I hesitate to call these my best images of the year. My preferences change over time. I also try to produce work that’s more emotional than documentary and it feels wrong for different emotions to have compete with each other. But these 15 images do a marvelous job of summing up my year.
My year began and ended on Fir Island — an estuary about an hour north of Seattle, Washington. It’s an area that provides wonderful wildlife photography opportunities. You can marvel as tens of thousands of shorebirds fly in formation over the mudflats — and then watch birds of prey swoop down to try to catch one. But my first and last images there were landscapes.
The year's first image was subject of a blog post discussing the emotion delivered by the overwhelming blue punctuated by a splash of complementary orange. Rather than rerun that image now, at the top of this post I’ve shared a landscape from the same location taken two months later. You can see much of the same theme at work.
This picture was one of my last of the year. It was taken from nearly the same spot as the first, although a telephoto lens allowed me to emphasize the weather around the Olympic Mountains. The same color themes are at work here, though you can see I’m using progressively more orange. Here’s hoping for a brighter 2022!
This was from a different Washington state estuary: Leque Island, a few miles south of Fir Island. Several years ago, this was a fantastic place to photograph short-eared owls, which thrived on the former farmland. That farmland was created by a series of levees that held back the tide. The levees were recently breached to restore the original tidal marsh. As the water returned, the owls left, following their prey to drier land. Many photographers bemoan the loss of the prime owl habitat, but I appreciate that shorebirds have already returned to what's now a more natural ecosystem. This picture of a greater yellowlegs and its shadow was an instant favorite.
Here’s one final estuary image, also from Leque Island. I spent several hours photographing sandpipers in the fog. As the fog lifted, a few shafts of sunlight poked through the heavy clouds. The Stillaguamish River was unusually still, so I positioned myself to capture a reflection on it. The amazing light lasted for less than a minute.
Because of Covid, my travel was minimal again last year, although I managed to spend a few very cold days in Yellowstone National Park. This red fox was hundreds of yards from me. Normally, it wouldn’t be worth the effort to set up the camera for such a distant shot, but I loved pairing the fox with the bank of the Lamar River. The shape of the bank has a lovely abstract quality, reminiscent of some of my favorite features in Georgia O’Keeffe’s paintings. The tiny fox illustrates the vastness of the winter landscape.
I was able to get much closer to this red fox kit on San Juan Island in Washington state, in the same field where I photographed a bald eagle, fox and rabbit in midair in 2018. I get a rush from seeing new things, but I also enjoy trying to find something new in familiar places. While this young fox’s mother was out hunting, it was trying to hide in the grass and mimic her behavior. When it ran between me and the setting sun, I was able to render it in silhouette, giving up some of its camouflage.
It was an absolutely spectacular year for fall color in the Pacific Northwest. I think every autumn color is visible in this image of a Japanese maple tree in the Kubota Garden in Seattle. But I think the magic of this picture is the contrast between color of the leaves and the undulating form of the tree’s branches, which I emphasized by using an extreme wide-angle lens.
There’s quite a story behind this image of a pied-billed grebe and its young chick. In short, this mother was left to raise her young by herself — unusual for grebes — and this was the only chick that survived. This image captures a tender moment, but I think the rings of ripples seem to bring them together even more.
The Ape Cave, a lava tube on Mount St. Helens in Washington state, was the subject of one of my first digital photography projects. It’s pitch black in there so lighting it for the perfect image is difficult. The instant feedback provided by digital cameras made that task a little easier. I returned to the cave this year — 20 years after making those first images — to recreate some old work, but I also found some new opportunities. During a heavy rainstorm, more water than usual seeped into the cave, forming a small creek. It was one of several caves I photographed this year; you can see others in my “lava tube” project here.
On a moonless night on the Washington coast, I was fortunate to experience two types of natural light: stars and glowing fungus. The glow of the driftwood here is a phenomenon called foxfire and it was found on a number of logs washing ashore in Olympic National Park. You can read more about the experience here.
I’m working on a project about the importance of natural areas, and we sometimes forget that our backyards and urban parks can be critical habitats for wildlife. I found this white-crowned sparrow stopping in a city park in Puyallup, Washington, on its migration north. The blooming lupine attracted insects and the sparrow spent the morning racing around the flowers to fuel up. It needs a lot of fuel. During the migration, it can travel 500 miles in a single night.
One of the “rules” of nature photography is to never take pictures in the middle of the day if it’s sunny. The overhead light is typically harsh and boring. I made this image at solar noon, supposedly the worst possible time. But I loved the circular shadows at the base of these trees, which happens only when the sun is directly overhead. I found this stand of second-growth ponderosa pines in the Wallowa–Whitman National Forest in Oregon.
I spent several days with these burrowing owls near the Columbia National Wildlife Refuge in eastern Washington, photographing them in all weather conditions, including a torrential downpour. After the rain came a brilliant sunrise. This pair was photographed in natural light. I’m amazed at how much shadow detail modern digital cameras are able to capture. Just a little dodging was all it took to bring out their splendor against the fiery sky.
I’ve long found the geology of eastern Washington visually interesting. In many places you can see where ancient lava flows cooled into striking columns. While I often make images that accentuate their repeating forms, on this cold morning in the Columbia National Wildlife Refuge I went for a softer picture. I wanted to show the first light of day beginning to warm the frosty shrubs that are slowly wearing away the rock.
I was not able to exhibit my sun glint images this past year, so I’ve continued to create new pictures for the project. Here’s one of those additions, which I think will make the series even stronger when I’m finally able to show it. It’s from a beach in Edmonds, Washington. One project that I was able to finish this year was an ebook about my experience with an ugly elm tree and a destructive bird.
These are a handful of the images I produced this past year. Feel free to comment on your favorites below.