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Northern Ireland photographer Hanna says stunning images are inspired by his Christian faith

All of us have seen his breathtaking pictures on weather reports here — now award-winning Ballymena landscape photographer Steven Hanna tells Lee Henry why his Christian belief is part of his drive to get the best shot of the beautiful Northern Ireland countryside.

Trudging along the north coast in search of the perfect picture may not be everyone's idea of fun, but for photographer Steven Hanna being surrounded by such breathtaking beauty brings him nothing but joy.

"Being out in creation is what makes me come alive,' says Steven, an intrepid, outdoorsy individual who regularly spends his (very) early mornings and (relatively) late nights in pursuit of the ideal image.

You may well have seen his stunning work gracing the covers of books on the shelves of Waterstones and Easons, or used as the backdrop to Angie Phillips and Barra Best's weather reports on BBC NI's Newsline.

While anyone can submit photos, professional or otherwise, to the Newsline's Weather Watchers feed to help illustrate the types of weather conditions we can all look forward to before hitting the roads of a morning, there is a reason that Steven's are used so often. He is, after all, the very best of the bunch.

On Sunday, he was crowned Landscape Photographer of the Year at the prestigious annual Professional Photographers Association of Northern Ireland (PPANI) awards, at a glitzy ceremony at the Galgorm Resort and Spa, near Ballymena.

His work has been placed high in previous years, but in 2017 Steven was finally crowned undisputed landscape champion. "I was pretty speechless, to be honest," admits the 36-year-old, who has arguably done more for Northern Ireland tourism than soda bread and taxi tours combined.

Born and raised in Ballymena, but always intrinsically "connected" to the north coast in both a physical and a spiritual sense, the lensman has made a career from capturing dazzling sunsets, brooding incoming weather fronts, dramatic cliff faces at dawn and rolling inland vistas since first picking up a camera in his early 20s.

These days shooting landscapes that are recognisable to millions of HBO viewers tuning into Game of Thrones and are the envy of his counterparts world-wide is Steven's bread and butter, along with the requisite wedding photography, for which he has also won awards.

"I previously worked in design, but landscape photography was what made me pick up a camera in the first place," he recalls. "A Samsung point and shoot digital camera, as it happens, bought for me by my parents as a gift for Christmas.

"Landscape photography has been something that I've really dedicated myself to, over the last couple of years especially, and to take first prize at the PPANI awards was a dream come true.

"I love photographing the coast, especially the Causeway coast and the west coast of Ireland. There is something about the ocean that keeps drawing me back. I've also just recently discovered the Scottish Highlands and I've been totally mesmerised by its beauty and wildness."

Steven was brought up a Christian and his faith is as strong as ever, a driving force in life as in photography. When considering his own spirituality and relationship with religion, he quotes the American author and Christian lecturer John Eldredge: 'The glory of God is the heart of man fully alive'.

"My faith is important to me and my family," adds Steven. "I see the glory of God all around me in creation when I'm out and about taking photographs. I'm a firm believer that God isn't just to be found in a church building, but that He can, and will, be found in the middle of the mountains, at the coast, in the forests.

"I always try and channel that into my landscape photography and I think the day that I stop doing that is the day I need to put the camera down and forget all about it."

Photography for Steven is much more than a fleeting but creatively rewarding pastime. Over the past decade, it has become a well-paid career, one for which he is "eternally grateful". Talent, of course, has played a massive part in that success - as a quick browse through Steven's wonderful website will illustrate - but luck had a hand also, at least at the beginning.

"I had been shooting landscapes and road racing as a hobby in my spare time for a few years when a friend asked if I would be interested in shooting her wedding," he explains. "When I saw her response to the images I produced, I realised that photography was something that I could pursue professionally. 

"Since then, I've shot over 350 weddings so far and I have to say, it's an honour and a privilege to be invited by a couple to share and document the most important day of their lives. Every wedding is challenging and rewarding, but unlike landscape photography, when shooting a wedding you have to produce amazing images no matter what is happening around you.

"But that's what I trained for. To be able to make a living and provide for my family by doing something that I love is ultimately the greatest reward."

That family consists of wife Lynne, a primary school teacher, and 16-month-old daughter Sofia. Still buzzing from his PPANI triumph, Steven took to his Facebook page on Sunday to thank Lynne especially.

"Extremely grateful to have a very patient, encouraging and understanding wife who puts up with all the early starts and late nights," he wrote below a photo of the two dressed to impress.

"It's true," he laughs, a couple of days later and with his award installed in pride of place at home.

"Without Lynne, I definitely wouldn't be able to do what I do. She's always been a rock of strength for me, especially when I ventured out into photography full-time. She never doubted that I could do it.

"Often, when I need to be out shooting in the best light, it does unfortunately encroach on family time and I'm very blessed to have a wife who understands and supports me in that 100%.

"Lynne is also been a major driving force in helping me get my photography books completed."

His titles include County Antrim: Chasing the Light, The Glens of Antrim, and A Boot Up The Mourne Mountains, with a fourth set to be published by Halsgrove this spring. Months of planning, research and reccies go into the production of those books, and Steven often spends days on end following the light to capture the ideal shot.

"I'm not sure a typical day exists for a landscape photographer," he says, "but it's definitely not a nine to five job. Before any shoot, I research where and when the sun is going to rise or set, as there are certain locations that you can only photograph in good light at certain times of the year. Not only do I follow the weather forecast, but tide times need to be checked regularly also. All this before I even leave the house.

"But I think that all of the frustrations and fruitless trips away from home pale into insignificance when you're standing on a cliff edge all by yourself watching something spectacular unfold in front of you. Sometimes these moments of light only last for a few seconds, but you have to put the time and effort in or you will never capture them.  

"It can be hard to take when you've just driven for three hours to the west coast of Donegal only to be met by thick low-hanging cloud and rain, knowing that you have another three-hour drive back home with no images to show for it. There are some locations along the Causeway coast that I've visited five or six times and still haven't had the right light. Persistence is the key."

Coming home to his doting daughter makes all that prep, travel and silent, lonely shooting worthwhile, however. Although little Sofia is too young yet to have caught her daddy's photography bug, she will have the finest of tutors at hand if and when she ever shows an interest.

"I have the most amazing little daughter," he beams.

"She's full of fun. Even when I've had an unsuccessful trip up to the coast, I'm totally blessed to be coming home to Lynne and Sofia. Sometimes a cuddle is all it takes to keep life in perspective."

With the title of Northern Ireland's number one landscape photographer now firmly under his belt, Steven can relax and look forward to the year ahead. Wedding season is, of course, almost upon us, and he will be kept very busy indeed shooting over 50 the length and breadth of Northern Ireland in 2017 alone.

Outside of that, passing on his self-taught skills is something that he feels passionately about.

"Last year, I made a big leap and started running my own landscape photography workshops and also vlogging a lot of my shoots, often in pretty harsh weather conditions, to give viewers an authentic feel for what I do - shooting in storms, coping with inaccessible terrain and the like.

"I would definitely love to expand on both of those avenues and more in the future, and God willing I will be fit and able to do so."

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