We asked you to hit us with your best shot, and that is what you did. About 2,400 amateur shutterbugs answered the call for entries in our annual reader travel photo contest, showing us vivid landscapes, striking skies, quirky street scenes and hundreds of cute animals and babies. We pored over them, choosing the ones we found particularly well-composed, mysterious, thought-provoking — or just downright beautiful. The result is a collection of indelible images that demonstrate the most important reason we travel: to see something else.

Winner

Lisa Schwerin, San Jose

It was a lovely summer day when Schwerin and her husband, visiting his home town of Mount Pleasant, Iowa, drove past a spot that he remembered from his childhood, where a lone tree stood in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by grass and cornfields. When she snapped the photo, “the sun was setting, the lighting was perfect and the colors were gorgeous,” said Schwerin. The 27-year-old auditor was taken with the way the sunset lit up the path through the field, and how the image evokes the “beauty and peacefulness” of Iowa. “I knew immediately it was going to be a great photo,” she said.

Second place

Ekaterina Gelfand, St. Petersburg, Russia

Standing on a busy corner in Kibera, the largest slum in Nairobi, Kenya, surrounded by curious children begging her to take their picture, our second-place winner noticed one little girl standing apart from the group. She was peering through an iron fence’s gate into the local schoolyard, where some boys were playing soccer. The scene of the game — which echoes a painting on the fence — “was as interesting to her as the Mzungo (Swahili for a white person),” said Gelfand, a 32-year-old customer service rep, who took the shot in the instant just before the child turned — and joined the rest of the kids clamoring for a photo. A case of perfect timing.

Third place

Newton More, Washington

The lab scientist, who is “fascinated with architectural detail, especially in stonework aged by time,” was visiting Geneva’s Hotel de Ville, or city hall, when he noticed that a stairwell just off the main courtyard of the elegant old building was softly lit by an early-fall sun. “It had just the right amount of light and shadow to give dimension to the scene,” said More, 63. With his camera equipped with a wide-angle lens and a tripod, he captured the scene from a very low position, looking straight up the center of the stairwell, taking several different exposures and then combining them using tone-mapping software and adding a sepia-like cast to the stonework. “The sense of depth and a slight feeling of vertigo, coupled with the initial impression of ‘what is it?’ make this image interesting,” he said.

Fourth place

Marc Tkach, Alexandria

Tkach took his haunting photo last fall in the diamond mining ghost town of Kolmannskop, Namibia, a place the civil engineer found “both unsettling and very calming”: calming because of the silence, broken only by the wind, but unsettling because the town is slowly being consumed by sand. “Typically when the earth takes homes, it’s violent and quick: floods, landslides or hurricanes,” says Tkach, 34. “This is slow and seemingly methodical.” He found the image of the sand-filled room “almost worthy of panic,” yet at the same time, “the tones of the walls, the sand and the fading afternoon light” seemed to lend the scene “a quiet normalcy.”

Honorable mentions

Alexander Kafka, Bethesda

The 47-year-old editor, wrapping up an exhausting work trip to Ann Arbor, Mich., rushed to the Detroit airport to make his flight back to Washington, only to realize that he had about an hour before boarding. “My feeling of simultaneous stress and relief was kind of echoed in this scene before me, with silhouetted business people talking on their phones, reflected in this weirdly incongruent, tranquil fountain, with the nose of a plane in the background, both majestic and slightly threatening.”

Damon Collie, Silver Spring

Touring the ancient city of Fatehpur Sikir on a 10-day trip to India with his wife, Collie watched a young woman pose for her boyfriend at the top of a set of stairs. As she walked carefully down, Collie snapped his own shot, aiming to capture “the contrast of the colorful dress of the woman against the backdrop of the ancient red fort.” The clinical research project manager considers the photo his favorite from the trip. “It reminds me of why I fell in love with India,” said Collie, 34. “The country has such a wonderful mix of beautiful, fascinating people and enchanting places.”

Ed Christesen, Fairfax Station

Arriving on Bodie Island, N.C., in May to photograph its famous lighthouse, Christesen noticed smoke from a large peat fire billowing in from the west. The IT manager, 54, waited until the smoke had filled the sky before taking the shot. “I loved the way the smoke was hanging above the blue sky and the clouds in the background,” he said.

Chris Blackshear, Washington

Blackshear was pedaling around Manhattan during a June visit when he saw the old pilings that rise out of the water near the Chelsea section of the bike path. They struck him as “a bit of calm in the busy city,” and he thought they would make a nice picture “if I could eliminate details from the water, leaving just the pilings and the far buildings.” But even on a cloudy day, he couldn’t get his shutter speed slow enough to blur the water. So the next morning, the 54-year-old retiree got up before dawn and rode back in the half-dark and took the shot, using exposures of more than a second to blur the details. The full moon hanging over the New Jersey buildings was, he said, “an unexpected bonus.”

Josephine Bingler, New Orleans

Dusk was approaching when Bingler, on a camel ride through Morocco’s
Erg Chebbi sand dunes with her mother and sister, pulled out her camera to snap a photo as the light turned the Saharan sands to a rich gold and amber and cast elongated shadows on the dunes. The 18-year-old Bingler, who will start college this fall, was taken with the way the shadows lined up with the people on camels and the way the movement draws the viewer’s eye up and into the dunes. “I also really liked the serendipity of seeing the shadow of me taking the picture,” she said.

Blake Congdon, Arlington

The photographer was working on a survey of an internally displaced persons (IDP) camp in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, in November 2010 when an NGO worker came around to distribute antibacterial soap during the cholera epidemic. Congdon noticed two young girls watching their mother in line, fighting for a bar of soap, and was struck by their listless expressions. It was an extremely hot day, and the camp, which had open sewers, “smelled horribly, but nevertheless a lot of kids were running around and playing and smiling, but these two girls looked shy and stayed in their shanty.” When he looks at the photo now, Congdon said, “I remember how even a bar of soap can be difficult to obtain in Haiti, let alone clean water, or food, or a job, or anything that we take for granted every day.”

Lila Lecuire, Arlington

Lecuire was on a four-wheel-drive tour with her husband at Dubai’s Al Maha Desert Resort in September 2010 when she spotted this solitary oryx climbing a sand dune. The wind was so strong that nobody wanted to open the windows, but Lecuire got the driver to pause, letting her jump out with her camera. “I love the way the oryx was walking into the wind with the sand flying,” said Lecuire, 46, a skin care technician. The blowing sand blurs the background just enough to make the animal’s silhouette pop as it looks into the late-afternoon sun.