A picture is worth a thousand words, right? So imagine what 1,550 pictures have to say. That’s the number of entries we received in the 15th annual Travel photo contest, and were they ever eloquent, a veritable encyclopedia of the world and its many wonders. Our contestants really got around — from Italy to Indonesia, from Alaska to Australia, from Savannah to Santa Fe — and their subjects ran the gamut: There were mountains and deserts, rainbows and rain clouds. There were bustling urban street scenes and quiet country landscapes. There were the usual adorable — and ferocious — animals. There were (so many!) sunrises and sunsets. And lots and lots of water — oceans, lakes, rivers, pools, even puddles. It’s always a challenge to cull the best from the rest, but we managed, because we had to. And so we present our 15 finalists — four winners (including a tie) and 11 honorable mentions — and the powerful travel stories they tell.

(Natalie Fay Green)

Natalie Fay Green, Bethesda

A 37-year-old stay-at-home mom and part-time attorney, Green felt immediately drawn to the old house she spotted from the parking lot of the Oregon Inlet, a fishing area on North Carolina’s Outer Banks, in December. “What attracted me was how the whole scene — the dune, the house, and the sky — were all simultaneously so dynamic and so timeless,” she told us. “I felt as if I could have stood in the same spot 50 years ago and seen the exact same thing.” She took her photo while her avid-fisherman husband tried his luck at the nearby beach. “He didn’t catch anything,” Green said wryly, “but I did.” And what a catch it was.

(Kathleen Weinheimer)
Second place (tie)

Kathleen Weinheimer, Alexandria

Visiting the “bone yard beach” at Edisto Island south of Charleston, S.C., in April with a photo workshop, Weinheimer, 61, separated herself from the group to get a different shot of the dying trees on the shore. “I wanted to capture the sunrise, the trees, the incoming tide and the reflection in the wet sand,” said the systems engineer with Lockheed Martin, whose composition reminded us of an oil painting. “To me, the tree was standing guard over the shoreline, protecting it from whatever the new day might bring.”

(S. A. Hopkins )
Second place (tie)

S. A. Hopkins, Richmond

On a crisp morning in February, the 56-year-old cartoonist and illustrator was standing on a pedestrian bridge in the historic Lower Factors Walk area of Savannah, Ga., when he saw two people dressed in winter coats walking by below. He quickly raised his camera and clicked, capturing a moody, film-noirish scene of shadows and mystery. “It was all pretty spontaneous,” said Hopkins, who admitted that “I try to channel Cartier-Bresson and capture ‘the decisive moment,’ but it doesn’t always work.” It certainly did this time.

(Tim Auer)
Third place

Tim Auer, Mountain View, Calif.

Anticipating a spectacular sunrise in Alaska’s Katmai National Park last fall, the 31-year-old electrical engineer had set up his tripod when he saw a brown bear on the beach. “If the bear followed the shore all the way past me, I knew it would be the shot I’ve dreamed about,” Auer told us, “the quintessential Alaska photograph!” He clicked away as the bear passed, underexposing the image to capture the peaking sunrise colors and make a silhouette of the bear. “In the foreground, the beach is strewn with sun-bleached driftwood reflecting some of the pink light, and in the background, the low-lying clouds in the Iliuk arm of Naknek Lake still hold onto their shadows,” said Auer. “Katmai is my favorite national park to visit, and this photograph precisely captures the reason why.”

Honorable mentions

(Kathy Hornsby)

Kathy Hornsby, Williamsburg, Va.

“I can still hear the music!” says the 56-year-old business manager (for her musician husband, Bruce Hornsby) of this exuberant shot she snapped at the New Mexico State Fair, an assignment from a travel photography workshop she attended in Santa Fe in the fall. “I was working on panning with a flash, and after many misses finally captured” this image of a child on the carousel, “with the motion blur and light streaks emphasizing the ride,” she said.

(Libby Zhang)

Libby Zhang, Sugar Land, Tex.

Software engineer Zhang, 57, was so taken with this view of a wheat field at sunset from Steptoe Butte Hill in Washington state that she took “hundreds of shots” of the wheat “dancing in the wind” from different angles and using different exposures. ”My fingers just kept on clicking until it was dark,” she said of her June shoot. “I was very excited, and I knew that I had captured some beautiful photos.” Indeed.

(Lisa Marie Allen)

Lisa Marie Allen, Washington

On a March boat ride out to Floyd’s Pelican Bar, on a sandbar almost a mile out to sea off St. Elizabeth, Jamaica, Allen’s eye was drawn initially to the vibrant colors of the boat against the sunset. But the scene she shot, said the 29-year-old Defense Department employee, “also serves as a reminder that happiness cannot be measured in possessions. Our guide had one of the most beautiful vistas on Earth as his office every day.”

(Hai Duong)

Hai Duong, Silver Spring, Md.

In December, Duong was on a bus traveling from Phnom Penh, Cambodia, to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, when it arrived at a Mekong River ferry and was swarmed by children begging for food. “I was fortunate to have my camera sitting on my lap as the kids surrounded the bus and started poking their hands through the open window,” said the 43-year-old Energy Department employee. The moment “was very memorable to me, as there was a certain desperation in the children’s faces.”

(Alexander Tsao)

Alexander Tsao, Ashburn, Va.

Visiting the Roman ruins at Ostia, Italy, last November, the 42-year-old international accounts manager for Sprint noticed his daughter running toward him in the late afternoon light. “Something about her expression was precious, and I had to capture it,” he said. She was backlit by the setting sun, so he spot-metered on her face for a good exposure, “and caught the right moment.”

(Andy Gallacher)

Andy Gallacher, Miami

A TV correspondent for Al Jazeera English who travels throughout the Americas and the Caribbean, Gallacher, 46, said that he’d been trying to get a chance to photograph this hillside slum neighborhood in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, for some time but hadn’t been able to get a good shot. On a trip in July, however, “a Haitian guy saw me leaning over a fence and unlocked a padlock to let me have a clear view. The sun was setting low in the sky, but the thing I like best about this composition is that almost every window has a person or family in it.”

(Christina Ames)

Christina Ames, Springfield, Va.

Ames was in St. Augustine, Fla., last July when an afternoon summer thunderstorm came rolling in. “Everyone was frantically packing up, but not this guy,” said the 43-year-old office manager. “I guess he was determined to get every extra second of beach time he could. I couldn’t resist the juxtaposition of the extremely calm and relaxed man against the backdrop of the looming, menacing sky. So I quickly lined up the shot, snapped this photo and hightailed it out with the rest of the crowd.”

(Brent Dwayne Osborne)

Brent Dwayne Osborne, New York

On his way down from the summit of Mount Bromo, an active volcano in Java, Indonesia, in April, Osborne noticed this man from a nearby village who was taking tourists up the mountain on his horse. “Both the horse and the man appeared to be taking a break from a hard day’s work,” said the 38-year-old salesperson and freelance photographer. “The overall atmosphere of this area of Indonesia was gorgeous, and my ultimate goal was to try to capture the mix of culture, landscape, and the amazing light” in the valley, he said.

(Harold Ashby)

Harold Ashby, Sarasota, Fla.

Ashby is a fan of the Paris Metro’s Cluny-La Sorbonne station, whose ceiling is covered with the signatures of poets, artists, philosophers and other prominent figures of the Latin Quarter. On a September visit, the 68-year-old retiree decided to photograph the signatures as a train passed through the station, “capturing the movement of the train and people standing on the platform beyond.” He steadied his camera on his knee as the train passed through and “was very pleased that one of the shots captured two people between the train cars.” So were we.

(Joseph Daragan)

Joseph Daragan, Arlington

“The swans were waiting,” recalled Daragan of his ship’s arrival in Strasbourg, France, during a Rhine River Christmas market cruise in December, and so he snapped a picture. “I was attracted by the contrast between the swan’s feathers and the black of the river, and by the angles formed by the swans,” said the 60-year-old retiree. The result? A photo that “might make good wrapping paper,” he said. We think it’s much more than that.

(Patricia Anderson)

Patricia Anderson, Pinehurst, N.C.

On a visit to Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe in December, Anderson was struck by the “incredible face” of this village grandmother, whom she shot sitting outside her hut with her grandchild. “I thought the colors of her dress and her dark lined face against the backdrop of the wall of the hut were so dramatic and told a terrific story,” said the semi-retired insurance broker, 64. Yes, they do.