A few months ago, Noah Brownsey had never entered a photo contest. On his first try, he won the grand prize.
Brownsey, of Niskayuna, New York, began experimenting with photography a year or two ago, mostly as a way to get outside. One day while taking a walk on Trustom Pond in South Kingstown, he snapped about 10 photos of a yellow bird that he spotted building a nest.
Though Brownsey really liked one of the photos he had taken of the bird, it was by mistake that he learned about an amateur photo contest, run by the Friends of the National Wildlife Refuges of Rhode Island, that the photo would end up winning.
“I thought I was picking up a map of, like, the Trustom pond area, and I open it up and it was a photo contest,” Brownsey said. “I’m like, ‘Oh, that’s kind of neat.’ That was really all it was, and then a couple of the pictures I took I liked, and I’m like, “You know, I think I’m gonna do this.”
Brownsey’s “Nesting Warbler” won Best of Show in the annual contest, which is now in its 21st year. He was surprised to win, he said, as photography is more of a recent hobby, rather than an area of expertise.
“I’ve been having fun doing it a little bit here and there, so I thought I’d enter something,” Brownsey said. “I borrow my wife’s camera – that’s how little I know about photography.”
For the last 10 years, the contest has been run by Richard Thieke, a board member of the Friends of the National Wildlife Refuges of Rhode Island. Thieke spent two years assisting with the contest before taking over as its organizer.
Each year, contestants submit photos taken at one of Rhode Island’s five National Wildlife Refuges, Thieke said – Ninigret in Charlestown, Trustom Pond, John H. Chafee at Pettaquamscutt Cove in South Kingstown, Sachuest Point in Middletown and Block Island.
“The idea of the contest is to get people out to the refuges to learn more about them – the wildlife, flora and habitat,” Thieke said. “We send a press release out to a couple dozen papers and other media outlets in May announcing the contest with the hope of attracting people to participate.”
Though the contest saw a record-low number of entries this year, 36, Thieke said that’s likely due to the coronavirus pandemic. In 2019, he said, the contest hit a record-high number of entries, at 99.
Contest judges look at everything from a photo’s subject matter to its focus to the background to shading, Thieke said. The judges, independent from the Friends board, view each entry independently, then convene to reach a decision on the winners.
This year’s judges were the head of a local land trust and the deputy Refuge Manager for Rhode Island, Thieke said.
In addition to judging a children’s contest, they were tasked with choosing first-, second- and third-place winners in three categories: Wildlife, Flora, and Wildlife Habitat/Landscape.
The first-place award in two of those categories went to Bob Arnold of Coventry, who also won the “People’s Choice Award.”
Arnold has been entering the contest for the last two or three years, he said. This year marks the first time he has placed in the show, which he said was “quite an honor.”
His photo, “Monarch on Thistle,” won first place in Wildlife, and “Late Summer Day at Sachuest” won first place in Wildlife Habitat/Landscape. His “Barred Owl” took the People’s Choice Award.
Getting the barred owl photo was “quite exciting,” Arnold said, as he happened to stumble on the bird while out for a walk.
“We were just walking through the woods and my wife and I happened to look over in the tree, and there it was,” Arnold said. “So I took some pictures.”
Arnold and Brownsey both believe that, for anyone looking to get better at photography, practice makes perfect.
“Just go out and look,” Brownsey said. “Have your camera and keep your eyes open. Don’t miss the little thing that moves in the corner.”
Arnold would recommend that aspiring photographers go out on a regular basis and shoot photos. Have intention, he said, and look at other people’s photos for inspiration.
“Go out on the trail, and if you’re gonna be taking sunsets, take sunsets,” Arnold said. “And if you see something else, take it, but focus on what you’re trying to do.”