Well, it’s that time of year again–Jim Goldstein once again is putting together his collection of Top 10 lists for everyone’s best work this year. It’s a Herculean task he undertakes, and I’m very grateful he does this each year. In addition to contributing to Jim’s list, it’s an excellent opportunity for me to assess my own work (and my travels) and form up my photographic goals for the coming years. Below are my 10 favorite from this year, with a short story-behind-the-shot for each one.
1. Annular Eclipse Over Wukoki Pueblo
This image involved more planning and research than any shot I’ve ever taken. I knew I wanted to capture the eclipse over something ancient, if possible, to amplify the primal feelings such an astronomical event stirs within us all. I researched the path the eclipse would take over the western U.S., and quickly decided on the stunning Wukoki Pueblo in the Wupatki National Monument just north of Flagstaff, Arizona. Once I’d chosen my spot, I set about building my own solar filter (quite a simple task, surprisingly), researching the best angle from which to shoot the eclipse over the pueblo, and then the usual trip planning. It was a somewhat more crazed road trip than usual–I logged over 1,500 miles in a single weekend, slept very little, and also managed to squeeze in some other photo stops including a really lovely sunset at the eastern rim of the Grand Canyon. Back at home, a little careful processing and two-image layering, and this was the result.
2. Monsoon Sunset Over Sea Stack, El Matador State Beach (Malibu)
One of my photo resolutions this year was to spend more time shooting seascapes. I live a mere 12 miles from the coast, but rarely choose it as a subject for shooting. I changed that this year, and had several fruitful outings to the beach. This one is my favorite from southern California; we don’t get a lot of sunset drama around here (darn that nice weather!), but monsoon season brings in some incredible clouds and storms. The storm system that moved into southern California right at sunset would prove to be the last monsoon season of the year, and I love the way those crazy clouds framed the big sea stack so well.
3. Blue Oak Under Stormy Skies, Sierra Foothills
Another area I spent considerably more time in this year than in past years were the Sierra foothills west of Yosemite National Park. The rolling hills are dotted with beautiful California blue oaks, and turn an intense green during late winter and early spring. We’d gone out hoping to find some wildflowers on this day (this year, like last, was pretty much a bust for wildflowers), and instead had great fun shooting a spring thunderstorm that lingered over the foothills all day. Those oaks would prove to be one of my favorite photographic subjects this year, and you’ll see them appear a couple more times in this list. What I love about this shot is the almost surreally minimalistic quality–a landscape distilled to its most basic: tree, horizon, sky.
4. Passing Winter Storm, Merced River Canyon
I’ve tried to leave out icons for the most part, as I did last year–but I’ve made an exception for a couple of shots this time, including this view of Bridalveil Fall as it stands sentry at the western end of Yosemite Valley. Generally speaking, I find the Merced River Canyon on the western border of Yosemite National Park to be one of the most beautiful areas in the park (and in all of California, for that matter). It’s not horribly over-photographed (yet), and provides dramatic views of the park’s soaring granite canyon walls. On this morning, a late-winter snowstorm was just beginning to clear. Highway 120 had opened only minutes earlier to 4WD traffic, and was still a little sketchy as we climbed high above the river canyon. The sketchiness was worth it, as we were treated to this stunning view of a very snowy, icy and extra-beautiful Merced River Canyon.
5. Sunset and Silhouetted Oak, Catheys Valley
Revisiting the Sierra foothills again, this sunset from late January is one of the best I witnessed all year long. A friend and I had been photographing Yosemite most of the weekend, and decided to head out of the valley early on this day–it was going to be a clear, colorless sunset in the park, but we noticed clouds building up nicely to the west, so we set out in search of a sunset in the foothills. And it did not disappoint. We found some beautiful oaks near Catheys Valley, their bare winter branches silhouetted against the sky, and shot the intense color well after the end of “official” sunset. I chose this image for the incredible rainbow of color against one of the old oaks.
6. Sunset Pano, Second Beach (Olympic National Park)
I traveled to Seattle in June to accept a HUGE honor–first place in the landscape category for the International Conservation Photography Awards–and naturally took advantage of the time to visit with a dear friend and fellow photographer while we checked out some of the beautiful sights in the Pacific Northwest. We made the very muddy hike out to Second Beach on the Olympic Peninsula for sunset one evening, and I decided to use a panoramic shot to capture the grandness of this beach with its iconic sea stacks (accented with a lovely sun star).
7. Setting Perigee Moon, Salton Sea
I traveled to the desert to capture this year’s “super moon,” and chose the dead trees that dot the southeastern shore of the Salton Sea as my setting for sunrise’s moonset. These trees have always reminded me a little of the more iconic dead trees of Botany Bay in South Carolina, and the Salton Sea in general has always been a fascinating if somewhat surreal photographic subject. I was fortunate to get just the slightest bit of cloud cover at sunrise–enough to keep the rising sun’s light in check but not so much that the big full moon was obscured.
8. Half-Bare Aspens, Bishop Canyon (Eastern Sierra Nevada)
Bishop Canyon with its expansive groves of quaking aspen is my number one must-shoot location every year. Fall color is my favorite thing to shoot, and I am especially fond of the beautiful white-barked aspens in any season. Fall color was a bit “off” this year, with the timing in some areas a little earlier than usual–including Bishop Canyon. For this particular image, that was a very good thing–I love the painterly quality of the smattering of leaves that remained on the trees in this grove, and it’s my favorite fall color image from this year.
9. Blue Oak and Clearing Fog, Sierra Foothills
And one last shot with my favorite subject this year–oak trees. This is some of the most challenging light I’ve ever shot. Fog makes for some of the best shooting conditions, but there’s a fleeting few moments when the fog begins to clear and the rising sun breaks through, turning everything to lightbeams and mist. I was very fortunate to have that fleeting light one morning last month, and shot it pouring through the branches of this old oak.
10. Winter Storm and Sunrise, Gates of the Valley (Yosemite National Park)
Last year, I left all icons out of my 10 best list–but I just can’t resist this one for 2012. It’s one of my favorite views in the park, with the Merced River flanked on each side by El Capitan and Bridalveil Fall (and if you follow my posts on Flickr, you may have noticed I have a bit of a fixation with El Cap–I will shoot it from every angle and in every kind of light, because I am endlessly fascinated with that massive hunk of granite). This was such a special day in Yosemite–the first big winter storm of the season moved through the day and night before, leaving a cloak of snow over at-peak fall color, making for unusual conditions and muted color on the vibrantly orange-gold oaks and cottonwoods. Gates of the Valley (also called Valley View) is more often considered a sunset location, but with just the right kind of light, it’s also lovely at sunrise. Such were the conditions that greeted us on this morning, with the clearing storm clouds turned a soft, soft pink over this iconic location.
Thank you for viewing my “best of” list, and I would like to wish everyone a warm and wonderful holiday season, and a prosperous and happy new year!