Lee Acaster is 2015’s Amateur Photographer of the Year. He wins a Sigma SD1 Merrill and 17-50mm f/2.8 EX DC HSM lens worth more than £2,000.
How does it feel to have won APOY 2015?
I’m absolutely thrilled. As a keen reader of the magazine, I’ve seen the standard of the work of previous winners and it’s a real honour to be among them. I’ve never entered APOY before, but thought I would give it a go. I had very little expectation of doing well, so when I was lucky enough to finish in the top 10 for the first round I was very surprised. I stupidly sent my second round entry to the wrong email address, but then when I won the third round it all started getting rather exciting.
It’s probably a difficult question to answer, but do you think there’s a secret to winning competitions?
I’ve been very lucky to have quite a few successes in competitions so far, but I don’t think there’s any magic formula. It may sound a little clichéd, but I really think it’s important to shoot images that please yourself first and foremost. If you like them, there’s a good chance somebody else will. Then, if you’re fortunate, the competition judges may, too.
What’s the key to developing a strong eye for photography?
I’ve always had a love of nature, the landscape, and in particular light. Even before I took up photography as a serious hobby when I moved to East Anglia, I would always notice changes in light – like trees illuminated against a dark sky after heavy rain – and would often go out in the garden or for a walk just to soak up that atmosphere. The more you are aware of your surroundings, the more potential images start to make themselves known to you. It’s easy to see potential shots when you’re at a breathtaking location or landmark, but there are more unusual and intimate images to be had all around. The more you look for them, the more you see them.
You’re known primarily as a landscape photographer, so what qualities in particular do you look for in a landscape?
Living in East Anglia, we aren’t really blessed with sweeping vistas or mountainous backdrops, so the sky often becomes very important in my images. Fortunately, that’s one thing we have in abundance! I’m a big fan of unusual and unsettling images, and I often look for something that suggests a story, rather than just a pretty scene (although I’m not averse to those, either), so an unusual building or feature will often draw me as a starting point for a photograph.
Why the fascination with minimalism? What does that bring to an image?
By emptying an image of unnecessary detail, it becomes much easier to direct the viewer. I spend a lot of my time framing in a way that focuses on the parts of the image that are important to me, and this means excluding anything that distracts from that. I try to use lead-in lines, and light in much the same way, to pull the eye into the key parts of the shot.
Why did you decide to go in the opposite direction to the current trend of colour-saturated images?
The temptation is always to boost saturation, especially in the digital age of Instagram and Facebook. There’s no denying it gives an immediate impact, but I think images tend to have much more longevity if processed with a little more subtlety. I print a lot of my images, which has many benefits. It gives a real sense of satisfaction and completion to print an image, rather than just letting it disappear into the depths of your hard drive. But it’s rare to make a print and then think, ‘I wish I had increased the saturation.’
What’s your most important kit?
I have a tendency to take too much with me most of the time, as my back will testify, but the must-have items would be my Lee Filters kit and a tripod. Although I put work into processing images, I like to get it as close as possible to the final result in-camera, and graduated ND filters are essential for that. I almost always have a circular polariser attached to my lens – I can’t overstate its benefits. Many photographers think these are mainly used for making blue skies punchy, but in fact I rarely use them for that purpose. They’re invaluable for cutting out reflections on foliage, rocks and watery surfaces, and can add more richness to your shots.
I rarely use autofocus – in fact, most of my lenses are manual-focus only, so a tripod is a necessity. The advantage is that it slows me down and makes me consider composition carefully. I usually spend a while examining the live view before taking a shot, adjusting my position and framing to make sure everything is just as I want.
Lee’s image placements in APOY 2015
Round 1 – Night Life – Seventh place
Round 2 – Going Abstract – Didn’t score
Round 3 – Wider Perspective – First place
Round 4 – In Focus – Second place
Round 5 – Up Close – Disqualified
Round 6 – On the Street – Didn’t score
Round 7 – Lie of the Land – Tenth place
Round 8 – Shades of Grey – Didn’t score
‘Most of my images take their inspiration from the low-lying beauty of the East Anglian landscape,’ says Lee. ‘I strive to add my own interpretation and a little drama.’ Lee’s awards include: British Wildlife Photography Awards 2014 Overall winner; Wex Photographer of the Year 2014, overall winner; Landscape Photographer of the Year 2014, commended; Outdoor Photographer of the Year 2014, commended; Amateur Photographer of the Year 2015, overall winner. Visit www.leeacaster.com and facebook.com/landscapeandlight
We’ll be publishing details, including themes and closing dates for APOY 2016, in AP 5 March 2016. We have Sigma prizes for the overall winner, plus eight monthly prizes for first-placed entrants. Details will also be published on this website in March.