I’ve never done a best-of or favorites-of-the-year blog post before, but then 2020 was not your average year. Several years back, I did a few worst-of-the-year blog posts, not just to be a contrarian, but also because I’m a firm believer that one of the best ways to improve your photographer is to critically examine your mistakes. But I stopped doing these worst-of-the-year posts because I improved my editing speed (from years to months) such that I was throwing out the bad ones before the end of the year came.
So why now a favorites-of-the-year? I’m not sure; perhaps it was because it was such a bad year otherwise with the pandemic that I wanted to convince myself I did some good work. I purposely made this my favorites rather than my best, though there is some overlap perhaps, because my favorites shots have better stories than my best shots. Besides it is hard enough picking favorites let alone best. So, here are 12 of my favorite images taken in 2020 presented in no particular order.
Tanya gave me a drone for Christmas in 2019, and one of my first true opportunities to use it came in March when Tanya and I took a day trip to the Olympic Peninsula. After a short hike, I flew the drone over the Duckabush and Dosewallips River deltas on Hood Canal. This shot from the Duckabush is my favorite of that day (you can see more in this post) and indeed my favorite drone shot of all last year. Of course, I didn’t use it too many times before I lost it (see Little Redfish Lake below – luckily, Tanya gave me a drone for Christmas 2020, and hopefully she will not be getting me another in 2021). In the above shot, I really like the interplay of the colors in the water, the shape of the islands, and all the seals sunbathing upon them (those little blobs on the southern end of the islands are seals). It has the hallmarks of a good drone shot (in my opinion) – patterns and textures not normally seen from the ground.
Little Redfish Lake
While Tanya and I spent most of 2020 home because of the pandemic, by September we decided we we’d risk going out on a camping trip to Idaho and Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks. For most of the trip, we felt good about braving the pandemic by largely maintaining social distance from other campers and tourists, though at times, especially in Yellowstone, that was difficult (see Satisfied Grizzly below). We spend three nights camping at Little Redfish Lake at the base of the Sawtooth Mountains near Stanley, Idaho. Though most the campgrounds in the area were full, it was easy to keep to ourselves.
I took a lot of good images in the Stanley area, and though I probably took better sunrise shots from Redfish Lake, this stitched panoramic image of Little Redfish Lake is one of my favorites from trip to the Sawtooths. I shot it on our first morning there, just steps from our campsite. Seeing that first sunrise on the Sawtooths was magical.
Besides the beautiful light of that first morning, this image is a favorite because of the bittersweet memory of my last drone flight. On our final day in the Stanley area, I was flying my drone over Little Redfish Lake and had taken some good images, or at least I thought had. But I was never ever to confirm that, because when I was flying the drone back to our campsite, the drone lost contact with the remote control and decided to land in the middle of the lake. I will always remember Little Redfish Lake, both for its beautiful light and for one drowned drone.
This is one of the last shots I took in Yellowstone National Park on that trip back in September. Frankly, it is not that great of a shot – shooting long distance through fog does not make for technically good images. But capturing a shot of a grizzly resting upon its kill was a highlight of the trip. I posted this shot previous and tell there the back story of how this grizzly killed and partially buried his prize bull elk. As this bear is near a road and had been on his kill several days prior to me taking this shot, you might imagine the spot was popular with photographers and wildlife enthusiasts. And you would be right. In order to capture this shot, I had to drive about a 1/2 mile down the road to find a parking spot, and then brave being shoulder to shoulder with many other photographers, few of which were masking up. But since I didn’t get sick, I think the result was worth the risk.
Like the grizzly shot, I’ve posted this image (and the Bellowing Bison below as well) before, but not with the backstory. As mentioned, on our trip we also went to Grand Teton National Park. The weather was good the five days we were in the park except for thick smoke from wildfires. That really put a damper on my landscape shooting. But luckily, Grand Teton is an excellent wildlife park as well. While you still need to be lucky to see (let alone photograph) some animals there, such as moose and bears, pronghorns are relatively easy to find. Though easy to find, they are often far from the road and spend most of their time standing around grazing, which doesn’t make for the most interesting shots. Our last morning in the park, we decided to leave the campground and drive the around the aptly named Antelope Flats Road rather than straight out to the highway. We were rewarded by seeing a herd of pronghorns. It was still early, and apparently many were still laying in the grass instead of up and grazing for the day. Or maybe it was just the young ones (teenagers?) not wanting to get out of bed for the day. Regardless, I love the look of these young ones peeking up through the grass.
Here is another of my favorites for Grand Teton National Park. There is a large herd of bison that generally roams the Antelope Flats area. They are easy to spot, just look for large dark beasts off in the distance. With luck they will be near a road and you can get some good shots. On this particular day, I was out doing photography while Tanya was back at the our camp. I was on my way back, taking Mormon Row (a fairly rough dirt road) as a short cut back to our campground. About a 1/2 mile down the road, I found the herd grazing near in the near distance and slowly wandering toward the road. I stopped and photographed for a half hour or so. Thinking that Tanya would like to see the herd up close, I called her and said I’d be there in about 15 minutes to pick her up. I slowly drove through the herd, which was starting to cross the road, and went to get Tanya. When we got back, the herd had not moved much. We pulled to a stop and slowly the herd surrounded our car. For large animals, they don’t make much noise. But then on young male, not 10 meters from our car started bellowing for some reason. I was able to capture him in mid-bellow giving me a look.
Tetons in Black and White
As I mentioned above, the wildfire smoke was thick most of the time we were in the Tetons. That made it tough for landscape photography. I dutifully rose for sunrise every morning, driving out to the must-shoot sites (Mormon Row barns, Oxbow Bend, etc.) only to have the mountains look like pale shadows of themselves due to the smoky haze. I photographed anyway, because how often will I be back?
Using the dehaze slider in Lightroom is one way to battle smoke, but if the smoke is too thick, it can only help so much. I’ve learned that converting to black and white, combined with a lot of processing, can save an image. I’ve converted several of my landscape shots from the Tetons to black and white for that reason. This one is a favorite largely because it is not one of the must-shoot locations, but rather just a stop along the road where I saw some isolated trees mimic the mountains. It was shot near mid-day, not a perfect time, but when battling wildfire smoke, it is often less hazy in the middle of the day (as the light travels through less smoke when coming vertically in rather than horizontally during the golden hours).
A Simple Field
This is a scene from Yellowstone, just down the road a couple miles from the grizzly. I took a lot of images in Yellowstone of steaming and smoldering thermal features (see Blue Hole below), but Yellowstone is so much more than that. It’s a huge wilderness, a mix of high elevation prairies and forests without spectacular mountain scenery like the Tetons (or indeed portions of the Cascade Mountains here in Washington). This image, I think, shows a part of Yellowstone that most people drive right by and perhaps don’t appreciate as much as they should. Here, I like the simplicity of the image – a wandering creek, a golden-red meadow, and a broad cloud-filled sky. Would have been nice to have a couple bison standing in the field, but you can’t have everything.
In Yellowstone, I shot images of Old Faithful and several other geysers spouting water. However, my favorite image of any thermal features there is this shot of Cistern Spring in the Norris Geyser Basin. If you do a Google image search of Cistern Spring, you will see that most of the images show the water as green where deep and yellowish around the edges where shallow. Yet when I was there, it was the beautiful milky blue color that contrasted so well with beige and browns of the ground and the dark grey cloudy sky. Being a geologist, I speculated on why the color difference, and perhaps my fellow geologist/photographer friend Duncan Foley, who is an expert on the thermal features of Yellowstone, can comment on my speculation. I understand that Cistern Spring is connected underground to the nearby Steamboat Geyser (the largest geyser in the world). Steamboat Geyser doesn’t erupt very often, but when it does, Cistern Spring drains than slowly refills. As it turned out, Steamboat Geyser is in an active phase this year (erupting over 40 times), and it erupted for an hour and 17 minutes just three days before I took this photograph. That was a major eruption, since most of its eruptions are considerably less than an hour long. My speculation is that the eruption of Steamboat Geyser shook loose silt and clay particles in the underground water works, causing the milky blue color in Cistern Spring as it refilled. Regardless of whether this is true, the spring was beautiful that day.
Cliffs and Sky
Tanya and I made several other shorter trips during the year, though fewer than we would during a “normal” year. In May, we drove over the Cascades to do a hike at Sun Lakes State Park in central Washington. After our hike, we drove the rough dirt road to Dry Falls Lake. The weather was changing and brought with it these fantastic clouds. It was about a half hour before sunset, and warm light was painting the cliffs. Being spring, the vegetation in this desert area still had a fair amount of green. It all added up to one of my favorite shots of the year.
In late August, I took a backpacking trip by myself to Mount Adams. In a non-pandemic year, I’d probably would have found someone to go with me, but solo seemed to be the thing to do this year. I spent one night at High Camp (see my last blog post) and a second night below High Camp at a spot several hundred meters off the Pacific Crest Trail. The image above was shot just a couple steps from my tent at that second spot. While on the trip, I took many images of Mount Adams, Mount Rainier, and Mount St. Helens, but my favorite shot of the entire trip is this one showing of a series of repeating mountain ridges shortly after sunset. If I count correctly, it there are eight sets of ridges in this photo. Their dark blues contrast wonderfully with the fiery reds and yellows of the post-sunset sky.
I’ve been seeking a shot like this one for for over a year as I explained in an earlier blog post this year. No wonder it one of my favorites of the year! The full moon rises over Rainier only a couple times a year as viewed from Tacoma, and I’ve made several attempts to capture it. On August 1st, the last occurrence of the event in 2020, I was finally able to get a combination of warn sunset light and a cloudless eastern sky. And I only had to travel about a mile from my house to photograph it. That was a bonus.
I’m at the point in my day job as a groundwater geologist that I rarely get to leave to office, rather I’m tied to my desk directing young geologists in the field. However, this year my firm is on a team picked to do an environmental impact statement concerning a dam replacement at Eightmile Lake in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness Area. A dam in a wilderness area you say, how can that be? Well the dam was there first; the wilderness declaration came much later. However, the dam is now unsafe and needs to be replaced. As you might imagine, this is a bit contentious, and as a neutral party working on the EIS, I’m looking forward to many interesting meetings in the new year on this project. Because of the contentious nature of the project, I thought it best that I visit the dam site myself. Contracting on the project took awhile, creating a very short field season to actually visit the lake – basically two or three weeks in October prior to snow covering the trail (waiting until the spring thaw would be too late for the field work). So in mid-October, I hiked up to the lake with two of my co-workers. A wind storm had come through a couple days prior to our hike, tossing dead trees (from a fire several years earlier) down across the trail like matchsticks. We had word from other consultants on our team, that had tried to hike to the lake the day before, that they turned back because of the downed trees and, oh by the way, it was miserable weather with a mix of rain and snow. We almost called it off, but decided to try for the lake. And I’m so glad we did. We made it through the downed trees without too much effort and got to the lake near mid-day. The lake was a mirror, and fresh snow from the day before decorated the nearby mountains. This stitched panorama shot from that day became one of my favorites of the year.
My visit in September to Grand Teton National Park was marred by wildfire smoke. I came home with a few good shots; and lots of shots from good locations that would have been good save for the smoke. One way I found to improve the shots where smoke was an issue was to convert to black and white. This definitely saved some of my images, and perhaps I will do a separate post on that sometime soon. Right now, however, I’d like to tell you about a new photo guide to Grand Teton National Park that I’ve written for Photohound.
My guide covers some of the basics of shooting in the park as well as gives an itinerary of what to shoot if you only have a day or two. The guide describes 18 spots in total, including many well known spots and a few relatively unknown ones. There is definitely many other great photo locations in and adjacent to the park, and if you have some, I encourage you to add them to Photohound and improve this guide. I’m sure to go back someday in the not to distant future and would like to see you best Grand Teton locations.
Here are a few shots from the guide. Many more can be found on Photohound.
Stanley, Idaho is a small town in the heart of the Sawtooth National Recreation Area located near the headwaters of the Salmon River. The views of the Sawtooth Mountains in the area around Stanley are amazing, with the aptly named mountains abruptly rising thousands of feet from the Salmon River valley floor. There are many good photo locations in the Stanley area. Below I describe a few that I found in the three days I spent there last month.
A few miles south of Stanley is Redfish and Little Redfish Lakes. These lakes are named after sockeye salmon, turning red in fresh water while swimming 900 miles in from the Pacific Ocean, who spawn in the lakes. Today, only a handful of salmon can make the journey due to man-made obstacles, so the natural run is now supplemented with a fish hatchery. Redfish Lake is the larger and more developed of the two.
The view of the Sawtooth Mountains doesn’t get much better than from the Redfish Lake shoreline. The best time to capture the scene is in early morning while the lake is calm and the mountains reflect in the water, and prior to any motorboat activity on the lake. The light is not good in the afternoon, and sunset shots will only work well if there are colorful clouds in the sky.
There are several accessible spots along the shoreline to shoot, but perhaps the best spot in near the swimming area at the Outlet Picnic Area and Campground. East of the swimming area, the shoreline curves toward the mountains. Northwest of the swimming area, there are several logs in the water that can serve as foreground elements. Use a wide-angle lens to capture the entire set of mountains or a normal to short telephoto lens to make the peaks more prominent in your frame.
Little Redfish Lake
Like it’s bigger brother lake, Little Redfish Lake presents a wonderful view of the Sawtooth Mountains, especially in the early morning when the water is calm. The best location for shooting the lake and mountains is along the shoreline of the Chinook Bay Campground on the eastern end of the lake. You will need a wide-angle lens to capture the scene here, or alternatively you can stitch several images together to create a panorama. The best light will be in the morning, particularly at sunrise. Similar to Redfish lake, sunset shots will only work if there are colorful clouds in the sky lit by the setting sun.
To reach the Redfish Lakes, turn onto Redfish Lake Road from State Highway 75 about 4.3 miles south of Stanley. For Little Redfish, turn into Chinook Bay Campground after about 0.4 miles. Parking can be difficult if not camping at the campground (alternatively, you can camp at the Mountain View Campground, slightly further down the road, and walk to back along the shoreline). Parking on Redfish Lake Road is only allowed in designated areas and parking in the campgrounds is reserved for campers. The campgrounds are both first-come first-served and typically fill up early in the high season. Both typically close in mid-September.
To reach Redfish Lake, continue down Redfish Lake Road. At the round-about, take the second exit. In less than a mile, take the first right turn, and then another immediate right into the Outlet day-use area parking. From the southern end of the parking lot, it is a short walk to the beach.
Another scenic, easily accessed lake in the region is Pettit Lake. This lake is perched below Parks and McDonald Peaks. The beach at the day-use area presents a good view of the lake and the nearby peaks. A wide-angle lens will allow you to capture a portion of the scene, but to get the whole mountain range in your composition, you will need to stitch together a panorama. Like at the Redfish Lakes, the best light will be at sunrise through early morning. These are also the best times to find calm water.
To reach Pettit Lake from Idaho Highway 75, turn west on Forest Road #208 signed for Pettit Lake (about 16 miles south of Stanley). After 1.6 miles, continue straight onto Forest Road #361 to go the day-use area. The beach is directly west of the parking area.
Yet another easily accessible and scenic lake is Stanley Lake, located north of Stanley. Stanley Lake is one of the few easily accessible spots in the Sawtooth National Recreational Area that is good for both sunrise and sunset shots. However, the best reflections will usually be found at sunrise or in the early morning. While there are multiple spots along the lake to shoot, I like the area near the boat launch where you can put the nearby shoreline in your frame as a foreground element. From here, use a medium wide-angle to normal lens. Unfortunately, if you want a wider view, you will likely get one of the “no wake” floats located offshore from the boat launch in your composition. To keep these these floats out of your shot, you may want to explore further east down the shoreline.
To reach Stanley Lake, travel north from Stanley on Idaho Highway 21 for about 4.5 miles and turn left onto Stanley Lake Road. You will reach the boat launch area in about 3.6 miles.
Stanley Lake Meadows
Nearby the western end of Stanley Lake is a large meadow with a wandering creek and wetlands. Stanley Lake Meadows is a great spot to photograph McGown Peak. In the meadow, there are several unofficial trails along the meandering creek. There is a good spot for photographing the mountains’ reflection in the creek located a short distance west of the day-use parking area. Try shooting with a wide-angle lens to include both the mountain and its reflection in your frame. Both early morning and late afternoon light should be good. The meadow can be quite wet, especially in spring and early summer. You may wish to use waterproof boots, and please take care not to trample the meadow plants. To reach the meadows, follow the directions above to Stanley Lake and park in the day-use area.
Stanley Creek Road
There is a nice view of the Sawtooth Range from Stanley Creek Road with wetlands in the foreground providing reflections. Stanley Creek Road (also known as Forest Road #653) crosses Valley Creek a short distance east of Highway 21. At Valley Creek, it would be difficult to get a reflection of the mountains in the creek. However, a wetland on the south side of the road does the trick. Set up just off the edge of the road where the bushes give way to grass but before the hillside. While you might be tempted to go down into the grass to get closer to the water, expect to get your feet wet if you do as the grass here covers water rather than solid ground. You will probably want to shoot with a normal to short telephoto lens to prevent the road from being in your composition. The best light on the mountains will be in the morning, however, the foreground will be in shadow at that time. So you may want to use a split neutral density filter or HDR to control the contrast.
Highway 21 Viewpoints
There are many spots along Idaho Highway 21 north of Stanley that provide good views of the mountains. I like the spots where buck and rail fences line the road and provide foreground elements for compositions. All three spots described below are best at sunrise through early morning.
Iron Creek Road
One great spot for a shot of the mountains is at the intersection of the highway and Iron Creek Road, also known as Forest Road #619. Here a buck and rail fence runs along the south side of road. With a wide-angle lens, you can use the fence as a leading line element into your frame with the mountains in the background. Alternatively, you can use a short to medium telephoto lens to zoom in on the mountains and have the fence, further up the hill, as a linear element in the foreground.
Forest Road #169 intersects with Idaho Highway 21 about 2 miles west of Stanley, Idaho. There is plenty of room at the road intersection to park off the highway.
At this particular spot, there is a corner of two buck and rail fences, allowing both to be used in compositions. Try shooting close to the fence, making the roadside fence a prominent element in your composition with the perpendicular fence adding visual interest in the mid-ground. The bushes behind the roadside fence can be used to frame the mountains. Or shoot further up the bank of the highway for a different look, shooting over the tops of the bushes. The spot is located on Idaho Highway 21 a short distance east of milepost 129, about 1.4 miles west of Stanley. There are small pull offs on both sides of the highway directly at the spot providing easy parking.
Roadside Exhibit Pullover
About a quarter mile closer to Stanley from the milepost 129 spot described above are pullovers (one on each side of the road) for a roadside exhibit. Park at the one on the south side of the road and take in the view of the Sawtooths with a buck and rail fence running out into the meadow and another fence running parallel to the road. Both these fences make good foreground elements and the one running into the field can be used as a leading lines To get the complete set of mountains in your frame, you will need a wide-angle lens. A normal lens can be used to make the mountains more prominent.
If you are interested in the history of the area as well as the scenery, try driving up the Yankee Fork Salmon River. The turnoff to the Yankee Fork Road is about 13.5 miles east of Stanley on Highway 75. The highway follows the Salmon River, providing good views along the way. Yankee Fork Road intersects the highway at Sunbeam, where there is the remains of an old dam which formerly, before it was breached, provided power to nearby mining operations.
After reading about the dam’s story on interpretive signs overlooking the dam site, turn north on Yankee Fork Road and follow the river. Soon you will see multiple crescent-shaped mounds of tailings, one after another, stacked across the valley floor. These were left by the Yankee Fork Gold Dredge, as it worked its way up the river mining for placer gold. Besides the dredge, there are ghost towns and old cemeteries to visit.
Eight miles up the road, you will reach the remains of Bonanza City. There isn’t much left today except a few old buildings, most in various states of decay. In 1881, at the height of it glory, the town had a population of about 600 people and featured main street with wooden sidewalks, several stores, a post office, a hotel and more. After two devastating fires, and with the nearby town of Custer (see below) providing an alternative place for business, the town faded. The building shown above is perhaps the best preserved; it is located just off the Yankee Fork Road.
About half a mile from the Bonanza City town site, up the West Fork Yankee Fork Road, is the Bonanza Cemetery. Most of the grave monuments in the Bonanza are wooden markers labeled as “unknown.” Some are surrounded by wooden fences, others are standing in the sagebrush. There are a few stone monuments as well, recording deaths in the 1880s and 1890s.
Continue another 1/2 mile up the West Fork Yankee Fork Road then turn right at a trailhead parking area and continue about a 1/4 mile up a rough road (may not be suitable for low clearance cars) to reach another cemetery, this one called Boothill. There are only three graves at Boothill, those of Elizabeth Anges “Lizzie” King and her two husbands.
According to the interpretive sign there, Lizzie’s first husband, Richard, was left dead after a heated argument with a business partner in July 1879. Lizzie and her close friend, Charles Franklin, buried Richard here and purchased two additional adjoining gravesites. A wedding between Charles and Lizzie seemed eminent, when in mid 1880, Lizzie traveled to Butte, Montana looking for employees for a dance hall she has recently opened. She returned with Robert Hawthorne, and the two were married on August 5, 1880. Six days later, both Lizzie and her new husband were shot dead. They were buried next to Richard. The murder was never solved, but Charles soon moved to a secluded cabin near Stanley. Years later, when he died, he was found with a locket containing Lizzie’s photo in his hand. Due to the circumstances surrounding the deaths, the residents of Bonanza decided to open a new cemetery, leaving Lizzie and her husbands the only souls on Boothill.
Yankee Fork Gold Dredge
The Snake River Mining Company purchased the mineral rights to the various placer mining claims along the Yankee Fork, and in 1939 moved a gold dredge to the river. It was assembled in place and started working the deep river gravels upstream in search of gold. The dredge operated until 1952. After dredging all the claims owned by the company, it was left in place. In total, the dredge recovered about $1,200,000 in gold from over 6 million cubic yards of river gravel. Today, restoration of some of the tailings is taking place.
The dredge is located located about a half mile north of Bonanza on Yankee Fork Road. It is open for tours in the summer (though not this year due to the Covid pandemic).
Another mile and a half north of the dredge is the ghost town of Custer. Custer was founded in 1879 near the General Custer mill, which was completed in 1880 and processed ore from nearby mines. Custer eventually grew in size and became bigger than Bonanza City. It reached its heyday in about 1896 with several restaurants, a hotel, and many saloons. When the mill closed in 1904, people left the town. By 1910, only 12 families remained, and with time, Custer became a ghost town.
Today, much of the town has been restored and is preserved by by the Yankee Fork Historical Association, the Idaho Department of Parks and Recreation, and the Salmon-Challis National Forest. The schoolhouse is now a museum, and many buildings are open to the public.
Tanya and I returned from our trip to the Tetons and Yellowstone last night. Above is one of the last shots I captured while in Yellowstone. This grizzly brought down this bull elk on September 18th by chasing it into the Yellowstone River, mauling and drowning it, and bringing it back to shore to eat. The drama was captured on video by a lucky photographer, which you can see here on YouTube. My photo was taken several days later, on the morning of the 21st. According to the ranger, the bear will stay and feed on the elk for days, probably until the local wolf pack arrives and chase him off. The bear has buried the portion of the elk it is eating to hide the smell.
The bear is camped with his kill on the far side of the Yellowstone River from the road. The park service made a no stopping zone directly across the river from the bear, but is allowing people to view the bear from slightly up and down stream. I drove by the spot several times before stopping to take photos. As you might imagine, the place was packed with photographers and and other visitors (many without masks and not keeping social distance). I went on Monday morning (our last morning in the park), hoping for a smaller crowd. Indeed, the crowd was a bit smaller, but perhaps it was because it was foggy and, at least when I arrived, you couldn’t see the far side of the river. I stayed for about an hour and a half, and the fog partially lifted.
In this shot, to me, the bear looks quite satisfied. Prior to this shot, as the fog started clearing, I could see the bear busily piling more dirt on the back end of the elk, presumably having finished a morning meal earlier when the fog was took thick to see.
This was shot with my Tamron 150-600 mm at 600 mm and then cropped in some as well. The raw image is hazy due to the fog, and it took a healthy dose of the dehaze filter in Lightroom to bring out detail.
I’m posting from Grand Teton National Park. Wildfire smoke has hampered my photography, but at least Tanya and I can see the mountains (unlike a couple days ago when we first arrived). And it is much better here than back at home. Smoke was less of an issue last week when we camped at Little Redfish Lake near Stanley, Idaho. Above is a shot of the sunrise over Redfish Lake one morning last week. I’ll be posting more from our trip when I get a chance. Until then, enjoy this quick shot.