My Top Pictures of 2021

December 31, 2021  •  Leave a Comment

035-Lipan Point035-Lipan PointThis panorama of the Grand Canyon was taken from Lipan Point. Some of the Colorado River is visible at the bottom of the frame.

Each year since 2013, I go through all my photos and pick out my favorite 100. 2021 turned out to be a great year for photography, though with some significant adjustments to my normal schedule. I continued with my weekly photography challenges with the Ricky Tims critique group, finishing out my seventh straight year – 364 weekly challenges without missing a single one.  

This blog post will give an overview of my year of photography with a focus on my top 100 photos. I reviewed about 140,000 photos from the year to identify the best ones to tell the story of my year.

Equipment

I spent the year fully in the Sony ecosystem, having sold or put away my Nikon gear. I switched out some Sony gear and added new cameras and lenses. The A9 and A7Riii were sold. In their place I have two of the new flagship model A1. I still have the A7iii as a backup along with a full spectrum converted A6600. Lenses added in 2021 include Sony 35mm f/1.4 GM, Sony 400 f/2.8 GM, Sony 50mm f/1.2 GM, Sony 70-200 f/2.8ii GM, Sony 14mm f/1.8 GM, Tamron 70-180 f/2.8, Tamron 28-75 f/2.8 and Tamron 35-150 f/2-2.8. 

Top 100 By the Numbers

By Camera - nearly all the top 100 were taken with a Sony A1. Three were taken with the full spectrum A6600, two with the A7Riii (which I no longer have), one with the A7iii and one with a cheap action camera. 

Lenses - More than 20 lenses are represented in the top 100. The most popular lens was the 400 f/2.8 prime having 21 photos. The versatile 24-105 f/4 came close with 20. The 70-200 f/2.8 and 200-600 were the only other lenses in double digits at 12. 

Locations - 40 different locations were represented in the top 100. One quarter of the top 100 were taken in June while I was on a two week long photo trip. Nearly half (48) of the top 100 came from the fall marching band season. 

 

Indoor Guard and Drumline

The indoor guard and drumline season, much like the 2020 marching band season, involved video recordings for competitions. That allowed me time with different groups where I would spend a day photographing rehearsal and the video performance. It was nice getting to know some groups on a more intimate basis and to keep my head in the marching arts world. 

011-Evie Upside Down011-Evie Upside DownFlips are always fun to catch.

 

Drum Corps

The two US drums corps circuits took different approaches to 2021 but both had something resembling a season. DCI had a three week non-competitive tour ending with a three day celebration in Indianapolis. In order to keep the performers safe, outside photographers such as myself were restricted to the stands. I attended just two DCI shows - one in La Crosse WI and one day in Indianapolis. 

DCA had a competitive season but fully by video. My objective was to visit each of the competing corps during a video recording session. With 14 corps and 8 weeks, everything had to go perfectly which was a pretty high bar. I only missed two corps. One corps folded during the season before I got to visit. Another corps had to cancel due to a hurricane. There was one corps whose video recording time was rained out though I did spend hours with them during rehearsal. 

Certainly the best part of the 2021 drum corps season was getting to know each of the DCA organizations up close and personal. Not only was I there to photograph the corps, but I also conducted interviews and wrote articles for Drum Corps World about my visits. 

044-Toss and Catch044-Toss and CatchBushwackers guard rifles have a challenging toss and catch moment.

 

Summer Travels

With the summer drum corps season starting in July and vaccines opening up the world for seemingly safe travel, I took the opportunity to visit some national parks in June. My trip started and ended in Las Vegas. In between, I visited seven national parks and two state parks. You can read my trip blog Part 1 and Part 2 for more information about the trip which was all about photography. The photo at the top of the blog was taken at the Grand Canyon. 

Of all the national parks I visited, my favorite was Bryce Canyon. The scenery was unique and I was fortunate to be able to stay inside the park, plus the weather was great especially after the heat wave at the start of my trip. 

018-Hoodoos018-HoodoosA view of the hoodoos from Bryce Point.

 

Photography Summit

At the end of September, I traveled to La Veta, CO to meet a group of my photographer friends for a four day summit with Ricky Tims. Many of these people have been part of the journey with me since 2015 and even more had joined along the way. A few I had met in person before, but for most it was the first time meeting. The Summit including a dozen challenges that we had to accomplish around town or the surrounding area. We also had a number of educational presentations by members of the group as well as Ricky. Among the many highlights of the trip was a session on astrophotography by Warren Lee followed by an evening trip to photograph the Milky Way. Living in an urban/suburban area, I've never given much thought to astrophotography so it was really amazing to see this spectacular sight and to realize how much more the camera could see and capture. 

050-After Dark050-After DarkThe Milky Way shoot was a highlight of the Ricky Tims Photo Summit in LeVeta CO. This was my first time ever seeing or photographing the Milky Way. None of my shots were as in focus as I'd like but I was amazed by what the camera's sensor could capture. This one took some extra post processing effort but I liked that it included Jupiter. I'll have to find a way to try this again. Thanks Warren Lee for putting together this photo shoot!

 

Marching Band

The marching band season was almost normal. I had shows every weekend, often two and sometimes three. USBands moved their New England States Championships to two weekdays due to weather, so I added an extra trip to Connecticut. That made for a really crazy final 10 days of the season with 7 shows in 10 days and about 1,000 miles of driving. The most striking thing about the 2021 marching band season was the rain. With several rain events, it was difficult deciding which rain photos to include in the top 100. The rainiest event had to be the Penncrest Senior Night. Not only was the rain relentless but it was cold and windy. It was miserable and memorable. The band sat through the first half singing the stands tunes. For the field show, everyone sang their part except one snare drummer to help hold it all together. As is the tradition, the band stopped part way through the show so the seniors could come to the track, greet their family and be recognized. My primary job that night was to take the family photos. The rain and lens flares made for some dramatic shots.

I did almost no composite work this year and only one composite made it into the top 100. This is Penncrest's drum major Jacob Bartowski with the main image captured during the senior night performance. 

076-Leader of the Band076-Leader of the BandA composite of Penncrest's drum major Jacob Bartowski. The image in color and the other shots in the raincoat were from a very rainy band senior night. Jacob's twin brother is also in the band. The two of them, along with sister Mandy, are with their parents in the lower right.

 

For the Birds

Beyond the summer travels and marching arts, I found opportunities to try some bird photography. I am fortunate to live close to the John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge at Tinicum. I visited this urban refuge several times and tried my hand at bird photography. I found it quite challenging. A few weeks later, I visited the Conowingo Dam in Darlington MD where bald eagles can often be found, particularly in March/April and November. I went for the first time on March 30, the day of my second COVID vaccine. I arrived before 7am and found a lot of cars in the lot with a bunch of photographers with big lenses lined up along a fence overlooking the river. This juvenile eagle had just grabbed a fish out of the river. 

004-Lunch Time004-Lunch TimeOn my first visit to the Conowingo Dam I found this juvenile eagle doing some fishing. Eagles typically do a quick visual check to make sure their meal is secure.

One exciting bird photography opportunity came at the beginning of my national park trip as I spent a morning photographing hummingbirds with my friend Warren Lee. I don't think I'd ever seen a hummingbird before, let alone tried to photograph one. All of these opportunities were fun, rewarding and frustrating. 

013-Hummingbird013-HummingbirdMy friend Warren Lee took me to Cornerstone Park in Henderson NV. This was the first time I'd seen a hummingbird. They move quickly and I didn't really have the right equipment but it was fun none-the-less.


New Things

The year included visits to many new locations but also an opportunity to try new things. Inspired by one of my photography challenges (Pins and Needles), I figured out how to use my Pluto Trigger in sound mode to capture an exploding water balloon. 

003-Pins and Needles003-Pins and NeedlesWater balloon exploding using a Pluto Trigger on sound mode. It took some work to get all of the pieces in place and adjust for sound sensitivity and the right delay. I attached a balloon to a boom stand with a clothespin, setup a bowl to catch the water, the trigger was attached to a flash, camera on a 10 second exposure and my cellphone connected to the trigger over Bluetooth. The cellphone captures the sound and tells the trigger to make the flash go.

 

Receive

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 2021 was Receive and grew out of the Abbey of the Arts class I took in 2020 called Eyes of the Heart: Photography as Contemplative Practice. One of the ideas we learned was to think of photography as receiving images rather than taking pictures. I tried to bring that attitude to all of my photography this year. 

002-Gazebo at Night002-Gazebo at NightI wandered around the Longwood Gardens Christmas display one Monday night in the spirit of receiving images. As I was turning from what I thought was the last shot to start walking to the exit, I was suddenly struck by the lighting on the gazebo. This was the last shot of a wonderful night of receiving images.

 

Video and More

I continued creating videos for online church worship through the end of June after which the church began meeting in person. I was tasked with figuring out how to livestream. I spent a solid month researching options and finally settled upon a software platform called vMix and a PTZ (pan, tilt, zoom) camera. I was able to leverage some of what I learned in video production during the pandemic shutdown to making the livestreaming work. 

The church video work continued through the first six months of the year at the same pace as 2020. My family recorded four songs every other week and the band members submitted two videos every week. As I learned more about Premiere Pro, the quality of the productions improved and I tried incorporating my photos into some of the videos. Among my favorite videos of the year are:

Rain of Justice - music by Erin Maher, lyrics by Peter Graham

Jesus Passing By - my Palm Sunday song that incorporated video clips from members of the congregation submitted for last year's video which was accompanied by an existing audio recording of the song. This video showed the progress made in video editing over the past 12 months. 

Peace is Flowing Like a River - a traditional song incorporating my photos from Pennypack Park in New Jersey. I had the opportunity to visit there in between spending time with two indoor guard groups in April. 

Psalm 150 - a song I wrote over a decade ago. I incorporated a variety of photos (including a couple marching band or drum corps shots) and some of my photos of eagles from Conowingo Dam. I was pleased that I could find photos to represent each phrase of the song. 

 

Best Shot

Our final photography challenge for the year was to pick our Best Shot. After narrowing it down to eight candidates, I went with this shot of Mesa Arch in Canyonlands National Park. The hike to Mesa Arch was harder and longer than I expected. The return trip also posed challenges with finding my way back. But I did manage to see the arch with the red glow from the rising sun. This is a popular spot for photographers but I got here a little past the prime time and only had to contend with a few other tourists who very kindly stayed back so I could get my shot.

029-Mesa Arch029-Mesa ArchThe hike to Mesa Arch was harder and longer than I expected. The return trip also posed challenges with finding my way back. But I did manage to see the arch with the red glow from the rising sun. This is a popular spot for photographers but I got here a little past the prime time and only had to contend with a few other tourists who very kindly stayed back so I could get my shot.

 

The Top 100

So, those are some of the photos I took this year and a bit about this year's photography journey. You can see all of the Top 100 in the gallery.

 

2022?

A few months ago it seemed like 2022 would be pretty normal but then came Omicron driving up case numbers and threatening many activities. I hope to have a full indoor guard and drumline season. Will schools allow groups to come in their buildings? Will the groups be allowed to travel out of state? So much is unknown with the season ready to start in just a few weeks. Drum corps are planning for a normal season. I am continuing with the Ricky Tims Critique Group for year number 8. The weekly photo challenges are a way of life now and help get me to explore other kinds of photography and new locations. Hopefully there will be opportunities for travel to new places and experiment with photo and post processing techniques. 
 


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