Best of 2020

Squeaking in on the last day of February. My bad. Mostly for not scheduling the Cypress entries earlier. I didn’t want to do this post without first blogging about some of the shots that would make it. So here it is, and it was hard as usual. There were some that I originally didn’t include thinking that it was too many, then I changed my mind. How many I pick is how many are worthy and it can be one or one hundred. It doesn’t matter.

Some of these shots represent the best I could do in the field – finding and recognizing something great, composition, framing, leading lines, light – all of it managed while standing in front of it. Some of these shots represent the best I could do in processing – subtle (and hopefully skillful) use of adjustment brushes, graduated and radial filters, spot healing and color management. It was a big year for growing into my Lightroom skills and putting a toe into Photoshop waters. First though, it had to work in the camera. A bad image can’t be saved by software. Just my opinion, but there it is.

As usual, these are presented in chronological order because it was so hard to pick them as a group and I can’t even try to pick a single best or favorite. Also as usual I’ll go on and on about why I love it and why it’s my best.

This first one was made after a painful and unexpected health issue. I made a full recovery, but I wasn’t sure how long I’d be laid up and it was a very emotional time for me. Looking back on this day, I remember actually crying in frustration because I couldn’t get where I wanted to go, but persevering to remember this trail and marvel at all the perfect light I found. It was nature healing my psyche and it wouldn’t be the only time. My peace was restored and this image represents that so well. It was taken on the way back to the car so those are my footprints. I love the line the trail takes and the shadows of the trees on the smooth snow. At the time I was using Luminar and edited to bring out the softness and tranquility and the warmth of the lowering sun.

It’s a number of things

Next is another snowshoeing trek. This time near Ripley Creek after a snowfall. It was fresh and crisp, but hushed and intimate at the same time. I just love how inviting this image is. Every time I see it I want to climb in and keep ‘shoeing. And I got lucky with the wind, or lack of it – the snow is still clinging to the trees! Processing images with snow is tricky. First you have to expose properly – 1-2 stops over will get snow reasonably white. But it is rarely pure white. Instead it reflects the sky most of the time. And in shadows will appear intensely blue to your sensor if not your eye. This photo didn’t need that much editing – the snow on the right is in shade and somewhat blue and on the left in the yellow of the sun, I just increased the exposure on the right to be more even and kept the blue in the sky. Reduced highlights on the path to keep things from blowing out. A touch of gold in the highlights and here it is –

Lucky to live here

This next one features what I like to call lickable light. Small landscapes are hard to pull off, but I think this one works. The tree (a cedar), the moss, the ice and a little riffle of water come together to make an intriguing scene. It’s on the Plover river and I really need to spend more time there. Luminar processed with an eye toward the contrasting gold/orange and green. Pulled down highlights a little, but not too much. Clarity brings up the richness of texture. Judicious use of local adjustment brush on the trunk.

Smiling is the only thing that feels good

Funny, the last one was taken on a walk with my husband and so is this next one. This time it’s the Tyler Forks River just below Wren Falls. It was a bit of a task coming up with this image. Initially I was after a shot of the falls themselves, which I got, but then I turned my attention to this bend. The river splits off to the left around that rock formation (and out of frame) and into this tight channel straight ahead. The new bridge in the background just makes the shot for me. In terms of processing, I fiddled a lot getting the water right since it’s the star of the show. The sky was clearing and the slight reflection in the water along with the faster shutter speed makes the power evident. It’s a product of intent both in the field and in the software.

Striated

Joy. Unbounded joy. That’s what I feel when I look at this next image. It wasn’t technical to achieve and it isn’t some jaw-dropping vista, but it’s special because it expresses the essence of spring to me. When it’s warm enough that the breeze caresses your cheek instead of scouring it. When the songbirds return and the turtles emerge. When the kayak comes out and waters welcome you with peace and tranquility. This was right at leaf-break and I found myself wandering up Scanawan creek. Something I hope to do again this year – so many birds here and so shallow I should be able to get out of the boat next time.

Glory overhead

The log these guys are on is just out of shot in the image above. They were the most patient and least fearful painted turtles I’ve ever come across. They let me paddle around their log twice and then maneuver into position for this photo. As you might remember, 2020 was a big turtle year for me and I chose this image from the other dozen or so because it’s an unusual pose. I’ve seen many basking together and even touching, but none quite like these two – the little one is SO cute. Just chillin’.

Balancing buds

Another kayaking shot. This time looking straight up. I was in a backchannel on my beloved Spirit river and because I hadn’t been in this one before, I stopped and just sat for a while soaking it all in. The trees are amazing and when I looked up – wow. The sunburst was done in camera and for me is the crown jewel.

A raised meadow

While on that same kayaking trip, I paddled my way to this spot and got VERY lucky with the light. I was a little frustrated with how awkward it was to put the kayak where I wanted it. Light changes in the blink of an eye and I was so worried I’d lose it before I could get the shot. Without that sun on the log I don’t think it would work quite as well as it does. After some advice from folks on a new nature photography community I’ve joined, I did a little work in Ps to eliminate some clutter I hadn’t realized I could remove. It was recognizing the possibilities in the scene, getting the shot and then processing to bring out its strengths that put it in my top shots for the year.

Still with a current

Indian pipe are my favorite wildflowers as you know, and this is one of the best images of them I’ve taken. These three are in my backyard and I’d noticed and photographed them just after they emerged and with afternoon light touching the front of the flowers. This photo was taken five days later and it’s morning sun – backlit. The subtle pink hue of the stems is enhanced by the golden glow and the blossoms themselves are fluted perfection. The light did all the work and I was fortunate to notice them. In terms of processing I kept the background dark and emphasized the flowers themselves. A wider aperture in the first place helped keep the distractions at bay (as did a little clean up in situ).

Hope you

The day I shot this was wonderful. The light is so great (lickable again!) and the lush forest was a wonder to behold. So many images from this session were keepers, but this one stands out for the way I managed to get separation in the trees, have converging angles with the living and the one on the ground and capture the soft sunlight. No wonder the forest floor is a blanket of green. In Lightroom I decreased clarity and increased texture just a bit and sharpened to my usual level. I probably pulled down the contrast, too. Soft, soft, soft.

Will they grow up?

Another case of serendipity. I noticed this wee wasp on the deck railing (she is less than 1 inch with the antennae and the ovipositor). I think I ran for the camera and was amazed to find her still resting there. My first images aren’t as good since I was farther away. Scaring her wasn’t in my plans and with patience and slow movements I crept up on her and lined up the sensor with the whole of her side for maximum focus. I braced the camera on the railing so I could have a slower shutter speed for the f10 I used. The background is far away and beautifully blurred. I shifted a little to get her antenna in front of a darker area. The angle adds a dynamic feel to things – as though she will take off any second on those iridescent wings. And then she did.

Ichneumon wasp

Another session of keepers – the eagle pair on the Spirit river. They were amazing and sat together on this branch and another for quite a while. I was still getting used to my new Panasonic 100-400 mm lens and so I was hoping like crazy that at least one would come out. This was my first time photographing a pair of eagles together and they didn’t move too much, but she turned a full 180 degrees and I caught her just at the end of that movement. I am no wildlife photographer, but I could be convinced by this shot. I hope to have more images of them in the years to come since the nest is so easy to get to.

Spirit eagle pair

I wasn’t going to include this one, but every time I look at it I smile. It’s not new. It’s not earth-shattering. It’s not rare. Still it’s pretty arresting. The progression of trees on the left. The trail. The contrasting colors. The offset-composition. The slightly strange processing. It’s art, baby!

Smolder

Another critter and a bit of luck with my 100-400 mm lens. I was wandering around the yard practicing with it when along came this little chipmunk in the leaves. It rustled up to me and gave me the once-over before meandering past with its haul. I love that I had the skill to be able to get this shot since it only sat this way for about 2 seconds. And it’s funny. It’s left cheek is so stuffed it can’t put anything in the other side. Silly thing. And for a silly little rodent, it’s cute as anything. I just want to poke that little belly!

Pretty stuffed

One of the reasons the list is a little long this year is because of my Cypress photo workshop. If you followed my posts you saw a lot of images, but a few are standouts. Two because, surprisingly, they have people in them. Compared to similar shots without kayakers, these two tell richer stories. The people also add a sense of scale and connectedness. This first one came when I turned around and saw the incredible light as the sun crested the trees. I saw her back in the trees and willed her to come into the open. She did and I shot. Processing, now in Lightroom, was complex. I did a lot of work with the local adjustment brush using luminance masking. I wanted it to still be dramatic and mysterious, but with the subtle differences in light that your eye can detect, but not your camera. I think it’s a delicate balance that pushes the scene into a higher category of excellence.

Kayaker in the mist

These two images are bookends – taken the same day – one at sunrise, one at sunset. Another kayaker because by then I’d worked the shot above and understood the power of the human presence. While a bunch of my fellow workshoppers paddled out to those trees, I hung back, content to have the wider view. As luck would have it this guy paddled to the perfect location; the sun was close to the horizon on the day we had the most color at sunset. The way the trees frame him and balance on either side, it was a great spot for me to sit in my kayak, 35-100 mm lens at the ready. Processing was straightforward – keep the contrast, raise the mid-tones and hit the saturation slider a bit. Oh and clone out spots from my dirty lens!!

Not a care

After a weekend in Louisiana, the group traveled to Texas near Caddo lake and we spent two chilly sunrises on this little backwater. The cold is what made the fog and made these images. They are only yards from each other taken on subsequent mornings. They are two of the finest images I’ve ever made. The ethereal beauty is the main reason. There is nothing quite like a cypress swamp for making you feel as if you’re on another planet. And fog. OMG fog. It cranks the atmosphere to 11. This little grove of cypresses had very little color, but the other saplings still did and it’s those delicate leaves, draped in mist and moss that are the focal points. Teeth chattering I got into position and waited on the light. Not too long though since the fog burns off fast.

Deep in the heart

Processing was again intense and involved. The fog and dramatic scenery was otherworldly. I needed to balance the processing between emphasizing that and believability. I was sure about what I wanted with each image, but went about the changes slowly. I let them sit for a while and came back to them before deciding on a final outcome. I’m planning a book about my time in cypress country and these will definitely be in there. The second probably as a two-page spread.

Secret longing

Last, but not least, is a shot from December with my new tripod. It’s a Manfrotto with the 90-degree center post. That allowed me to get the camera cantilevered out over the water for a much more immersive picture. It was dramatic and fairly tricky to set up on the edge of snow covered rocks and the roaring Prairie river. There was also a wide tonal range that had to be managed properly. I used a polarizer and a neutral density filter for the long exposure, so it was a lot to contend with. Processing was an easy choice – a hard-hitting cold tone with a lot of added clarity in the ice formations.

Knowing many years

So that’s them. The best. The ones that challenged me and made me come up with the goods whether it be presence of mind to recognize them, luck of light, knowledge of gear or new-found approach to processing.

2021 is well underway and hopefully I’ll get to stand in front of some cool stuff again.

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