OAKLAND — The wooded ravines outside Sandy Cooper's home are full of birds and other wildlife she readily captures for photographs.
The rural Oakland resident also regularly takes her camera with her when she's away from home. There's no particular subject in mind but you never know what you'll see, she said.
"If I see something I think would be a good picture, I take it," Cooper said.
Among her photo outings with her husband Lonny are trips to Amish areas near Arthur, where the last two years Cooper's found subjects for photos that led to her receiving national recognition.
Similar but distinctive photographs of Amish farmers working in fields finished in the two top of the National Association of Conservation Districts' contest last year and in 2019.
Cooper's photographs are funneled to the national association competition through the Coles County Soil and Water Conservation District's annual contest, which she enters every year.
She said she was "in awe" when she was one of the top finishers in the national event for 2019. It also "made me feel great" that she placed in the latest contest, though she thought she had other entries that were better.
Cooper — like many photographers, her own biggest critic — said she favored photos she took of a bee on a flower and one of a ring-necked pheasant she saw along a road and "stood there for a really long time."
Her winning entries for both the county and national contest were in the "Agriculture and Conservation Across America" category. Other categories in the contests are "Close-Up Conservation" and "Conservation in Action."
The "Across America" category is the "most broad" and the national association describes it as "a smorgasbord of Americana," said Lauren Spaniol, resource conservationist with the county conservation district and the county contest's organizer.
Cooper has placed in the county contest "pretty consistently" and her entries are well-received based on composition, exposure and other aspects, Spaniol said.
"Her photos are always very good quality," she said.
Spaniol said there are 97 conservation districts in Illinois and two entries in each category from each state go to the national contest, where winners receive a prize of $100.
Cooper said she placed in other photo contests as well but wasn't thinking of the conservation district's contest or any other one when she took the photographs of the Amish farmers.
"I just take pictures," she said. "If it falls into a category, great."
She said she's always loved photography and started entering contests in 2016. Two years later, she traded her "point-and-shoot" camera for more advanced models and a variety of lens lengths.
Cooper said she takes 100s of pictures a day, many from the large window that faces the ravines in the back of her house, favoring wildlife and scenery as subjects.
She also placed in a National Turkey Federation Contest and has had photos printed in a Pheasants Forever calendar and in some Illinois magazines.