage of a break in the clouds in the late afternoon to capture this image. “It was kind of an epic event,” he said.
When the 28-year-old architect took his honeymoon to Teotihuacan, Mexico, in March, he didn’t expect to be with anyone except his wife. He certainly didn’t realize that they’d planned their adventure during the busy spring equinox. Sells was about halfway up the 216-foot Pyramid of the Sun when he noticed the masses ascending the temple on a parallel set of stairs and took this photo with his Nikon D3300 camera. The bright sun sharpened the contrast between the light sky and the crowd climbing the temple. “The sheer number of people going up to the top provided a nice scale between the people and the mountain,” he said.
This portrait of Gray’s niece Noelle was taken in May at the Palace of Versailles in France. The 67-year-old legal marketing professional and her niece traveled to Europe together, Noelle for the first time, with the goal of ticking some items off the 19-year-old’s bucket list. That list included Versailles, and Noelle put together a special outfit for the occasion that happened to complement the palace’s rose-hued marble and tapestries. To capture the light, Gray used a wide aperture on her Sony Alpha a6500 with a 35-millimeter, f/1.8 lens. Gray was most taken with her subject, though. “What struck me is what always strikes me about her,” Gray said. “She’s not just another pretty face.”
The shapes and swirls of the Sahara Desert and the mystery of the object in the foreground intrigued our panel. Gross, 83, took the photo in April on a 21-day trip to Morocco, which included a hike and guided tour through the sand dunes, atop a camel (mystery solved — it’s the tuft of fur atop the animal’s head). Enamored of the landscape’s contrast and texture, the retired art teacher used her iPhone 6S. “I left my Nikon because I didn’t want to get sand in the camera, and I was shocked with the quality,” Gross said. She grayscaled the image to increase the drama.
An avid traveler, the 43-year-old sales engineer visits Africa about once a year, and spoke to The Washington Post from a plane that had just landed in Rwanda, where he hoped to photograph gorillas. Last November, on a visit to a complex of 900-year-old subterranean churches carved out of rock in Lalibela, Ethiopia, this woman approached his guide. “She didn’t speak English at all but she was a pilgrim worshiper who got lost in the complex and asked if she could follow us out,” Divino said. He turned around at the right moment to capture this image with his Nikon D7200. “I like that at any other minute or on any other day you might not get that photo,” he said. “It’s randomness, chance and luck.”
Last July, Norvell and his wife took a trip with a photography group to Lake Clark National Park in Alaska to photograph grizzly bears. Over several days, the 79-year-old retired biophysicist observed groups of bears eating and swimming in the lake and worked up the courage to approach this bear, which he named Mohawk because of the prominent hump on its back. Standing in the lake in galoshes, Norvell used a tripod-mounted Fuji X-T3 camera and a Fuji 100-to-400-millimeter lens to snap this striking portrait from about 50 feet away. Norvell assured The Washington Post that he wasn’t in danger. “He does look ferocious, but they were so busy eating that they pretty much ignored us,” he said.
The details often make the best story, which is why our panel appreciated this still-life of a classic car’s interior. Yurow visited Havana as part of a cultural-exchange program in April and produced this image of the inside of her taxi with her iPhone XR. The angle the 68-year-old retiree captured provides a new way of looking at the familiar and much-photographed car and azure blue sky. Yurow was drawn to the details in the photo, too. (She says the screwdriver helps the taxi run.) “I thought the inside of the car was endearing and I saw the whole, complete picture,” she said. Her favorite part? Look closely at the magnet on the dashboard — it’s the same car that she’s riding in.
Isaacman’s drone image of a river flowing into the Arctic Ocean depicts the rugged, beautiful country’s volcanic features in fascinating macro. “The river flows from left to right, which matches the contours of the terrain, and the ripples in the surface of the water give a sense of depth,” he said. Isaacman was struck by the flowing river and the rocks covered in yellow lichen. He said the icy blue river gets its color from silica — a mineral present in lava — the same sediment that gives the Blue Lagoon its namesake hue. The retired NASA contractor, who teaches drone photography at the Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts, flew the drone for about 20 minutes before he got this shot in the last six minutes of the flight.
Sometimes all it takes to appreciate a familiar place is a new perspective, which is what led the lifelong Chicagoan to capture this shot of the Loop — the Windy City’s bustling business district. On a day off in August, Strauss visited a friend’s office building and took a walk outside to the terrace on the 20th floor. The 36-year-old human resources consultant was overwhelmed by the beauty of the sprawl in front of her and took this shot with her iPhone 6. It’s hard to focus the eye on one line, shape or shadow in this portrait of a changing city, which is why Strauss submitted it. “I love the arch and the reflections off the river and skyline,” she said. “I’m very into the blending of the skyline and the sunset, and the old and the new.”