After months of anticipation, I am thrilled to share the winning shots from the Inaugural Highland Outdoors Photo Contest. This contest is the fruition of a dream I’ve had since taking over the magazine in 2018. The goal was to build community by showcasing talented photographers and highlight the outstanding beauty found only in West Virginia.
I was beyond impressed with the range and quality of images that we received for our first-ever photo contest. Fifty-two contestants submitted a total of 111 images (31 adventure entries, 47 landscape entries, and 33 wildlife entries), keeping us judges busy and creating some difficult choices when it came to select the winners. I’d like to note that the winning shots you see here are the crème de la crème, and there were plenty of superb shots that came very close to making the cut. We truly appreciate all the photographers who took the time and effort to submit their images. After all, it’s not a true contest without a range of options, so each contestant was very much an integral part of the process.
I’d also like to give a special thanks to our judges: Gabe DeWitt, David Johnston, and Molly Wolff. These professional photographers provided invaluable insight throughout the entirety of the contest. I’m honored to have served alongside them as a judge, and, more importantly, I’m proud to call them friends. We’re already looking forward to next year’s contest.
-Dylan Jones, Publisher
Overall Winner: “Fall on the Front” by Nathaniel Peck
Dolly Sods Scenic Area, Grant County
It’s safe to say that Dolly Sods is a candidate for the most-photographed place in West Virginia, meaning a shot from the Sods must be a show-stopper to rise above. This image, taken from a boulder field looking southeast along the ancient spine of the Allegheny Front, was just that. It has sharp and striking elements throughout the fore, middle, and background via composition that accentuates the depth of field, perfect light exposure, a delicious color palette, and a fresh angle on a place many of us have seen a thousand times.
“I live in Cumberland, Maryland, so I had to wake up at three in the morning, drive two hours, and then bushwhack in the dark to make it to this spot for sunrise,” Peck said. “You never know what kind of conditions you’re going to get up there on the Sods. I had been up almost every morning that week and there had been dense fog with zero visibility. It looked like that was going to happen again, but the fog stayed in the valleys to the east and there was just enough sun to light up the clouds looking south.”
Overall Runner-Up: “Morning Light” by Jesse Thornton
Watoga State Park, Pocahontas County
This moody image of a solitary angler on Watoga Lake is a perfect showcase of less being more. The sheer simplicity of this photo is why the judges agreed that this was one of the best shots in the contest. The monochromatic color palette is striking; the sharp silhouette of the angler contrasts perfectly with the wispy fog and soft light of the sun; the angler’s pose shows a moment of stillness in between casts and the general incessant movement of the natural world. This image is the epitome of an early autumn morning in West Virginia.
“This photograph was taken at Watoga Lake as fall colors were beginning to hit the area,” Thornton said. “I camped nearby and shot around the lake early in the morning, taking in the spectral forms that were created from uplifting fog that was backlit from the rising sun. This image of the fisherman on the lake was captured by my second camera that I had set up for a short time-lapse sequence, which happened to perfectly capture the ethereal mood of that calm morning.”
Landscape Winner: “October Sky” by Justin Harris
Canaan Valley, Tucker County
This aerial shot of a peak autumn morning in picturesque and pastoral Canaan Valley is certainly an attention grabber. The ghostly fog contrasts nicely against the silhouette of Cabin Mountain, separating the otherwise monotone background from the vivid tones of the foreground forest. Although the judges typically don’t prefer roads in landscape images, something about the appealing emptiness of Route 32 disappearing into the trees adds an inviting quality to this image.
“Last fall, fog hit Canaan every morning during peak foliage, and I’d wake up early and fly my drone right off my deck,” Harris said. “I shot a different composition each day. That morning, I turned south, and the color of the sky was extremely unique. Combined with the fog and foliage, Route 32 added an element to the shot instead of taking away from it.”
Landscape Runner-Up: “Snowy Deckers Creek” by Tanner Henson
Deckers Creek Gorge, Preston County
Waterfall photos are often a dime-a-dozen, but this wintry shot of one of the larger waterfalls on Deckers Creek immediately stood out. The photo is both framed and exposed well, a tough goal when shooting a winter landscape. The one-second exposure was long enough for the falls to be silky smooth, yet short enough for the water in the plunge pool to have texture and show movement.
“I shot this during a big snowstorm in 2020 when I was just getting into photography,” Henson said. “I was new to long-exposure photography and decided to go for a hike along Deckers Creek and try it out. I felt like I was getting horrible results on the camera’s display screen and left feeling underwhelmed, but once I got home and checked the shots out on the computer, I found what I thought was a pretty decent shot.”
Wildlife Winner: “Say Cheese” by Nathaniel Peck
Blackwater Falls State Park, Tucker County
We had quite a few submissions of deer photos, but this shot of a yawning buck provided a sense of personality that is hard to come by with these otherwise omnipresent ungulates. The wining element of this image is the crystal-clear focus, showing incredible sharpness around the eyes—the hallmark of a good wildlife shot. The mid-yawn mug is comedically reminiscent of those classic Budweiser “Whassup?” Superbowl commercials. The judges also liked the subtle feeling of movement provided by the wet snow falling on the antlers.
“My goal was to shoot the sunrise at Pendleton Point in Blackwater Falls but the sunrise didn’t do anything spectacular,” Peck said. “I happened to have my wildlife lens because there are always deer in Blackwater. I drove laps around the park until I spotted this big buck out in the bushes, and I got excited because I usually just photograph does. He stood up, yawned, and was gone in an instant—this was the only sharp image I got of him.”
Wildlife Runner-Up: “Snail on White Flowstone” by Nikki Fox
Cave System, Greenbrier County
This close-up image of a snail traversing a pure, white piece of calcite flowstone was taken deep in a large cave system underneath Greenbrier County. The judges liked the choice of the composition in respect to the light source, which makes the snail look translucent. We were struck by the stark contrast of the pure, white stone against the pitch-black background, which places the emphasis on the snail and is reminiscent of the heralded National Geographic Photo Ark series.
“I’m a caver and a former journalist, so I’ve got the constant bug to photograph and document things,” Fox said. “I thought this particular surface snail was so interesting because it’s deep down a drop in the cave, and underground, animals need to have a food source, so I was unsure of what it was doing down there. It was beyond the natural light, so I used an external flash to take a million pictures and then found the best one. I was rooting for the little guy to survive.”
Adventure Winner: “Crystal White Persuasion” by Boyce McCoy
Big Bear Lake Trail Center, Preston County
This shot of Annie Simcoe mountain biking through “The Pines” at Big Bear Lake Trail Center instantly stood out in the Adventure Category. This photo exudes action, scale, and mood. Annie, with her determined look and bright colors, is clearly the subject of the photo. Typically, a large out-of-focus object in the middle of an image is a big no-no, but the judges felt the large tree in the foreground provides context to the image by making it feel as if you’re there with Annie, flying through the woods on a bike. We also loved the panoramic crop, which provides scale to this picturesque forest without making Annie seem too small.
“At the end of every October, Big Bear hosts a rider appreciation event, and it happened to snow just in time for the ride,” McCoy said. “The Pines section is a major highlight of the Big Bear trail system and catching a rider coming through makes for a great shot. Capturing Annie, isolated among the trees with colors that pop in that environment, was definitely a plus.”
Adventure Runner-Up: “Kayaking at Cook’s Mill” by Bob Bell
Greenville, Monroe County
This snap of a kayaker cruising on Indian Creek by Cook’s Old Mill is quintessential Appalachia, candidly showing a timeless summer scene. Cook’s Old Mill, a restored mid-1800s gristmill, is a tasteful juxtaposition to the modern fiberglass kayak, creating an element of time travel. The verdant hues and the pop of pink in the roses scream peak summer, and the peaceful kayaker shows an accessible side of adventure that’s welcoming instead of frightening.
“I’m from Western Kentucky, but was in West Virginia working on a construction project where I did a lot of driving on backroads,” Bell said. “I was out looking for photo opportunities to document the area’s regional history, and saw this lady in a kayak on the millpond and had to snap the image.”