2021 Retrospective

Updated: May 13

A Look Back at my Landscape and Nature Photography from the Past Year


A strong start but riddled with interruptions and distractions... that sums things up fairly well for the year that was 2021.


January: A Strong Start


Last year started off well enough - extremely well, really - with a foggy Texas photography outing at my favorite local park with my good friend Jon Fischer. We don't get much fog in these here parts so, when presented with the opportunity, one must take full advantage. In just over three hours I managed to capture six photos that eventually made their way into my portfolio. Considering I'm happy to come away from a walkabout like that with one good shot, it goes without saying it turned out to be one of my most productive mornings of the year.


Here are a few of my favorites of those six images (you can find the rest HERE):

Initially drawn to how the trees seemed to be reaching for the soft light breaking through in the upper left of the frame, as I began working on editing the Raw image in Lightroom and the rusty orange of the leaves came alive, the scene soon called to mind embers drifting up from a campfire.

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A classic example of the value of the mantra, "Always look behind you," I found this scene far across a meadow after trying to photograph something else entirely. The stark white trees on the left leapt out and I loved how the colors of the other trees gradually increased from left to right.

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Captured roughly where the trees in VARIATIONS were found, this telephoto shot of this twisted, gnarled tree, cradled by fiery orange leaves and covered in green lichen, immediate jumped out as a wizened witch's hand reaching out. Watching the Making the Image video featuring this photo here.

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A photo of a hiking boot covered in sticky mud

So, a great (albeit very muddy) start to 2021. I believe this was also the first time I'd gone out and shot with another photographer since my time in Yosemite for the Out of Yosemite conference in February 2020, prior to the start of the pandemic.


As luck would have it, about four weeks later I was gifted with another foggy morning, although this time the fog lasted all day, an even rarer event as the Texas sun usually breaks through and burns it off by late morning. I ventured further along my favorite trail this time and photographed some different areas of the park.


Keep scrolling for some of my favorites or click HERE to view them all.



 

February: Photography in Heavy Fog

Easily one of my favorite images I made in 2021, and one that started out as more of a joke than anything. I had spotted the composition I wanted but by the time I got my camera in position the fog had thickened so much the back of the camera was basically white; I took the shot to send a frustrated message to Jon. When I sat down and played with it in Lightroom, though, there was enough data to tease out this ethereal, ghostly image of the tree.

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Did I mention the heavy fog that rolled in right as I composed the above shot?

 

Not even 15 minutes later the fog had mostly cleared out - temporarily - and I was able to make this image of the same tree. I don't go for dark and moody edits of my images often, but I loved how the wispy orange offshoots from the main branches gave an appearance of the tree being on fire (fire was a common theme in my mind, apparently, to start the year).

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This photo is fairly atypical for me. I had captured a similar image in 2020 with my phone - from the same spot, actually - but repeated visits presented me with waves that didn't have the same "feel" that I wanted to capture with my camera. I was lucky enough to encounter the look I wanted on this February 2021 visit, and it worked even better with the scene fading into the infinite fog.

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And with that, life happened...


... as it so often seems to do. Harrumph.


Other than taking some photos of one of our trees as it blossomed in our front yard in March, and some random snapshots of cats and dogs, I didn't pick up my camera again until the middle of May, when I met up with Jon again for a road trip to Oregon. I had set a goal of getting to the Pacific Northwest in 2020, before the world screeched to a halt, flipped over, and caught on fire, so when Jon mentioned he had planned out a trip I selfishly didn't hesitate to ask if he wanted some company. Thankfully, he let me tag along.


In the interim, I had time to design and then work with my partner's dad to build a sleeping platform for the 4Runner, fulfilling one of the goals I had in mind when I bought the truck late in 2019: building out a (mostly) self-contained adventure/camping photography rig. I fitted it out with a 12V refrigerator and Jackery battery generator, too... Jon and I ate well on our trip.


Regardless, before all that came about, I got sucked into a busy couple of months at work that ate up nearly all my time and energy, and most things photography related had to be set aside.


But then...


Oregon Photography Trip

For what it's worth, I'm not entirely sold on the raised sleeping platform concept, but the 4Runner camper build is a likely topic for a future blog/video.


If you've watched my admittedly dry and nerdy statistics-filled Happiness Hour presentation on using goals and challenges to drive improvement in your photography, you'll know that I had planned to continue to hone my focus on quality versus quantity when it came to my photography in 2021.


The trip to Oregon blew that plan to smithereens.


For all of 2020 I took just shy of 2,800 photos. Just on the Oregon trip, I fired off nearly six thousand. So much for slowing down and shooting less, eh? Part of it was firing off a good number of shots for star trails but the vast majority came from machine-gunning waves along the coast (over 3,800 shots taken along the coast, if anyone is counting). I burned through every memory card I brought on the trip, but it was totally worth it. This was the first time I've had a chance to photograph along a coastline like that and it was a complete blast!


I'm still hoping to cobble together some footage I took to produce a video recapping the trip in detail but, for now, here are some of my favorite photographs from Oregon (find several more HERE):

One of the many (many) telephoto shots I captured along the Oregon coast. 400mm at 1 second, this photo captures the energy of the incoming waves while showing off the amazing warm glow of the sun as it drifted towards the horizon. I almost skipped shooting Thor's Well I was having so much fun playing with different focal lengths and shutter speeds for the waves.

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A few steps from where we parked at Oregon's famous Painted Hills, I immediately envisioned this scene in black and white when I saw it. The lighter grasses in the gully curving to, and past, this lone tree as it stood defiantly in front of the surrounding grand landscape helped create a powerful composition. It's a view that I'm sure countless thousands have walked past as I took the photo literally from the parking lot... but nonetheless I quite like it.

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I took this photo towards the end of our first sunset along the Oregon coast. I've always loved how photography takes me to another place of consciousness; the world fades away aside from my immediate surroundings, time becomes warped, and my mind is at total peace. The two hours spent shooting here felt like seconds and, at the same time, days, and it was difficult to admit when it was time to pack up my gear and head back to the truck. This was one of the final frames I captured while I lingered, drawing out the experience as long as possible.

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I have quite a few more Oregon photos that are works-in-progress, and I'll be sharing them in a future gallery. For now, as noted above, you can find more HERE, as well.

 
 

Well, Hello Life (Again)... and a Huge Opportunity


Insert tiring screeching sound, or record scratch, or... use your imagination. That crazy little thing called Life stuck its nose in where it wasn't wanted again and photography really got moved to the backburner as my work/life balance basically shifted to a 90/10 mix, with the (very) notable exception of my collaboration with Adobe to create the world's first deep-dive tutorial of the new Lightroom Masking features that arrived in late October. Other than not taking a photo for another five months after getting back from the Oregon trip, the 4 weeks leading up to the release of that video were extremely hectic, but totally worth it!


After Oregon I did manage to knock out two other blog/video combos, with my look at the June release of Lightroom and Lightroom Classic, and then an in-depth comparison of those two versions of Lightroom in August.


Oh, and I mostly finished building out my new website and started wrapping my head around using my new toy, a <deep breath> Canon imagePROGRAF PRO-2100 11-Color 24" Large Format Inkjet Printer (say that three times fast!).


Although the camera was gathering dust, and my life outside photography was stressful, exhausting, and often overwhelming, I still accomplished a fair bit... but I was desperate to get back out with my camera in nature, my personal form of therapy.

 

Buying the Canon EOS R5


What better way to make yourself feel better than by buying new gear?

I'd been shooting with my trusty Canon EOS R since the spring of 2019 and, overall, I was very happy with it. Mind you, prior to that camera I was shooting with the crop-sensor Canon EOS 80D which was a pretty capable body but jumping to the EOS R with its vastly superior full-frame sensor was going to be a huge leap regardless. That said, I had some frustrations:


  1. Autofocus tracking is pretty abysmal on the EOS R; if memory serves me correctly, it only gets 3-4 frames per second of shooting when you're trying to track a subject. I had been dabbling with wildlife and bird photography quite a bit, and had bought the Tamron 150-600mm G2 lens to pair with the 80D, but it was almost useless coupled to the EOS R.

  2. A far less serious gripe but the ergonomics of the EOS R always left me wanting. Even after two and half years I never felt totally comfortable with the controls layout, and the lack of some buttons and dials added needless steps to simple things like changing ISO (and the ill-fated Multifunction Bar was complete rubbish).

  3. Some other less impactful but still annoying gaps in the EOS R's repertoire were the lack of a built-in intervalometer (useful if you leave your wired intervalometer at home... ask me how I know!) and Canon never adding automatic focus stacking (even though the entry model EOS RP included it).


Did I need to buy the Canon EOS R5? Well, of course not... but holy cow is it an amazing camera! The autofocus, and especially the Animal eye tracking, is insane. The ergonomics are much improved over the EOS R, and the image quality and dynamic range improvements are definitely noticeable. And having those juicy 45 megapixels to play with when cropping (and printing) is divine.


I could rave about it for several more paragraphs but let's get back to the pretty pictures, shall we? Just know that the R5 is a stunning piece of camera equipment.

 

Photographing Oklahoma


Back to photography. Huzzah!


In October, I finally had the opportunity to visit family for the first time in almost two years. With that came a road trip up to Missouri so I decided to bookend the trip with some camping in southeast Oklahoma.


If you're not familiar with what Oklahoma has to offer (as I was), you're missing out. The area we stayed in - I invited Jon to join me for the first weekend - is absolutely beautiful and has some wonderful places to capture some great landscape and nature images. I had a brief experience back in 2019 when I first met Jon after he invited me on a group trip to northern Arkansas, but it was literally a late afternoon/early morning pit stop before we headed on to our final destination.


Although we were probably a week or two early for peak fall colors the conditions were still quite favorable. Here's a small sample of what I captured (as with the other locations, you can find more images HERE, with more to come in a future Oklahoma gallery):

While we never got the foggy atmosphere we were hoping for, we still had some pretty awesome steam rising from the river as the morning sun finally broke through some light fog for a short while, before rain clouds moved in. The sunlight ignited not only the yellowish orange of the turning cypress trees but also lit up the steam just behind them.

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After some bumbling about with camera settings - this was one of the first shots I took with the Canon EOS R5 - due to tiredness and rustiness after five months of not photographing anything, I was able to take this 13 second exposure of these golden cypress trees shortly after we arrived. The wind was perfectly calm, and the blue hour light provided a lovely contrast to the warm tones of the foreground trees.

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The two images above are the only ones I've released from that trip so far, but more will be coming soon as I have several others in-progress in my Lightroom catalog. For those of you that have scrolled this far, here are a few of the ones I'm working on:

 

Wrapping up 2021


Fortunately, I was able to get back out to my local park one last time in early December, just before the last of the fall colors dropped off the trees. There's a great overlook a short hike from the park entrance but, sadly, the nearest trees have grown so much over the past decade that it's starting to block the view and makes photographing from that spot quite challenging. Due to the layout of the overlook and its railing, my only real option was to shoot handheld, in rapidly fading light, at long focal lengths, while leaning against the overlook railing and standing on top of the stones that make up the base of the railing. Not very conducive to slow and deliberate composing of images.


Even with the R5's great high-ISO performance, a lot of the shots I captured were unusable due to camera shake, but I was able to pull off a few that I'm quite happy with. The following images are also works-in-progress, but you can see that I'm going with a softer, higher-key editing style that I think works quite well here:

I've created a proof print of the first image and all signs point to it being one of my favorite images of the year when all is said and done; I just need to dial in the colors for the print a little better, but it already looks fantastic on my preferred fine art paper.


In between rounds of photographing from the overlook, I quickly hiked down to the meadow where I shot The Witch's Hand back in January. I wanted to try to shoot the same tree in sunlight and, thankfully, the sun broke through the clouds just long enough while I was down in that spot to capture this:

I'm still pondering the edit on this and, looking at it now as I write this blog entry, I think I may try it with a square crop, something I don't do very often. Overall, though, I'm happy with the colors and composition, and am thankful I was able to capture this while the tree was enveloped by the sun kissed fall colors. Now the goal is to get this shot the next time we get a snowfall... which could be anywhere from the next few months to a few years, knowing Texas weather.


Lastly, as a bit of a Christmas gift to myself, I snuck in one more night of camping in Oklahoma on my way to visit family again. I pulled into the park as the light was nearly gone but I was able to fire off one final shot (I'm still trying to decide if I'm happy with the composition on this one or not - I was drawn to the last bits of color in the cypress trees being brushed with the last bit of sunlight... but I'm not sure the framing works as well as it could):

The last bit of sunlight lighting up the last remaining fall color in cypress trees along a river bank
 

Parting Words


2019 was weird (for me). 2020 was weirder (for everyone). 2021... well, I may be resigned to the fact that life is just going to be weird for one reason or another from here on out.


Although I had two big spans last year where I didn't go out and shoot, I'm still pleased with what I was able to accomplish in 2021. The unexpected trip to Oregon certainly played a big part in that (thanks again, Jon!) but, if I'm being honest, I think my best work came from those local - or local-ish, if counting Oklahoma - excursions. To come away with as many portfolio shots as I did from just a few outings was truly a blessing.


Looking forward to 2022, I have a ton of hopes, ideas, and plans, and I should have more free time to accomplish them. Barring some new weirdness, of course!

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