In the dark, Brandon Erdman had to traverse a desert landscape filled with cacti in order to capture the perfect shot of the sun’s early morning rays peaking through rock formations, but the journey was worth it.

In the dark, Brandon Erdman had to traverse a desert landscape filled with cacti in order to capture the perfect shot of the sun’s early morning rays peaking through rock formations, but the journey was worth it.

His photograph was named the winner of National Geographic and the Arizona Tourism Department’s #UnRealAZ photo contest.

Erdman snapped the photo during a cross-country trip two years ago, in which he stopped at various National Parks in the western United States to photograph the landscape.

While in Arizona, he

visited Kofa National Wildlife Refuge.

“I knew the shot I wanted before I went to that area, but it still took a lot of planning and visioning,” said Erdman. “I’d seen a previous photo from that area, and I knew the mountains in the background were amazing and beautiful. I knew where the sun was going to rise, so I got there the night before to scout the area and get an idea of where I wanted to shoot.”

As a photographer with a love of shooting landscapes, Erdman said he regularly follows National Geographic’s social media accounts.

When the magazine’s Instagram put out a call for photographers to submit their best Arizona photo, Erdman instantly knew which one to enter.

“The picture has always been a personal favorite of mine,” he said.

A few days after submitting the picture, Erdman said he was contacted by National Geographic editors requesting more information on his photo. On March 21, he was named the contest winner.

“At first, I almost didn’t believe it,” he said. “I wondered if maybe someone was playing a trick on me, but I was proud and excited about the win.

“I won an all-expenses paid trip for two to Arizona, including excursions and a rental car. I get a free trip to go and take more pictures,” Erdman said.

His picture has appeared on the Arizona tourism Instagram site and will be used in future tourism promotions for the state.

The #UnRealAZ contest was the first of its kind that Erdman entered. Since then he said he’s submitted other photos, including a few he hopes will be considered as cover photos for the magazine.

“I’ve been (taking photographs) for years, and it makes me very proud to have a publication like National Geographic recognize my skills. I feel like that puts me on another level,” said Erdman.

A 1997 Geneseo graduate, Erdman said he’s “always been fascinated by photography” but “didn’t get into it seriously until about five years ago.”

“I’d taken cell phone pictures, and people said I had a great eye, but I always felt like it didn’t capture what it was really like to be there and see it. I do a lot of hiking and traveling, and there came a point where I wanted to capture what I was seeing and pass that on to the viewer.”

Erdman spent years practicing and studying the art of photography.

“I’d tell people to get out there and shoot. Don’t feel bad if you’re not creating the vision you want, it’s a building process,” he explained.

“One thing I love about photography is it’s a combination of an artistic eye and also being the master of the camera. A lot of people can take a great, well exposed photo and work the camera, but maybe they don’t have the eye, and vice versa. It’s about putting it all together, and that takes time to develop.”

Erdman’s passion is for landscape photography.

“I enjoy being out and being able to experience and see beautiful places. A lot of times, I try to capture the feeling I have when I see a place for the first time, and I want the viewer to feel the same,” he said.

In the Midwest, Erdman strives to capture old farmsteads and barns.

“I grew up on farms, and I feel it’s kind of a dying way of life. I feel like I’m preserving a piece of history. I lot of the barns I’ve shot are gone. They’ve either fallen down or been torn down,” he said.

Erdman also is known for capturing images of the night sky.

“You have to be in tune with nature. I’ve become more aware of the natural cycle of the earth, moon phases, the Milky Way and where stars are at a certain time of the year,” he said, adding he relies on a number of apps to help him track nature.

“The Milky Way has a season. In winter, you can’t see it as well, but this time of year, I’m setting my alarm for 2 a.m. or 3 a.m. to go out and take pictures. There are a lot of times when I don’t want to get out of bed, but I’m always glad I did,” he said.

Erdman shoots in a digital format, which instantly allows him to see what a photo looks like.

“I usually have a vision ahead of time, but I’m not always as successful as I’d like. I probably shoot triple the amount of pictures that I post or show people. I’m my own harshest critic.”

While landscape photography is what he’s best known for, Erdman said he also works as a commercial photographer and has done portraits, engagement pictures, wedding photos and more.

His portfolio and prints available for purchase can be viewed at