Meet the judges: Chris Coe

As the judging for TPOTY 2021 draws to a close we speak to Chris Coe, TPOTY co-founder and chief judge about how it went, what sorts of images were entered and what the judges made of this year’s entries.

2021 is the 19th year of Travel Photographer of the Year competition and TPOTY founder Chris Coe has had the unenviable task of continuing to run a travel photography competition and exhibit the winning images in a year when very few of us have had the opportunity to travel too far from our own homes.

Despite uncertainty and difficulty on numerous levels, TPOTY’s successfully pulled it altogether and, along with fourteen other judges, has carefully looked through thousands of stunning images to bring you the 2021 award winners. Before they’re announced in January 2022 you can catch a glimpse of the images in the running for the top spot and cast your vote in the People’s Choice award.

In this first part of the interview with Chris, we find out more about the categories – what was entered and what the judges thought of them. In part two we find out more on the intricacies of the judging process.

What were entry levels like this year compared to other years?

Entry numbers were a little lower this year but that isn’t surprising for a travel photography award at a time when photographers still can’t travel freely! There was still a significant amount though and, as ever, the quality was very high as you’ll see when we announce the winners. We saw images from all seven continents from Antarctica to the Middle East, from Peru to Scotland, taking in Namibia, Switzerland, Israel, North Korea and many other places along the way. This year it’s great to see so many new names amongst the finalists.

Given that many people might not have had the opportunity to travel widely as a result of the pandemic, did you see a difference in the types of images entered?

Overall no, but in many cases we think photographers entered images from nearer to home, in their own countries and regions, rather than those from longer journeys or the other side of the world, and remember travel has been restricted for most for nearly two years now. We devise the categories so that they cover all travel-related genres and styles of photography – from reportage to conceptual, creative to classic glossy travel images – and ‘travel’ starts the moment you venture outside your front door. Although it was apparent from looking at the breadth of images entered that people hadn’t been travelling quite so much, there was just as much creativity and diversity as always. 

Can you tell us a little bit about what kinds of images were entered in each of the categories? What did well and what wasn’t so successful?

People and their stories

The ‘people’ category is always the most popular so competition to win is strong. There was a good selection in this category and clearly some stories that photographers have been working on for a long time. Visual story-telling is also more evident amongst the portfolios.

Over the years we’ve noticed trends in travel and consequently in the destinations people photograph; in the early years we used to get a lot of pictures of buddhist monks and Masai warriors. That was followed for a while with images of South American markets and market traders as South American destinations were promoted heavily and became popular travel destinations. Many of these images weren’t about the people themselves, or their culture, they were just used to add colour or a sense of ‘exoticism’ to a scene. But for us, capturing the essence of travel through the people isn’t about watching or observing from a distance, it’s about meeting, interacting, understanding and finding a perspective on their lives through connection in order to tell a unique story. 

There were a lot of pure portraits entered into this category which didn’t tend to do so well because they didn’t say enough about the people and their stories. They were snaps of People rather than a well-thought-out set of images, but also some stunning portraiture. We saw a lot of festivals and celebrations and people working in jobs, especially farming, but it’s how well the photographers depicted those stories, as specified in the brief, that factored into how we judged them. The more insightful, and those that piqued our intrigue, were the stand-out entries. 

‘Best 8’ portfolio 

This was a tricky one this year. As photographers hadn’t travelled much or at all since last year’s award many had already entered their best shots under last year’s lockdown. The aim of this category, as always, is to show the diversity of travel but with a consistency of style and approach. But not many photographers took on this challenge with their entries and stuck with the single genres they know best. A lot of good photographers’ work fell by the wayside in the judging because the images were either a single theme or too similar. 

Some also didn’t make it because they mirrored the kinds of selection previous winners had done. We’re looking for something new – a new vision rather than something we’ve seen before. Several of our judges have revealed what they think make for a strong portfolio and you can read those Q&As on Eye for the Light.

The Living World

This category is always strong and many of the images entered would hold their own in a wildlife photography competition. We saw an incredibly wide spectrum of imagery; everything from close-ups of insects to large animals in imposing landscapes, both on land and in the water. 

We see lots of straight-up animal portraits but ones that are a little more creative – perhaps using light in an interesting way or finding patterns in the interaction between creatures – are more striking and likely to be something we’ve not seen before. That’s why it’s not so much about the creature or habitat depicted but how it’s been photographed. Of course, we get many images of the big, poster species like lions and elephants but, as with all the categories, we want to see them in a way we haven’t seen them before. It’s not enough to merely get it in focus and well composed.

I’m often asked if the rareness of a species influences how well it does in the judging. Whilst it’s always good to see something new, and rarer species are less photographed, the judging is more about the image than the natural history. If this was Wildlife Photographer of the Year this rightly wouldn’t be the case but we are looking more at how any species has been photographed, in terms of approach and creativity. In the portfolios, the story is also important.

Landscapes and Adventure

We thought we’d see more adventures within landscapes in this category but many entries opted for pure landscapes. As a result, entries with a sense of an adventure in them or in the taking stood out from. We saw some familiar subjects mixed with new ones, but there were some great new takes on much-photographed places too. Some of the images are breathtakingly beautiful – something that feels like an adventure all of its own in these difficult times of the last few years – and I think we all need ‘beautiful’ right now.

In previous years drone shots had been very popular way of looking at landscapes but this year it was pleasing to see fewer taken from the air and more from other perspectives. Perhaps we’re getting used to the different perspective on our world which the drone offers. A mixture of viewpoints and variety of perspectives makes for a much better balanced category.

With regard to adventures, we thought we might see everything from trekking to skiing, mountain climbing to exploring a subterranean world, but we suspected people hadn’t perhaps been on these kinds of adventures during the pandemic. In the past we’ve had images that depicted what could be thought of as mundane but shown in an adventurous way, though we didn’t see much of that this year. For example, for someone who is ordinarily housebound, going on a train might be an adventure and to photograph that in a creative and intriguing way is equally adventurous as riding wild horses in the desert. 

Icons of Travel

The idea of this category was to get away from the picture postcard and, instead to capture the essence of a location in an unusual way, much like we’ve been looking at in our Avoiding the Clichés series on Eye for the Light.

With people not being able to travel so much we thought this would give photographers an opportunity to flex their creativity with iconic locations and structures closer to home. People interpreted this in a very broad way – we’d expected lots of the Eiffel Tower, Tower Bridge, the Coliseum, Venice, the Forbidden City in Beijing, Sydney Opera House, those kinds of things but that’s not really what we got. Some of these locations were interestingly but the shots that were more about a moment than about documenting the icon were more engaging.

Green Planet

We included this category because photography is a powerful tool in addressing the issues which our planet is facing and our leaders are failing to address. Too often, though, environmental images in photography awards are ‘worthy’ rather than strong, photographically. With so many great photographers entering TPOTY we felt the time was right to start speaking out more on the subjects of the environment and conservation. These will be a strong theme in our 20th awards next year so this was a toe dip in the water that will hopefully encourage photographers to keep photographing the green issues around them and on their travels, but to use their skills to produce powerful imagery which engages people in the issues.

Environmental issues can be complex, though, and it can be difficult to depict the nuances just in a photo. We wanted to see photographers taking the issues and photographing them beautifully or with more power and wow factor that engages the viewer on a visceral level.For many shots  the captions provide more detail but the issues were evident. we can always expand on this in the exhibitions and book with longer captions. Great photography speaks loudly but the caption can sometimes turn the volume up a little.

As Shot

As part of the later stages of the judging process we ask to see original RAW files which means that we get a unique behind-the-scenes look into the mind and photographic processes of many of today’s travel photographers. We also do this to verify that the images falls within the rules and permitted image manipulation. We see, year after year, images that are massively cropped, heavily saturated and generally over-processed between capture and competition entry. So this category was all about the basics of the photographic process, the craft and skill of the photographer in camera rather than in front of a computer. Too often photography becomes more about what can be done in post-production rather than seeing the photographers’ skills. 

There was a good mixture between black and white and colour, though more entries were in colour as I think you’d expect. The subjects were diverse because the only requirement was minimal manipulation on any travel-related topic and it was great to see photographers taking on this challenge. 

The most important factors, the basic skills of photography, won out – strong composition, precise framing, perfect exposures and the capture of a split second moment in time. The winning shots not only fulfilled all these prerequisites but they also captured intrigue and interest in yet more carefully observed detail. 

Smart Shot

Again this is a general travel-related imagery category so there is lots of diversity in what’s photographed. Phones and tablets have much better cameras now so the image quality has improved a lot, and with this we see less and less gimmicky in-phone manipulations of images and many more images which are purely photographic in nature… thankfully! 

This type of photography tends to be more about accessibility to subjects without big, intimidating cameras and about grabbing a moment. The more successful shots were about immediacy; quickly snapped observations and great opportunity to capture the fleeting. 


You can get a glimpse of the winning entries in the People’s Choice award which is now live and ready for your vote. The full line-up of winners and runners-up will be announced in mid-January.


By Diana Jarvis

Diana is a writer at Eye for the Light. She has a BA in History of Art and an MSc in Environment and Sustainability and has worked in travel publishing for 20 years as a photographer, book designer and writer for a wide range of publications. She’s also the Sustainbility Lead at the British Guild of Travel Writers.