If you're ever out in the wilds (or suburbs) of Morristown, New Jersey, or hanging around the trails of Jackson Hole or Yellowstone, keep your eye out for a young lady behind the lens of a camera about as big as she is. Her name is Ashleigh Scully. She is an award-winning conservation photographer with two published books — and she's 13 years old.
Scully has received multiple awards in prestigious nature photography competitions that bring together the best of the field, and her portfolio already features beautiful portraits of dozens of different species photographed across the United States. We talked with Scully about how she got started in photography and where she plans to take it, and her answers inspire us.
MNN: You got started in wildlife photography at the ripe old age of eight. What made you want to pick up a camera? What was your first experience photographing animals?
Ashleigh Scully: When I was eight years old I went on a trip to Alaska after I got my first camera. It was an Olympus point-and-shoot. I went with my grandparents and some cousins. We saw bears, killer whales, sea lions, bald eagles and lots of other wildlife and I was so excited. I was photographing everything that I saw. I wanted to continue photographing animals after that, when I got home.
The interests of young people your age change rapidly, but you've been at this for years and have created a really solid portfolio of work. What keeps you interested and enthusiastic about nature photography?
I want to help animals. I will never stop loving wildlife and I want to use my photography to make a difference. I also love sitting down to wait for animals and watch their behavior. It is really cool to see how animals communicate with each other and show affection and love for each other.
Photographing wildlife lets you see a part of an animal’s world that you wouldn’t normally get to.
Your resume is already very impressive. You've been published in National Geographic Kids Online, and you've earned honors in some of the most prestigious wildlife photography awards in the world, including Nature's Best Windland Smith Rice International Photography Awards and Wildlife Photographer of the Year. Your accomplishments at such a young age are outstanding. Tell us a little bit about your ambitions in wildlife photography. Do you see yourself making a career out of it?
Thank you! Yes, definitely I would like to try to make a career out of it. One day I would like to open a gallery. But I also love to ride horses and ski and I would like to make a career out of that, too! I know that lots of people photograph wildlife and it will be hard to sell enough images to live on but at least I have tried and maybe some of my photos will change people’s minds about some species. I think lots of animals are misunderstood and seeing a photo of them in a beautiful setting may help people to appreciate them more.
Wildlife photographers are all on the same team because they care about their subjects.
A passion like wildlife photography requires a lot of gear and a lot of time in the field. That must mean you get quite a bit of family support. Tell us how your family has played a role in your work.
Yes my parents play a huge role. Although my dad comes photographing with me a lot, my mom comes too sometimes. All of the camera equipment that I use is theirs. My mom had a Canon 7D that she used to photograph me and my brother and sister playing sports. When I started to photograph more she let me use it. And then I started to shoot in Manual Exposure with it and my mom decided that I should use it because I was taking better pictures than she was :).
My parents signed me up for some workshops too, which really helped, and they also signed me up for a camera club in town which has helped me learn a lot more about composition, processing and critiquing.
Usually wherever we go for vacation I bring my camera and a couple of lenses and try to get out for some mornings and afternoons. I also shoot a lot at home. The Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge is four miles from my house and I go there a lot in the winter to find owls. My parents drive me around a lot, helping me find things to photograph.
My whole family supports my work and they are always very supportive of it. When I sell enough of my photos I am going to buy the camera gear from my parents so I can take care of it myself.
Why wildlife? Of all the things you could be photographing — people, pets, landscapes — what draws you to animals?
Well, animals are so fun to watch and photograph. When you spend a lot of time with one certain subject you can see its daily routines and get to know them from a distance. Sometimes I will "talk" to subjects very quietly and I don’t know if they can hear me, but it keeps me calm and maybe it keeps them calm too.
This spring I got a tip about a fox den and I set up my blind in a yard and watched a mother red fox wake up and start to groom one of her kits. I think this kind of experience is why I like to photograph animals. To see a mother owl feeding her fledglings or foxes nuzzling each other is so cool to see. Who wouldn’t want to see that?
You've traveled around the U.S. quite a bit for wildlife photography. What are your favorite locations for shooting?
Jackson Hole, Wyoming, because it has the access to Grand Teton National Park and Yellowstone, and because anytime of year I can photograph something really amazing. My backyard is also a popular place. I have photographed screech owls and foxes there. Alaska, of course, Florida for birds and alligators, and the Great Swamp because I never know what I might see. The part of New Jersey that I live in is very rural so there are a lot of wildlife opportunities here.
You must get a lot of comments from fellow photographers about your age when out in the field. How do you usually respond?
Haha! Well, usually I start up a conversation with them if they want to talk to me. Usually it is about a photography subject. I talk to them about past experiences, or ask for some tips and advice. It’s a lot of fun talking to other photographers about their adventures. I learned though that you shouldn’t talk too much in case something exciting is going to happen and then you are going to miss it, which happened to me two weeks ago in Wyoming and I missed a great gray owl feed its fledglings because I was having a conversation.
Most photographers first think that I am just using my dad’s camera for a second, but then they see me carry the tripod around or change my settings or hand-hold a shorter lens to do birds-in-flight shots, or walk around a subject to get a new perspective — and then I think they believe that I know what I'm doing. I don’t know, it is hard to tell. I don’t really worry about it. Sometimes they don’t talk to me but most of the time they are very nice and respectful so then I am the same way back to them.
Other photographers almost always tell me that they wish they had gotten into photography when they were 12 years old, too.
What has been your favorite species to photograph so far?
Foxes and owls, because they are two species I know that I can find anywhere. My dog Remmie, of course. Any other raptor, like hawks or bald eagles. And of course I love to photograph bears but I don’t get a chance to very often. I also really love coyotes. I think they are so beautiful especially in the winter. I missed a shot of a coyote that was really close to our car this winter. It was walking through shoulder-deep powdery snow and I couldn’t get focused on him fast enough before he disappeared over a hill. It would be awesome to get another chance at a coyote in deep snow again.
Has there been a particular moment or shot that has been particularly important or memorable for you?
When I was 10, I sat in my camouflage blind for 3 1/2 hours waiting for a fox that I knew used a path through a meadow next to our house. I had seen it before and I knew it would come down this path again. My parents were worried but my dad watched with binoculars every once in awhile to make sure I was safe. Finally, the red fox appeared and I got some photos of it sitting in the field listening for meadow voles. I was using my first DSLR camera then, a Sony a55 with a small Tamron telephoto lens. The photos now are just OK but when I took them I thought they were the best red fox images in the world. My Mom printed some of them and they are hanging on my wall.
Also, last summer, I photographed a litter of four red fox kits. Many weeks later, I was in my blind when the mother took one of the grown kits to teach it how to hunt for voles in the field. I never thought I would have the chance to photograph that, so it was a very special moment. It may have been the only kit to have survived so it was a hard lesson for me, but it was important to help me appreciate how hard these animals work and how tough their struggle is to survive.
Do you have any projects you're working on right now? Any particular trips on the itinerary?
Well, I just finished my second wildlife photography book. It is about owls in my hometown. I am selling the book in town and then I will donate some of the proceeds to a Land Trust and a raptor rehabilitation center. Last year, I made a photo book about red foxes that raised over $3,000 for open space preservation in my town.
I am going to camp later this summer for a month so I won’t be photographing again until September. I hope that by then the next photography trip will be in my backyard again, hoping to see some foxes hunting in our field.
If you'd like to keep up with Scully's photography, you can follow her updates on Facebook.
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