(Updated on 1/14/09 to add comments to some of the photographs.)
Since it is the last day of 2008 I guess it is “now or never” if I’m to put together the obligatory “best of the year” list. I thought of doing a “Best 10” or “Best of Each Month” or similar, but I finally gave up and just tossed a whole bunch of links in here, undoubtedly forgetting to include a few other favorites. (A few have 2007 dates – they were published here for the first time in 2008.) Despite the fact that there might seem to be a slight hint of grumbling in that first paragraph – just my sense of humor at work – I look forward to this end-of-the-year ritual every year. It is really great fun going back and reminding myself of what I’ve seen and photographed, and I frequently rediscover an image that I had somehow forgotten or overlooked.
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Anyway, on to the photographs…
Submerged Boulders, Precipice Lake. Sequoia National Park, California. August 6, 2008.
I photographed Precipice Lake on a week-long trans Sierra pack trip with a group of friends — we followed the “High Sierra Trail” from west to east. I had visited Precipice Lake once before many years ago on a long pack trip along this trail with my wife, and I am well acquainted with the famous Ansel Adams photograph of the icy surface of the lake and the opposite cliff wall. I was very much looking forward to shooting it again on this trip.
The lake is about 20 miles in from the trailhead at Crescent Meadow, and it lies just below Kaweah Gap. It was a stiff but beautiful morning climb, and I could easily see the bowl holding the lake as I approached. At the very last moment you cross a low rise and there you are, standing in front of this wonderful scene with deep and dark water in front of the steep and wildly patterned cliff across the lake. I moved to the lake shore and spent perhaps 15 or 20 minutes working the classic view of the lake – more or less “standing where Ansel stood” in 1932. Finally I packed up the photo gear, loaded up my (heavy) pack, and started up the climb toward Kaweah Gap.
Not 150 feet later I had one of those photographic moments of truth that we all face from time to time. As I climbed I looked back at the lake and saw that a beam of diffuse light was breaking through the clouds and illuminating the shoreline talus field and, more amazing, creating this wonderful light on the underwater boulders against the deep blue of the lake. I confess that for a moment I thought to myself, “Man, I am not going to drop the pack again, unpack everything again, set up the camera and tripod again…” But I did stop, and I got off a few frames while the light lasted, and ended up with one of my favorite photographs of the year.
This photograph also comes with a story, and it also involves a great deal of good fortune. (Anyone starting to see a pattern here?) I had just acquired a new lens – more on that in a moment – and when I heard that the winter surf would be “up” along the Central California coast I decided to head over to the old standby, Point Lobos, and do some shooting. I got there a bit early and the gate was not open yet, so I stopped my car in the “line” waiting to get in. As I sat there I thought to myself that I might as well drive down the coast a ways instead instead of sitting in my car, so on a whim I headed south. Before long I saw that a very special set of conditions were coming together: brilliantly clear sky above, huge surf below, and a mist rising from the surf and hugging the coast.
I came to a flat coastal plateau just north of the Rocky Point Bridge and stopped, at first with shooting more or less the scene shown below. As I watched the incredible surf and the backlit mist I spotted a lone fisherman standing atop a rocky outcropping just about the surf. I couldn’t believe my good fortune, so I quickly went to work shooting a series of frame with him in front of this astonishing surf. Back to that new lens I mentioned above: this was the very first time I had gone out with a new 100-400mm zoom – and this shot required me to shoot at the long end of its focal length.
So, let’s account for the series of happy accidents that had to coincide in order for this shot to happen: It had to be a day with unusually high Pacific surf; I had to mistakenly arrive early at Point Lobos (and not any of a dozen other places I might have gone instead); I had to give up on waiting for the park to open and go for a drive and choose the southerly direction; the low surf-driving mist had to form right along the waterline; it had to be crystal clear above so that the sunlight could illuminate the mist from behind; I had to spot the other location in order to shoot the following photograph; while shooting that other photo I had to more or less accidentally spot this one; and the fisherman had to be on that rock at the exact moment I happened to arrive. Whew!
I’ll make this description a bit shorter, though I like the photograph no less. It was also taken with that same brand new lens – so I could not have gotten this shot a week earlier. (Do I feel good about that investment? Guess!) Here the low mist I described in the previous photo is a bit more visible, and there is just a wonderful atmospheric recession effect leading from the bit of close rock in the foreground, to the natural bridge (which just happens to fall between light beams… :-), across the more distant surf and rocks, and on to the barely visible Rocky Creek bridge.
And now for something completely different. This photograph was made on an “urban walk” with my oldest son during the very last month of the year. First, a thank you to Brandon for turning me on to the idea of what I might call “urban hiking” in the local area. I have now discovered that there is a lot to photograph within walking distance of my home. I spotted this scene of wonderful forms, colors, and textures was we walked along a loading dock in an old industrial area not far from downtown San Jose.
I arrived in Seattle on the morning of January 1, 2008 and had a bit of time to kill before my first real appointment later in the day, so I drove around in the downtown area and finally found a parking space near the Seattle Sculpture Garden. Using the diffuse and soft light (what else? It is Seattle!) I photographed several structures that attracted my attention. This is a detail from the metal wall of a building in the park, with distorted reflections creating the dark patterns in the lower part of the frame.
This was photographed on the same day as the previous shot. I found a place where two large structures of very rusty steel coincided and I decided to explore the color, shape, and texture of this juncture with some sort of “industrial abstract” image in mind.
This photograph was made rather late in the year at Point Lobos. At about midday I headed over to Whalers Cove to see if there might be some interesting wildlife to photograph (I was sort of thinking “sea otters”) since the light was not so great at this time for landscapes. When I arrived I found this beautiful egret standing on a kelp bed within a very short distance of the shoreline, so I grabbed the long lens and settled in to spend some time waiting for “the shot.” This egret seems to hang out in this cove a lot, but is usually further from the shore and/or in a spot where the light is not as good. For the most part it was hunting/fishing by standing on the kelp and waiting for dinner to appear, at which point it would lunge quickly into the water and come up with something dark and wriggly to eat. Every so often it flew a few feet, and I tried to be ready to squeeze off a few frames when this happened. I got lucky with this one. Although the bird’s head was just about out of the frame the whole animal did end up in the shot. I felt that the flight photo would probably be interesting but it wasn’t until I got home and looked closely that I realized that I had gotten this wonderful, enveloping span of the wings, the beautiful neck and head, and the shadow of same on the inside of the nearer wing!
This is likely a familiar subject to many, and one that I’ve shot more than once – the amazing shapes and folds of the earth at Zabriskie Point in Death Valley, photographe – of course! – in the early morning light. Since I’ve shot the “usual photos” there a few times, I decided to work on some images of geology details this time, and here the warm light from the early sun is just hitting the tops of these formations.
This photograph, especially in the printed version, is also one of my very favorites of the year. I’ve sort of thought about this shot or something similar on several occasions when I’ve photographed Ahwahnee Meadow from between Yosemite Village and the Ahwahnee. I’ve walked past this area full of trees near and against the base of the cliff walls, but the conditions had not seemed right until this afternoon when clouds diffused the light. I like several things about this photo, but I especially like the adjacent tree and vertical crack in the rock.
I spent several very rainy days in Yosemite Valley during the first weekend of November. Conditions were lousy for everything but photography – the worse the conditions the more interesting the photography prospects! I was heading to El Capitan Meadow with the intention of shooting the oaks in the meadow but as I crossed the bridge on the cross-valley road right near the meadow and looked to the left I was stopped in my tracks by the amazing colors, the rising Merced River, and the fog in the trees in front of the lower face of Cathedral Rocks. I quickly stopped the car – barely off the bridge – grabbed the camera, tripod, and a couple lenses and headed back to the bridge for a series of shots including this one.
Rocks and Reflections, Merced River. Yosemite Valley, California. February 16, 2008.
This was shot very early in the year on an extremely cold winter morning in the Valley. I had earlier that morning photographed some snow scenes farther east in the Valley and was happy to head west to a possibly warmer area a bit later. As I drove along Southside Drive (heading west since Northside Drive was closed for construction) I passed through an area right beside the Merced just before the meadows around Bridalveil Fall. This section of the river was in cold, deep shade still, but I thought that photographing the rocks in the river might be interesting so I stopped. I noticed right away that the morning sunlight hitting the cliffs along the north side of the Valley was reflecting in the water of the river – it really was this color. I set up a long lens so that I could isolate small sections of the water an river rocks and made this shot.
A funny story: Often when those of us who use tripods and so forth set up to make a photograph, non-photographers who see us will stop, as if thinking, “The Photographer thinks it is worth a photograph, so we had better stop, too.” (One time I stopped along highway 395 near Conway summit and within a few minutes a cars stopped!) In any case, on this day a big van soon pulled up to my small parking spot and stopped. The occupants got out with their cameras… looked at me with my tripod and big lens… looked down at some boring looking rocks that my lens seemed to point at… looked back at me… shook their head and got in the van and drove away without taking a photo.
Here is another “entirely different” shot. I was in San Francisco for the air show as part of Fleet Week on October. With the 400mm focal length I tracked the closely bunched Blue Angels and the roared overhead in a tight turn and fired away in burst mode. In some ways, seeing them frozen in the sky like this, so close together and on their sides, seems almost more amazing to me that seeing them in actual flight.
This is one of those shots where I told myself to look away from the obvious photograph that everyone else was making look for something else. I was at North Lake in the eastern Sierra, at a spot that is very famous for its fall color and a “tree tunnel” where the road passed between aspens that are so thick that they form an unbroken canopy over the road. Needless to say, lots of people stop at this spot and photograph the “tree tunnel.” (Some have done it very, very well, by the way.) I was stopped at this very spot, but I wasn’t interested in the tree tunnel shot, so I decided to wander slowly through the aspens off to the side of the road and look for more intimate subjects… like this delicate pair of branches holding very colorful leaves.
On this pack trip I hiked up Rafferty Creek out of Tuolumne Meadows to spend nearly four days photographing in and around the Fletcher Lake/Vogelsang High Sierra Camp area. I hoped to meet a group of photographers there, but that didn’t quite happen. (At least not until my last day, when I decided to investigate a nearby lake on my way down from Fletcher… only to find that they had been at this lake the whole time, probably within shouting distance of where I had camped.) On one morning I decided to wander around the shore of Fletcher and photograph trees, and I was attracted to this backlit scene of small trees and the changing colors of the late season meadow.
I met my brother Richard in Death Valley last April, and decided to drive over to the Rhyolite ghost town near Beatty before dawn one morning. There is a lot to see and photograph and ponder at the site of this abandoned mining town, but I liked combining the image of the old school building (one of the more intact structures of Rhyolite) with the view of the desert and mountains beyond. (These mountains are in Death Valley National Park; Rhyolite is not.) This shot made me think about what it might have been like to be a school child in this environment back when the town was booming, and to look out the school windows to see this sight.
On the return leg of a quick trip to Southern California I decided to come back on Highway 101 instead of the fast and boring Interstate 5 route, and to find time for a few stops for photography. In the general vicinity of Pismo Beach I left the main highway to look for photographs and at one point I found an offshore “island” that is separated from the mainland from by mere feet. It seemed that a lot of shorebirds take advantage of this small separation from the land to use the island as their nesting place, so I was able to get very close to birds like these.
This scene caught me by surprise on the trans-Sierra pack trip I mentioned earlier on this page – the trip on which I made the Precipice Lake photograph. We had left the Kern Hot springs and were starting a very long hike up a section of the Kern that I figured would be relatively uninteresting in comparison to the higher country on either side of this valley. However, as I walked up the dark east side of the canyon I was surprised by the wonderful light being thrown into the forest from the rocky cliffs and walls on the west side of the river which were in complete sun. It was as if there was a gigantic light panel set up across the river, casting wonderful diffused light into the forest I walked through.
To be honest, this was more or less a quick grab shot, taken without the tripod and without even removing my backpack as I walked along the trail from Tuolumne Meadows to Young Lakes in the early season and passed through the lush spring growth. (My enjoyment of this lushness took a turn in a different direction later this day when I got to Young Lakes… on the worst day of the mosquito hatch!)
Another photograph from very early in the year, and one in my “minimalist seascape series,” something I’ve been playing around with for some time. The wonderful conditions on this January morning included long and large swells coming in from storms in the north Pacific, fog that was not so thick as to obscure the view but which was backlit by the sun, and interesting reflections on the ocean surface.
Since I used to be a pretty serious cyclist, I’m enough of a fan to take advantage of the Amgen Tour of California when it comes to the Bay Area in February. While this is very different – obviously! – than shooting landscapes, the colors and the speed and the people at bike races are a kick to photograph. In this shot the riders of (mostly) the Gerolsteiner team are “at east” as they ride toward the starting line of the prolog time trial in Palo Alto. And how very considerate of that Rabobank Rider in the orange jersey to introduce the complementary color of his jersey into the scene. While I like the colors and so forth, having ridden in packs sort of like this (but never at anything remotely close to this level) I can identify with the social dynamic of the closely spaced riders, too.
We did this stage in what I regard as the right way. The race started in the morning in Sausalito, and a more picturesque race location is hard to imagine. We arrived early, got coffee, and then went to the staging area to wander around among the team vans and cars. A bit later we found a spot near the starting line to view (and photograph) the pack as it made a series of genteel “parade laps” through the town before heading out onto the open road for the real racing. At this point we jumped in the car and headed up to the end point of the race in Santa Rosa, arriving way ahead of the cyclists – but providing time for a nice lunch in a good restaurant, time to wander about a bit, and then time to find a good place perhaps 100 yards from the finish line to watch as the pack arrived for, yes, more parade laps. If you follow cycling, you know that when a pack or riders is still together this close to the finish there is going to be a lot of action as the sprinters (and their support riders) set up for the finish. Here the leaders are just starting to make their jumps for the final sprint.
Even though this shot features a well known rider, Mario Cipolini, I think I like it more because of the somewhat unusual view it provides. Rather than putting a long lens on the camera and shooting the riders from a distance, I picked a tight inside turn very close to the end of the route. I put on the widest lens I own (17mm on FF), and got down very low right at the fence, and as the pack came by as close as maybe a foot and a half from the camera I just fired in burst mode.
This beach north of Davenport, California is a spot where I often stop when I’m on that section of the coast. A river flows into the sea here, and the road comes right down to almost beach level. Here, on another high winter surf day, a couple of surfer walk across the beach on their way back from surfing.
This photograph probably looks scarier than it really is. It looks like I must have been about to be overrun by this tremendous surf, and I was very close to it. But I made the photograph at a spot at Point Lobos where you can be very close to some very rough surf with very little (if any) danger. The surf breaks impressively over some very close rocks, but the rocks also completely destroy the waves.
Although I made this exposure in 2007, it wasn’t until this year that I finally decided what to do with it. The scene is the historic Seattle Gas Works Park, where some very interesting old industrial equipment still stands, though it is now abandoned. I chose monochome (the tanks are red/brown with rust) to emphasize the massive bulk of these structures.
On several occasions during the last few years, thanks to the good work of <a href=”http://www. thenocturnes. com/”>The Nocturnes</a> Bay Area night photography group I’ve been able to photograph the old facilities of the decommissioned Mare Island Naval Shipyard at night. This photograph shows the tall smokestack that dominates view of the island, along with a group of old brick buildings from the shipbuilding yard.
Another shot of the Gerolsteiner gang, this time going with black and white for a more retro cycling look.
In March I had a free morning in this part of the Sierra foothills, so I drove up some obscure back roads in an area of old mining sites. I drove for a long time, mostly being stumped by incredibly thick fog. Finally as I rose up on one tall ridge the fog thinned enough to let a bit of light in so I stopped to photograph these old oak trees.
In March I found myself at Davenport Landing, where I have previously gone to photograph natural scene, but this time I saw a huge pack of wind surfers just offshore. I walked south a bit to where a low rock shelf extends a bit into the surf, and this placed me fairly close to the windsurfers.
This seems like something of a classic California spring image, with oak tree leaves sprouting on a warm morning. I shot through close leaves to focus on the leaves a bit further away, and used a very long lens to minimize the depth of field.
A dogwood flower, the flower that every Yosemite photographer just has to shoot. These were easy to access since they were growing on a recently fallen tree, so many of the flowers were that would usually be high in the tree were at eye level and lower.
I know the spot where these flowers grow very well – it is at a local park where I frequently hike and photograph, and every spring I look for the bloom of these flowers in one particular little valley there.
This is another view of the Rhyolite School. Although the windows and roof and other parts are long gone, this sturdy building doesn’t show much sign of going away any time soon, and I wanted to capture something of its solidity that has allowed it to stand in the harsh desert for many decades.
This photograph was made in the well-known (and well-trodden) Death Valley Dunes near Stovepipe Wells. Instead of taking the more common straight line approach to the dunes from the roadway, I started closer to Stovepipe Wells and sort of looped out and around the backside of the dunes. This approach has several advantages: there seem to be fewer tracks from other visitors and there are some photography possibilities shooting back toward the road and the bulk of Mount Tucki beyond. After shooting on the far side of the dunes, I headed up into the dunes to start back to my car. As I ascended this section of the dunes, which were at that point in shadow, I realized that as the sun rose just a bit higher the light would start to flow across the dune patterns from the left – so I set up and waited and thought about how to include the dunes an Mount Tucki, and the interesting clouds passing over the peak.
OK, so it is an icon. Nothing wrong with shooting the occasional icon, right? And although I’ve been going to the Valley for, well, decades (I won’t say how many here) I had never seen the Horsetail Fall “natural firefall” before. So, with timing help from <a href=”http://www.gdanmitchell.com/littleredtent.net/LRTblog/”>Edie Howe</a>, who lives in the Valley, I showed up on a perfect weekend in February and had several opportunities to observe and photograph this sight.
This Espresso Vivace shop used to be my favorite place to go for a capuccino in Seattle. It was located in the Capitol Hill area a short distance from where my son used to work. Their capuccino became the standard that all other capuccinos (capuccini?) were compared to. But this shop is no more – it is on a block being knocked down for some sort of transit construction in Seattle. (There are other Espresso Vivace locations nearby still.)
I happen to like this photograph a lot, though I suspect that it may be one of those that appeals to me more than to other viewers. I love the positionsof the different people in the frame as they stand in the mist spray of Bridalveil Fall in relatively full flow. The guy at the front (mostly hidden) seems more intent on recording the scene than experiencing it. The fellow on the right seems more engrossed and appears to simply be staring at the spectacle. The women between the two men seems very small in front of this scene with her arms falling straight down at her side. The woman on the left seems to hold back, perhaps seeking some shelter behind the man with the camera. There is also some formal/compositional stuff going on in this photo that appeals to me.
Another “photo with a story…” I have walked past this spot probably scores of times, and I had never really noticed this grove of oaks. That may seem odd given what they look like here, but this particular scene only reveals itself along a very short section of the trail – you can see the trees for a longer distance as you walk along, but this view only appears briefly when everything lines up just right. I apparently had not looked that way at the right moment until this morning. On a technical note, this a stitch of several large images shot with a full frame camera. I have printed it three feet wide with no discernible loss in resolution, so I’m certain that it could be a very large print.
Kelsey and Mel. Falkner Winery, Temecula, California. June 22, 2008. – yes, my daughter and son in law!
My daughter Kelsey and her husband Mel at their wedding at the Falkner Winery in southern California, with the real wedding photographers doing their excellent work. Yes, I took a camera to my daughter’s wedding. No, I did not shoot the wedding. After the wedding I grabbed the camera for about 10 minutes to fire off a few shots, and then put it away. I had much more important things to do. :-)
G Dan Mitchell is a California photographer whose subjects include the Pacific coast, redwood forests, central California oak/grasslands, the Sierra Nevada, California deserts, urban landscapes, night photography, and more.
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