A PICTURE capturing the desolation of the Atacama Desert by amateur Swindon photographer Jonathan Bates took top prize in a national newspaper’s weekly competition.

The 60-year-old, a director at science research council NERC in Polaris House, was on a three-week holiday in Chile when he snapped a lone vicuña crossing a salt flat in the desert with a mountainous backdrop.

The image was submitted to the Daily Telegraph’s weekly Big Picture competition at the end of January following his return from the holiday. It snatched top prize in February 1’s edition.

“I was taking pictures of the Altiplanic Lagoons, particularly this salt flat, and a couple of vicuña came across,” said Jonathan, of Corby Avenue.

“I wasn’t sure whether I had got them. As I was refocusing, this single vicuña appeared and started crossing.

“I thought I had captured something interesting at that moment. I was very pleased with it when I got it home.”

Two years earlier Jonathan had been on a similar holiday with his wife Elaine and captured an image of the salt flats, which gave him the photography bug.

He said there was no wildlife in the shot, but the flats themselves struck a chord and delivered the only other image he’s ever felt worthy of entering into the newspaper’s contest.

Jonathan does not consider himself an advanced photographer. It is a craft he has long had an interest in, but one which has only truly flourished in South America.

“It’s strange. I’m an enthusiastic photographer without claiming to be talented. There was one photo in 2011 of the salt flats that I was particularly pleased with,” he said.

“They print 10 of the photos entered each week, on the website. And you can see exactly what you’ve beaten.

“I have to say I was really quite pleased to beat some of them. They were of a very high quality.

“I have always been interested in photography. My interest has certainly grown with the improvements in digital photography.”

As well as the pride of having his snap printed in the national title, Jonathan was the recipient of a Nikon camera worth £300.

It’s a piece of kit he will add to his collection of five or six already in place, and one he said was useful for its size and quality of zoom.

The research council director will retire in May and there are no prizes for guessing how he intends to spend his free time.

“I recently announced my retirement. I will be spending a lot of time taking photos,” he said.

“I will focus on landscapes, I think. They are the thing I enjoy taking photos of most.

“I will spend a lot of time travelling to find the pictures too.”