Picture perfect: Rochester student receives national photography award – Post Bulletin

Picture perfect: Rochester student receives national photography award - Post Bulletin


ROCHESTER — The first thing you notice are the large, intimidating eyes.

If it wasn’t for them, you might not even realize you’re looking at an owl since it’s camouflaged so well against the bark of the tree behind it.

But once you do, you begin to see the rest of the bird of prey take shape. You see it’s ears. You see its beak. And last of all, you begin to see where the owl ends and the tree begins.

An owl in front of a tree.

Elia Atkins won as the Creative Category’s Grand Champion in the School Photographers of America contest in winter 2022-2023.


That’s the image that was named Grand Champion by the School Photographers of America. As an eighth-grader at Dakota Middle School, the photographer, Elia Atkins, not only beat out an immense field of peers, but she became the first winner of her age.

“She was our first middle schooler to ever place,” said David Crandall, executive director for the School Photographers of America. “For the most part, 97% of all of our entries are high school students.”

Crandall said that Atkins’ photo was selected from roughly 1,800 that were submitted. This was the second year of the competition. She won in the creative category. The other categories included winter sports, student life and senior superlatives.

The judges don’t just evaluate the subject matter of the photos. They also base their decisions on technical considerations like metadata embedded in the image, lighting and whether it was taken in manual mode or not.

Atkins took the image in the summer of 2022 during a photography course at Quarry Hill Nature Center. When the owl’s handler brought it out, Atkins wasn’t quite happy with the setting.

“I just walked around a little bit trying to find a nice background,” Atkins said. “Once everyone else was done taking photos of it, I asked if he could put it in front of the tree.”

She found out she was a national winner in a rather spectacular fashion. Her school principal, Levi Lundak, arranged for her parents to come to help surprise her in math class.

As the photographer of a winning image, Atkins received a new camera.

On top of that, it’s boosted her confidence in her own abilities. Although still in middle school, receiving the recognition has allowed her to imagine the possibility of making a career out of photography.

Whether it’s a future career or not, though, photography is a field she’s come to both love and excel at.

“I just really like how there’s no limit to what you can do,” she said. “Everybody can look at something and interpret it a different way. Anything can be turned into an amazing photo, and I find that really cool.”

Jordan Shearer

Jordan Shearer covers K-12 education for the Post Bulletin. A Rochester native, he graduated from Bemidji State University in 2013 before heading out to write for a small newsroom in the boonies of western Nebraska. Bringing things full circle, he returned to Rochester in 2020 just shy of a decade after leaving. Readers can reach Jordan at 507-285-7710 or [email protected].