Twelve significant photographs in any one year is a good crop
— Ansel Adams
It’s that time of year where we all take stock of the past and more importantly, look forward to the future. Personally, 2012 was a very good year for both me and my family in so many ways. For my year-end blog, I thought of posting my 12 favorite images from the past year. But after discussing the idea with my wife Beri, we decided to expand my search for my 12 favorite landscape images since switching to digital back in 2003. I viewed thousands of images and narrowed my search down to 24 finalists, and with the assistance of Beri, we pared the search down to our favorite 12.
I will post an image a day (over this 12-day period) to this blog complete with technical notes and the back-story on how the image was created – I hope you check back each day!
I will also add each image if you would like to purchase it to my new:
So, without further adieu, here are my favorites and how they came to be:
Image #12 – Yosemite Falls Moonbow and Reflection – June 14, 2011
Each spring, high country snowmelt revs up the falls around Yosemite Valley. On a clear evening, with a full moon, one can witness one of nature’s coolest phenomenons – a moonbow. Similar to a daytime rainbow, a moonbow (or mistbow) appears when the moon is directly over one’s shoulder and at a proper height to create an angle of 42 degrees from its light rays path the the viewers angle of view. During the springtime, the falls are booming creating a huge volume of mist to form near middle cascades, thus allowing for the moonbow.
Most simply are able to see a faint grey bow, but those with excellent night vision can see some color. Fortunately, camera sensors can record color that our eyes can’t see. In June of 2011, the volume of water spilling over the top of Yosemite Falls was at a 50-year high; so much water in fact that Cook’s Meadow flooded creating a rare opportunity to photograph the moonbow and its reflection. I drove to the Valley three fellow photographers: Mike Hall, Scott Schilling and Nick Lust and waited until the moon rose high enough to create the bow – about 11:07pm.
The moon illuminated to granite walls around the falls so brightly that I actually had to make two exposures of this scene and blend them in Photoshop. I kept my reflection exposure one-stop darker than the the actual scene to make it look as it appeared to my eyes. We photographed until 12:30am on that evening then drove three hours back home finally getting to bed around 4am, but the resulting image was worth the effort!
This is the last image for this article. If you have been following along I appreciate it! Here’s wishing all of you a healthy and happy 2013 with plenty of great photo ops!
Image #11 – Los Viboras Road, San Benito County, California – January 23, 2005
Image number 11 of my all-time favorites must first be credited to my wife Beri. This country lane actually leads to a popular Christmas tree lot just outside of Hollister, California. In 2004, we drove to this lot for the first time and my wife commented how this eucalyptus-lined lane would make an awesome image. I immediately envisioned the scene with some ground fog (to add a air of mystery) and waited patiently for 3 1/2 weeks for the early morning fog to arrive.
I decided it would look best if I compressed the trees, thus, I used my 70-200mmL at 200mm. I set my tripod low to the ground and just as I finished composing and was about to trip the shutter, a pair of headlights showed up at the far end of the lane. It took forever for the slow-moving vehicle to make it to my location, while I held my breath that the rising sun would not punch through the rapidly dissipating fog. Turned out that the car was an old Cadillac driven by a little old lady who could barely see over the wheel. She seemed rather annoyed that I was even there and shot my a harsh glance. Just as she started to roll down her window to ask what the hell I was doing, I jumped behind the car, re-composed my scene, and fired three frames before the sun burst through and the image was gone!
This picture has become my all-time highest selling stock image. My agency, Getty Images, has sold this image multiple times (8 book covers and counting) with my most lucrative sale resulting from an Italian advertising campaign that ran for a year in all the airports in Italy. It really is a simple scene that took on a painterly look thanks to the morning mist and sun. Thank goodness grandma didn’t spoil the party!
Image #10 – Winter Sunset, Garrapata State Park, Big Sur Coast – December 27, 2009
I’m often asked what is the best shutter speed when it comes to photographing water? That is an impossible question to answer because it really depends on the speed of the water relative from your shooting location, and your focal length. Thankfully, with digital, our LCD’s allow us to review and fine-tune our shutter until we can get the “feel” of the water to match our previsualiztion of the finished image in our mind.
Such was the case with this scene that I captured along Garrapata State Park’s north coast in late December of 2009. We had a storm push through during the day with high surf and I was hoping for a bit of clearing sky at sunset. As the swells would begin to push in, I simply timed their surge and with a one-second shutter, was able to get this painterly effect with the surf that I had envisioned.
There is really no wrong or right way to photograph water, it is simply how you wish to portray it: frozen, scratchy, silky, etc. I had photographed from this location on a prior trip and liked how it allowed a different view of the Garrapata Arch. As the sky began to warm, a surge pushed through and I had my shot.
Image #9 – Arch Angel Falls, Zion National Park, Utah – November 7, 2012
After three hours of hard hiking through Zion’s North Creek Canyon, one is rewarded with this incredible scene of cascading Arch Angel Falls. It is the beginning of a visual paradise that makes the aches and pains fade like a distant memory.
I first hiked this canyon during the spring of 2010 after some flooding. Looking back, that was a rather dangerous hike. Nonetheless, we made it to the Subway back then, but Arch Angel Falls was moving too fast to make a decent photograph.
Hiking this canyon in the fall was much easier (if you could call this hike easy). The high walls and trees yielded plenty of fall-colored leaves from the maples and aspens along with just the right volume of water for the cascades.
About a quarter-mile past these falls is the famed Subway. I liked my images of the Subway from both trips, but picked this image as my favorite from the canyon hike.
Image #8 – Double Trouble – Dual Strikes, North Rim, Grand Canyon, Arizona – August 9, 2012
This past August, my friend Gay Hart and I traveled to the Grand Canyon in search of daytime lightning images during Northern Arizona’s annual monsoon season. Capturing lighting during the day is virtually impossible without the help of a device called The Lighting Trigger.
This unit attaches to the camera’s hot shoe and a cord attaches The Lightning Trigger to the camera’s remote plug. As the Stepping Stone Products website indicates: Photography with the Lightning Trigger is possible because a lightning flash is not a singular event. A flash is comprised of multiple return strokes occurring over as many as several-hundred milliseconds that are spaced approximately 40 milliseconds apart.
Another key component to the success of capturing daytime lightning is the camera’s shutter lag time. Suffice it to say, top-of-the-line cameras are required. For this image, I used a Canon 5DMKIII with a shutter lag time of .58ms. Lag times of .60 or less are recommended for the highest success rates.
Photographing a lightning storm is dangerous to say the least. I won’t get into all the lightning facts here, but lightning is the number-two weather related killer in the United States, surpassed only by floods.
So why did we do it? Well personally, I think images with lightning are exciting. The experience was exhilarating also. This image was captured just below Bright Angel Lodge along the Canyon’s north rim. I was sitting down, making myself small, while letting the camera and Lighting Trigger do its thing. I just monitored the cell and occasionally adjusted the camera’s position. It wasn’t until the shoot was over that I realized that I had captured this frame!
Image #7 – White Cone Geyser, Yellowstone National Park – September 13, 2011
Sometimes it pays to push yourself even when every fiber in your body is screaming for sleep. It also helps to have a friend and traveling companion convince you that stopping, even when the hotel is 40 minutes away and you are on hour 16 of a long day, is still worth doing!
Such was the case as my friend Mike Hall convinced me to pull into Firehole Lake Drive in Yellowstone National Park to photograph White Cone Geyser. We were on Day 8 of a 10-day scouting trip to both Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Park. We had started the day around 4:30am in Jackson and were on our way back to our hotel in West Yellowstone when Mike mentioned stopping.
We had no idea about the eruption times of this particular geyser, but with a full moon out that evening, we thought the geyser would look nice against the star-filled sky. As we arrived, we noticed the Big Dipper sat over the top of the geyser; after calculating our exposure, we started shooting.
I remember only being on my third exposure when we began to hear what sounded like a muffled growl. We instantly looked at each other, knowing we were in grizzly bear country, and asked almost simultaneously, what’s that?
Thirty seconds later our answer arrived in the form of steam and boiling water spewing from the geyser; as luck would have it, we had perfectly timed an eruption! I had to wait for my current 30-second exposure to complete along with the black frame I was writing and hoped the geyser’s eruption would not subside. Luckily, I got in one frame, the one you are viewing!
Image #6 – Paris Sunset and Eiffel Tower – July 9, 2012
If you have been following this series, then your first reaction to this image is probably something along the lines of, hey this is not a landscape this is a cityscape! Guilty as charged; nonetheless, it is one of my 12 favorites – hey, my sand box, my rules :-)
I captured this image this past July while my family and I were on vacation in Europe. We started our trip with a week’s visit to Paris (then continued on to London, Yorkshire (where my wife grew up), Edinburgh, Scotland, and St. Andrews, Scotland). Our family had hosted an exchange student from Paris over the past two summers and via email, we got to be friends with his family. They all wanted us to come and visit. Paris was part of a three-week trip and my wife convinced me to not get too involved taking pictures (she wanted me to enjoy the vacation). I basically documented our entire trip with my iPhone! Yet, I decided that one evening I wanted to do some serious work and photograph both the Eiffel Tower and The Louvre. After all, Paris is “The City of Lights!”
We had been putting in long hours sightseeing during the day and on the evening that I wanted to go out, everyone was exhausted. But I knew we would be leaving for London in two days so it was now or never. Our Paris friends cautioned me about getting “outside” of the tourist subway lines as it could become confusing, but I decided to go anyhow. Fortunately, my youngest son Aaron (16 years old) said he would come along and between the two of us, we successfully navigated our way around the city. My original plan was to photograph the Eiffel Tower from its base, but the day prior to me going, a friend from California who had been following my Facebook iPhone postings wrote and recommended going to the top of France’s tallest skyscraper - Montparnasee (59 stories tall). It has an observation deck that affords a 360-degree panoramic view of Paris.
We arrived about an hour before sunset and I immediately staked this spot. I was hopeful that we would have a good sunset and I wasn’t disappointed. I used a Canon 5DMKIII and a 24-70mmL lens @ f/11 at 100 ISO. Due to the scene’s high contrast, I bracketed my exposures as the camera’s sensor would not record this latitude of tones due to the sensor’s limited dynamic range. During post processing, I started assembling these images as an HDR using Nik HDR Efex Pro 2 software, then I masked in the sky in Photoshop to complete the image. BTW – we photographed until darkness took hold, then went on to The Louvre and photographed until midnight! To say the least, it was a very memorable evening!
Image #5 – Snake River Overlook, Grand Teton National Park – September 11, 2011
If you read my narrative regarding my image of Horsetail Fall (Image #1 of this series), then you know my thoughts about not leaving a location as soon as the sun sets. Our modern-day digital cameras see so much color that our eyes cannot see at early dawn or late dusk. At those periods of the day, our rods begin transmitting black-and-white signals to our brain as our limited amount of cones (color transmitters) are effectively overruled. I’m not a doctor so that is as much as my research has taught me. What’s important for us photographers to realize, is that even as out brains can no longer receive color signals, our digital camera sensors can. Moreover, the limited contrast range at that period of the day allows for the entire range of the scene’s tonality (from highlights to shadows) to record well within the limited dynamic range of the camera’s sensor. Certainly the scene will appear flat and colorless to our eyes, but that can be altered to our liking in post-processing.
It seems an easy concept to grasp, but it never ceases to amaze me how many photographers base their decisions just on what their eye/brain is seeing and not what intellect should be telling them. On this particular evening, there were enough clouds in the sky to completely hide the sun as it was setting. I had calculated that sunset time would be two minutes earlier than what was listed from our position (I calculated this information with the help of The Photographer’s Ephemeris). We were at an elevation of approximately 6500 feet and had a good chance of seeing some alpenglow light, we just had to remain patient.
I was with my friend/colleague Mike Hall, and we had to laugh when almost on cue, all the other photographers packed and left – we had this location to ourselves. As you can see, our patience was rewarded as the sky began to warm considerably. This image is a single exposure and was post-processed globally as a RAW file, then I adjusted the tonality with the help of Nik’s Color Efex Pro 4 software. Sure I could have gotten the same results with Curve adjustment layers in Photoshop, but CEP-4 makes the processing so much easier and quicker. If you are interested in purchasing any of the Nik filters, and I highly recommend you do, then please use my code DSMITH at checkout for a 15% discount (this works for upgrades also).
Image #4: Backlit Elm, Cook’s Meadow, Yosemite National Park – October 14, 2007
I captured this image while co-teaching a 2007 fall workshop with my friend/colleague Gary Hart in Yosemite National Park. It was mid-October and we had the group out for a sunrise shoot at the El Capitan Bridge. I knew that the sun would be rising from behind Half Dome approximately 45 minutes past posted sunrise and asked if anyone wanted to come along. Only 4 of the 12 students said they would and the rest went with Gary to photograph another location. As we pulled up to Cook’s Meadow, my pulse began to race a bit as I could see the mist rising off the frosted meadow. Fortunately, and much to our surprise, there was only one other photographer set up to capture this moment. I do remember a small girl playing near the base of the tree and I remember asking her mom if she could stop once the sun got close to rising as I explained the picture we were trying to capture. Fortunately the mom said yes and we got into position.
My thought was to take a low perspective so I lowered my tripod to about two feet off the ground, and I knew that I would have to bracket my frames as the contrast range would be extreme once the sun peaked over the ridge. This elm is non-native to the Valley and is the only tree of its sort growing in the meadow and was at peak fall color.
As the sun began to crest the ridge, it was as if someone threw a powerful light switch. The elm exploded into vibrant light and the backlit steam was incredible. I can remember calling out to my students to bracket their exposures – I knew we were all witnessing a unique moment and I didn’t want them to miss on the exposure, which was tricky. The light held for a good 20 minutes and as the sun rose and I positioned it against the trunk of the elm to get a starburst effect.
Having examined this image many times over the years, I think what I appreciate most are the crepuscular rays created by the sun striking this mist, and the shafts of warm light striking the foreground grasses. It’s a powerful image and one that has sold well as a stock image. Nik Software has featured this image in an ad campaign last year and is currently using it on their website to promote one of my favorite plugins, Nik Color Efex Pro 4.0, which allowed me to process this image from a single frame of a bracketed series – originally it was processed as an HDR. Please use my code DSMITH when ordering any of the Nik filters for a 15% discount!
Image #3 – Halemaumau Crater, Kilauea Caldera and Milky Way – September 5, 2010
In early September of 2010, I traveled with colleagues Mike Hall and Scott Schilling to the Big Island of Hawaii to photograph lava. Two months prior, Gary Hart and I had the good fortune to get up close and personal with the lava as Kīlauea’s ongoing Puʻu ʻŌʻō–Kupaianaha eruption crossed the road that led to the government controlled viewing area on the day we arrived. We were allowed on that particular afternoon/evening to get as close as 100 yards from the slow moving flow as it steadily progressed towards the ocean. This experience had a profound affect on me as I witnessed earth’s creation – I could have stayed all night!
On my return journey in September, we photographed from a boat lava flows spilling into the sea at dawn, captured the flows from the air via a helicopter, and photographed this caldera from the visitors area inside Volcanoes National Park. Though I have many favorite images from both trips, I find myself continually coming back to this particular image. Mike, Scott and I spent two consecutive evenings trying to capture this scene and had to time our shoots between intermittent rain storms.
A major feature within the caldera is Halemaumau Crater, a large pit crater and one of Kīlauea’s most historically active eruption centers. The crater is approximately 920 m (3,018 ft) in diameter and 85 m (279 ft) deep, but its form has varied widely through its eruptive history; the floor of the Halemaumau Crater is now mostly covered by flows from its most recent eruption, in 1974.
I chose my Canon 1DMKIV to capture this scene because at the time, it was the best camera Canon made in regards to noise. An ISO of 1600 would have been ideal, but I needed to push it an extra stop to ensure that I properly exposed the Milky Way. I’ve reprocessed this image with the help of Nik Software’s Color Efex Pro 4.0 and have been able to extract the fine detail in the night sky while keeping any noise issues at bay (please use my code DSMITH when ordering any of the Nik Software for a 15% discount).
Image #2 – Emerald Bay – May 16, 2011
It’s funny how certain images come about. The old saying, The best laid plans…, was never so true as in the creation of this image. If you look closely at the date this image was captured, you’ll see that we were far closer to summer than winter; nonetheless, a series of three winter storms pounded the Lake Tahoe basin during my 2011 Spring Lake Tahoe Workshop playing havoc with many of our planned location shoots. Instead of t-shirt and shorts, we all donned our warmest winter clothes and made the best of the huge curve ball that Mother Nature threw us.
On this particular morning, we left the hotel in complete darkness and had no idea what type of conditions we would encounter. It had been snowing quite heavily when we went to bed that night. Fortunately, we were in between storm number two and three and we arrived at Emerald Bay to an empty viewing lookout. As dawn broke, we could see the potential for an incredible sky. High thin cirrus clouds and some left over cumulus awaited the rising sun. It was cold – very cold in fact, but our excitement outweighed any unpleasantness we were experiencing.
Emerald Bay resides along the western shore of Lake Tahoe, closer to the south end, and calls for very wide angle. Generally in dawn light, the pine trees turn to silhouette as the scene contrast ratio is too extreme. But with the fresh snow, the trees became a more integral part of the scene. As the warm light began to arrive, all that was left to do was balance the brightening sky with the Lake and trees. I remember using a 2-stop grad (and possibly switching to a 3-stop just before the sun crested). What amazed all of us was the beautiful reflection on the surface of the Bay, which was glass-like on that morning.
I have photographed many times at Emerald Bay and would be hard-pressed to witness a more colorful or perfect morning than what we had. A perfect winter dawn captured four weeks prior to Summer Solstice – go figure! All of the workshop participants captured incredible images that morning and some left later that morning as storm #3 was expected to be produce copious amounts of snow and wind. We wrapped the workshop up later that afternoon and had to cancel our sunset shoot – there simply wasn’t going to be one! At that point, only two participants remained and we barely made it over Carson Pass that evening on our way back to the Bay Area as the storm pounded the region as predicted!
Image #1 – Horsetail Fall – February 18, 2008
This was one of those images that first came to my attention from the late Galen Rowell. One of my favorite books on landscape photography is Mountain Light, and I’d have to say, Galen’s image of Yosemite’s Horsetail Fall left a lasting impression on me (as I’m sure it did on countless others). It’s really kind of a freak-of-nature and can only be seen during a 2-week window in February, and only if all the elements align properly! To this day, no one has really provided a convincing explanation as to why this tiny seasonal fall that emanates from the top of El Capitan (7,573 feet), glows lava red at or just after sunset. My personal quest of this image started five years prior to me capturing this frame with countless 6-hour round trip drives to the Valley when I thought conditions were trending for the magic light to appear. For five years, I came away with various iterations of the scene, but alas, no top-to-bottom sighting. But that all changed on February 18, 2008.
I was co-teaching a workshop with Gary Hart and volunteered to take two workshop participants (husband/wife) to this location (a snow mound in the middle of the Merced River) located just off Yosemite Valley’s Southside Drive. The rest of the group had really good light on the fall the day prior and went with Gary to photograph from Tunnel View. Horsetail Fall has become such a quest for photographers from all over the world, that the park rangers actually have to direct traffic as this location and one other along Northside Drive.
We arrived 2-hours prior to posted sunset time and staked our spot on the before-mentioned snow mound in the middle of the Merced River. Another friend of mine, Nick Lust, happened to be there and the four of us set our cameras and tripods and began the long wait for the much-anticipated magic light. Posted sunset for that evening was 5:39pm, though the sun would disappear sooner from our location. Our spirits were dampened when 20 minutes prior to posted sunset, clouds began to form and the warming light on El Capitan faded to gray. I took a rough head count of the photographers set-up around the banks of the river and stopped counting at 100! Over the next 20 minutes, that number dwindled considerably.
I remember instructing the participants to rehearse their compositions ahead of time on the off-chance that the magic light did appear. I know personally that when special moments in nature arrive, it’s easy to get locked-in to one composition and waste too much time bracketing exposures. I discussed options of framing the scene vertically and horizontally. As we neared posted sunset time, I remember someone asking if we should pack up and leave. I told them that I wanted to stay up to 20 minutes past sunset just in case. In all honesty, I was 99% certain that nothing would happen as our window-of-opportunity was rapidly closing. Many others must have thought the same that evening as over 70% of the photographers had either left or were packing. I remembered thinking to myself, what’s another 20 minutes, we’ve been out here 2 hours already!
A quick glance at my watch told me sunset time had come and gone. I remember it being eerily quiet and my gaze was no longer on El Capitan. Then, out of the quiet, a photographer setup behind us called out that some pink light was starting to hit the fall. At first glance, I thought he was crazy; then, I saw it. It started from the middle of the fall and began expanding vertically in both directions. As it expanded, it became increasingly more reddish in color and grew more and more saturated. I called out for everyone to shoot as we had no idea when it would disappear. Within a minute, the light reached the top of the fall and looked to our eyes like red lava spilling from the top of the monolith – it was an incredible sight and I remember a distinct awareness of all of my senses as I knew I was witnessing Horsetail at its absolute rarest state of blood-red reflected light!
The light lasted for all of three minutes (confirmed by checking my metadata) and this peak light was exactly 2 1/2 minutes after posted sunset. How the light got through the clouds is a mystery to me. After all my talk of rehearsing various compositions, I realized that I shot the same vertical frame at least 20 times, and this frame, my favorite, was only one of two horizontal compositions that I fortunately remembered to make.
People ask me all the time if I Photoshopped this red into the scene. I have gone as far as to show the RAW files to demonstrate that the color was at full maximum saturation at capture. I’ve tried making the color more intense and cannot. So my answer is, this is exactly how we saw it that evening!
My five-year quest had ended and I still try every year for something better, but it has yet to happen. I proudly have this image displayed as a 4′ x 6′ canvas print in my home. It has also been a good selling stock image and is available via Getty Images. These rare moments in nature are pure magic. It was an evening I will never forget and an image that will remain one of may all-time favorites!
2013 Photo Workshops
Photomatix Pro 4.2 type in code at checkout: donsmithphotography 15% discount
Nik Software type in code at checkout: DSMITH 15% discount
Topaz Software type in code at checkout: SMITHPHOTO 10% disount
Purchase Prints and Cards
Click on this link to purchase prints and cards from a growing library of my favorite landscape images: