My 12 Favorite Photos of 2019 (Twelve Days of Favorites, Day 1)

by Dec 21, 2019

2019 seems to be a transitional year for me — in what I hope is a very good way — with my photography. I come off a couple of years where I struggled with some subjects and more with motivation, and while that carried forward early, I started sorting it out, and ended up pushing myself to finally take a workshop from Art Wolfe that I’d been hesitating to do. I came back from that week with a fresh outlook, some new skills, and a new sense of motivation, and I’m seeing a big change in my images, and I’m much happier with the results.

Here’s hoping that carries forward into 2020 and the improvements continue. Of course, that’s fully up to me…

Here are my choices for my 13 favorite images of 2019, because after I’d decided on my 12 favorite images, I did a long weekend up at the Sacramento area wildlife refuges, and of course, one of the images from that trip demanded to be added, and so I have.

Northern Elephant Seal

2019 started out with a photography trip to Morro Bay for a chance to unwind and unplug and take some images I came out of that trip with three of my favorite images for the year. This first is a sleeping male Northern Elephant Seal at the Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Rookery near Hearst Castle.

This is a location I love visiting when I can in the winter when the seals come to shore to give birth, mate and prepare to head back out to see in a few months. I’ve written about it before: See The Elephant Seals of Piedra Blancas, for instance, and it’s a fascinating cacaphony of sound and smell and action and crazy. Unlike it’s better known neighbors nearer my house at Ano Nuevo or Pt. Reyes, it’s literally a parking lot along Highway 1 that directly overlooks the seals, and so there’s minimal walking (huge for me these days) and no need for reservations, tickets or a lot of pre-planning. Crowds are rarely significant, especially on week days, and the seals are in good locations for some great photography if you’re patient.

I’m planning on spending one afternoon with them in 2020 in my January trip, which is going to focus more on Southern California with a trip down the coast followed by some time in San Diego exploring the refuges, then off to see friends in Orange County and check in on some business things while I’m there.

Northern Elephant Seal, Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Rookery

Mule Deer, Sweet Springs Nature Preserve

Another favorite Morro Bay location for me, Sweet Springs Nature Preserve in Los Osos is a small, quiet and mostly empty area along the shores of the estuary to the North of Morro Bay which can have some really interesting birding opportunities depending on the time of year. Or, as in this case, looking up and seeing a Mule Deer hanging out in the brush and wondering if I have noticed it.

Some days, literally, the picture just pops up out of nowhere and says “Hello!”

Mule Deer, Sweet Springs Nature Preserve, San Luis Obispo County, California

Western Gull and Elephant Seal Pup

Back at the Elephant Seal Rookery, we see what looks like a poingnant moment between an elephant seal pup (I’m guessing 6 weeks old or so) and a Western Gull. Reality is not so sanguine; the gulls are there as scavengers, because there’s a fair bit of material to scavenge on, from afterbirths to seal pups that didn’t survive for one reason or another (a month after a mom elephant seal gives birth she goes into heat, and the males will move in and mate. This is not consensual, gentle, and they don’t generally watch where they’re going. Pups that don’t get out of the way get crushed).

This gull was scavenging a dead pup, then for some reason this live one caught it’s attention, so it walked over and — sniffed it. The pup from it’s reaction isn’t quite sure what to expect, but showed some signs of being wary about an attack. As it was, the gull checked it out for about 30 seconds, decided it wasn’t interesting, and wandered off again. But for this one moment, it just seemed like the two were connecting at some level. More likely, the gull was mostly wondering if it was edible yet.

Western Gull checking out an Elephant Seal Pup, Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Rookery

Canvasback, Palo Alto

In March, I led the first photowalk for Santa Clara Valley Audubon to Palo Alto Baylands, in an experiment to see if the format worked as a group outing. It did, and others have taken the idea and continued to lead groups around the county, and I hope to again in 2020.

Canvasback ducks are common there in winter, and this one was in a channel hunting. They’re diving ducks where the probe the mud for insects and clams. This one has just surfaced, and clearly needs to wash her face….

Canvasback, Palo Alto Baylands and Duck Pond

Greater Yellowlegs, Palo Alto

Same trip, different bird. The Greater Yellowlegs is not a common bird but is easily findable in Santa Clara County in winter. I came across this one hanging out, and I just liked the composition of it in among those small set of reeds.

Greater Yellowlegs, Palo Alto Baylands and Duck Pond

Cascade Falls, Yosemite National Park

At the end of March, I took a few days in Yosemite to experiment with non-epic landscape, and ended up spending a few hours shooting at Cascade falls and playing with my ND filters and slow shutter speeds. This is a favorite from that trip, and I particularly like the composition and the way the water flows without being mushy as water can get if you run the shutter too long.

Cascade Falls, Yosemite National Park

Fern Spring, Yosemite National Park

Another from the Yosemite trip, this is Fern Spring, which, I think, is a rite of passage for photographers who go beyond the obvious tourist shots in the park. Fern Spring is on the valley floor, and is a little pond of water maybe 8 feet wide, fed by a spring down two small falls, each 6-8″ tall. If you aren’t specifically looking for this location to photograph it, you’re going to drive by and never notice, and the challenge, honestly, is to come back with really interesting from the location. I do think I succeeded here, and now I can go to Yosemite without ever feeling like I need to photograph Fern Spring again…

Fern Spring, Yosemite National Park

Bee on a Flower, Butchart Gardens

And now a big gap in time, and suddenly it’s August and Laurie and I are vacationing in Victoria after a long absence from a favorite city. We spent a morning at Butchart Gardens enjoying the scenery, and I took along my camera with a decision to just play and see what happened. What happened was I noticed the flowers were just loaded with bees everywhere, and so I decided to see if I could get some good shots of the bees and flowers while shooting handheld.

And in fact, I could…

Butchart Gardens, British Columbia

Tree Canopy Abstract, Olympic National Park

And now we skip forward from August to September, where I’m taking an Art Wolfe Photo Retreat based at Lake Quinault Lodge in the Park. I’m simultanouesly tearing my photography down to the core pieces and trying to rebuild it in new forms on the fly while still creating images I won’t be embarrased to show Art for critique, and I kinda succeeded, sort of.

After coming home and working on the images with a bit more thought and care, it turns out only one of the images I felt were my best I actually submitted to Art for critique, and there’s a learning lesson to that on top of everything else I learned at the retreat; part of it being not to make judgements when I’m exhausted and trying to go to sleep, and part being I just need to be more careful looking at images on my laptop and not on my big monitor at home.

This image did exactly what I wanted it to do, which was represent the tree canopy as an abstracted image, but which was still recognizable for what it was with a bit of examination and thought. A good example of pre-visualization coming into reality, this was always my intention for this image, and I love it.

Upper Quinalt, Art Wolfe Lake Quintalt Lodge Workshop

Backlit Leaves, Olympic National Park

The Art Wolfe workshop/retreat was about learning to see and interpret intimate landscapes, the non-epic, more personal images that are found throughout a landscape scene. Not exactly my wheelhouse, and something I’ve struggled with over the years. On day 2, I was working with one of his instructors (Hi, Bill!) and talking over composition options and opportunities at a location we’d stopped at. While the day was mostly grey and gloomy, we had the sun come out for a bit and I noticed the leaves behind me were glowing, and I worked to set up a composition I like using the dark branches to give it some structure and offset the bright and shining leaves.

Sol Duc River, Art Wolfe Lake Quintalt Lodge Workshop

Three Brothers, Olympic National Park

If you were to look at the leaves in the previous image, then turn around 180 degrees and stare in the opposite direction, you would see this scene. Literally, I almost didn’t move my feet or tripod. With the dappled light filtering through the forest canopy and the three little trees of different size in full light with the heavily shadowed background, I fell in love with this scene. Bill (the instructor I was with), for what it is worth, wasn’t convinced, but I love how this one came out. It’s my favorite from the workshop by far.

Sol Duc River, Art Wolfe Lake Quintalt Lodge Workshop

Morning on the Refuge, San Luis National Wildlife Refuge

This is from my first trip out to the refuges this winter, and I scheduled it to arrive at San Luis NWR about 20 minutes before sunrise. It was the kind of morning where I thought the convection fog might hit when the sun came over the horizon, and I was right. The result was this image. The fog was never higher than about 2 feet off the ground and only lasted for about 15 minutes before starting to burn off, and within about 45 minutes was completely gone. But for that short, special moment, it completely transformed the refuge into something magical, as I madly scrambled looking for a composition to do it justice.

This is hand-held, by the way. Not only no time to haul out and set up a tripod, San Luis NWR is a refuge where you’re supposed to stay in your car except at designated areas, so this was taken from the driver seat hoping and praying….

Morning Fog on the Refuge, San Luis National Wildlife Refuge

Red-Tailed Hawk on a kill, Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge

It’s common to see the circle of life played out on the refuges, and in this case, the American Coot lost so the Red-tailed Hawk could continue, but it’s not so common for the bird to simply not care about you when you have to drive by on the auto-tour, giving you very close and intimate access to its feeding.

Red-tailed Hawk on a Kill, Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge. A red-tailed hawk feeding on a recently killed American Coot.

And now, onward into 2020 for bigger and better things…