My 5 Best Photos From 2020

2020! At times, it seemed like it would never end, but here we are, we’ve made it to the end, Holy cow. And it’s on to brighter days. God, I hope so. Anyway, like I do every year around this time, I recently took a look back at my previous 12 months of shooting to relive some fun memories and pull out a few favorite shots with travel being so restricted in 2020, I spent most of the year pretty close to home and I used the opportunity to explore a lot more cool areas near where I live. And consequently, my five best shots from the year are all from my local neighborhood. Well, so to speak. And I want to share those photos with you right now.

Greetings my excellent friends! It’s Josh Cripps here. Let’s jump right into it. When I started this process, I went right back to some of my first shoots of the year. And the first thing that struck me was Holy crap. I took those photos this year in 2020. I thought I took these like 14 years ago. This year has seemed so long, but it was such a great little pleasant surprise to stumble back on the shoot that I did in the Alabama Hills. 

Let’s start with one of my first photos in 2020 that I was truly happy with. I just loved how it came out, but more importantly, this photo represented a change in the way that I approached photography. This year, I had been thinking more and more about doing self portraits and putting people in my photographs, but I wanted to do it in a way where the figure was interacting with the landscape in a meaningful way and not in some gratuitous Instagrammer. Here’s my bright red jacket, or here are my bright pink leggings. You know what I mean? And this was one of the first photos where I felt like I really pulled that off where I created a sense of an observer looking at this beautiful mountain, lone pine peak here in the Alabama Hills. And actually this is a self portrait that’s me on that ridge line.

And part of the fun and satisfaction of this photo was the challenge of lining this up, setting the camera up 200 or 300 feet back from this Ridge line, getting the focus, getting the composition dialed in, then putting it on interval timer and running up there across the landscapes, Grambling up these boulders, getting into place on top and then feeling a little bit silly while trying different poses and holding each pose for about two seconds to make sure that I got a shot in a couple of different orientations. So I could go back later and decide which one the best. So I love this photo for all of those reasons. And another really big one. This photo got me my very first Nat geo publication credit, which was a pretty thrilling thing to do in 2020 in an article about the Alabama Hills. And I’ll put a link to that in the description below. So you can check out the photos in that article.

The next photo in my lineup of five is this shot from a place called Darwin bench in Kings Canyon, national park. Now I gush about Kings Canyon a lot here on the channel. It’s my favorite national park. And for good reason, it’s super wild. The hiking backpacking and camping and photography opportunities are unbelievable. And you really don’t have to worry about things being overshot. Like if you go to Yosemite Valley, it’s hard sometimes to take a unique picture there, but every direction that you turn in Kings Canyon, there’s a fresh perspective. And this particular photo, it’s one of the last photos that I took on. Arguably, what was my favorite and best night of shooting in the entire year, I was out there backpacking with my buddy Ryan and the previous day we had beat ourselves up with a long, hard, hot hike. And we were feeling it, our legs, our feet were sore.

Our backs were groaning and complaining. And because of that, we actually abandoned our initial trip plan, which would have required us to go another 30 something miles around this loop. And we just weren’t up for it physically. So we decided to take the shortcut over the Darwin bench. And we ended up in this truly spectacular place with gorgeous mountains and dramatic views in every direction. And the previous day had been cloudless total Bluebird clear day. But as we hiked up on this particular day, the thunderstorms, the clouds started to build up. And in the evening, the energy was electric. Both of us, Ryan is a photographer as well, and we just could feel the potential in the air. And so we went running out from camp hours before sunset just to photograph, photograph, photograph. And when the sunset hit, there was light, there was color, there was drama.

Let’s just say I burned gigapixels into my memory card that night. And it was hard to pick a single photo from that evening. But the reason that I keep coming back to this one is I like the subtlety of it. It’s not a barn burner. It’s not in your face with color it’s subtle, but all the colors work together in a really nice complimentary way. And the other thing that I love about this image is the composition and the way that it ties these elements together. There’s a mountain in the background there called the hermit. And because I shot this with a wide angle lens, the hermit looks quite small in this image and yet every single part of the composition forces your eye right to that mountain. And so even though that mountain is a small part of the frame, it is the undeniable destination, the end of the visual journey of this photograph. And I love that because it really shows the power of composition to direct your viewer’s attention, exactly where you want it. Let’s go on to number three.

I have been spending a lot of time at Mono Lake because I’m working on a coffee table book about this special place. So of course, I’m going to have some photo from mono Lake here in my top five images from the year. The tricky part was figuring out which photo to choose because I had a lot of really cool moments out there this year. Like this moment when I was on the South side of the Lake and I saw the stacks of lenticular clouds, billowing and blooming over the North side of the Lake, that was a really neat experience or like this night when I was squashing around in the marshy parts of the Lake and just stinky gross, muddy ooze with millions and millions of Brian flies flying around is such a bizarre evening. And this, the sensory experiences from that night, the sounds, the smells, the sights have been burned indelibly into my brain.

And there was this beautiful interplay between light and shadow and reflections and details. And that was another really cool moment. But in the end I decided I had to go with this particular photo from the classic spot from South tufa where a million wide angle, nice sunset photos have been taken. The reason that I love this photo is because it happened very spontaneously. I had these meticulously planned compositions already lined up. When I noticed in the sky, the clouds to the North East, we’re turning deep, deep blues. Whereas the clouds to the Northwest, we’re turning these bright pinks and reds and that color transition that gradient between the warms and the cools was so marvelous to behold, but none of my compositions really capture that. And so I just leaped into action to try to find some kind of frame to demonstrate that color contrast between those two things. And up until that moment, these two to four towers on the edge of the frame, hadn’t really stood out to me. But in that particular instant, they just seemed like the most perfect way to completely frame in the beautiful colors that were unfolding across the Lake. And that’s why this one goes in at my number three spot shoot.

Here we go. Number two on this list has to be this photograph from the bear lakes basin deep in the Sierra high country. And what you’re looking at here is the full moon setting at sunrise above seven Gables, which is the name of this big mountain here in the left-hand side, the frame. And the reason that I love this photograph is because it was so evocative and it brings back such good memories of this particular backpacking trip. And this was a hard, hard trip. I roped my buddy Joe into hiking with me out to the bear lakes basin, which is not an easy place to get to a room, requires a lot of cross country travel, and you need to be really fit because there’s huge elevation changes and long distances to travel with pretty heavy packs. And when we set off on this trip on the very first day, we had beautiful clouds in the sky and there was quite a lovely sunset that first night, but after that, all the clouds disappeared and they were replaced by wildfire smoke.

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So not only were we dealing with the high elevation and the hard physical exertions, but now we’re trying to breathe through this smoke as well. And there were a lot of times where it didn’t seem like maybe the effort was going to be worth the payoff, but on this particular morning, all those worries disappeared. This was the first time that I’ve gone out to the Sierra without a tent because the weather forecast was supposed to be so clear. So all I had basically was a little tarp from the hardware store to block the wind at night. Otherwise it was just me and the stars above and on this particular morning, when I woke up, what I saw was all of the smoke had blown out to the West, leaving the sky, crystal crystal clear, and there, as I looked out towards seven Gables, that moon was shining like a spotlight into my face.

And it was just such a sensational scene that I think I went from being in my sleeping bag to being upright with a camera in hand in a fraction of a second. And I ran the 300 feet from our camp out to this wonderful overlook taking in this Lake and seven Gables. And I just stood there and shot and watched the morning unfold. And the blue hour faded into this insane Venus belt. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky, but because of that, that’s what made the moment so beautiful on top of that, this was also my birthday. So it was a really, really special way to ring in that day as well. And then after I took this photo, I just ran around the basin for another couple of hours, snapping shots and taking in the really spectacular scenery that you get back there in the deep back country.

And then Joe and I did the long punishing hike all the way back out to the car. You know, that kind of hike where you’re still two miles from the end and you’re in the pain cave. And you’re like, we still have to hike for another hour. And then you get back to the car and you peel your shoes off and your feet breathe, a sigh of relief, and then you drive home and take a shower and it’s unbelievably amazing. And if you think that I didn’t eat my body weight in pizza that night to celebrate all of this.

We have made it to number one, my absolute best and favorite the year. There’s no question. It’s this photo of the full moon, rising behind an ancient bristlecone pine tree taken during the Halloween blue moon. Now, technically this was taken the day before the Halloween blew full moon, but the moon was still like 99.3% full. So that’s full enough for me and I’m going to count it as the Halloween blue moon. And the reason that this whole photo came about was exactly because of Halloween. I wanted to do something cool to Mark the coincidence of the full moon on Halloween. And I thought, well, what’s something kind of spooky and gnarled looking, ah, the bristlecone pine trees. There’s not a better choice for a subject of this photograph. There couldn’t possibly be one. So on the afternoon of the 30th, I got in my car and I drove up to the white mountains.

And then the challenge began timing the moon and doing all the technical stuff. Honestly, wasn’t that big of a difficulty in this particular case, the hardest part was finding the right tree to photograph this scene against because the tree had to fit these four very specific criteria in order to work for the shot. One was, well, it had to be aesthetic. It had to be a cool looking tree. And some of these bristle cone Pines that are, they have, they’re completely covered with pine needles because they’re fully alive. They’re just shaggy looking. They’re beautiful trees, but they look a little bit messy. And so I was looking for one that had a nice mix of this Norell character, along with the living branches, the tree also needed to be on a fairly narrow North South Ridge so that I could actually align the moon behind it.

The tree needed to be by itself without a lot of other stuff around to either block the moon from the back or block my view from the front. And it had to be near another Ridge or another Hill that I could stand on at about the same elevation. So that from my perspective, the moon would actually be behind the tree right at sunset, because if I was up high, then at sunset, the moon from that vantage point would appear to be above the tree like that. And if I was down low, then I wouldn’t even be able to see the moon. And by the time it got into view, it would be nighttime. It would be too dark and you couldn’t see the tree anymore. So my elevation relative to the tree had to be very specific in order to get this timing, right? So I just drove all over the white mountains, like a madman.

And every time I saw a promising looking tree, I’d screech on the brakes, jump out of the car, line it up, go off into the distance. See if I could see the tree with my telephoto lens, see if I could line it up with where the moon was going to come up. And every single time I was disappointed, I find a beautiful tree, but the alignment wouldn’t work or wouldn’t be isolated, or I couldn’t get to it or some other problem. And then 30 minutes before the sunset, I was driving around the corner and I saw this tree and it check, check, check, tick, all of my tick marks. It was on that North, South facing Ridge. It had those beautiful dead branches. In addition to the live branches, it was completely open front and back. It was aesthetic. There was another hillside nearby where I could shoot everything just worked.

And it gave me just enough time to line the shot up, get everything in place. Then start to second guess myself, because that always happens when you’re shooting the moon. Did I do the math? Right? Did I get the plan? Right? And then there, it was, Oh my God, the moon, it’s starting to appear behind the tree. It’s coming up. And then the light to the West, the sun is just going down and it’s painting the scene with this unbelievably beautiful red light. And then the Venus belt appeared in the background and the moon shining through that blue earth shadow with these deep crims and tones. You better believe I was freaking out. I was having the time of my life, absolutely overjoyed by this experience and by what I was seeing on the back of my camera. And then after I got this shot, I put the camera on auto and I ran over.

I was about 600 feet away from the tree. So I ran down, got up next to the tree, did a couple of self portraits just to Mark the occasion. But this photo man, Oh man, was I happy, happy, happy at the end of this night. And there you have it. My five best and favorite photos from 2020. All of these images are available as prints on my website. And you can find the links down below. Thank you guys. So very much for watching. I hope that 20, 20 as tough and weird of a year as it was, was okay for you in some way that you were able to do your photography, that you’re able to express yourself creatively and get out and explore the world with your camera. And if not, let’s hope that 2021 is going to be that year, because heck knows. We all deserve it after the craziness of the past 12 months. So I will see you guys in 2021 until then have fun and happy shooting.

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