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A Turning Point in My Photography: NANPA’s High School Scholarship Program

By January 25, 2019No Comments
Owl on alert in the forest.

Owl on alert in the forest.

Story and photos by Ashleigh Scully

I was a participant in the 2017 NANPA High School Scholarship Program and spent a week in the Great Smoky Mountains working with some incredible mentors, broadening my interests in photography and learning from some very talented kids my age as well.

This program was a turning point for me–it showed me just how much I want to inspire the younger generation to learn more about conservation and photography. Working with and learning from 9 other students from across the country was not what I expected it to be. I had assumed we would all stick to the certain aspects of photography we were comfortable with, but instead we all motivated each other to try a little bit of everything.

During that week in the Smokies, I got to experiment with flash and night photography and use some of the cameras, lenses, and flashes that Canon sent to as loaners. I now have knowledge of the settings to use for star and night photography, something that will definitely come in handy for me in the future. We also hiked out to a waterfall and attempted slow motion waterfall photos to capture the blur of the water. Using the loaner flashes, we also found little salamanders and toads and used white backgrounds for the “Meet Your Neighbors” technique that  Andrew Snyder, one of the mentors, taught us. Some of the kids were so in love with this new technique, it was all they did!

Do you know a talented young nature photographer? NANPA’s High School Scholarship Program is seeking 10 high school student photographers to attend a five-day field event where they can learn from the industry’s top shooters. Apply now for this immersive, hands-on education program to be held in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park July 1–6, 2019. Combining classroom and field-based instruction, students will have the chance to improve their nature photography skills, learn about NANPA, meet industry professionals, and gain an appreciation of the Smoky Mountains’ rich natural history. The last day to apply is January 31, 2019, so don’t wait. Apply now!

Black bear cub, side lit at sunrise, Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Black bear cub, side lit at sunrise, Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

A Focus on Light

My interests took me down a different path, and I decided to focus on light. As a mainly wildlife photographer, I was encouraged to try a different aspect of photography for my final project. With my main topic being light, I decided to weave it in with wildlife photography as well.

I started by looking for little sources of natural light highlighting the beauty in the Smoky Mountains. Whether it was the early morning light hitting the dew on a spiders web, or shaft of light spotlighting a salamander on a rock, I was looking to illuminate my subjects every chance I got .

One day of the trip that I’ll never forget is the day we went to Cade’s Cove. We were told to keep our eye out for the well-known black bears in the area, so our faces were pressed against the glass the whole bus ride, scanning the fields and the trees until a mother and two cubs were spotted. As we left the bus and tourists piled out of their cars, everyone lined up alongside the road. I thought I should try something different. So, I veered off and started walking down the side of the road, parallel to the bears but about 100 yards away.  I simply walked along, waiting to see which direction they headed, with a few of my new photography friends close behind. We set up on top of a large hill, illuminated by the early morning light and highlighting the dew on the yellow grass. Scanning the trees, we could just barely see the bears through the woods. Some of us slowly made our way down towards the woods, where the cubs were running up and down the trees, the mother grazing in the tall, green grass. I hesitated for a moment, remembered to step  a little out of my comfort zone, and chose this as the time to get my main subjects for my final project. As the sun rose, little parts of the woods were lit by the light, and I shifted my focus to one little cub on the limb of a tree, it’s left side lit by the sun, and it’s right side in the shadows. By decreasing my exposure -1 ⅓, any chance of overexposure faded away and I had gotten my photo for side lighting. As the mother appeared from the tall grass and faced away from us, I added another cool shot to the collection of her head and ears in the darkness, with the bright green all around her.


This day really showed me the value of the High School Scholarship Program.  I was able to take all of the advice from my mentors and apply it in the field to come out with a really positive outcome! Without that experience, I wouldn’t have been able to expand my photography interests and especially take the advice of and learn from my peers.

Morgan Heim was one of the mentors in the program. I learned so much about her style of conservation work and all of the projects she does that it inspired me to dive deeper into just focusing on conservation photography. She is one of my biggest idols today and I will always look up to her and be inspired by her work.

I’d encourage any high school student with an interest in nature photography to apply to this wonderful program. If you’re lucky enough to be selected, my advice is to take advantage of every chance and opportunity you get to learn from the mentors on the trip. They can only help you and are more than willing to teach you.

The program meant so much to me because I left with not just more photography knowledge but some forever friends as well. I got to learn and apply so many new things that have contributed significantly to becoming the photographer I am today. I am so grateful to NANPA for giving me the opportunity and I hope to help inspire and motivate others my age to apply as well.

Fox hunting.

Fox hunting.


Recently, I had my very first solo gallery show at “Gallery Wild” in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. My family spends a lot of time out in Jackson, and it is such a wonderful place to photograph. When I was ten, I had plans to go into Yellowstone with local photographer Jason Williams through the Jackson Hole Safari’s program, but the government shutdown of 2013 prevented us from entering, and instead we spent some time photographing in the Tetons. His girlfriend at the time (now wife!) Carrie Wild is an incredible local artist. She just opened her first gallery and exhibits artists work. I have kept in touch with Jason through the years, and I am so thankful to Jason and Carrie both for giving me such an amazing opportunity. I was so proud to see examples my hard work hanging for people to see. This is a big step in my journey of inspiring the younger generation to learn more about conservation. I hope this is also a way for people to see and learn from my work and change any negative perspectives they have on any kind of animal.

Thank you to NANPA for inspiring me and guiding me into helping me follow my dreams. I hope that everyone applying knows what a special program this is and takes advantage of every minute because it might change your life!


Ashleigh Scully is a wildlife photographer based in New Jersey. She has been capturing nature images since she was 8 years old. Now 15, she’s been photographing all over the country, but some of her favorite photographs were captured right in her own backyard, where she often sees Red Foxes, Red-tailed Hawks, Eastern Screech Owls and many other types of wildlife.  She also visits Wyoming with her family and loves to photograph in Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks.

In addition to being selected for NANPA’s High School Scholarship Program in 2017, Ashleigh’s work has received numerous awards and recognition, including winning and placing as a finalist in her age category as Wildlife Photographer of the Year and winning Nature’s Best Windland Smith Rice International Awards Youth Wildlife Photographer of the Year.

See more of her work at