What makes a good photograph? It’s a question we put to this year’s contest winners after we’d notified them that they won, to elicit some insight into how they were able to capture their award-winning picture. The editorial team grapples with the same question while producing this and every issue of Missouri Life, and the judges of this contest think about that question in their professional lives and while picking winners to contests.

For our contest ballots, we broke the elements of each photograph down into a handful of categories such as composition, tone, impact, and lighting, among others, with a score for each. But there also seems to be a more ephemeral element in a truly stunning photograph. What that thing is, it’s hard to describe, but you know it when you see it.

We had 504 entries in this year’s contest. Just narrowing down the field to the finalists was a challenge, such was the quality of the average entry. We’re grateful to everyone who took the time to share their photos with us. Judging the finalists was also a matter of narrow margins, so much so that each category winner came within single digit scores of being the grand prize winner.

With an overwhelming selection of good photographs, it almost seems a shame to have to select winners at all. And yet, something stood out about the top scorers from this year’s crop of entries. In some cases, it was a matter of composition and lighting, in others it was about being there to capture a perfect moment at just the right time. Still others managed to harness that mystery element that draws you in and keeps you there. In addition to the outstanding panel of judges who selected the winners, MPIX also made this contest possible by contributing generous prizes to our winners.

Are you looking for photo retouching company? If yes then you can check out a good service provider like Zenith Clipping, a professional photo retouching services that provides the best quality retouching services. They are also considered as a well-reputed top-ranked image editing company serving since 2010.

Here are our 2021 photo contest winners.

About Our Judges

The Photography Department of The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art
The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art is one of Missouri’s preeminent art museums, and the photography department there is one of the best places in the country to see fine art photography. The collection spans the whole history of photography, from 1839 to present, and includes the Hallmark Photographic Collection, acquired in 2005, which features many masterpieces from the medium. The curators rotate new installations multiple times per year, and The Nelson-Atkins also hosts special photography exhibitions.

Joe Johnson, Professor at the University of Missouri School of Visual Studies
Joe Johnson’s works are included in the permanent collections of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, and the Center for Creative Photography among others. His photographs have been the subject of articles and reviews in Art in America, The New York Times, The Boston Globe, and Wired Magazine Raw File. He holds an MFA from Massachusetts College of Art and Design and a BFA from the San Francisco Art Institute. The recipient of Center Santa Fe’s Excellence in Teaching Award, Johnson currently teaches at the University of Missouri’s School of Visual Studies.

The International Photography Hall of Fame
The International Photography Hall of Fame began in 1965 with a mission to honor individuals who have made significant contributions to the field of photography, as well as to preserve historic photographs and cameras for future generations. Their six-thousand-square-foot museum is situated in the Grand Center area of St. Louis and features a permanent tribute to its inductees as well as rotating exhibitions from the permanent collection and partner collections. Its inductees include pioneers of the past such as Louis Jacques Mande-Daguerre and Ansel Adams to contemporaries like Ken Burns and Carrie Mae Weems. Hall of Fame staff helped select the honorees in our contest.

You, the reader
Although our grand prize winner and winners of each of our three categories were decided by professionals in the field of photography, we’re also giving an award to the photo from each category that received the most votes in our online poll from Missouri Life readers. Thank you to the more than one thousand voters.

Grand Prize Winner: Sparks!


WINNER: The Gentleman by Brandon Waldrop

Brandon took advantage of the excellent natural lighting conditions in his home to capture this photograph. Done in the style of the Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer, Brandon had the subject of this photo sit near a large east-facing window that was letting in afternoon sunlight reflecting off the next building over. The subject sits in front of a painted backdrop, but no special lighting equipment was necessary to capture this winning photo.

RUNNER UP: Field of Flowers by Sara Mauer

Sara has been shooting photos since 1995. As an experienced photographer, her eye for photogenic settings is well-trained. One day she happened to drive by Bluebird Meadow Park in Dardenne Prairie. The field of flowers caught her eye, and she put out a call on social media for a model to pose for photos there. The editing of this photo belies how difficult it can be to get a variety of colors—greens, blues, and yellows—to pop alongside each other. According to Sara, the unedited image didn’t quite capture the scenery as beautifully as it looked in person, so she gave it a needed boost.

PEOPLE’S CHOICE: Sparks! by Stephanie Wilburn
Stephanie turned her camera lens to her husband using a cutting torch on an overcast day (see page 34). The sparks lend this photo both its name and its sense of kinetic energy, while the diffused light plus a little editing make them come through crystal clear. This photo was not only the top scorer from our judges, it also took home the people’s choice award for its category in our online poll, something no other photo in the contest was able to manage.


WINNER: Fishing the Falls by Rob Hileman

Rob was at Bennett Spring State Park for a getaway, which according to him always involves photography, when he shot this excellent layered photograph. It was first light and a handful of trout fishers were pursuing their quarry. Rob found just the right spot from which to photograph them. Rob has been shooting for forty years, and he says he always invests time looking for a good vantage point and takes photos from different angles. “Patience usually pays off,” he says, noting the importance of timing in capturing a photograph like this award winner.

RUNNER UP: Summer Nights by Michael Curtis

Michael says that art has always interested him, but when he picked up a camera in high school, he found that the medium came to him naturally. To capture this nighttime photo, Michael set an alarm on his phone for a time he knew the Milky Way would be visible while he and his wife were on a camping trip. He happened upon a canoe he felt would make a good foreground subject and managed to capture this photo.

PEOPLE’S CHOICE: Father and Son by Stephanie Wilburn

Stephanie was the only photographer to win both an award from our judges (Sparks) and two people’s choice awards (Sparks and this one), and she was also the only photographer with two separate entries that won. This photo shows her oldest stepson and her husband, two generations of Missouri farmers, running tractors on their farm. Stephanie says she didn’t realize she’d captured them both until she sat down to edit the photo. Our readers must want the adventure of driving these big machines!


WINNER: Rocky Creek Shut-Ins by Harold Rau

Harold started shooting when he was ten years old and is probably the most senior of our contest winners, having been taking photos for nearly seventy years. Harold had been to Rocky Creek Shut-Ins before he took this winning photo, but a lot of research was involved to bring out the dramatic nighttime effect you’re seeing. He had to figure out when the Milky Way would shine the brightest and make sure that bright moonlight would not detract from the effect. Once he knew when to go, he planned his trip, set up his camera on a tripod, and opened the shutter for ten seconds to let in the beautiful starlight that makes this photo so captivating.

RUNNER UP: Reflections in Black and White by Michelle Bates

Michelle says what draws her to photography is “capturing a moment in time that will not ever be again.” She began taking photos when her aunt bought her a Kodak disc camera as a child. Michelle has photographed the lake seen here at Shaw Nature Reserve many times, but she found something about this one haunting. “Nature changes every single day, and you never know what surprise you may find,” she says. The uniqueness of this image earned it high marks with our judges and qualified it for runner-up status.

PEOPLE’S CHOICE: Eagle Sunrise by Jamie Smith

Jamie was on her way to photograph what she hoped would be a number of eagles when she spotted this lone sentinel high in the treetops. It was sunrise on a January morning, a time when eagles can often be seen in the area near Stella, and right away Jamie and her friend knew they needed to pull over to grab some photos. Jamie began shooting as a child but began to take the medium more seriously in 2013 when she launched her business, JLSnaps Photography.