Caron Steele led the way from round two of Amateur Photographer of the Year and walked away with the main prize. Ailsa McWhinnie finds out how she did it
When did you start taking pictures?
In May 2014 I bought my firrst DSLR. I had a point and shoot, which I had taken on safari a couple of years earlier. I had an amazing time, but was very frustrated because everyone else kept pushing their much bigger lenses in front of me to get their photos. That was what made me realise I really wanted to learn about photography and get it right.
It took me another couple of years before I actually bought one, though, and it wasn’t until I’d saved up to go on another safari that I took the plunge, getting a Canon EOS-1D X, which I absolutely adore. I spent the next month out in the garden photographing anything that moved before going to Kenya.
After that first safari, were you hooked?
Totally. It meant that the rest of my waking hours were spent making sure my business would earn me enough money to visit amazing countries. Photography gives me a valid reason to travel, particularly as a lone female. It means you can see amazing things with a like-minded group of people. I had barely holidayed much before I took up photography, but since being bitten by the bug I’ve been lucky enough to travel to Mongolia, Costa Rica, Botswana, the Arctic, Antarctica, the Galapagos, Yellowstone and Iceland, among many other places. I’m now cutting down on my flying because of concerns about the environment – and we are planting a lot of trees on the farm to try to compensate! But I’m glad I’ve seen everything I have over the past few years. Sometimes my husband comes with me on the trips, but we have an organic farm so he can’t get away often.
What have been your most memorable trips?
I love everything about the African countries for the wildlife. The Galapagos is amazing – absolutely fascinating. I also loved Japan, as culturally it’s so different from the UK. To be honest, every country has something that blows me away. In Antarctica, I couldn’t get over the scenery. I went there because of my love of wildlife, but the mountain ranges were stunning. Kenya and Botswana are the countries I go back to because I love everything about them.
Why do you have such a keen interest in wildlife?
I have a degree in Zoology from Oxford University – I wanted to be the next David Attenborough. I did have an interview with the BBC, but couldn’t afford to live in London on the salary they were offering. I was then offered three times as much to work in banking, and from there, I moved into advertising. I’m afraid I chased the money! I now run my own business – a multi-use venue that hosts conferences and weddings – which means I can spend time doing the things I really enjoy. It’s been great to get back to nature and my zoology roots.
Why did you decide to enter APOY?
I became aware of it through entering Bird Photographer of the Year on Photocrowd. Seeing APOY’s varied categories, I knew it would be a good challenge for me. I like to set myself targets, otherwise I can get lazy – I’m definitely a goal-orientated person. And having a competition that covers so many different genres gave me a reason to try things that were outside of my comfort zone. I didn’t think I’d necessarily stand much of a chance, but I had some photographs I knew I could work on for the first couple of rounds – and for the rest of them, I just thought I’d have a go. My family will tell you I was a complete pain over it.
For instance, I hadn’t done any macro photography before the competition. I would run around the garden, trying to photograph insects, and also brought bugs into the house and tried homemade lighting rigs. Although I wasn’t placed high in that category, I managed to get a shot of a beautiful hawk moth that landed on the bathroom window. I took it and placed it on a log, expecting it to fly away, but it stayed there for about ten minutes while I faffed about trying to get the flash on my camera. There’s still plenty of room for improvement.
As for portraits, typically, I got some nicer ones after the deadline, and I didn’t enter Street Life and hadn’t done anything like that before.
The photograph that won the After Dark category was taken in Mongolia. I knew the skies there would be good for the Milky Way. I’d tried some astrophotography in the UK, but hadn’t managed to get anything suitable. I kept asking our guide in Mongolia about astrophotography, and there was so much I didn’t understand about it – such as software that allows you to blend images and get rid of a lot of the noise. The final image was several photographs blended together.
You use cameras by two different manufacturers. Why is this?
As I mentioned earlier, I have a Canon EOS-1D X, and mainly Canon lenses. However, it got to the point where I really wanted a 50MP camera, so I bought a Nikon D850, because I love the fact it means you can crop in and still have a good-sized image. Sometimes when you’re photographing, say, birds that have a wide wing span in flight, and are using a prime lens, you need a certain amount of distance from your subject because within seconds you can be clipping their wings in the frame as they fly towards you.
There are times when it can be a bit confusing. For instance, their zoom lenses rotate in opposite directions, so sometimes I have to stop myself for a split second and remind myself which camera I’m using. For a lot of my bird photography, I use a 200-500mm lens on the D850, as it gives me a good deal of flexibility. In good light it’s fantastic, and I’ve had a lot of success with it. However, when you’re shooting in low light and typically British weather conditions, you can’t fail but do well with the EOS-1D X.
What are your future plans?
I don’t know if I could go professional. I’d consider semi-professional, perhaps, but I don’t want to do photography full time at this stage. But I still have some quite big plans for 2020. In particular, I’d like to raise more than £5,000 for conservation causes through my photography, have a photograph commended in the Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition (I had five shortlisted this year, but didn’t quite make the cut), and start a series of talks in schools on conservation, photography and mindfulness. Then I plan to launch a series of Wildlife and Wine exhibitions, which will focus on my wildlife photography and feature wine tasting with our wines grown on our vineyard in England.
Photography has allowed me to focus on the detail of something ‘else’, something as raw and beautiful as wildlife. When you take pictures, the rest of the world melts away and falls into perspective. Life has a lot of ups and downs, but the downs don’t prevent the ups from being beautiful. Photography allows you to get out on your own without feeling lonely, and it’s a very enveloping, positive thing.
Even if I’d come last in APOY, I’d have learned something from it. Whatever happens next, I know I’m a better photographer for having entered.
2nd place – Tom Franklin de Waart
Airline pilot Tom is in the enviable position of being able to combine travel and work – and the images he takes during his time off in various countries around the world ensured he remained close to the top of the leaderboard throughout our 2019 competition. He regularly had more than one image placed in each top 30, reflecting the sensitivity and consistency of his work. His talent lies in distilling a scene down to only its essential elements, with little or no extraneous detail to distract the eye.
3rd place – Marco Tagliarino
Marco has become a regular fixture in APOY over the years, with precise compositions being his particular talent, not to mention making the most of gorgeous lighting conditions, whether shooting indoors or out. Like Tom, his documentary travel images always stand out in the judging process, and he seems to know intuitively what angle to take on a scene – be it from a low viewpoint or close in with a wideangle. His processing skills are excellent, too.
4th place – Neil Burnell
Familiar to many regular readers as last year’s winner, Neil demonstrates that you don’t need to enter every category to end in one of the leaderboard’s top spots. By carefully targeting categories such as Setting the Scene (Round Two), Whatever the Weather (Round Seven) and After Dark (Round Eight), he played to his strengths and sailed into the top ten. His highly atmospheric landscapes continue to make an impact, and it’s gratifying to see his work continue to go from strength to strength.