I am thrilled to share the winning shots from the second rendition of the annual Highland Outdoors Photo Contest. This production was nearly eight months in the making. From promoting the contest and organizing the steady flow of submissions to multiple rounds of judging and coordinating with the winning photographers, running a photography contest is more work than you might think. But, as it often goes with our little publication, the juice is indeed worth the squeeze. And I must say, what visually appealing juice it is! This year’s podium of winning images is filled with color, action, surprise, awe, and the special sort of Appalachian splendor that can only be found in West Virginia.
Building on the success of last year’s inaugural contest, the judges and I were once again impressed with the range and quality of submissions. We received a whopping 173 entries (39 Adventure entries, 75 Landscape entries, and 59 Wildlife entries) from 94 individual photographers, resulting in some incredibly challenging decisions during the judging process. And while these eight winning photographs you see here ultimately rose to the top, there were many other superb shots that are plenty deserving of praise and publication. To all the photographers who took the time and effort to go out on a limb and submit your images, I sincerely thank you for being an integral part of this process and encourage you to submit images again in next year’s contest (yep, it’s happening again!).
Finally, I’d like to give a shout out to this year’s expert panel of judges: Anne Johnson, Nathaniel Peck, and Jesse Thornton. Each of these professional photographers brings a unique perspective and expertise to the table. Those skillsets were on display during the judging process, allowing us to analyze photos at a technical level of detail that would otherwise not have been possible. I highly encourage you to check out their work if you have the chance—they have contributed vastly to the collective body of work that makes the West Virginia photography community so special.
-Dylan Jones, Publisher
Bear Rocks Preserve, Grant County
It doesn’t take long to notice that there’s something extraordinary going on with this spectacular image. The secret sauce that elevated this shot above the rest is the incredibly rare appearance of the aurora borealis, known by most as the Northern Lights. The vertical light pillars amidst the neon pink and yellow tones of the aurora ignite the barren plains of Dolly Sods with a surreal glow beneath the smattering of stars; the blurred branches of the iconic flagged spruces—resulting from the long exposure required to see the aurora—offer an ideal foreground subject and impart a sense of motion to the image. I can feel the cold, biting winds that incessantly blow across these high plains just from looking at this photo. We chose this shot as the overall winner mostly due to its outstanding technical merits, but what tipped it over the edge was the accomplishment of capturing a phenomenon so rare that it will likely not be replicated for quite some time.
“There was a lot of solar activity in April 2023 that resulted in potential aurora possibilities on the Sods,” Johnston said. “I had been monitoring the activity and decided to take a chance and drive all the way up to Bear Rocks. I stumbled around in the dark to look for a good composition with the flagged spruce. I couldn’t really see the lights with my eyes, but started taking pictures and saw how extraordinarily good the aurora was coming through the camera. It turns out I was shooting at the peak of the night’s display. I guess you could say it was a combination of taking a chance and good luck.”
Private Cave System, Greenbrier County
This otherworldly image is a technical masterpiece. Capturing the depth of such a massive subterranean room with both sharpness and vivid color is an extremely challenging task, resulting in a shot that successfully provides a sense of scale to the 700-foot-long room. Typically, pitch-black negative space wouldn’t be an asset in a photograph, but its presence here helps frame the cave passage and provides additional perspective from the photographer’s point of view. Even more fascinating, the rappeler on rope and the three figures extending further into the cave are all the same person—a impressive feat accomplished by stacking successive exposures taken each time the caver fired off a single-use flashbulb as they moved through the massive passage, all while the photographer stood in the freezing spray of an underground waterfall.
“I got on a rope and went down a series of ledges in the waterfall. I set up a tripod and held the shutter open and signaled over radio to them to fire the flash, and then move and do it again and again. Those lights, which are about five and a half million lumens, last for about a sixtieth of a second and are quite literally as bright as they get—that’s why the picture is so crisp,” Maurer said. “By the time I was done taking pictures, I lost most of the feeling in my legs from standing in the cold water.”
Big Run Bog National Natural Landmark, Tucker County
At first glance, this striking photograph, captured via drone over the rare upland bog at the top of Big Run, feels disorienting. When I first laid eyes on it, I couldn’t decide if I was looking at a closeup of lichens and mosses or a photo of a river delta system from 30,000 feet in the air—until I looked closer and saw individual plants and dead spruce snags adorning the verdant landscape. Big Run Bog is an oasis of rare plants, and this composition perfectly captures the beauty only found in such a saturated environment. If you look closely at the right edge of the dark water that looks like a river channel, you can see the remnant logs from an old beaver dam along with the lodge in the upper-left corner.
“I was up there on an eco-tour of rare plants in the bog and decided at the last minute to whip out the drone since it was overcast. The drone was about 375 feet up in the air when I shot this,” Gebhard said. “If you look in the top-left corner, there’s a bit of a red hue—that’s because it’s covered in purple carnivorous pitcher plants. There are so many you can see the color from the sky.”
New River Gorge, Fayette County
We loved this fresh and tasteful take on a place we’ve all seen photographed countless times. This photo’s shining quality is its composition: the converging lines of the ancient gorge—and their reflections—create the paradox of asymmetric symmetry. The pleasing shapes of the image are further accentuated in both reflection and foreground by the late-autumnal color palette. My favorite touch is how perfectly the splash of golden color on the sandstone boulder in the foreground matches the golden leaves above.
“My husband and I took a scenic drive down Fayette Station Road so I could hike down and get a good composition of the New River Gorge Bridge with the river in the foreground,” Robinson said. “The sun wasn’t really hitting right on the bridge or the trees, so I ended up turning around 180 degrees, looking upstream in the direction of the sun. The light was really popping through the trees, and I immediately noticed the pretty composition.”
Cheat River Narrows, Preston County
This ethereal image of John Bell expertly engaged in the mysterious sport of squirtboating is aquatic adventure personified. Squirtboaters seek out deep sections of river where a vertical hydraulic pulls them down, allowing them to spin and dance freely in the underwater realm. The sepia-stained color palette imparted by the Cheat’s slightly tannic and colorful waters provide a timeless feel to the image, while Bell’s muscular form seems to disappear into the impossibly thin blade of his boat, making him appear as half man, half watercraft.
“Roaming the underwater world of the Cheat River Narrows is an experience like no other. To get this shot, I had to be underwater before John was and stay under until he went back up,” DeWitt said. “I feel like I’m having just as much fun as he is, like I’m chasing a giant, colorful fish. My favorite thing is to swim with tropical fish and explore the ocean, but swimming with Appalachian fish-people in West Virginia is the next best thing.”
Roaring Plains, Pendleton County
From the lone, stunted red spruce tree and fractured sandstone outcrop to the serrated ridgelines and scalloped hollows, this image is the epitome of the West Virginia highlands. Gazing triumphantly with a stoic hiker pose, David Kiel’s self-portrait also epitomizes adventure. Traversing a remote promontory of the Allegheny Front, the hike to get to this iconic-yet-secluded overlook is an undertaking; to do it solo with a full camera setup is even more so. The various leading lines and their convergence with the fore and midground subjects that comprise the photo provide a textbook example of the rule of thirds.
“This was my second time way out here and it was just a great day in the fall,” Kiel said. “The image was hard to edit in postprocessing because of the strong midday light, but the actual hard part was getting the picture. I had to set my timer and jump down from one rock stack over to the other, then climb up and get myself in the frame, which was about 20 feet away from the camera.”
Greenbrier River, Summers County
The instant I saw this stunning shot of a bald eagle coming in for a perfectly posed landing, I knew it was the likely wildlife winner. The image exudes why humans are astonished by raptors: those piercing eyes, aggressive beak, razor-sharp talons, and, of course, the sprawl of feathers. I couldn’t help but see this as a real-life version of the iconic bald eagle in the Anhueser-Busch brewery logo. There was lengthy discussion among the judges about the branch in front of the eagle’s wing, but I particularly like it, as the branch imparts scale to the tightness of the landing zone and provides a visual cue to the giant raptor’s adroit flight skills.
“We have a camp on the Greenbrier River, and I had been noticing the bald eagles for a few weeks, but I had no idea where the nest was. The male and female were flying together and landed in a tree, but the background was horrible. When the male flew off and turned against the background of the mountains on the other side of the river, the difference was night and day,” Ayers said. “I was in my vehicle and couldn’t get high up enough, so I climbed halfway out of the sunroof with my heavy 500-milimeter lens and waited for around an hour for him to make that landing move.”
Pete Dye Golf Course, Harrison County
If this precious portrait of an inquisitive fox kit doesn’t push your cute button, there’s something wrong with you. One of the tenets of wildlife photography is that the animal’s eyes must be in focus, and this shot exemplifies that with the sharp detail in this lil’ feller’s fuzzy face. The crop is perfect, offering a range of fore, mid, and background elements that provide excellent contrast and depth of field. The second kit in the midground is nicely framed in the rocks as well, providing a bonus to make this image even sweeter.
“I do graduation photo shoots, and two graduates wanted to have their senior shoot at the beautiful Pete Dye Golf Course in Bridgeport. While we were rolling around the course, these three fox kits came right out of the rockscaping and checked us out,” Webb said. “I only had a 24 to 70-millimeter lens, so I stopped my golf cart and tried to get as close as possible. They seemed pretty chill, and I probably got about three or four feet from them before they decided I was too close.”