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My Favorites of 2020

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.

Duckabush Delta

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.

Satisfied Grizzly

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.

Peek-a-Boo Pronghorns

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.

Teton Bison

Bellowing Bison

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.

 

Blue Hole

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.

Repeating Ridges

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. 

Moon Topper

Rainier Moon

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.

Eightmile Lake

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. 

 


High Camp

Every November and December I try to edit the photos that I took for the year in preparation of sending them in for copyright registration. This gives me a good opportunity to find a few good images that I hadn’t really looked at or worked with earlier in the year. This year, I took a solo backpacking trip to High Camp on Mount Adams in late August. After I returned, I barely looked at the images I took because I was preparing for our trip to the Tetons and Yellowstone in September. So, with the year-end editing, I finally took a good look at the images from my Mount Adams trip and thought I’d post a few.

High Camp is located on the north side of Mount Adams inside the Mount Adams Wilderness Area. It is just shy of 7,000 feet in elevation and is about as high on the mountain you can go without a climber’s permit (required above 7,000 feet). Of course, the view of Mount Adams is fantastic, but it also has good views of Mount Saint Helens to the west and Mount Rainier to the north. High Camp is located at the edge of a large alpine meadow and great wildflower fields in August. This year, I was a bit late for the wildflower show. There were wildflower present, but it was definitely past the peak.

High Camp is a 10-mile roundtrip hike, via the Killen Creek Trail off of Forest Road 2329, with an elevation gain of 2,300 feet. Much of the elevation gain occurs in the final two miles, where the High Camp Trail branches off the Pacific Crest Trail. Though a popular spot, there are plenty of places to camp at High Camp. I picked a spot slightly sheltered by trees that still had a view of Adams to the front and Rainier to the back. The photos I’ve included with this post give a visual journey of a evening, night, and morning at High Camp.

You can read a little more about it and see a few more photos in my spot description of High Camp on Photohound.

The trail crosses a scree slope just below High Camp.

Moonrise over the shoulder of Mount Adams at sunset.

Mount Adams during the blue hour

Milky Way over Mount Adams shortly after moon set

Mountain goats lit by the rising sun on the shoulder of Mount Adams

Mount Saint Helens at sun rise

Mount Rainier at sun rise

 


Quick Shot – Grizzly

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.


Rainier Moon Success

Rainier Moon

Rainier MoonAfter trying for about a year, I finally captured the shot of the full moon (or almost full moon) rising over Mount Rainier. I’ve discussed my various attempts at capturing this shot in several previous posts, including this one from August 2019 and this one from earlier this year. Using the Photographers Ephemeris, I calculated what days the nearly full moon will rise behind Mount Rainier from spots near to Tacoma. This happens every year in June, July, and August.

I say almost full moon because I wanted to capture the moon just before sunset, and on day of the actual full moon, it ususally rises after sunset. The shots here were taken two days before the official full moon. My other attempts, described below, were the day before the full moon.

Last August, I went to the Fox Island Bridge along with several friends to capture the rising moon. We did see the moon rise behind Rainier, but the clouds partially obscured the moon and the light on the mountain itself was not optimal. I went again last June and had similar results. In July, I again met two friends, this time at Dune Park in Tacoma. However, the mountain and the rising moon were not visible due to clouds (though I did get some other worthwhile shots).

Finally, last month I had success, as you can see from the shot above and those below. Once again I journeyed to Dune Park, and all the necessary elements for a successful shot fell into place. I had the added bonus of seeing a dolphin frolicking off the park’s shores – the first time I’ve ever seen a dolphin there. Were the shots worth waiting and planning over an entire year? You be the judge.

Moon Topper

Rainier Moon 2

Rainier Moon 3

Dolphin Play


Principles of Photographic Improvisation – There Are No Mistakes

Here it is almost the end of August and I haven’t posted since mid-July. How easy it is to get out of the blogging habit. Even staying mostly home during the pandemic, it is easy to get wrapped up in things and forget to post. Well, I probably should finish the series I started on the Principles of Photographic Improvisation from the book The Soul of the Camera by David duChemin. My previous two posts covered the first three principles Saying Yes, Contribute Something, and Try Something. The fourth principle is There Are no Mistakes.

Wow, there are no mistakes. Seriously!. I have trouble with this one. It seems like I make mistakes all the time. I use the wrong f-stop or ISO, I try to hand-hold at too slow a shutter speed, or I focus on the background instead of the subject. I delete a lot of images after I download them. Not just ones with bad exposure, but also because I typically shoot multiple shots with the same composition with slightly different exposures or trying to capture the “right” moment. For example, I shot my niece’s socially distanced wedding last weekend, taking around 1,500 images. I’m slowly editing those down, and will probably delete 1,000 to 1,200 of them.

DuChemin talks about how photographers often talk about their “keeper rate” as if photography is “a baseball game and someone out there is recording our stats.” Guilty as charged, Mr. duChemin. I mentally think about my keeper rate, not so much as how many I keep (I probably keep too many), but how many are worth keeping and turning into something other than a raw snapshot. DuChemin continues, describing how his own language is often littered with negativity, for example, saying that he went out shooting and “every frame was crap.” (Another admission, I’ve said that too.) He says such an attitude suggests that “we should go out, press the shutter, and end up with a great photograph. As if musicians sit down at the piano and come up with a finished piece the first try. They do not. But they might find a few melodies or harmony that provides clues about the rest of the song the will, eventually, become a classic.”

He asks, “there was a reason you pressed the shutter; what was it?” He’s right. Every time we press that shutter button, we do so for a reason. Our eye saw something and we tried to capture it. Our capture may have been imperfect, or even plain bad, but there was a reason. You need to explore that reason, examine why you tried, and learn from the experience to, perhaps, do better next time. DuChemin suggests those imperfect frames are “part of a process. If you discard them without first giving them a chance to speak, you’ll miss whatever possibilities they were just about to whisper to you. That’s how the creative process works…”

If you are like me, you might come upon a great scene and you start shooting. But as you shoot, you change up the composition a little, or pick a different aperture, or move over ten feet, or get down low. As you explore the scene with your camera, you might learn from you earliest shots, and the images grow better. When I’m editing, most often the earliest shots in a series of images of the same subject are the ones that I throw away. Why, because they often they are bad. But also because I learned as I shot, and the later images are better. I might not keep them, but they are useful to me.  In that sense, he is correct, there are no mistakes.

In several posts ago, I mentioned how I’ve been trying to get a shot of Mount Rainier with the moon rising behind it. I tried in June without much success – while you could see the moon and the mountain, the light didn’t cooperate with my vision for  the image. I tried again in July. This time, the mountain and the rising moon were covered by clouds. I tried again in August, and this time, I was successful (I’ll post those images in my next blog). Were those two earlier attempts mistakes? Were the images I did take not worthwhile?

The ones I took in June I will probably not do anything with. But I did learn from them; the experience helped me with my technique, and therefore, did help with my successful shots from August. And going out to shoot in July wasn’t a mistake either. I didn’t come home with any images of the moon, but I did shoot the three images featured here, as well as several other “keepers.” And I certainly wouldn’t call any of them mistakes. (In case you are wondering, all three were taken from Dune Park here in Tacoma.) So perhaps there are no mistakes, the only true mistake is not learning from our imperfect attempts.