Inside the Winners’ Circle of Toppix 2013 Aviation Photo Contest

Six spectacular shots will be on exhibition at SXM Airport soonFlights. Cameras. Action!

As the "big birds" (and not so big ones) emerged from the clouds, spreading their metallic wings over the small Maho beach, casting a friendly shadow over the excited crowd that had come out to welcome them with clicking shutters, 26 photographers from various vantage points also sprung into action, shooting away with their cameras, hoping that one of their shots would capture the minds and hearts of three judges who were to select one of them as the overall winner of the Toppix 2013 Aviation Photo Contest!

As one of the major events of the Princess Juliana International Airport’s (SXM) 70th Anniversary celebrations, the competition, the brainchild of ace photographer Robby Cijntje, emphasized why SXM Airport was recently chosen as the "World’s Most Stunning Landing" by travel fans all over the world who participated in a survey on As if to reflect this, the theme of the Toppix Aviation Photo Contest was: "Sint Maarten, Aircraft Spotters Paradise." Fittingly, the international member of the panel of judges was Chris Kilroy, owner and managing director of the world’s largest aircraft spotting website,

For about two hours, according to veteran photographer Peter Gunn, one of the judges on the panel of three, including Chermaine Petit-Booi, the judges poured over the 75 photographs submitted by the participants and selected six they considered the best of the bunch to be exhibited for four months at SXM.

The overall winning photo was a marvelous shot by Bernie Verhoeven, which won the hearts of not only the judges but wowed everyone who has seen it. However, she almost did not submit it. "Somehow, I didn’t think it was good enough," she said. But she followed her instinct and the advice of close friends. The idea for her as a photographer was ultimately to "kill her sweetheart," meaning to set aside emotions and go for it.

Bernie was ecstatic about her win, which she received with genuine disbelief. "I’m very, very surprised," she said. "I still can’t believe it."

"I had fun," she continued. "I didn’t feel intimidated that there were so many other professional photographers participating. I made many friends and was happy that I could talk shop with them."

Bernie received a cash prize of US$2,500 from SXM for her efforts. Of course, she was already thinking of investing this in new equipment.

"The Beast"

One of the most state-of-the-art photographic equipment at the competition is called "The Beast," worth US$17,800 according to Robby Cijntje. Bernie might have to win the contest six times in a row to be able to purchase this combination of a Canon EOS 1DX camera coupled to a huge 800mm lens. A demonstration of "The Beast" was given by Canon representative Sergio Velasquez with a little help from international judge, Chris Kilroy.

"As far as I know, physically no equipment was sold but I’m sure some piggy banks will be slaughtered after the demos by Canon and Nikon," commented Cijntje.

"I feel quite relieved," he added, referring to all the work that went into organizing the event. "It was the first time something like this was done in the Caribbean. And I really feel great getting the attention from both camera manufacturers (i.e. Canon and Nikon)."

Bill Fortney, the representative of Nikon Latin America/USA, who was also here to conduct one-on-one demos with the participants, received a loud round of applause when he announced at the briefing session that he had brought his wife along to celebrate their anniversary in St. Maarten.

Both Canon and Nikon were the favorite cameras among all the participants almost equally. Three of the six nominated photos were shot with a Nikon, including the winning shot of a KLM B-747 aircraft shot on arrival over the Maho beach on March 15, 2013 at 12:39 by Bernie Verhoeven, using a Nikon D 700 camera.

Nevertheless, Alain Duzant, the only photographer to have two out of his three entries among the best six, used a Pentax K-r camera for both shots, one of a Delta B-737 aircraft arriving over the beach and the other of an American Airlines B-757 also arriving over the beach. Jan Severijns, who traveled the farthest from Belgium to come to participate in the contest, (and won himself a 4-night/5-day stay at Oyster Pond Beach Resort) used a Canon 1DX camera to capture the arrival of an Air France A-340 aircraft. Both Bea Moedt and Dennis McBriarty used Nikon D700 cameras to photograph the arrival respectively of an AA B-757 aircraft and a WINAIR Twin Otter.

Although only six photos were selected for the exhibition, the exhibition, according to Cijntje, may turn into three or four large screens being installed in the Arrival Hall. "In that case," he said, "we can choose more photos since they will be rotating on the screens. In case of a ‘hanging expo’ only the six will be printed and hung."

Cijntje explained that the participants have agreed to give the publication rights of the photos to SXM and the St. Maarten Tourist Bureau. However, he confirmed, the photographers still have the copyrights to their works and therefore can do with them as they please.

Some of the photographs may very well end up on, the world’s largest online photo database featuring more than two million photos of jetliners, general aviation aircraft, business and cargo planes, as well as military aircraft.

Although owner of the website, Chris Kilroy said he had handed out his business cards to the participants to facilitate this, Cijntje is of the view that perhaps only three photographs out of the six finalists would qualify to be uploaded on the site.

"The screeners at Chris’ website, are quite precise," he said. "They will really dissect the photos before approving them to be added to the website. In my view, so far only three of the six nominated photos will make that level. The reason for that is that the screeners will also look at color correction and sharpness which, in normal life, nobody would see or even care about."

For Lisa Noel of the Tourist Bureau, co-sponsors of the event, Bernie Verhoeven’s victory was a triumph for women. "I’m glad a woman won," she said, while Kalifa Hickinson, Marketing Manager at SXM concurred.

But for Regina LaBega, Managing Director of the airport, all the participants are winners, "and that is no cliché."

"If only cameras could have hindsight, I’m sure they would consider this event a great vision to project our airport and destination as unique not only in the Caribbean but in the world," LaBega said. "We at SXM Airport are surely committed to building on the success of this first edition in the future."

Cijntje could not agree more. Speaking about preparations for the Toppix 2014, he said, "I think that together with the airport, we will settle for a March 2014 date sometime soon so we can start with the necessary promotion in Europe. We will need to start work now as the iron is hot, hot!"