What started out as playful experimentation with her mom’s iPhone has turned into a potential lifelong passion for Ridgefield High School sophomore and budding photographer Melissa Harris.

“We were in Key West and I was looking at the sunset and wanted to take a picture of it and when I looked at the photo I had taken, there was this bird flying by that I had captured in the shot,” recalled Harris of her January 2018 vacation. “It was this perfect silhouette with the sunset and this bird in the corner of the photo. I was fascinated by it and wanted to take more pictures like that.”

Fast forward two years, Harris is finishing a semester-long Photograhy I course at the high school and looking forward to taking Photography II during the school’s spring semester. She’s also upgraded from using her mom’s phone.

“I just got a Nikon Z 50 for Christmas — it’s my first camera and I’m so excited about learning everything you can do with it,” said Harris, who’s grown up around Lake Mamanasco and has used that natural backdrop to fine-tune her photo skills.

“My focus has been on wildlife shots — that’s my main interest area and biggest passion, but I’m looking forward to expanding into landscapes and portraits.”

Harris would like to study either environmental or veterinary science in college but dreams that her photography work can be implemented into whatever field she works in.

“I think there’s many ways to incorporate photography into either of those career paths — something like doing work for National Geographic would be really cool,” she said. “It could always end up just being a side job, too.”

For now, she’s still learning the craft — both in the classroom and from her mentor Benjamin Williamson, the staff photographer and photo coordinator at Down East magazine in Maine.

“At the high school, you can go into advanced art projects after you complete the two photo courses and those projects mix in photography with other mediums,” Harris explained. “I’ll probably go down that track next year as a junior and then hope to take AP Art as a senior.”

She hopes her path can mimic Williamson’s journey from amateur photographer to professional photo editor.

“He was completely self-taught,” Harris said. “He started from scratch as an amateur and I always found that really inspiring. I really liked his landscape and wildlife photos and his night shots were really interesting so I reached out to him and we’ve been talking about different types of angles and how to capture stuff with the right amount of light and exposure.”

For Harris, the new Nikon is a noticeable upgrade.

“It’s definitely my preferred camera now,” she said. “The iPhone is very cool but the zoom lens is not very good and it’s a challenge to take nature shots with it. With the Nikon, things can come out much clearer and it’s easier to use. It has better shutter speed and better lens control. There’s just a lot more freedom when using it.”

Her work has been noticed by Ridgefield residents who have liked her photos of the lake on Facebook. A shot of the sun setting over Lake Mamanasco received 600-plus likes recently, and another picture of a bald eagle on the lake surpassed that total easily.

“I’m so surprised by the amount of people who would take time to like it and give positive feedback,” she said. “It makes me really proud of my work and definitely gives me the confidence to continue.”

She’s submitted pictures to both National Geographic and Down East for amateur photo competitions.

Her submission to Down East was a picture of a bee that she took during summer camp in 2019.

“They have a bunch of Nikon cameras at the camp that I was able to use and I was just fascinated by the number of bees flying around,” Harris said. “I spent half the summer trying to get the perfect bee shot, and the one I eventually submitted to Down East is one of my favorites because it was one of my first experiences with a real camera and I feel like I really captured the bee in its natural habitat.”

The sophomore said she’s learned patience through her photography practice.

“The lighting can be off in a place that I originally thought would be really cool, and that can be frustrating,” she said, “or the angle might not be right and I just have to try different angles or different editing styles. I’ve learned to play around and to keep trying even if it doesn’t work the first time the way I thought it might. Going back and trying again has given motivation to keep seeing my ideas through.”

Harris said that fall is her favorite season because of the contrast between the colorful leaves and the bright blue sky.

Her favorite is when it rains during the fall months and the leaves begin to bend on the trees.

“It’s a really beautiful time to take photos,” Harris said. “I also love when the sun is on the leaves in the morning. There’s a lot of really cool colors that you can’t capture at any other time of year.”

Harris said she’s open to any photography opportunities — part-time jobs, internships, freelance assignments — that are available to her in town. She can be reached on Instagram at the handle @mnh_photoss.