The Sense of Wonder Photo Contest

By Eric Eng

By Eric Eng

A photographer taking photos.

The Sense of Wonder Photo Contest

Have you ever wondered how to combine your artistic talents and your passion for the environment in a way that can also boost your college application? The Rachel Carson Sense of Wonder Photo Contest offers just that.

Open to everyone, it’s an opportunity to capture the beauty of the Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge through your lens. For students like you, eager to impress colleges, this contest is more than a photography challenge; it’s a chance to display your creativity, your connection with nature, and your commitment to environmental issues.

What is the Sense of Wonder Photo Contest?

The Sense of Wonder Photo Contest is an exciting opportunity for photographers, held by the Friends of Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge. This annual event is a unique platform for both amateur and professional photographers to showcase their skills and appreciation for nature.

All styles of photography are welcome, whether it’s color, black and white, or creatively altered images. High-resolution photos are required, with specifications of 300-600 dpi and a size between 8 to 20 megapixels. It’s important to note that while you can express your artistic flair, the photographs must be original and not bear any watermarks. Additionally, they should be in horizontal or landscape format.

A jury will select twelve winning images that will be featured in the 2024 Rachel Carson NWR calendar, available from October. This offers significant exposure for the winning photographers and aligns their work with the refuge’s mission of preserving natural habitats for wildlife.

By participating in this contest, you’re not only showcasing your photography skills but also supporting the mission of the Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge, which focuses on preserving land for migratory birds and local wildlife. It’s an opportunity to contribute artistically to environmental conservation efforts.

The Friends of Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge

The Friends of Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) is a non-profit organization deeply rooted in the principles of environmental conservation and education, much like its namesake, Rachel Carson, a renowned marine biologist and conservationist. For you as a student, understanding the role and impact of such organizations can be incredibly enlightening, particularly if you’re interested in environmental sciences, conservation, or related fields.

Rachel Carson, best known for her book “Silent Spring” that highlighted the dangers of pesticides, was a pioneer in the environmental movement. Her work has inspired generations to take a closer look at the relationship between humans and the natural world. The Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge, named in her honor, was established in Maine in 1966, a few years after her death. It spans over 5,600 acres across 11 divisions along 50 miles of coastline in York and Cumberland counties, protecting valuable salt marshes and estuaries for migratory birds.

Pretty young girls having outdoor science lesson exploring nature

The Role of the Organization

The Friends of Rachel Carson NWR plays a crucial role in supporting this refuge. Their mission is complex, focusing on protecting and promoting the unique ecological landscape of the refuge, supporting conservation efforts, and fostering environmental education and awareness.

1. Supporting Conservation Efforts: The Friends of Rachel Carson NWR are actively involved in various conservation projects. These projects are vital for maintaining the biodiversity and ecological integrity of the refuge. By participating in conservation efforts, you can gain hands-on experience in environmental stewardship. This could be an invaluable addition to your academic portfolio, especially if you’re considering a career in environmental science or wildlife management.

2. Environmental Education and Awareness: One of the key roles of the Friends of Rachel Carson NWR is to educate the public about the importance of environmental conservation. They organize various programs and events that aim to raise awareness about the local ecosystem and the species that inhabit it. 

As a student, engaging in these educational activities can provide a deeper understanding of ecological principles and the importance of conservation efforts. It’s an opportunity to learn outside the traditional classroom setting and see firsthand how ecosystems function and why they need to be protected.

3. Community Engagement: The Friends of Rachel Carson NWR play a significant role in bringing the community together for the cause of environmental conservation. They organize events like the Sense of Wonder Photo Contest, which not only promotes artistic expression but also encourages community members to engage with and appreciate the natural beauty of the refuge. 

Participating in these community events can be a rewarding experience, allowing you to connect with like-minded individuals and professionals in the field of environmental conservation.

4. Volunteer Opportunities: The organization offers numerous volunteer opportunities, which can be a great way for you as a student to gain practical experience. Volunteering can range from fieldwork and wildlife monitoring to educational program assistance and event organization. 

This hands-on experience is invaluable, providing a real-world context to the environmental concepts learned in the classroom. It also demonstrates your initiative and commitment to environmental causes, which can be beneficial for college applications and future job prospects.

5. Research and Internships: For students interested in research, the Friends of Rachel Carson NWR also provides a platform for academic research and internships. These opportunities allow students to work on real-world environmental problems, contributing to meaningful scientific research. Engaging in such research projects can deepen your understanding of environmental science and provide you with valuable skills and experiences that are highly regarded in both academic and professional settings.

6. Promotion of Wildlife and Habitat Conservation: At the heart of the Friends’ activities is the promotion of wildlife and habitat conservation. The refuge is home to a variety of species, and its preservation is crucial for their survival. 

By supporting this organization, you can play a part in the conservation of these species, learning about the challenges they face and the efforts needed to protect them. This kind of involvement can be incredibly fulfilling and inspiring, particularly if you’re passionate about wildlife and nature.

7. Building a Career Network: Involvement with the Friends of Rachel Carson NWR can also help you build a network with professionals in the field of conservation. This can be invaluable for your future career, providing you with connections, references, and experiences that can open doors to job opportunities in environmental science, wildlife conservation, and related fields.

8. Developing Leadership and Organizational Skills: As a student, participating in the activities of the Friends of Rachel Carson NWR can also help you develop leadership and organizational skills. Whether it’s through volunteering, leading a project, or being part of an event organization, these experiences can help you develop skills that are highly valued in any career path.

9. Enhancing College Applications: Your involvement with the Friends of Rachel Carson NWR can also be a significant addition to your college applications. Universities look for students who are not only academically proficient but also actively engaged in their communities and passionate about their interests. Your participation in conservation efforts, educational programs, or research projects can demonstrate your commitment and passion, making your application stand out.

Who can Participate in the Sense of Wonder Photo Contest?

Anyone can participate, regardless of age. You can submit up to three photographs, and the subject matter must be located within the Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge areas, including Wells, Kittery, Biddeford, Saco, and other designated lands. This restriction ensures that the focus remains on the local natural beauty and wildlife of these areas.

When is the Next Sense of Wonder Photo Contest?

The next Sense of Wonder Photo Contest, organized by the Friends of Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge, is set to follow a similar schedule as it did in the previous year, 202The submission period ran from July 15 through September 15, with the judging panel convening on September 18 to select the winners. The winners were then announced during the last week of September. Based on this pattern, you can expect the 2024 contest to likely open around mid-July and run until mid-September.

For the upcoming 2024 contest, you can expect similar guidelines and requirements. The selected winners’ photographs will be compiled and published in the 2024 wall calendar of the Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge. This calendar typically becomes available beginning in October.

A woman using a camera.

How Do I Join the Sense of Wonder Photo Contest?

Here’s a detailed guide to help you navigate the process:

1. Understand the Contest Requirements: Firstly, familiarize yourself with the contest details. The contest is open to all ages, and the photographs must be taken at the Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge. 

You can submit up to three entries. Be aware of the specific photo requirements: only horizontal or landscape orientation is accepted, and the resolution must be high (300 – 600 dpi), with a file size between 8 – 20 megapixels (minimum 2550 x 3300 pixels). No watermarks are allowed. Additionally, if people are in your photos, certain consent forms are required, especially for minors.

2. Plan Your Visit and Capture Photos: Plan a visit to the Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge. Take your time exploring different areas and seasons if possible. Remember, capturing the essence of the refuge through your lens requires patience and creativity. 

Experiment with various photography styles and techniques to best reflect the beauty and uniqueness of the refuge. Since you can submit three photos, consider different subjects or themes for each to showcase your versatility.

3. Select and Prepare Your Photos: After capturing a variety of photos, select up to three that best represent your experience and artistic vision. Edit your photos if necessary, keeping in mind the contest’s acceptance of different photography styles. Ensure that the final photos meet the specified resolution and size requirements. If you include people, prepare the necessary consent forms, particularly for any minors featured in your photos.

4. Fill Out the Required Forms: If your selected photos include recognizable individuals, you need to fill out the “Agreement for Use of Likeness in Audio/Visual Products” form. For adults, this form is necessary only if their faces or other identifiable features are visible. For minors, the form is required regardless of whether their faces are shown, and it must be signed by a parent or legal guardian. These forms are vital for your submission to be considered.

5. Submit Your Photos: You can submit your photos either through the official online photo submission form on the contest’s website or directly via email to The Friends of Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge. When submitting, include all required information, such as the title of the photo, location, caption, your name, email, and phone number. Make sure to attach your photos and any necessary consent forms. Remember, submissions are due by midnight on September 15.

6. Wait for the Judging Process: After submission, the judging panel will review all entries. This typically happens around mid-September. Winners are chosen based on various criteria and will be notified via email. Winning photos will be compiled into a calendar for the following year.

7. Understanding Post-Selection Process: If your photo is selected, you will be required to sign a copyright release agreement before your work is published in the calendar. Be prepared to respond promptly to any communications from the contest organizers regarding this step.

By following these steps, you can successfully participate in the Rachel Carson Sense of Wonder Photo Contest. It’s not just an opportunity to exhibit your photography skills but also a chance to engage with and appreciate the natural world.

What are the Benefits of Joining the Contest?

The Rachel Carson Sense of Wonder Photo Contest offers a range of benefits, all of which are invaluable for your personal and academic development.

1. Enhancement of Photography Skills: Joining the Rachel Carson Sense of Wonder Photo Contest allows you to sharpen your photography skills in a real-world setting. You’ll be challenged to capture the essence of the Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge, requiring you to consider various elements such as lighting, composition, and subject matter. 

This hands-on experience is invaluable, as it pushes you to experiment and learn new techniques. Additionally, seeing the work of other contestants can provide inspiration and new perspectives, further enriching your photographic skills.

2. Recognition and Exposure: If your work is selected as one of the winners, it will be featured in a 2024 wall calendar published by The Friends of Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge. This recognition offers you significant exposure. Your name and work will be seen by a wide audience, including nature enthusiasts, photography lovers, and professionals in the field. 

This can lead to more opportunities in photography and related fields, as your winning entry serves as a testament to your skills and creative vision.

3. Connection with Nature and Environmental Awareness: Participating in this contest encourages you to connect deeply with nature. The process of capturing photos at the Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge brings you closer to the natural world, fostering a greater appreciation for its beauty and the importance of conservation. This experience can be transformative, heightening your awareness of environmental issues and possibly inspiring you to take part in or initiate eco-friendly practices and projects.

4. Boosting College Applications: For you, as a student, winning or even participating in such a contest is a valuable addition to your college application. It showcases your extracurricular involvement, particularly in activities that require creativity, commitment, and a connection to environmental issues. Colleges often look for well-rounded candidates with diverse interests and experiences. 

Participation in this contest demonstrates your initiative and ability to engage in activities beyond the classroom. This can be especially beneficial if you are interested in fields related to environmental science, photography, or art. Colleges appreciate students who have a proven record of applying their skills in real-world scenarios, and having your work featured in a calendar is a notable achievement. 

Additionally, the experience of participating in the contest itself can provide rich material for college essays, where you can discuss your passion for nature, photography, and environmental conservation.

5. Personal Growth and Networking Opportunities: Joining the contest also offers personal growth. It’s an opportunity to challenge yourself, step out of your comfort zone, and engage with a community of like-minded individuals. Networking with other participants, whether they are fellow students, hobbyists, or professionals, can open doors to new friendships and potential future collaborations. 

Such interactions can be incredibly rewarding, offering insights, advice, and support as you pursue your interests in photography and environmental advocacy.

6. Developing Storytelling Skills: Photography is more than just capturing images; it’s about telling a story. Through this contest, you get to explore and develop your storytelling abilities. Each photograph you take is a narrative about your perspective of the natural world, and this skill is valuable in many areas of life and work, including marketing, journalism, and education. Learning to convey a message or emotion through visual media is a powerful tool, enhancing your communication skills in a unique and creative way.

7. Learning About Wildlife and Conservation: The contest’s location, the Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge, is a living classroom. You’ll learn about different species of flora and fauna, ecosystems, and conservation efforts. This knowledge is not only academically enriching but also crucial in today’s world, where understanding and protecting our environment is increasingly important. This contest offers a practical way to engage with environmental science and biology, making learning interactive and enjoyable.

8. Gaining Technical Photography Skills: The requirements of the contest push you to learn and apply technical photography skills such as understanding camera settings, working with different lighting conditions, and composing shots. These skills are essential for any budding photographer and can be useful in various professional settings. Mastering these technical aspects of photography can also open up opportunities in fields like photojournalism, commercial photography, and digital content creation.

9. Mental Health Benefits: Engaging in photography and spending time in nature have been shown to have positive effects on mental health. This activity can be a form of stress relief, offering a break from the academic pressures you face as a student. The process of focusing on the present moment while capturing photos can be meditative and therapeutic, fostering a sense of peace and well-being.

10. Potential for Scholarships and Grants: While the contest itself may not offer direct financial rewards, having your work recognized in such a contest can be beneficial when applying for scholarships and grants. 

Many organizations and educational institutions offer scholarships for students who demonstrate excellence and active participation in their interests, including environmental conservation and photography. Your participation and any recognition you receive in the contest can be highlighted in these applications, potentially helping you secure financial support for your education.

Participation in the Rachel Carson Sense of Wonder Photo Contest offers a holistic experience, contributing not just to your academic and career aspirations, but also to your personal development and well-being.

Diverse Students wearing Cap and Gown Holding Photo Frame Studio Portrait

How Can This Experience Help With My College Applications?

Participating in the Sense of Wonder Photo Contest can significantly enhance your college applications in several ways. College admission officers often look for well-rounded candidates who not only excel academically but also engage in extracurricular activities, especially those that highlight unique talents, creativity, and a commitment to the community or environmental causes.

1. Demonstrating Your Unique Skills and Interests: Photography is a form of art that requires a keen eye, patience, and creativity. By participating in this contest, you showcase your artistic skills and your ability to capture and present the world from your unique perspective. This artistic flair can set you apart from other applicants, especially if you are planning to pursue courses in the arts, media, or similar fields.

2. Showcasing Your Commitment to Environmental Issues: The Sense of Wonder Photo Contest is closely tied to environmental conservation and is being held by the Friends of Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge. Involvement in this contest indicates your awareness and concern for environmental issues, a quality that many colleges value. This can be particularly advantageous if you’re interested in environmental studies, biology, or related fields.

3. Enhancing Your Portfolio: For programs that require a portfolio for admission, such as art or photography courses, the photographs you submit to this contest can be a valuable addition. Being part of a recognized competition adds credibility to your work and shows that your skills have been acknowledged by a wider audience.

4. Developing and Demonstrating Soft Skills: Participation in contests like this involves more than just taking photos. It requires planning, dedication to meet deadlines, and the ability to accept feedback or criticism. These are soft skills that are highly valued in college and beyond. Highlighting your experience in managing these aspects can strengthen your application.

5. Opportunity for Awards and Recognition: If your work is selected as one of the winners, it not only gives you a sense of achievement but also provides recognition that can be highlighted in your college applications. Winning or even just participating in a contest shows initiative and a willingness to put your work out there.

6. Reflecting Personal Growth: Colleges look for students who are not only academically competent but also growing personally. Engaging in photography, especially in a nature-based contest like this, often involves exploring new environments, interacting with different subjects, and even introspection. These experiences contribute to personal growth, something you can reflect on in your application essays or interviews.

7. Providing Material for Application Essays: Application essays are an integral part of college admissions. Your experience in the Sense of Wonder Photo Contest can provide rich material for your essays. You can discuss what you learned from the experience, how it has shaped your perspective, or even describe a particular moment or photograph that was meaningful to you.

8. Recommendations and Networking: Engaging in such contests can connect you with like-minded individuals, including professionals in the field. These connections can sometimes lead to recommendations, which can be a valuable part of your college application.

9. Adding Substance to Your Resume: Participation in extracurricular activities like photography contests adds substance to your resume. It shows that you have interests and skills beyond your academic life, making your overall profile more attractive to colleges.

Committing time and effort to photography contests reflects your passion for the craft. Colleges value students who are passionate about their interests and are willing to invest time and resources in pursuing them.

10. Building a Narrative of Consistency and Passion: If photography is a long-term interest of yours, participating in such contests over time can help build a narrative of consistency and passion in your college application. It demonstrates that you are dedicated to nurturing and improving your skills over time.

Overall, the Sense of Wonder Photo Contest provides a platform not just for artistic expression, but also for personal and academic growth. It allows you to showcase your talents, interests, and dedication in a way that can positively influence your college application. 

Remember, the key is not just participation, but also how you leverage this experience in your application to highlight your skills, growth, and potential as a future college student.

What are the Societal and Industry Relevance of this Contest?

The Sense of Wonder Photo Contest carries significant societal and industry relevance, both of which are crucial for you as students to understand. This contest isn’t just a platform for showcasing photographic skills; it plays a more profound role in the broader context of environmental awareness, artistic expression, and the promotion of conservation values.

Firstly, let’s talk about the societal impact. The contest is named after Rachel Carson, a renowned environmentalist whose work largely contributed to the global environmental movement. By participating in a contest that bears her name and ethos, you are actively engaging in promoting environmental awareness.

In today’s world, where issues like climate change, habitat destruction, and biodiversity loss are more pressing than ever, such contests raise public consciousness about the importance of nature conservation. Your photographs can serve as a powerful medium to convey the beauty of natural habitats and the urgency to protect them. They have the potential to move, educate, and inspire people to appreciate and take action for the environment.

From an industry perspective, the contest aligns with the growing trend in the photography and media sectors toward more sustainable and ecologically conscious practices. The focus on wildlife and natural landscapes encourages a form of photography that respects and honors the natural world, aligning with industry shifts towards more ethical practices in capturing and representing nature.

Moreover, this contest provides a valuable opportunity for young photographers like you to gain exposure in the competitive field of photography. Winning or even participating in such a contest can be a significant addition to your portfolio, which is crucial in the creative industries. It showcases not only your technical skills in photography but also your ability to capture and interpret environmental themes, which are increasingly sought after in sectors like travel, nature, and documentary photography.

In addition, the contest encourages diversity in artistic expression. By allowing all styles of photography, including high dynamic range alterations and other artistic changes, it provides a platform for you to experiment and develop your unique style. This diversity is vital in the photography industry, which constantly evolves with new technologies and artistic trends.

Furthermore, this contest highlights the intersection between art and science, particularly in environmental science. By capturing images from the Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge, you are documenting the ecological and biological aspects of these environments. This can be a powerful tool for environmental education and advocacy, areas where photography plays a crucial role in communicating scientific information to a broader audience.

The Sense of Wonder Photo Contest also has an educational component. It encourages you to learn about the subjects you photograph, be it a specific animal, plant, or landscape. This knowledge is crucial in wildlife and nature photography, where understanding your subject can lead to more impactful and respectful photography.

Participating in this contest can also be seen as an act of environmental stewardship. By focusing your lens on the natural world and showcasing the beauty and importance of wildlife refuges, you contribute to the broader conversation about conservation and the role that each individual can play in protecting our planet.

Lastly, this contest represents an emerging trend in the photography industry that values authenticity and connection with the subject matter. It moves away from staged or manipulated imagery, encouraging a more honest and respectful approach to capturing the natural world. This trend is increasingly valued in a society that is seeking more genuine and meaningful connections with nature.

Group of three students

How Do I Make the Most Out of My Experience at Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge?​​

These practices will not only improve your photography skills but also enrich your understanding and appreciation of the natural environment.

1. Research and Plan Your Visit: Before you head to the Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge, do some research. Look up the different habitats and species that the refuge is known for. This knowledge will help you anticipate what you might encounter and plan your photography accordingly. 

Understand the weather conditions and the best time of day for lighting, which is crucial for photography. Plan your visit during different seasons if possible, as this will give you a varied experience and a diverse range of photographic subjects. Remember to check the refuge’s rules and guidelines to ensure a safe and respectful visit.

2. Explore Different Areas Thoroughly: The refuge is a diverse ecosystem, offering a range of photographic opportunities. Spend time exploring different areas. You might find unique plants, wildlife, or landscapes in each zone. Don’t rush; give yourself time to observe and appreciate your surroundings. 

This approach not only increases your chances of capturing great photos but also enhances your understanding and appreciation of the environment. Be patient, as wildlife photography often requires waiting for the right moment.

3. Practice Mindful Photography: When you’re photographing nature, it’s important to be present and mindful. Observe the small details around you, like the patterns of leaves, the way light falls on the water, or the behavior of birds. Mindful photography allows you to connect with your subject, leading to more meaningful and impactful images. This practice also helps you develop a deeper appreciation for the natural world, which can be a fulfilling and enlightening experience.

4. Document Your Experience and Learnings: Keep a journal or log of your visits. Note the date, time, weather conditions, and details about the photos you take. This record will not only help you track your progress as a photographer but also serve as a valuable reference for understanding how different conditions affect your photography. Additionally, writing about your experiences can deepen your connection to nature and enhance your observational skills.

5. Engage with the Community and Share Your Work: Connect with other visitors, photographers, and nature enthusiasts at the refuge. Sharing experiences and tips can be incredibly beneficial. After your visit, consider sharing your photographs and experiences online or with your school community. This can inspire others and also provide you with feedback on your work. Engaging in discussions about your photos and the refuge can further your learning and potentially open up opportunities for future projects or collaborations.

Final Thoughts

Participating in the Rachel Carson Sense of Wonder Photo Contest is about more than just capturing stunning images. It’s about showcasing your dedication to environmental conservation and your ability to see the world through a unique, artistic lens.

These qualities are highly valued in the college admissions process, as they reflect a well-rounded and engaged individual. So, as you prepare your college applications, consider how such experiences can not only enrich your portfolio but also contribute to your personal growth and understanding of the world around you.

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