And the results are in…

I recently entered my first photo contest, a local competition sponsored by the Webster Groves Nature Study Society (of which I have been a member for ~30 years), and although the competition was limited to its few hundred members there were some serious cash prizes on offer. Being a noob at photo contests and a still relative newcomer to photography in general, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I thought my photos might be good enough to compete, but I also knew I would be going up against some long-time and very skilled nature photographers. The basic rules were a maximum of two submissions in no more than three of the following categories:

  • Botany
  • Entomology
  • Ornithology
  • Landscapes/habitats

Since I’ve only photographed two birds ever, I decided to submit entries to each of the other three categories. It was an interesting competition—the judges (each category had a panel of three consisting of a WNGSS board member, a natural history expert, and a photography expert) had a chance to see all of the photographs prior to the event (held last night) and select the top ten from each category, but the rest of the judging was done live at the event. Eventually, from each category a 1st place, 2nd place, and 3rd place photo was selected. The 12 winning photographs were then displayed in a continuous loop, and everybody attending the event was allowed to vote for one grand prize winner. The grand prize winner had to receive more than 50% of the vote, so a few runoff rounds were required to decide the final winner.

How did it go for me? I had a pretty good night, with three winning photographs:

Entomology—3rd place

Cicindela repanda (Bronze Tiger Beetle) | St. Louis Co., Missouri

Cicindela repanda (Bronze Tiger Beetle) | St. Louis Co., Missouri

Botany—2nd place

Hamammelis vernalis (Ozark witch hazel) | Iron Co., Missouri

Hamammelis vernalis (Ozark witch hazel) | Iron Co., Missouri

Entomology—1st place

Arctosa littoralis (beach wolf spider) | Lewis Co., Missouri

It was a thrill for me to learn that, out of the six photographs I submitted (and I really didn’t think my two landscape submissions were competitive to begin with), three were among the 12 final prize winners. That also made them eligible for the grand prize, but in this case I didn’t really expect the larger membership (which has a lot of birders) would really take to my closeup insect photographs. To my surprise, the first round of voting produced four finalists—two of which were my insect photos! The first runoff vote eliminated one photo—but not either of mine, and the second runoff eliminated one more photo—but again neither of mine. I had won the grand prize without yet knowing which photo would be the winner! In the end, the tiger beetle took the top prize. Personally, I was happy about that, because even though the photo took only 3rd place in the entomology competition, I thought it was the stronger of the two photos based on composition, the time and effort it took to work the beetle to finally “get the shot” (not that the wolf spider photo didn’t also take a lot of effort to get that close), and the natural history behavior that it captured (stilting and sun-facing for thermoregulation). I know blog commenting is becoming passé, but if you have any particular thoughts about these photos, good or bad, I would love to hear from you.

Overall I would have to say that, winner or not, participating in a photo competition was an extraordinary learning opportunity for me as I try to hone my craft. Listening to the comments of the judges in all of the categories, both on the natural history and the technical aspects of the photographs, gave me a lot of insight into how I might further improve my technique and take photographs that can be appreciated on both technical and artistic grounds. More importantly, the cash was nice, but the motivation to keep trying that I got out of the experience was priceless!

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2013

30 thoughts on “And the results are in…

  1. Ted will be speaking to the Webster Groves Nature Study Society’s Entomology group on Monday April 15, at 7 PM at the Butterfly House. He will be showing us how he gets those extraordinary pictures of small, wary insects. Everyone interested is welcome.

  2. Congratulations!

    I love the slightly perplexed look on the spider’s face.

    You mentioned the time spent trying to get your subjects to cooperate. I’m wondering; about how long do you actually work with a critter? I guess my real question is, “Am I too impatient?”

    • I would say patience is the single biggest factor in success with insect macrophotography behind knowledge of the subject’s habitats and behaviors. I spend a lot of time “working” individuals until I find one that seems (relatively) cooperative, and then a lot more time “working” that individual before it forgets I’m there and resumes normal activities. It can take me anywhere up to an hour or more to get the type of shot that I want of a particularly wary species. That’s not good news if your goal is to photograph as many species as possible (but then, that isn’t my goal).

      My advice is to slow down to the point that you think you are going too slow, and then slow down even more!

  3. wow! These photos are stunning. I am a “wannabe” nature photographer and am just starting to really learn about the intense macro. That wolf spider pic is just remarkable. I was going to ask what equipment you used but I see the lens you Want to get so I’m going to research that 🙂

    Great work. Well deserving of the awards.

    • Hi Lisa – glad you like them. All of these photos were shot using a 100mm macro lens with a full set (68mm) of extension tubes and full-flash lighting. That’s my ‘workhorse’ setup – the extension tubes turn the lens essentially into a 0.7X to 2.0X lens that brackets the size range of most of the subjects I work with.

    • Thanks, Adrian. It is likely that some (or all) of the judges were not aware of the thermoregulatory behaviors on display and, thus, couldn’t fully appreciate the tiger beetle shot for what it was. Thankfully, the crowd had the final vote. 🙂

  4. I think the thing to be most proud of would be that it isn’t just technique that put you ahead – the compositions are extraordinary too. I think I like the Arctosa best – almost Wildean in its use of the out-of-focus areas to draw one into the focussed face of the spider.

    • Thanks, Dave. If I had it to do over, I would have actually opened up the lens a little bit on that spider shot to get less depth of field and really blur the body and legs to make the face stand out even more.


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