Each year since 2013, I go through all my photos and pick out my favorite 100. Even in 2020 when much of my normal marching arts photography opportunities were canceled, I still had a hard time picking just 100 photos to represent over 58,000 photos from the year. I continued with my weekly photography challenges with the Ricky Tims critique group, finishing out my sixth straight year – 272 weekly challenges without missing a single one. With travel limited, I spent a lot of time at Longwood Gardens and in my own backyard.
This blog post will give an overview of my year of photography with a focus on my top 100 photos.
A lot has changed with my equipment since my last annual reflection. I ended 2019 feeling committed to Nikon, but by mid-February 2020 I made the switch to Sony. I finally got to where I was able to get the photos to look like I wanted them to and simply enjoyed the shooting experience more. The thing that sealed the deal was purchasing a Sony A9. I only had a few weeks of serious use before everything shut down, but it was a fun few weeks.
I sold a few of my Nikon lenses and the D750 I purchased at the end of 2019 but I'm still holding onto the D850, D500 and many of my top Nikon lenses. I’m not sure when or if I’ll part with them. Time will tell.
I added a number of Sony lenses – the 200-600 G, the 100-400 GM, the 28mm f/2 with fisheye adapter, the 24mm f/1.4 GM, the 70-300 G and the newly released 12-24 f/2.8 GM.
Nearly half of the top 100 photos were taken with the Sony 70-200 f/2.8 with 48 photos. No other lens was in double digits, so I really distributed the work across my equipment with 20 different lenses represented.
The Top 100 included photos from 32 different locations, which is not bad considering how little I traveled. The top spot was no surprise - Longwood Gardens with 19 shots. I visited once just before the lockdown. Once things reopened, I went nearly every week. South Brunswick for the two day WGI Regional was close behind with 17. No other location was in double digits. Quite a few were shot in my own backyard.
Of course, as everyone in the world knows, 2020 was a year of limited activities and travel. I spent time in just 3 states including my home state. I went to Delaware once and New Jersey a few times both before and after the start of the pandemic restrictions. In a normal year, I visit at least 15 states, so this was a big change. With the March 15 shutdowns in the PA/NJ area, I had a short indoor season, no drum corps, no summer travel, no airline flights, no hotel stays and just a few marching band events in the fall. This made for a very different year and a very different Top 100 photos.
But rather than focus on what I lost, I’m focused on what I was able to do, much of which was pleasantly surprising and much appreciated.
My indoor season started on January 11 and continued through March 14. By March 7, the virus was on everyone's mind and within a few days all my events were canceled. I was invited to photograph end-of-season final events for United Percussion and AMP on March 14. I spent a few wonderful hours with UP, photographing both ensembles and then some group shots. As I was leaving, I received a message that AMP had to wrap up early and exit the building. It would have been nice to end my season with AMP, but I’m glad I got to see them a few times before the shutdown.
One of the very best moments of the short indoor guard season was watching AMP Junior perform at the AMP home show. Normally junior guards go on first, but the organization decided to put the junior guard on last - after the World Class group. The place was packed and those kids gave an amazing performance. It was literally the best thing in the world that evening.
018-The Best Thing in the WorldNormally the junior guards perform at the beginning of a show to rather small crowds, but at the AMP Home Show they made the decision to end the evening with their junior guard. The group performed to the music of The Greatest Showman, and it was literally the best thing in the world watching those young performers with a full house of enthusiastic fans. I was a teary mess trying to capture what I was experiencing. Even today, reflecting on that moment is an emotional experience.
After spending the early shows going back and forth between Nikon and Sony, I decided to put the Nikon gear away and see how the year would go with just the Sony. Would I be confident enough with it in difficult conditions? Would I feel comfortable shooting awards and in other situations? I never really found out because this was such a strange year, but when I made the decision to pack up the Nikon gear, I bought a Sony A9. The next day, I went to the WGI Regional in South Brunswick to try it out. I stayed as long as I could on Saturday before leaving for a drumline show. I returned on Sunday after church. Here's one of the shots of the host school from that event.
027-Running on AirSouth Brunswick Visual Ensemble's show featured these ramps. They would run up and down them. I caught this member with both feet off the ground, confidently running down a steep ramp.
As noted above, the indoor season ended for me on March 14 when I got to spend the day with United Percussion. It was a lot of fun being able to move around, change lenses, and see the same chunks of show run over and over. The group practiced in costume, so this yielded a lot of great shots, quite a few of which nearly made the Top 100. Here's one that did.
055-It's OverI was honored to be invited to photograph United Percussion's final performance. Due to COVID restrictions, friends and family were not allowed in the gym. This was March 14, and the group wanted to do one more run of the show, which they livestreamed. I was impressed by the group's hard work in rehearsal in preparation for this final run. I got to photograph all through the World group's rehearsal, their final run and the final run of United Percussion 2. Afterwards I did some group and section shots. Not long after this shot, the season was over.
I did not expect to have anything resembling a marching band season. Each weekend that we had perfect marching band weather did not go unnoticed. I was aware a number of groups were learning shows and recording them for competitive or evaluation purposes. I wasn’t sure there was a place for me, as I expected most schools would not want someone from outside coming onto their campus. But after I was invited to photograph Edison High School by Alfred Braza, I reached out to a few schools where I felt comfortable to see what they were doing. As a result of that outreach and other connections, I managed to see 16 marching bands. Mostly these were single band events, but there was one small festival I was able to attend as well.
While I wish the season had been so much more, particularly for the students, what I experienced at each of these events was a group of people working hard for very little outside recognition. I was impressed by each band and the commitment of the staff to provide as normal an experience as possible, while working hard to keep everyone safe. It was inspiring.
Here are a few of the marching band photos that made the Top 100.
091-Masked Bass DrummerI spent a lovely afternoon at Timber Creek High School on the first Saturday in November. The small group worked hard all day and put on a nice performance for their family followed by a senior recognition ceremony.
094-SoloistA soloist with the Hillsborough marching band. With the daytime event, I was able to try some of my long but slower lenses than I usually use. This was taken with a 200-600 variable aperture lens.
One of the bands I visited was Southern Regional High School. I'd been there once before for an indoor Dayton send-off event and know many of the staff and parents. The drive was one of my longer drives for the year, so I figured if I'm driving almost to the Jersey coast, I might as well drive a few miles further and see the Barnegat Lighthouse. My challenge that week was Ominous or Suspicious. I hoped to find something. After looking at my photos from the lighthouse shoot and from the band event, I decided to create a Sci-Fi poster.
082-Attack of the 200 Foot DrummerThis composite was created for a photography challenge theme of Ominous or Suspenseful. Despite the pandemic restrictions, I've managed to find a few marching band photography opportunities this fall. One was a Tuesday night at Southern Regional High School in Manahawkin, NJ. The school is about 10 miles from the Barnegat Lighthouse, so I went out there early to do some photography. It was a glorious day. I mostly shot infrared at the lighthouse and had some ominous, ideas but after looking over my photos from the day, I thought a composite movie poster was in order. The lighthouse is 171 feet tall, so I went for a 200 ft drummer. Names of some of my photography classmates were used for the credits.
One group with whom I had no prior connections reached out to me because they wanted their students to get professional action, group and individual shots. They told the kids they had a big surprise. Then they pointed to me and said that they had hired the official TOB photographer because they wanted them to not miss out on that part of the normal experience. Seeing the reaction of the students made it all worthwhile for me.
I'm not sure what I would have done without Longwood Gardens. I visited 21 times - once before the pandemic and nearly every week starting with the reopening June 20. My wife Donna and I went there several times, as it was the only outdoor dining environment where we felt safe and knew the rules. We'd arrive mid-morning and walk around different parts of the gardens and end with a lunch in the Beer Garden. A lot of the time I went by myself, sometimes with ambitious photography plans and other times for a more contemplative experience. In the early fall, Donna and I took a seven-week course through the Abbey of the Arts that was about contemplative spirituality and photography. Several of our visits there revolved around that class. Each time I'd go, I'd bring different equipment. Often I would bring the full spectrum camera, allowing me to take infrared photos at a variety of wavelengths along with visible light shots.
One of my favorite infrared shots is the top photo on the blog of the Webb Farm House. Another favorite was this butterfly who waited very patiently for me to figure out my settings to get this shot with the fisheye lens. I had to get in really close and was very surprised that the butterfly did not fly away.
I went to Longwood twice during the Christmas display - and might still go again before it is over on January 17. For my second visit, I brought the tripod and did a lot of long exposure photography, which can make the people walking by invisible, at least as long as they keep moving. When I got to this light tunnel, I really wanted a clean shot. But there were people there, and a small group didn't move for a good 10 minutes. Eventually they left, and a normal level of traffic flow allowed me to get this shot.
099-Tunnel of LightsEven though I was shooting long exposures (30 seconds), I still needed people to keep moving through the tunnel. I setup for a shot, and a small group of people decided this would be a good time to take selfies. They stood there for a good 10 minutes, which I patiently waited. Finally they moved and I got my shot. Others did walk through, but they kept moving so they did not get picked up.
My weekly photography group always starts the year with a challenge to pick a “year word” which will define our year and to illustrate that with a photo. My word for 2020 was Create. When I did the initial photo, my focus was on using Photoshop to create more imaginative images, but I also mentioned wanting to do more with creating music. Mostly my music involves church, and most weeks I play drums, so my guitars don’t get as much use as I’d like. So, I commented that I'd like to play my guitars more. Here's a photo I did for my photography challenge Initial Inspired (CM=Create Music) which worked well with my year word.
096-Create MusicI had a challenge to create a photo that used my initials, so I went with Create Music. My year word was Create, and I thought I'd be creating a lot of photo composites. Turns out, most of my creative efforts have been with video and music rather than photography. So, it seemed appropriate to photograph myself working on music. The sheet music on the stand is a song I wrote called Together for Joy. It is inspired by Psalm 98 and is being used for my church's pledge drive campaign this year. Our church band members each recorded their parts, and I put together three different arrangements of the song, including one that made use of my photography.
Once we went into COVID-19 lockdown, our church had to quickly pivot to providing a worship experience entirely online. I tried to help with the music. Since wife Donna and daughter Erin are both in the same household with me, the three of us set out to do some music videos, not really knowing what we were doing. We moved the PA system to the living room and did some recordings in real time. Having so many cameras, I tried doing some multicam videos. It was fun making music together, but I really wanted to include others. Over time, we refined the approach. Over the course of the year, I produced 85 music videos. Most of these involved the church band, but some were my family or other ensembles at church.
Donna, Erin and I have been recording about four songs every other Saturday. Erin selects the songs, makes sure they are notated correctly in Finale and creates a modified click track from the Finale file that includes the chords and melody. We record guitar, flute and voices. Then with Erin’s help, I get the tracks lined up and I generate a reference track for the band. The band members have 2-3 weeks for each song. They do their recordings and send me the videos. With Erin’s expert ear, we get the tracks lined up. Then I do the audio and video editing in Premiere Pro.
While not really a part of my Top 100 photos, the videos were certainly crucial to my desire to create in 2020 and worthy of mention in this recap of the year. Here are a few of my favorite videos from 2020.
Personent Hodie - performed by the whole Maher family.
Take Up the Story - written by my daughter Erin and performed by the church band.
Together For Joy - an original song (the one I'm working on in the photo above) for our church's Stewardship campaign.
Never Doubt - an original song of mine and using the photos of my friend Raymond Fudge, which captured some of the powerful images from the Black Lives Matter protests in Washington, DC.
As things stand now, we’re likely to continue this virtual band adventure for a good portion of 2021.There are currently 12 videos in some stage of production.
The final photography challenge of the year is to pick our favorite photo. It was hard work to narrow the photos down to the top 100. Trying to pick just one photo is tough, but that's why they call it a challenge. I decided to go with this photo of Chris Jackson performing with United Percussion. This was taken on March 7, just before everything locked down. It was the last group performing in the last show of the season - only we didn't know that at the time. Chris went to my local high school, so I've followed his career in the marching arts since he was in 8th grade. It's been wonderful to watch him grow as a performer and into a magnificent young man.
So, those are some of the photos I took this year. You can see the top 100 here.
Well, after seeing how quickly the world can change, I’m hard pressed to make any promises for 2021. The one thing that feels certain is I will be continuing with my weekly critique group with Ricky Tims. I am hoping that I can photograph some individual indoor ensembles, much as I did this fall. Groups will be competing by video in most circuits, so the possibility is there, but indoor activities are different from outside, so it remains to be seen what will be allowed and what will feel safe.
I am hoping that there will be some kind of drum corps this summer. DCA plans on a video season with hopefully a live championship for Labor Day weekend. If all goes according to plan, I hope to get to as many of the DCA recording sessions as possible. If travel feels safe, I hope to get to the corps in Minnesota, Georgia and Alabama. DCI is planning on a three-day event in Indianapolis, so that is a possibility. A lot depends on the local and national restrictions, along with the progress on vaccine distribution. I'm sure everyone is hoping that by the fall marching band season, there will be something resembling normal.
So what will 2021 bring? I'll let you know in about a year.