My Best Photos of the Year for 2016

Welcome to my annual display of my best/favorite photos of the year. I’ve been doing this since 2007 (you can see all of the sets here) and it’s always interesting me to go back and take a look at how my interests and technique has changed over time.

2016 was a big transition for me. The first three photos were from early in the year, and then there’s a huge gap until August before photo #4. There were a number of factors behind that, but I found myself thinking everything I was doing was crap, and ended up taking what I think was a necessary break from behind the lens. When I came back, it was with a fresh viewpoint and an attitude of going out and finding what I liked instead of shooting what I usually shot, and I’ve rediscovered my interest and I’m shooting better — and I think the images are different than what I was doing before. And I’m enjoying it, which is what matters.

This set of images wonderfully displays my favorite places and topics: bird photography, the wildlife refuges, my time in Yosemite, the trips to Morro Bay where there are good opportunities to work with the otters, and some nice shots around a favorite location here in Santa Clara County.

During 2016 I finally took the jump to lenses beyond 400mm, and Fuji released both the X-T2, which I think is magical for this kind of work, and the 200-400 lens with a set of teleconverters, so I now have an easily hand-holdable 560mm lens that can turn out high quality action images in poor light with reliability. That creates opportunities that five or ten years ago would have been visual memories without any image whatsoever that photographers of the day would see as magic.

Here’s hoping 2016 was a good year with the camera for you, and I’m looking forward to 2017 as a chance to push this forward even further.

This year I limited my selection to 12 images — enough for a calendar, perhaps. It made the last 3-4 choices a bit difficult, but I wanted to keep the number small. The shots include two birds that have long been a nemesis for me: Northern harrier and Yellow-Billed Magpie, both of which have been able to avoid my attempts at getting quality images of them. No more.

For 2017 I haven’t done much planning for my photography yet. I have a trip to Yosemite scheduled in March for a conference, I’ll be visiting the refuges again, and Laurie and I have talked about another trip out to Yellowstone but nothing’s firm yet. If I get out there, I’ll likely try to focus on thermals to supplement my 2014 trip that was primarily about wildlife. We’ll see how that goes.

One thing I do hope to do more of this year is shoot near to home, here in Santa Clara and San Mateo county. I don’t think I’ve done enough of that in the last few years, partly because of the time I’ve been trying to spend in the refuges in the central valley.

Each of these images has a bit of a story to them, so enjoy them and I’ll share those stories with you. Happy holidays and see you in 2017.

The Best of 2016

Sandhill Crane in flight, Isenberg Crane Refuge

There’s something magical about watching thousands of birds fly in during dusk to their sleeping location, and Isenberg Crane Refuge (near Lodi, California) is one of those special places to do that. The view, and even moreso the sound, of these birds settling in for the night is simply stunning. One hint: if you go, plan on staying longer than you expect, because the fly in can continue up to an hour after it gets quite dark, but sitting there in the deep twilight with the sounds of the geese and sandhill cranes surrounding you is something you’ll never forget.

Geese Flocks in flight. Merced National Wildlife Refuge

One of my goals is to try to capture images that show what it’s like being out on the refuges, and how the refuges are helping us protect and support the migrating winter flocks. How do you help someone who hasn’t been there see what it’s like when 20,000 geese take flight all at once and circle around you screaming their lungs out? I’m still working on it, but I think this image is one that does.

Coyote, Yosemite National Park

I was at Yosemite in March for a conference. The park was fairly empty, which I love, and I took a couple of hours to get away and out onto the valley floor, and was lucky enough to run into a couple of coyotes near the chapel and got about 20 minutes with them before others arrived and they disappeared into the brush.

Heermann’s Gull, Morro Bay Harbor, California

Heerman’s Gulls nest in Mexico and then head north into our waters after nesting season, but like many species nesting in that area, Climate Change and the warming waters have impacted their nesting successes; we’ve had a few years where we’ve seen effectively no juvenile birds among the returning individuals. The darker plumage and distinctive orange bill makes this gull species easy to see and identify. This one was just hanging out on a rock at the Morro Bay Harbor edge and completely uninterested in my taking its picture.

Sea Otter, Morro Bay Harbor, California

If I have a favorite species to photograph, it’s the Sea Otter, which is a bit precocious and full of personality. There are two locations on the west coast that make photographing them easy with some patience, Morro Bay Harbor and Moss Landing Harbor (at the mouth of Elkhorn Slough). Sometimes they’re distant and aloof, and sometimes they’re right up in easy photography range and willing to put on a show. This otter is shaking the water off as part of its continuing regime to keep air inside its fur, which helps insulate it from the cold water.

Sea Otter mom with a large pup, Morro Bay Harbor, California

And sometimes you get really lucky and you run into a mother otter with her pup. This is a larger, older pup and one that’s started being more active and exploring, and I got to spend about an hour with them watching the pup repeatedly trying to swim off to visit other otters or explore, with mom gently playing goalie and keeping the pup within easy reach. At rest, the pup will sit on top of mom and nurse and mom will float around with them on her belly while preening them or napping (for an example of that, look here).

Morro Bay Harbor, California

I’ve been falling in love with the stitched panorama in the last year, which I talked about here. This is my favorite, with the combination of amazing light and a favorite location. This was shot very near where I was photographing the otters, near the rock and looking back on the city of Morro Bay.

Mallard, Radio Road Ponds, Redwood Shores, San Mateo County, California

This is my favorite failed image ever. I was out testing the new Fuji X-T2 and had the system in burst mode when the mallard decided to take off. The focus is absolutely perfect and the water is wonderfully frozen, and even the half a bird makes for a wonderful composition. I’ve turned this one into a wallpaper if you want to download it and use it.

Immature Golden Eagle in Flight, Coyote Valley

Here’s another one of those “five years ago this shot wouldn’t happen” images. I was using the car as a blind down in Coyote Valley and a huge raptor landed on a telephone pole near me. I was working my way slowly closer to it when it decided I was too close and took off, flying directly at and over me. This was part of a burst of madly trying to point the camera at the bird and hoping the autofocus and exposure systems did their magic. Which they did. This image, by the way, isn’t cropped, as the bird was under 10 feet away as it flew over me. Eagles are such amazing birds, but seeing one that close is just stunning.

Northern Harrier, Coyote Valley Laguna

As I mentioned, the Northern Harrier is one of my nemesis birds; I have endless distant shots and views of the bird as it flew behind me with a smirk, but it’s been a fight to really get images of the species that I felt both were of good quality and portrayed the bird at work in the environment around it. This was shot in the Coyote Valley Open Space Preserve, an area that was opened to the public in 2016, and I got lucky, with this bird coming in, preening on a fencepost for a while, and then hunting about a hundred yards from the lot where I was sitting in the car as a blind. Note the long legs, an evolutionary adaptation making it easier for the bird to reach for rodents in the brush. If you look at the face, you’ll see it’s very owl-like, for good reason: like owls, it hunts by sound, and the facial structure helps funnel those sounds into its ears. This is, really, an owl that works the day shift.

Yellow-billed Magpie, Coyote Valley OSP

This is another nemesis bird, so of course on the same trip as I shot the harrier, I ran into a pair of magpies wandering around Coyote Valley OSP. This one suddenly hopped down in the brush and came back up with this bug, which it proudly displayed to its partner for a bit and then ate without sharing. Yum.

Merced National Wildlife Refuge

My final image for the year (barring something really great in the next week) is from my most recent trip to Merced National Wildlife Refuge. I’ve been trying to shoot images that show the refuge in context as part of my documenting them, but I’ve never really been happy with my images that include the observation platforms. This one I love. the two people up on the platform with the little patch of color drawing the eye to them, and the White-Faced Ibis hanging out on the snag really sum up the quiet beauty and utility of the place.

This shot was taken using the Fuji X-T2 and processed using their Velvia camera model in Lightroom, if it wasn’t obvious from the highly saturated colors. I shot Velvia as a primary slide film back in my film days, and I thought I was over that, but, well, even though I’m not a huge fan of the trend these days to heavily (over) saturated images, when light and location demand it, I’m happy to make an exception. I’m convinced Velvia is one of those addictive drugs you never quite beat, you merely keep under control.

See you in 2017

So that’s my favorite images for 2016. If you’re interested in more, Jim Goldstein annually compiles a listing of all of the best of collections that are submitted to him and it’s a great place to get a sense just what kind of beautiful imagery is being created every year. It’s well worth some time browsing the different photographers who contribute to his list every year.

See you in 2017!