2014 was a remarkable year for me in many ways. When January 1st, 2014 rolled around I had no idea the twists and turns the next 365 days would have in store for me. In addition to spending a record number of days in my beloved Sierra backcountry I was fortunate to visit some beautiful and exotic places, including Alaska and the remote Cordillera Huayhuash in the Peruvian Andes. I launched an exciting and fun new project, my instructional YouTube channel, Professional Photography Tips, and made some wonderful new friends. From a business standpoint, 2014 was also my most successful year to date: it started strong with my largest prints orders ever, specially created for a series of hospitals in Santa Cruz. Sea to Summit Workshops, which I run along with Jim Patterson, continued to grow, flourish, and attract the best participants I could possibly hope for. And of course, the big, amazing surprise of the year came when Nikon hired me to shoot their world-wide marketing campaign for the Nikon D750 DSLR camera, and later invited me to speak about the experience at PhotoPlus Expo in New York City. For all of this I am extremely grateful and feel incredibly fortunate I get to pursue this kind of life. Naturally the common thread linking all of these experiences is photography. It’s safe to say that without photography I wouldn’t be where I am and I wouldn’t be writing this retrospective. So if you’ll indulge me I’d like to take a look at some of my most memorable photos from 2014.
Coldest Photo: Steamed Hams and Sparkle
This one is actually a tie. In an objective sense the coldest photo by far was this shot of the aurora I took in central Alaska on January 1, when the mercury was hovering right around -20 deg F (we actually saw -34 F a few days before, and while I went outside deliberately to pee in the cold to see if something cool would happen -it didn’t- I wasn’t taking pictures). But at those temperatures the air doesn’t hold much moisture, not to mention I was waddling around like a penguin, kitted up with every layer of clothing I owned, so I didn’t actually feel cold. Nay, the award for the coldest-feeling photo definitely goes to Sparkle, which I took on a snow camping trip in Yosemite in May. Although it was a balmy +15 deg F out my feet were wet, I didn’t have nearly as many layers of clothing on, and I had been outside in the cold for hours by the time I took this shot. To say my teeth were chattering while waiting for this 30-minute exposure to complete would be an understatement.
Just kidding. I’m pretty sure I wasn’t warm a single moment in 2014. Not sure how it happened but every single one of my good photo adventures seemed to involve freezing temperatures. Even in the Sierra in the middle of July you’d find bits of frost on the ground in the morning. One of these days I’m going to plan a photo trip to the tropics, I swear. Until then, I’m just glad I have a good jacket. Next!
Best “My Mom Thinks I’m Crazy” Photo: Cooling Down
Whenever my mom asks me where my next photo trip is more often than not I’ll say something like “well, there’s a 100% chance of thunderstorms all week in the Sierra, so I think I’ll go backpacking at 10,000 ft.” To which she gives me a look like I was dropped on my head as a kid. But there is a method to my madness, and when those thunderous storms break up into beautiful sunrises it all makes perfect sense.
Best Family Bonding Photo: A Woolly Suit
I’m sharing this photo not because I’m truly wild about it but because it brings me back to a great weekend. In early October my sister Jami, her boyfriend, his good friend, and I did an overnight trek to the top of Mt. Whitney, the highest peak in California, and as it turns out, the highest in the US outside of Alaska. It was Jami’s first real experience with backpacking and it was really fun to share the pain, suffering, elation, and beauty of backpacking with her. And as an added bonus we were treated to a nice sunset over Mt Muir.
Best I Love My Backyard Photo: In The Moment
There’s something great to be said for having a go-to photo location that’s close at hand. Whenever the light looks promising you just grab your stuff and go, without all the usual second guessing that comes along with picking the right spot for sunset. For me my go-to location in spring became the oak savanna about 20 minutes from my house. In my explorations there I had found this composition and just kept going back again and again until the conditions finally hit. Nice to have a backyard like this!
Most Bittersweet Photo: The Scent of Spring
In August my friend Jeff Swanson passed away from complications due to cancer. It was a tragic end that was all the more shocking in that his treatment seemed to be going well. Many of you in the photo world know Jeff for his endless sense of humor, love for puns and beer, affinity for manly beards, and incredible attitude toward seizing life. Jeff was responsible for creating my favorite photography slogan: f/it and be there. It’s a take-off on the journalistic credo “f/8 and be there,” which Jeff repurposed to mean: “Just go. Lay down all your doubts and hit the road. You don’t know what the future holds, so get off the couch while you can! The beauty is out there waiting to be captured.”
Well back in April the wildflowers were bursting forth all over Table Mountain near Jamestown, California and I put out the invite to any and all who wanted to come photograph them. In true f/it style, Jeff and his good friend Lukas jumped in the car and drove the few hours up to the mountain, where we spent the evening swimming in the heady lupine perfume and shooting the last light of the day, after which we enjoyed beer and burgers before Jeff and Lukas rolled back to the Bay. Little did I know that would be the last time I’d see Jeff, and reflecting on it makes me that much more grateful I got to f/it one last time with him.
You can see Jeff’s work and buy prints (the proceeds go to the Melanoma Research Foundation) here: http://www.jeffitandbethere.com/
Most Unplanned Photo: Still Waters Run Deep
For that aforementioned hike to the top of Mt Whitney I decided it would probably be a good idea if I trained a little bit, considering the trek is 22 miles round trip, with a total elevation change of over 12,000 ft. For one of the training hikes I settled on a quick 11-mile out-and-back jaunt to Glen Aulin High Sierra Camp from Tuolumne Meadows. I always hem and haw about bringing my tripod out on day hikes, but in this case I decided to lash it to my pack because I knew that for much of the hike I’d be alongside the Tuolumne River and I wanted to be able to shoot long exposures of any cascades or waterfalls I happened to come across.
And I did shoot a little bit, but nothing groundbreaking, and as I closed in on the last mile back to the car I was lamenting bringing the tripod as three pounds of extra, unnecessary weight. But as I neared the parking area I made a slight detour to check out a historic cabin in Tuolume Meadows. The cabin was interesting enough but what really caught my eye from its site was a broad, deep, greenish pool of water formed in a bend of the Tuolumne River. I thought I knew Tuolumne Meadows pretty well but I had never seen this spot before and when I came in for a closer look I was overjoyed to find that the pool looked directly out on Unicorn Peak and Cathedral Peak, two of the most aesthetically beautiful mountains in the area. And as luck would have it, the thunderstorms from earlier in the day were breaking up as sunset hit, allowing these complex and subtle tones to form.
Of course at that moment I was ecstatic to have my tripod with me, and as it turns out, if I had had to run back to the car to get it I would’ve missed the best light. That aspect of “found beauty” is one of the things I love most about nature photography: you can go out without any plan to shoot, then find something completely unexpected, and come home with one of your favorite shots of the year. Surprise!
Most “I Hope This Works!” Photo: At the Heart of the Sierra
In my preface I mentioned how Nikon hired me to shoot the nature photos for their D750 campaign. This shooting was all done in Yosemite at the end of May, which is just about when the weather stablizes for the summer. Meaning, yes, I pretty much had only blue skies for the entire shoot. And while there’s nothing wrong with blue skies, for my style of photography they lack the oomph and drama I’ve grown to love.
So when the shoot wrapped I asked Nikon if I could hold onto the prototype camera for another few weeks, as I had a backpacking trip planned in the Ansel Adams Wilderness. I knew the landscapes would deliver, but what about the light? Would I get anything more dramatic than what I had seen during the Yosemite shoot? I sure hoped so, since my “signature shot” for the whole campaign was banking on it! Thankfully lady luck was in my corner and on the second night of the trip an overcast sky developed into this beautiful light show at Thousand Island Lake.
Best Birthday Moment: 33 Candles
As sort of a birthday present to myself I spent a month in Peru in August and September. On my actual birthday I was on day 2 of a 10-day trek through the spectacular Cordillera Huayhuah mountain range. And day 2 was chockablock full of spellbinding scenery, from views of the mountains Rondoy and Jirishanca, to the beautiful lake of Mitucocha. But the best moment from the day was when an evening thunderstorm created a dark and moody sunset. And almost immediately after snapping this shot I was bombarded with hail and wind. Now that’s living!
Favorite Photo / Most Unexpected Killer Light / Hardest Earned Photo: Elemental Collision
Ok, this image has a lot of titles. I took it on the last night of that Huayhuash trek I just mentioned, so at this point we’d already walked something like 95 miles at elevations up to 16,500 ft, and my legs and feet were feeling a little tired. So to get this kind of payoff at the end of the long journey was an amazing reward. But what made it really special was that I didn’t expect it in the slightest.
I had taken a nap in camp that afternoon and when I woke up I saw that thick clouds had swept in and were now obscuring the tops of the mountains. Bummer! I thought, but like a good photographer I set out with my camera gear nonetheless, and eventually found a perch above this waterfall. I really thought the clouds were going to snuff out any and all sunset light but man oh man was I glad I was wrong! As the sun sank toward the horizon it slipped under the clouds and lit them and the glaciers up in this furious display of orange light. I was literally hooting and hollering in delight.
So all of that: the effort required to get here, the unexpected brilliance of the light, and the sheer scale of the landscape (20,000 foot peaks, glaciers, waterfalls, lakes, AND a blazing sunset. C’mon! Are you kidding me??) all combine to squeak this one to the top of the pack as my favorite image of the year.
Looking ahead to 2015
So what does 2015 hold in store? Well, I do have a few plans, goals, and predictions, but if 2015 is anything like 2014 I won’t see half of what’s coming before it gets here. Still, I’d like to pretend I have at least some manner of control over my life. I’m stoked to be heading to New Zealand for two months from March till May, and the gears are in motion to return to Peru in September with an adventure trekking photo workshop (let me know if you’re interested in that and I’ll add you to the interest list). I’m also looking to swing another photo excursion to somewhere truly wild like Kamchatka, China, or remote Alaska. I’m going to continue growing Professional Photography Tips to make it the best nature photography resource on YouTube. And at Sea to Summit we’re pumped to be offering a few new workshops (the Palouse and High Sierra Monsoon for starters), with a few more in the works. Of course, I’m sure I will try (and fail) to keep lots of open space in my schedule for those unexpected adventures. In any case, you can be sure I’ll have my camera close at hand to keep photographing and sharing all the wonderful places I’m fortunate enough to see.
What about you all, any big plans for 2015? No matter what it is I wish you all the best. Thanks so much for the support, and here’s to a great year!