The time has come to reflect back on the past year, and it’s traditional to reflect back on it, and for photographers, to look through the images of the last year and start selecting favorites for the annual showing-off of your best/favorite images.

For me, I approached this with some trepidation, and considered simply skipping it this year. I wasn’t even sure if I had 12 images I wanted to select. I entered the year with my head in a bad place, my landscape vision completely broken and my overall interest in photography wandering between “why bother, it all sucks” and “throw that stuff in the lake and be done with it”. Some of the choices I made in 2017 put me in a position of failing my own expectations, and that sent me into a bit of a spiral of self-doubt, and it all fed on itself for a few months until I could sort it out and start rebuilding both my motivation and my idea of what I wanted to do with the camera.

I ended up doing what anyone ought to do in this state: I put the camera up on a shelf, stepped away, and didn’t touch it from the end of April to Mid-July. My overall output this year is much lower than previous years (206 images added to the collection vs. 500ish in 2017 and 2016), but in terms of high quality images, the percentage I feel are really good is higher. Some of that, I think, is coming back with a fresh eye and higher standards I put on myself to define what’s acceptable, but I also think simply taking a break and getting away and letting my mental batteries recharge was a big piece of it.

Also, when I did pick up the camera again, it was more for therapy than enjoyments, as this year was the year my sister was diagnosed with cancer and ended up passing away, and so I was on the road a lot and looking for diversions, and grabbing the camera and shooting without thinking about it too hard was a big factor in de-stressing though this period; by kind of putting my photography in auto-pilot I fell back on what I most enjoyed and was comfortable with and didn’t need to think about much, and in fact three of the images came from the Oregon trip we took just after we’d heard about the diagnosis but before I started going down and visiting, and four more were either taking in Orange County while visiting her, or on the road heading to or returning from one of those visits. In some ways I think this helped me get back into working with the camera without any of the stress of trying to produce results, and the end result were some pretty nice results — along with a large number of pretty forgettable images, but that’s a good thing.

So 2018 ended up me taking the time to more or less tear my photography down to the foundation, figure out what I wanted it to be moving forward, and then working to rebuild my skills to bring out that new vision of what I wanted to do. I am looking forward to 2019 where I can start to show some of these new ideas and see how they work in reality, and whether it matches my ideas in theory.

In the end, I did find 12 images I’m happy to display, and in some cases I’m quite proud of. The first ones selected are from a trip to Morro Bay in June, meaning the first six months of the year produced zero images worthy of making this list, and in fact, zero images that even made the preliminary list. The Morro Bay trip was intended to clear my head, take a break and start figuring all this out, and it seems to have worked. In August I finally got my tabletop photography studio set up and did some test shots, and ended up with one image I really loved — and I’ve had no time to use it again since, of course. It’ll be a bigger part of 2019. And after that, it’s back to my core, birds, birds and a bit of wildlife, but mostly birds.

I’d love to say it was tough to build this list, but in reality, not really. My initial selection was about 25 images, easily whittled down to 15, and only the last 3 choices were harder to resolve. Still, all things considered, given how this year happened, I’m happy with how it all turned out.

You can view the images over on my Smugmug Portfolio Site, and I’ve embedded a slideshow below.

I’m also going to do a Twelve Days of Photos, because I couldn’t resist, so I’m going to take each of the photos and post a piece on it, including its story and some of the technical bits and bobs. (disclosure: there are really 13 images in the group, because one image just worked for me both in color and black&white, and I decided to share them both rather than make a choice)

Lessons Learned

I have some lessons I learned from this year of reboot and rebuilding I thought I’d share.

A big one is this: never stop learning, never stop exploring, never stop pushing limits, but realize pushing too hard can break things. When it does, be flexible, learn from it and move forward again. That’s what I did not do in 2017. 2018 was a recovery from that disaster.

While I spent the early part of the year not taking photos, photography was rarely far from my mind. I spent a lot of that time thinking about it, exploring other people’s photography, reading about photography, and studying photography. I signed myself up for David duChemin’s Traveling Lens class, and that pushed me to think in new directions and take a fresh approach to assumptions. It also got me involved in a private mentoring group he fosters that has been both thought provoking and a good place to get feedback, most of which has forced me to be much harder on myself about objective quality of my images — and I think that’s starting to show up in my work.

I spent a lot of time not just looking at the work of others, but studying it, trying to understand what decisions they made and why. For what it’s worth, Instagram is useful for many things, but not for this kind of deep thinking. Instead, I’ve been buying books, watching photographers online and diving into their portfolios to see why their images worked and how to bring that to my own images.

I also fell down a rabbit hole in the last couple of weeks. When I started thinking about this year end selection, I started looking at my 2018 images and comparing them to my best/favorite images from previous years, and… I kept finding problems. I have a special meta keyword in my Lightroom setup called “_needs_work” (the underscore floats it to the top of the list). When I’m browsing my collection, and can quickly add it to an image to remind me to go back and tweak it.

And so I ended up in an unplanned portfolio review. I took some of my subject areas where I have lots of images, and culled out the weakest — when you have 200 Sandhill Crane images, you can easily find 10, or 20, that simply aren’t as good as the rest. I went through the top images of the last two years, and what I’d flagged as the best images in the collection, and I did a reranking.

By the time I was done, I’d flagged about 70 images for rework, and doing image reviews of a half dozen of my most important and popular keywords, I’d done a culling of the weakest images out of those keywords — to the tune of over 300 images removed from use and retired. They’re stuck off in an archive where in 3-6 months I’ll take a second look and see if I made any mistakes in judgement.

Those 70 images have now been re-processed, re-uploaded, and now properly represent my view of how they should look. In some cases, the difference between the original and new processing is stunning, and sometimes just plain embarrassing: 2017 was a bad year for me both with the camera and in the darkroom, it turns out — interestingly enough, in 2016 and before, my adjustments were more minor and reflect changing tastes, not “good, god, why did I do that to this poor image?” choices.

So as I exit 2018, I feel like I’m in a good place. I’m making good images again, I’m happy with the images I’m making, I’m looking forward to 2019, and I’ve taken the time to go and remove evidence of the worst of my 2017 dumpster fires.

I’m of the belief you improve your portfolio over time in three ways: by creating new, better work, by removing older, weaker work, and by taking a fresh look at work that you still really love, but you realize you can make better by reworking it. Part of the latter is because over time your vision and your processing skills both improve, but also because your tools improve over time, too. There’s a whole blog post I want to do some day about photographers who don’t keep their digital darkroom tools updated and how that’s a bad thing for their images — I am stunned how much better an older image can look having been reprocessed in Lightroom model 5 (the new and current one) compared to even four or five years ago with model 3; the biggest improvements being fine detail, especially in shadows, and reduced noise coming out of the raw processor. But that’s a rant for another time.

Looking forward

So, between now and the end of the year, I have one serious photo trip planned to the refuges, and maybe a second smaller one with Laurie, depending on time and weather. it’s possible I’ll add to this list at the last moment, but I won’t replace anything. If so, it’s a bonus.

And shifting into 2019, I’m setting myself some goals and challenges. Photographically, I’ve decided to try for a photographic big year within Santa Clara County; the idea is to take photos of as many different species as I can in twelve months. I want to see if I can get portfolio quality images of at least 100 species, and I want to see if I can get usable images of at least 150. Given my birding tendencies, those might seem humble for some birders, but they’ll be stretches for me. I also have some plans forming for projects around the county to extend my Silicon Valley Birding site, and those will involve not only birds, but pushing back into landscape and in some ways travel style work.

It should keep me busy, keep me outdoors, and keep my pushing to grow my work in new and interesting ways.

And unlike this time last year, I’m looking forward to it, not dreading it.

Happy holidays, and may all your images be portfolio images (but if they are, you’re not being critical enough)