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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.


Principles of Photographic Improvisation – Contribute Something and Try Something

In my last post, I mentioned how I am reading The Soul of the Camera, the Photographer’s Place in Picture-Making by David duChemin, and I described his first of four “rules” or “principles” of photographic improvisation – agreeing or to say “yes” and not “no.” Today, I look at the second and third principles – Contribute Something, and Try Something.

To contribute something, you need to make the scene your own. DuChemin explains, ” Photography is not objective… We bring our own thoughts, opinions, points of view, and interest to the scen and to every single decision, from aperture to focal length to shutter speed to composition. We chose what to include and exclude. It’s not so much about what’s there as it’s about what I see and how I see it.”

Say you travel to a famous landmark or scene and want to photograph it. Don’t worry about how others have done so, make the scene you own. Sure, take that one composition that you’ve seen before, the shot the maybe even inspired you to come in the first place, but then explore the subject scene on you own, making your own compositions. Or as DeChemin says, “Own it. Add to it. Make every photograph you create a collaboration with what’s before you.”

This, I think, directly relates to the third principle, try something. DuChemin urges his reads to “take a risk and try something. Don’t just wonder what would happen if you moved the camera over to the right. Move it! Slow the shutter, use a wide lens. Listen to the questions, but don’t let them go without a response. And if the first answer doesn’t work, try again.”

It doesn’t even have to be a famous scene, just maybe one you’ve been to or photographed many times before. Do you take the same shot again and again? Perhaps. But to improvise, you’ve got to make it new again for you. Maybe try black and white, or shoot it with your phone instead of you DSLR, or shoot only high-key images, whatever!  Sometimes to make it your own you need to try something different.

For example, for the past several years, I’ve been offering walking photo tours of downtown Seattle. These tours are great for my clients, as they see Seattle through fresh eyes. But I’ve seen it and shot it all before. It’s a real challenge for me to find something new. So on a couple trips, I pulled out the fish-eye lens. Now, a lot of what I shot didn’t work so well, but some of the images aren’t so bad. In fact, they are kind of fun, and definitely something I made my own by trying something I hadn’t done before, even after shooting the same places dozens of times before – such as Pioneer Square (above and below), the ferry terminal (below), and the waterfall garden (below). That is photographic improvisation.


Sun Lakes – Dry Falls State Park

Last week, as part of the gradual easing of its stay-at-home order, Washington State opened up the majority of state parks for day-use only. Knowing that I was going into photography withdrawal, Tanya suggested we head out on a photo day. Even though the parks were open, it was suggested people stay local. Well, local is a relative term, and being a Westerner, I don’t mind driving several miles – in this case 200 miles one way. Is that local? It was still in the State of Washington and we didn’t need to stay overnight – that’s local to me.

So last Saturday we packed up a picnic and the camera gear and headed off to Sun Lakes – Dry Falls State Park. Why there? One, it has the raw beauty of the channeled scablands. But perhaps more importantly, I thought there wouldn’t be as many people there as in closer state parks. The weather was sunny and warm, and there was bound to be more than a few people out enjoying the state parks on this first weekend since the pandemic started that they were open. And while there were a fair number of people at the park, the park’s parking lots was not crowded – unlike the several hiking trailheads we passed on the way over the mountains that were overflowing with cars. In fact, the parking for the trail we took in Sun Lakes State Park only had one other car (out of four parking spots – so with us, it was half full; is that crowded?).

Drone shot of Alkali Lake

Sun Lakes State Park is located in the Grand Coulee. The park itself contains at least four lakes, and there are a number of other lakes further down the coulee. That gave this trip the added bonus of having a place to stop before reaching the park for me to fly my drone (drones are not allowed in Washington State Parks without a permit) while Tanya took Benson, our 8-month old, 102-pound Newfoundland, on his first swim. We picked a spot along Alkali Lake, and while Tanya and Benson frolicked in the water, I checked out Alkali Lake and Lake Lenore from the air.

Then it was on to Sun Lakes. The state park has a developed camping (closed) and day-use area on Park Lake with nice green grass and large shade trees. Instead of stopping there, we took the road to Deep Lake, which is developed with a small picnic area with natural vegetation and a boat launch. There were about 10 cars there and several dozen people swimming or fishing in the lake. So instead of taking the lakeside trail, we decided to take the Caribou Trail with climbs the hillside above the lake (not sure why it is named the Caribou Trail, caribou are definitely not native to this desert terrain).

Though I’ve been to Sun Lakes perhaps a dozen times before, I had never been to Deep Lake or on the Caribou Trail, so this was new territory to me. I knew the trail climbed above up toward the top of the coulee, but I didn’t know if it had a view of Deep Lake from up there. It is a relatively short trail, and the official trail ends when reaching the top of the cliffs. No view from there. So we kept walking on a faint unofficial trail, and then, eventually, set off cross country to find a view. And sure enough, we found a view of Deep Lake far below. We sat on the rocks, pulled out our water bottles, and drank in both water and scenery.

After shooting for 15 or 20 minutes, we headed back down the car. We don’t quite have our car setup organized well with the new dog yet. Trying to fit the dog and all the camera gear in the car along with food and drink (which must be separated from the dog) is a challenge. I decided to pack the camera backpack in a different spot after the hike, to be loaded after the dog got in. Unfortunately, after loading the dog, I forgot about the bag and started to back out onto the road only to run over something. You guessed it, my camera backpack!

Luckily, my camera was not in the pack, and a quick check didn’t show anything broken. We drove back to Deep Lake for our picnic dinner. There were a few less people, and we got a picnic table isolated from others. While eating, I checked out the gear in more detail. All the lens seemed to be working okay. However, there are cracks on a portion of the barrel of the Tamron 150-600 mm zoom. Also, the split neutral-density filter is history. Hopefully the lens can be repaired (currently the Tamron repair shop, which is in New York, is closed due to the pandemic).

After dinner, we drove over to Dry Falls Lake, which, not surprisingly, is located at the base of Dry Falls. It was an hour or so before sunset and the light on the cliffs of Dry Falls was particularly nice. The featured shot above is a 4-shot panorama of Dry Falls and Dry Falls Lake.

If you plan on making the trip out to Sun Lakes – Dry Falls State Park, be forewarned that the road to Dry Falls Lake is extremely rough. We did okay in our SUV, and I do think most regular passenger cars would make it, but some cars without much ground clearance could have difficulties. The road to Deep Lake is paved.

We left before sunset so we could get home before 11 pm. All in all, even with the the misadventure with my camera backpack, it was a good day. As always, I welcome your comments.

The view of Deep Lake from near the end of the Caribou Trail.

Telephoto shot of some of the cliffs along Deep Lake.

This is the west end of Deep Lake. The picnic area is in the cottonwood trees next to the boat launch.

Some of the cliffs near Dry Falls Lake.

Wide-angle shot of Dry Falls and Dry Falls Lake