For more than a decade now, I’ve closed out each year by sharing a few of my favorite images from it. It’s part celebration. Ansel Adams once said that producing "twelve significant photographs in any one year is a good crop." But it’s also a great creative exercise. A careful review of your year’s work can help you see if you’re stuck in a rut or if you’ve found a direction that’s worth exploring further.
Comparing this year’s images with those that started the decade you can see that my favorite work is still a mix of landscape and wildlife, with a few detail pictures that try to express the essence of the subject. If there’s been one big change it is that the images in that latter category have grown more graphic and abstract.
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Happy New Year! Enjoy and feel free to comment about your favorites below.
First up is the image at the top of this post. It is from Sparks Lake in the Cascade Mountains near Bend, Oregon. I had planned to photograph a different mountain on this summer morning, but as I looked to the right, I couldn’t resist the column of steam rising from a pool near the lake. I quickly moved the camera to get a wider view of a different cluster of mountains that I could pair with the steam. I had to use two graduated neutral density filters to hold back the bright sky and the reflection of it so that they wouldn’t overpower the wildflowers.
First Snow, Warm Creek, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming. It was barely a week into autumn when I photographed this scene, but you can already see winter creeping in. I love the juxtaposition of the snow with the fall color, something I've only seen like this a few times in the 20 years I've been a photographer.
Spring Cacti, Saguaro National Park, Arizona. I got a chance to visit Saguaro National Park in Arizona at the peak of the spring bloom this year. I was shooting toward the setting sun, so the dramatic saguaros at the top of the image are rendered in silhouette. But I used a split neutral density filter to brighten the foreground so that you could clearly see the blooms on the other cacti. Four types of cacti are blooming in this image.
Saguaro and Moon, Superstition Wilderness, Arizona. At the end of the year, I got to make a different type of saguaro image. I was in the Hieroglyphic Canyon in the Superstition Wilderness looking for petroglyphs for a project. On the hike up, I saw this spectacular saguaro with several limbs. Limbs are a sign of incredible age. It can take a saguaro 100 years to grow even one. I often think the moon adds a timeless quality to an image, so I found a position that allowed me to incorporate it.
Great Horned Owls on Nest, Montezuma Well, Arizona. About 15 minutes before I captured this image, I had no idea if there were any owlets on the nest. A few days earlier, foxes attacked the nest. A park ranger didn’t know if the two owlets survived or not. I added an extender to my most powerful lens — for a total of 1200mm of magnification — and immediately noticed two tiny feet well behind the mother owl. Then 15 minutes later, the owlet crept closer and ducked down, seeming to look directly into my lens. It was the only owlet that I saw. On my way out of the park at the end of the day I did see two foxes running down into the well, but by then my camera was already in its bag.
Bison in Snow, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming. This is another wintry image that was captured in September. It was one of the earliest autumn snowfalls for the mountains of Montana and Wyoming and it provided some incredible photo opportunities with the wildlife near the Madison River in Yellowstone National Park. The heavy snow distracted my camera’s autofocus system, giving me an opportunity to put my old manual focus skills to work.
Roadrunner in Motion, Sonoran Desert, Arizona. Roadrunners are speedy birds, capable of dashing 20 miles per hour. I wanted to photograph one, but previous opportunities hadn’t worked out. A friend spotted this one on the side of a road and I sped out of the car to try to get a picture. It raced into a wash before I could get fully set up — or even to adjust my camera to a faster shutter speed. In the end, however, I think the blurred motion of this image perfectly captures the spirit of this bird.
Velvet Mesquite in Spring, Sonoran Desert, Arizona. This is one of the more abstract images that I have really enjoyed creating. Over the past couple of years, I’ve been working on a project to see how many different ways I can photograph trees. It’s inspired by the work of Monet who painted subjects over and over in different lighting and weather conditions. Here, I used a 600mm lens — normally used for distant wildlife — to capture the trees as dots of green and yellow against a few dark lines. My idea was to create a photograph that looked more like a modern art painting. It’s a sharp image but is influenced by the work of painters like Mark Tobey and Joan Mitchell.
Lupine Shadow, North Cascades, Washington. Blue Lake is one of the most scenic locations in the North Cascades. It’s a gorgeous lake, surrounded by sculpted mountains, and — for a few weeks a year — golden larch trees. On my hike up, I spotted this young lupine casting a wonderful shadow on the rock. This was an image that I really had to work. I knew what I liked about the scene, but it took about a half hour to find the right composition to balance the graphic design.
Chinese Spring, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming. This is another of my favorite graphical images of the year. You can often have Chinese Spring to yourself, even though it’s located in the shadow of the spray from Old Faithful, undoubtedly the park’s most popular feature. I used a long exposure to try to capture a little of the motion of the bubbling hot spring. I was drawn to the beautiful blue water. I framed the image a bit wider to contrast that blue with the orange streaks of the bacteria that thrive in the warm water.
Whatcom Falls, Detail, Bellingham, Washington. I came to photography through the world of journalism, so when I would take a picture of a waterfall I would try to fit the entire subject into my frame. Over the years, however, I have come to embrace the art side of photography. Whatcom Falls is a pretty waterfall, but I find more meaning in images like this. This image is about contrast — the contrast between the plunge and cascades over the rocks at the base of the falls.
Cirrus Cloud over Cathedral Rock, Sedona, Arizona. Dramatic red mountains surround Sedona. There’s no bad view. But Cathedral Rock may be my favorite. I have photographed it many, many times, and it’s always a challenge to try to find some unique way to capture it. All afternoon, I watched dramatic clouds blow across its summit, but cursed my luck as they vanished just before sunset. As I hiked back to the car, I kept glancing back at Cathedral Rock. In the very last light of day, a large cirrus cloud glided into position, almost pointing to the mountain. The light was so dim, I needed a 21-second exposure to capture enough of it to make a picture. I was delighted the red glow still came through.