This was a great year for me as a photographer. I photographed subjects that have long been favorites, including the California coast, the Sierra Nevada, and some urban subjects. This was also the year that I discovered (believe it or not, for the first time) the American Southwest, where I spent a total of about a month photographing Utah. I also continued and extended my newfound interest in photographing migratory birds and the landscape of California’s Central Valley.
In what has now become a firmly entrenched annual tradition, here is my set of “2012 Favorites.” This set and my criteria for assembling it require some explanation! I call them “favorites” rather than “best” since it is darn near impossible to make any sort of objective selection of best work – but I can be somewhat definitive about favorites… at least as of today. Selecting favorites from among my photographs is a very difficult task for me, especially when it comes down to selecting the final set. A part of me thinks that additional editing could be done, but another part of me says, “Enough is enough!”
This set includes 24 photographs that I made during this past year. There are varied reasons for their inclusion, and for the exclusion of some other photographs that I and some of you like a great deal. I have included some based on what others tell me they like, so there are a few that have provoked a strong response from viewers, sometimes a bit to my surprise! I have also tried to cover a somewhat diverse range of photographs – some wildlife, a couple of shots of the urban world, some black and white work, some realistic and some relatively abstract images, some complex images and some very simple ones. In a few cases I have included photographs that are favorites of mine that do not seem to (yet?) evoke a strong response from viewers – since I believe in the photographs.
I have added a bit of brief commentary to each photograph, and you may click their titles to see the original posts on the blog, where I usually share additional information and background.
Since I’ve already over-thought this more than enough, on to the photographs! Thanks for looking, and I hope you enjoy them!
I made this photograph at a California Central Valley wildlife refuge, at the end of an evening of photographing Ross’s geese and sandhill cranes with some good friends, as the last light began to fade from the sky above the Coast Range.
I made this photograph in the same circumstances as the previous one, though a bit earlier in the evening as the sun was dropping to the horizon and glowing brilliant red in the Central Valley winter haze. Almost all of the Ross’s geese that had earlier filled this pond had now left, save for a few stragglers who stuck around a bit longer and struck photogenic poses for me before leaving.
I made this photograph in the Skagit Valley in the state of Washington, where I spent a day photographing birds, mostly snow geese and trumpeter swans. At one point I had pulled over to investigate a field that seemed like a good place to find geese, but had only found a few there. But very shortly I began to notice uncountable numbers of them filling the sky to the west and before long the largest group that I had ever seen had descended on the field. For this photograph I used a very long focal length but intentionally chose a shutter speed slow enough to allow motion blur when the flock suddenly lifted into the air en masse, as I knew they eventually would.
While on a spring visit to Zion Canyon we walked up toward the Weeping Rock area, where I had hoped to photograph spring wildflowers – but we were there too early in the season. On the way back down the trail I spotted this beautifully lit branch on what I think was a maple tree and photographed the new leaves against a blurred background of cliffs and other vegetation.
Since I spent a total of perhaps a month photographing in Utah this year, there are going to be a few Utah photographs here! (If anything, narrowing the Utah shots down to a small group was the most difficult task in assembling the Favorites post.) On our spring trip we made it to Arches National Park for the first time, which gave me an opportunity to experience something that I rarely get to experience in California, having shot there so long, namely the astonishment of seeing a completely new and unexpected landscape. Having intentionally avoided any research on this park, I was completely amazed by the formations when we made our first foray during the golden hours on the day we arrived, and I came back to this spot several times to photograph it in morning light.
Our first visit to Canyonlands National Park was at least as uninformed as the earlier Arches National Park visit. (At one point I drove past a turn-off to the iconic Mesa Arch and said, “Oh, that is where all those photographs come from!” No, I did not go there.) We spent most of the day driving around and scoping out potential locations for an evening shoot, and since I had never been there before we settled on the also-iconic Green River Overlook. While I have some photographs of that more familiar scene, including some I like a great deal, I decided to instead include one from that location that is not the usual iconic shot. This includes a bit of the vertical upper cliff face and the strongly back-lit canyon of the Green River beyond, with a couple of buttes and their shadows faintly visible in the haze.
There is quite a lot that I could write about this simple-looking photograph, but I’ll keep it short. I was actually wandering along the San Francisco waterfront very early one morning doing what I think of as a combination of street and “urban landscape” photography, equipped with my usual camera and a couple of prime lenses. If I recall correctly, I had been photographing a steel bridge – a distinctly urban subject – when I noticed this sailboat approaching a section of open water from the right. I was already aware of the beautiful luminous quality of the light over the San Francisco Bay that morning, and I immediately got the idea of trying to frame the boat as it passed across this small clear area of water. I quickly swapped lenses and had just time to make a couple of quick handheld exposures before the boat continued to the left and out of sight. (It turns out, though I did not realize it at the time, that this boat is part of the upcoming America’s Cup competition.)
This photograph is firmly part of my “urban landscape” work, in which I try to photograph the urban environment in ways that are not so different from how I might photograph the natural landscape. On the other hand, I often shoot this stuff handheld – as I did here – and using a prime or two, more or less is street photography style.
I have included this photograph because it is a personal favorite. I can’t tell you how many times I have driven over Tioga Pass and down/up this canyon, often looking into the canyon and out to the landscape to the east and thinking about how I might photograph it but never quite seeing the photograph I was looking for. On this morning I was heading up the canyon toward the pass when I happened to glance to my left and see a photograph. I quickly turned around and went back to the turn-out where I had first seen it and made a photograph of the dark canyon with Mono Craters and further mountains and clouds beyond. The black and white rendition is partly because, well, I liked it and partly an homage to the old-school monochrome work of the past that influences all of us who photograph in these mountains.
This photograph is another personal favorite. I had driven up into the Marin Headlands with no particular goal in mind earlier in the evening. Encountering very thick fog near sunset and not finding a way to photograph in it, I continued on and eventually headed down toward Rodeo Beach, stopping from time to time to listen to the quiet, broken only by the mournful sound of fog horns. By the time I got down into the valley that leads to the beach the light was fading very quickly. As I crossed a bridge across the slough I saw this group of birds in the water near the shoreline and had an idea for a photograph that included them in the foreground, a bit of nearby shoreline at the edge of the frame, and the fog-obscured far bank across the water. Working quickly and with the lens that was already on the camera, as the light was going very quickly, I made a small number of very long exposures.
While visiting Mendocino, along the northern coast of California, we were wandering around town. As we walked up to one small shop I happened to look down and see these beautifully colorful leaves in a small planter box near the door, and I made a handheld photograph of them.
On a very late-summer morning – in mid-September and after Labor Day – when the meadows were turning golden brown and the typical late-season haze was present, I stopped and made this photograph near the west end of Tuolumne Meadows, shooting past a grove of large trees, across the dry grasses of the meadow, and towards the haze-obscured forested mountains beyond.
This is a non-iconic photograph made in a very iconic location! Those who photograph the autumn aspens in the eastern Sierra Nevada know this location well and would likely recognize any of two or three very common scenes from this location. I’ve been going there for enough years now that while I enjoy seeing those views quite a bit, I rarely photograph them unless something really unusual or extraordinary is happening. This photograph is looking more or less 180 degrees away from those famous views and, to be honest, back toward the gravel road that passes by the lake. But on this morning the beautifully hazy atmosphere was filled with light from the sun as it cleared the high ridge beyond and I decided to photograph this small ridge, bit of water, and slanting light across the shoreline trees.
I have long been a big fan of the autumn aspen color in the eastern Sierra Nevada. But this year I managed to shoot autumn color in Utah, and I think I know have a rather different idea of what aspen color can be! When we arrived in Utah, the color was already a bit past its prime at the highest elevations, but that meant that it was just peaking in some of the lower areas. I ended up with a bunch of Utah fall color photographs, and with difficulty I have narrowed them down to the two that I have included in this set. We encountered this wild display of color – and, no, not all from aspens – by more or less randomly running across a side road and saying, “Hey, let’s see what is up there,” and then driving until we found this fall color display that we almost could not believe.
The inclusion of this photograph is an acknowledgement of the many people who keep telling me how much they like it! I’m not absolutely certain what it is about this photograph that resonates with so many people, but I think there is something evocative about the small road winding off into the trees towards who-knows-where and then disappearing. This photograph was made not far from the previous one near where we finally turned around on our “random ride” up this wonderful side road.
Believe it or not, this was my first visit to Arizona’s Monument Valley. (How it is that I managed to not visit and photograph such a place is a long story that I won’t share right here.) And it happened almost on a whim. We were in Moab and wanted to head over toward Zion National Park. Having done the beautiful drive along Route 12 more than once and having gone via highway 70 once, we were thinking of some variations on this drive. We also saw a weather report calling for some rough weather, including a possibility of snow, along the more northerly routes, so we decided to head south and through Monument Valley. No sooner than we started our drive did the rain begin, and it was raining as we arrived in the Monument Valley area. The famous, iconic buttes and mesas were sometimes invisible and other times partially obscured by the falling rain, and I managed to make this photograph through a rain squall before quickly retreating back to the car.
I have long been intrigued by mist and clouds swirling around pinnacles, cliffs and aretes, and this has been a frequent subject of my photographs in other places such as Yosemite Valley. This photograph comes from Zion Canyon in Zion National Park. We had arrived in the park the previous day during the tail end of a rain storm. On the following morning we headed up into the canyon and saw that the remaining clouds that were settled in along the upper canyon walls were beginning to thin a bit as the early morning sun arrived. This photograph includes a small section of the cliff along the west side of the valley, where the sun was beginning to break through the clouds and strike the rock face.
This photograph is also from Zion, and the subject is a bit of cracked and stratified sedimentary rock of the type that is so common here. The rock, with its lightning bolt shaped crack, is along the bottom of a creek bed in a canyon in the high country of the park.
I have had a “thing” about bighorn sheep since a chance encounter high in the mountains many years ago on my first solo backpack trip, a two-week trip that took me though some high and lonely Sierra Nevada terrain. On that trip I had wandered up a ridge one morning when I was startled by the nearby sound of clattering rocks. I looked up to see a very close group of bighorns. But the time I dropped my pack and raised my camera to make a photograph they were so far down the ridge that it wasn’t worth it. The group in this photograph presented no such challenges! They were very close to the road, and by moving slowly and quietly and keeping a respectful distance from them, I was able to wait until this group of three worked its way down the layered sandstone slope.
In late October I spent some time photographing in the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. On more than one occasion we hiked into this canyon to photograph fall color and the beautiful sandstone canyon walls. Near the entrance to the main canyon I encountered this huge old cotton wood tree, that had split into two main trunks, each of which was big enough to seem like a separate and very large tree. There is also a color version of this photograph, formatted a bit differently, but I have chosen to include the monochrome version in this set. (Note: The link to the original posting of this photograph may not be active yet.)
This immense and beautiful arch was near the end of a lengthy hike down a canyon in the Utah back-country. It was perhaps the original goal of our hike, though the rest of the canyon was so interesting that i had almost forgotten about the arch when I caught my first view of it above and ahead of me. After passing through a sort of “Half Subway” along the creek below the arch, I ascended a steep slope behind it to get to a spot where I could shoot down towards it and both eliminate sky from the photograph and align the opening in the arch with some of the sandstone formations across the canyon.
This photograph is another personal favorite of mine. Like so many of my photographs, it comes with a story. I had gone to a California Central Valley wildlife refuge for the first time this season, hoping to find and photograph migratory birds. As I dropped into the valley, I saw ahead the typical winter tule fog and as I continued to drive I was soon in the thick of it. By the time I arrived at the refuge the fog was so thick that bird photography was almost not possible. I spent a little time trying, but then decided that it might be more interesting to photograph the fog itself. I went back to where I had started and repeated my loop around the refuge, stopping here were small vegetation-covered islands faded into the distance in the fog.
The great blue herons, which tend to be solitary birds, do not like to be approached. Most often, in my experience, they fly away if you get close to them at all. This specimen was a bit more obliging. It was standing in a Central Valley field on a foggy morning, initially posing quietly against the backdrop of luminous fog. I slowly drove up nearby and used my car as a blind from which to photograph. After making a number of photographs of the bird standing quietly, it suddenly spread its wings, lifted off, and flew away into the fog.
After a morning of thick Central Valley fog, the murk gradually began to lift and eventually light shone through, though the fog never fully dissipated. Rather than becoming truly clear, what happened instead was that the fog thinned to the point that the atmosphere began to glow softly. I was there to photograph birds, but as I came around a bend in the road and saw this soft light on the autumn trees I turned my long lens in that direction and made this handheld landscape photograph.
G Dan Mitchell is a California photographer and visual opportunist 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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