Desert Companion

Shooting Stars: Where are these Focus winners now?

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Photo by Warren Lee

Warren Lee's first-place photo of Red Rock from our 2019 Focus on Nevada contest

They came, they snapped, they won. Let’s catch up with some past Focus on Nevada winners


IF MY HASTY English major napkin math is correct, Desert Companion’s Focus on Nevada photo contest has had about 12,000 entries over its 10 years. That’s hella photos and hella photographers vying annually for the contest’s top honors. Now, while we harbor no illusions that taking home a Focus on Nevada award is some kind of life-changing Megabucks event, a killer camera, a beautifully published photo, and artistic validation are nothing to sneeze at prize-wise.

But we were wondering: What happens to winning photographers after they win? Do they notch their strap and bow out of contest life? Are they inspired to perfect their craft with renewed enthusiasm? Do they take the plunge to pursue a pro career? We caught up with a handful of winners from previous years and picked their brains via email on these burning questions and more.

Way back in the day — 2014 to be exact — Julie Hamill took first place as an amateur/student entrant in the Smartphone category — with a uniquely moody, cloud-layered shot of Valley of Fire (right), a decidedly different image than its usual sun-soaked portrayal. At the time, Hamill had a long bucket list of shots, and Valley of Fire was one of them. “The Valley of Fire photo is a great example of how I went to every photo opportunity in a 500-mile radius,” Hamill writes. “I had a list of places to go. These days I try to just take one, be in the moment and present. I feel like I’ve got ‘the shot’ from most places. I am not as obsessed with going everywhere all the time as I used to be.” In other words, Focus on Nevada totally helped Hamill achieve mindfulness! More seriously, Hamill notes that the contest did serve as a timely invitation to explore a city she didn’t necessarily love. “I lived in Las Vegas for five fun-filled years,” she writes. “I was less than thrilled to move there, but I fully embraced the city, learning everything, going everywhere, and experiencing it all. I explored every nook and cranny of the city and surrounding area. It was the beginning of social media and a place to put my photos. I loved it. Crazy filters and cell phone pics. I’m really embarrassed looking back at those. My style is more natural now.” She’s certainly in the place for it: She now lives in St. George, Utah.

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Honestly, we’ve lost count of how many times Warren Lee has landed a placement or honorable mention in Focus on Nevada over the years, but his landscape and wildlife photos — at once gorgeous, dramatic, and mysterious — have practically become a contest hallmark. If you miss his pics this year, it’s because we conscripted him as a judge. That’s not the only change. Lee happily reports: “Winning in the Wild Nevada category encouraged me to explore more of the opportunities (especially wildlife and night photography) in our state. I had been contemplating extending my hobby to a semiprofessional level in retirement (about two years away, Lord willing). Winning Focus on Nevada and new opportunities from the pandemic rapidly accelerated that timetable, especially over the past 12 months. I’ve since advanced to professional status. I have developed introductory classes to wildlife and night photography, and I now take and process images into large, fine art prints at warrenleeartistics.art.”

Matthew Carter — whose first-place image of lake swimmers graced the cover of our 2014 photo issue (right) — has also since been inspired to expand his horizons. “Ten years ago, I was a full-time photographer working at a wedding chapel on the Strip. Now I shoot a broader range of subjects, ranging from sports and events gigs to landscapes to glamour models for fun.” He notes that “photography is a side hustle and only a small part of my ‘day job,’” which turns out to be a positive in a post-COVID reality. “Good thing I didn’t leave my full-time job,” he writes. “I know so many great photographers who nearly lost everything and left Las Vegas when everything shut down.” Musing more broadly on photography, Carter, an electric sign designer, loves how far cameras have come, too. “I loved the Nikon D700 I was using 10 years ago, but the new DSLR and mirrorless systems are amazing. They are faster, lighter, are much more sensitive, and have two to four times more pixels to play around with. It does bite me sometimes when I return from a shoot with four times as many images as I used to. But, dang, the images are amazing!”

Chris Pflum, another first-place winner, agrees — but is leery of increasingly complicated camera tech. Sporting a Nikon D2X, he took first in the Amateur/Student category in our inaugural 2013 Focus on Nevada issue with an instant-classic shot of an eerie, abandoned ranch in rural Nevada (right). He’s since upgraded cameras, but he’s not sure that newer is necessarily better.

“Most people can now take technically superb photos without knowing much about photography,” he observes. “Nikon and Canon are rapidly losing market share to Apple and Samsung. Their professional-level cameras have become too complicated with useless variables. (My Nikon D850 came with a 900-page instruction manual). As a retired engineer, I’m fascinated by the technology, but it lures me into buying lenses and gadgets that I rarely use. Most people prefer the cell phone’s cost and simplicity.” What’s also simple is his approach to sharing his work these days. “I no longer sell my photos,” he writes. “Instead, I just give them away.” As with all our winning photographers over the years, our eyes are grateful for his generosity.

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