An Eastern Screech Owl camouflages itself in the hollow of a tree; a young Sami reindeer herder takes respite from the Artic cold; a group of Congolese women in the sect of Tatahonda paint their black faces white in preparation for a religious ceremony. These are the images that captured the imagination of the judges and took home top honors in the 2013 National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest.


National Geographic Traveler received more than 15,500 entries for its 25th annual competition, covering all corners of the planet from Azerbaijan to Zimbabwe. In the end, however, it was Wagner Araujo of Belo Horizonte, Brazil, who emerged as the grand-prize winner for his black and white shot “Dig Me River,” which depicts the adrenaline of Brazilian Aquathon participants as they race into the Rio Negro.


Max Seigal of Boulder, Colo., placed second for his surreal image “Thunderstorm At False Kiva,” while third place went to Yanai Bonneh of Negev, Israel, for his frightening (yet humorous) image of cheetahs atop a Kenyan tourist safari, titled “Say Cheese.” 


Keith Bellows, editor in chief of National Geographic Traveler magazine, said that every year the task of judging the contest gets tougher. “The quality of photos increasingly gets better -- and the range of imagery more diverse. It’s exciting to see the emergence of such huge numbers of imaginative photographers.”


Amateur and seasoned shutterbugs alike submitted photographs this year across four broad categories: Travel Portraits, Outdoor Scenes, Sense of Place and Spontaneous Moments. Each photo was then judged over two rounds of evaluation based on the creativity and photographic quality.


The prize-winning images will appear in the December 2013/January 2014 issue of National Geographic Traveler magazine, but you won’t have to wait until then to check them out. Scroll down below for a sneak peek at the top three, along with the seven merit winners and the People’s Choice.