The group of photographers are similar in many ways. They are always looking for the next great place for a striking nature image, they put in the time to get the perfect light, and they seek out adverse weather or interesting creatures.
But each takes a different approach. Some join other shooters to capture images and critique each other’s work. Others prefer to work, edit and learn on their own.
Each of the seven area photographers who recently won awards in the 2020 Scenic Virginia statewide photo contest do what it takes to create art.
Seeing so many area residents earn awards in the Virginia Vistas Photo Contest that draws some of the state’s best nature photographers made me wonder how this mix of hobbyists and professionals came to photography, and how they approach their art.
Three of them—Jeanne Jackson and Fritzi Newton of Spotsylvania County and Wayne Butler of Stafford County—took top honors in different categories.
Four others—Theresa Rasmussen of Fredericksburg, Ed Episcopo of Stafford and C. Renee Martin and Raymie Chapman of Spotsylvania–earned honorable mentions from the conservation group dedicated to the preservation, protection, and enhancement of Virginia’s natural beauty, especially scenic vistas.
“I have been shooting since 2006,” said Martin.
She said a close friend was going through a rough patch financially and put her Cannon Rebel camera for sale.
“I purchased it in a pretense of wanting a camera and thought I was doing her a favor. But really, she was doing me one, as it’s the best purchase I ever made,” said Martin. “I had always loved art in many forms, but could not even draw a straight line. With the camera, I was able to combine my love of art and nature through photography.”
Jackson, who describes herself as a “serious hobbyist,” said she has owned a camera since she was 7. She’s now in her mid-60s.
“My husband is a retired Marine, and we lived for three years in Guam, where I got into underwater photography and had a blast doing that,” she said.
Jackson moved to the area seven years ago.
“I just decided that I wanted to work at it and learn to be better,” she said. “I’ve got a great group of photography friends in Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania.”
The friends sometimes travel to shoot photographs together, and often critique each other’s work. The call the group Circle of Confusion, a photography term.
Episcopo, who’s won numerous awards in the Scenic Virginia photo contest and was once recognized as a top photographer, said he’s been shooting nature-related photos for about 10 years.
“I’ve always been a hiker, gardener and nature lover, so nature photography fit right in with my other hobbies,” he said.
Butler was born and raised in Stafford, and always loved the environment around him, whether that meant his family’s small farm in Brooke, the county’s winding roads or the shores of local rivers.
“I’m pretty much self-taught,” he said, “though I’ve gotten some good feedback from some other local photographers.”
Chapman said it was moving to this area that sparked his interest in nature and bird photography.
“I joined a couple local photo meet-ups to find all the cool locations,” he said, “and ended up plugged into a network of friends who love to help each other learn and grow.”
Newton has been taking photos for a long time, having watched her father work in his own darkroom. She learned to develop black and white photos on her own while in living in Seattle. Studying art in college and working as a photographer for a newspaper in Maryland helped her skills grow, though raising a family put shooting on the back burner for a while.
“Then I got into digital and that kind of changes your whole world, no longer being restricted by how many pictures you can take,” she said.
She said she pushes herself to get closer to perfection. After moving here 11 years ago, she got more into fine art, noting that fellow photographers say her images often have a sort of “painterly quality.”
Rasmussen has been shooting nature photography for about eight years, and has gotten more interested since becoming an empty-nester. She said she’d gotten fairly proficient with a camera photographing her daughter when she played travel volleyball in high school. She made the switch to landscape photography after signing up for a workshop at Great Falls that got her hooked.
How these seven talented photographers decide where to shoot varies greatly. Many of them said seeking striking images of birds, animals and natural backdrops has them joining other shooters at different spots along the Rappahannock River—especially when the shad are running.
They are drawn to Shenandoah National Park, local battlefield parks and nature refuges in Virginia, West Virginia and North Carolina. At times, some of the photographers shoot on vacation or travel to more far-flung spots such as Jekyll Island, Ga., Acadia National Park in Maine, the Great Smoky Mountains, Glacier National Park, Cornwall, England, and Banff in Alberta, Canada.
But not all great pictures require hours of driving. Jackson’s award-winning photo is of a barn near where she lives.
“I shoot pictures of it all the time, and none of them look the same,” she said. “I feel like I look at things now differently than before, like I’m seeing through different eyes. It’s just constant learning.”
Episcopo, like several of the photographers, said that there are many images he’s captured where he feels fortunate to have been in the right spot at the right time.
“They’re often nothing more than a certain pose, great light or interesting weather conditions,” he said.
Episcopo referenced his photo of an egret, noting that it was “the pose and the nice back-light, which brought out the details in the feathers.”
His described how he captured a photo of a swallow. “It was curious look, as she waited for the male to bring goose feathers to build their nest in Old Mill Park,” he said. “The texture in the tree also added to the image.”
Martin characterized finding unexpected details in some captured images as “surprises and delights in my adventures.” Her photo of a sunset at the Outer Banks came as she was standing in front of a favorite tree and hoping for something unusual.
“It wasn’t looking too promising, and I was ready to pack up my gear when the light exploded upward, the sky going orange, yellow, purple and then red,” she said. “God truly knows how to put on a show, and I’m grateful I was there to see it. The long exposure on this image gave the water a glass-like appearance.”
Butler said he’s always on the lookout for interesting images, his camera in tow.
“The picture that won in the contest, a shot of Potomac Run Road in fall, is something I saw on my way to town one day,” he said. He was struck by the play of light and color on the winding roadway.
“So I pulled over and shot it,” he said. “I see things all day long and can’t turn it off.”
Chapman said that aside from winning two awards in this year’s Scenic Virginia contest, her “biggest photography thrill” was being invited to attend a behind-the-scenes photo workshop put on by the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum. The museum’s magazine used her workshop photo of the SR-71 Blackbird and Space Shuttle Discovery on its website.
Rasmussen said it was snowing and foggy when she arrived in Banff.
“We decided near sunset to drive to Moraine Lake. It was still totally foggy, but we decided to hike to the top. It was a long way up, and super slippery, since there was about six inches of fresh snow on the ground,” she said.
“We finally made it to the top, just as the fog began to clear, opening up a vista that I couldn’t even have imagined,” she added. “It was incredible, and totally worth the slippery climb up. It’s a memory and scene I will never forget, and still my favorite photo.”
Rob Hedelt is a Free Lance-Star columnist.