The 0.06% Club
“Twelve significant photographs in any year is a good crop.” – Ansel Adams, Nature photographer extraordinaire.
What a year! For starters, it was leap year with one extra sunrise and sunset. It had extreme weather and natural disasters that rekindled the global warming and climate change debate. And a long Presidential election campaign with acrimonious debates and expensive ads of political factoids that focused on the 1% vs. 99% segments of our society.
Speaking of exclusive clubs – here’s my Top 12 Images for 2012, a very elusive collection. Quoting Mr. Adams again:
“Landscape photography is the supreme test of a photographer – and often the supreme disappointment.”
In a sense, nature photography is like playing the lottery. The odds are stacked against you but no one wins without buying a ticket. With nature photography, it is experiencing both the winning and the losing, the agony and the ecstasy. It’s those early-to-rise winter mornings where the sunrise never quite develops. Those hazy days of summer where the Blue Ridge Mountains become the Lost Ridges. Or those cloudless days when the skies have the personality of an unsalted cracker. Or promising evenings that quickly disappear into a blob of darkness. Fortunately, there are those occasional breathless moments that make it all worthwhile.
It’s somewhat of a numbers game so let’s consider the odds. Suppose one goes to the same location and snaps only a single photo each day of the year. Yes, collectively, pretty boring but the odds of a single image being in the Top 12 would be about 1 of 30. If a photo was taken every single hour throughout the year, the selection odds would be about 1:720. With a photo every minute, the selection odds decrease to about 1:44,000. Pretty low odds when one considers the odds of a golfer getting a hole-in-one is 1:5,000, or a bowler throwing a 300 game is only 1:11,500.
Even though weather, light, and conditions are constantly changing in the High Country, I prefer to select my favorites from a myriad of times, locations and subjects than from an one photo-a-day webcam. Thus, one of a my favorite oxymorons of nature photography, “The more images one throws away, the better your photographs.” A well-respected and traveled nature photographer friend remarked that he throws away ninety-nine for each keeper. What’s left? Probably thousands of good images for selecting his great Photo of the Month.
Using Lightroom (a great image cataloging software program) and lots of discipline, over 21,000 images were cataloged (not counting time-lapse photos) in 2012 or nearly 1,800 per month – 60 images per day. Lots of images but from a positive perspective – a large population to select the top ones! Sorry for the numbers again but the odds for one of those 21K+ images of being a Top 12 Finalist is — you guessed it – 0.06%.
Enough with the numbers, let’s jump to the good stuff – the Top 12 in chronological order along the five W and How information (if appropriate). Just a disclaimer, 2012 was a busy year of travel for me with a spring (South American fall) trip to Patagonia with an extension to the Atacama Desert in northern Chile and a October trip to the Peruvian rain forest (only two seasons – dry and flooding). And now with a drum roll, I offer……
Grandfather’s Beard – The late evening sun is hidden behind the clouds but still lights up a layer of dense fog lying on at the east side of Grandfather Mountain. Image taken from Green Mountain in the town of Blowing Rock, NC. The mystical illumination of the fog along with the backlit profile of Grandfather Mountain makes this an unique image. I also love panoramic images. (Blowing Rock, NC – February 12 @ 5:33 pm, Canon 7D with 100-400 mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 105 mm, ISO 200, f/6.7 @ 1/1000th second, tripod mounted).
Mountains in the Sky – Mount Fitz Roy and Cerro Torre are famous climbing destinations located in the ragged granite-spired mountains of the Southern Patagonia ice fields. This image was selected because of its unique location and the brilliant sunrise colors on the mountain. Three mornings were devoted to getting a decent sunrise at this location; the colors never developed on the first morning, the winds were so fierce on the second morning that most images were soft, but finally great colors on the third morning even though the peaks of both Fitz Roy and Cerro Torre remained shrouded in clouds. (El Chaltén, Argentina – March 30 @ 8:10 am, Canon 7D with 24-105 mm f/4 lens @ 90 mm, ISO 100, f/8 @ 1/20th second, tripod mounted).
Rio de Las Vueltas Falls – A beautiful waterfall on the Rio de Las Vueltas near El Chalten, Argentina. This is the upper portion of the waterfall and it was impossible to shoot the entire waterfall in a single image. I could have spent hours perched on the ledges at this location just admiring nature’s beauty. A wide-angle lens (22 mm) with my full-frame camera was used to capture the breadth of the scene in this image – fluffy clouds moving across a blue sky, the rugged Patagonia mountains, the muted fall colors of the Lenga beech trees, and the cascading river and tumbling waterfall. A GND filter was used increase the exposure time and obtain the silkiness of the water. (El Chaltén, Argentina – March 30 @ 1:32 pm, Canon 5D with 17-40 mm f/4 lens @ 22 mm, ISO 100, f/22 @ ¼ second with GND filter, tripod mounted).
Subtle – Soft early morning light highlights the sunrise on the Salar de Atacama salt flats in northern Chile. Over 3,000 square-kilometers in size, it is the second largest salt flat in the world. I must admit, this one snook up on me and maybe led to its title. I was wandering through the salt flats watching Andrean Flamingoes feed on briny shrimp-like particles, I looked up to see a remarkable “nothing” appear – very faint, soft light reflections of the Andes Mountains in the salt lagoons. I love the subtle and simplistic nature of this image. (Near San Pedro del Atacama, Chile – April 7 @ 8:40 am, Canon 7D with 100-400 mm f/4.5-5.6 lens @ 100 mm, ISO 100, f/16 @ 1/125th second, tripod mounted)
Miniques Lagoon – This isolated lake was located high in the Andes (above 14,200′) and approximately a hundred kilometers (three hours driving time) south of San Pedro de Atacama, Chile. Mount Miscanto and Miniques, two snow-capped mountains with peaks above 19,000′, tower above this area. My likes – the remoteness of the location, the contrast between the snow-capped mountain and the desert-like terrain, salt-lined shoreline and the single Vicuna. And of course, it’s a panorama! (Atacama Desert region – April 7, 2012 @ 12:08 pm, Canon 5D with 17-40 mm f/4.0 lens @ 34 mm, ISO 100, f/8.0 for 1/500th second, two images stitched together for the panoramic view, hand-held).
Sunrise Splendor – Early June is a great time to hike the Appalachian Trail on the Roan Highlands near the North Carolina/Tennessee border to experience the peak bloom of the Catawba rhododendrons. I was approaching the peak of Round Bald on the AT, I kept looking for a location with a good foreground. These rhododendron bushes were located quite a distance from the trail so off I go through the knee high damp grasses. My feet were soaked when I was finished shooting but I’m already looking forward to next June. (Round Bald – June 7, 2012 @ 6:19 am, Canon 7D with 24-105 mm f/4 lens @ 45 mm, ISO 100, f/22 @ 2.0 second and 3-step GND filter, tripod mounted).
Highlands Hammer Heave – Oops, a non-nature image! The mid-July weekend Grandfather Mountain Highland Games is a must-attend event in the High Country of North Carolina. This image was shot during the Masters competition in the hammer throw competition. It has been selected as a Finalist in the Culture Category of the 2013 Appalachian Mountain Photo Contest. Key photo techniques – used higher ISO to obtain fast shutter speed and DOF with a remote controller in burst mode to capture range of action photos. (McRae Meadows of Grandfather Mountain near Linville, NC – July 15 @ 9:39 am, Canon 7D with 17-40 mm F/4 lens @ 17 mm, ISO 400, f/6.7 @ 1/1000th second, camera lying on ground).
Hawksbill Sunset – The drive and hike to the peak of Hawksbill Mountain provides some justification for selecting this image but ultimately its the colorful sunset and the its reflection in a pool of water that made it one of my favorites. (Hawksbill Mountain on eastern rim of Linville Gorge, July 29 @ 7:36 pm, Canon 5D with 17-40 mm f/4 lens @ 37 mm, ISO 100, f/16 @ 1/20th second, tripod mounted).
Heaven and Earth – The hike to Calloway Peak, the highest point (5,964′) in the Blue Ridge range is approximately three miles with an elevation change of 2,000 feet and requires using in-place ladders and cable systems but definitely worth the effort. The actual sunset was a bummer but the twenty-minute light show with God’s rays (technical name – Crepuscular rays) dancing across the High Country made it a magic afternoon! (Calloway Peak, NC – September 22 @ 6:23 pm, Canon 5DIII with 24-105 mm f/4 lens @ 97 mm, ISO 100, f/8 @ 1/180th second, tripod).
Mountain Curves – A 2 – 1/2 mile pre-dawn hike up the Daniel Boone Scout Tail to Viaduct View on Calloway Peak was required for this unique fall view of the Blue Ridge Parkway and the Linville Cove Viaduct. Maybe it is my engineering background but this image illustrates the ecological considerations made in the planning and the construction of the Blue Ridge Parkway around the mountainous contours of Grandfather Mountain. I had to use my long telephone to properly isolate the Parkway and the Viaduct. (Calloway Peak, NC – October 20, 2012 @ 7:10 am, Canon 5DIII with 100-400 mm f/4.5-5.6 mm @ 400 mm, ISO 100, f/16 @ 1/20th second, tripod).
Barbed-Ice Fence – A winter rain and ice storm silhouettes the icicles hanging from the barbed-wire fence along the Blue Ridge Parkway. Likes – the ice-covered fence leading into the sunrise and, of course, the patchy backlit clouds. (Thunder Hill Overlook near Blowing Rock – December 28 @ 7:42 am, Canon 5DIII with 17-40 mm f/4 lens @ 40 mm, ISO 100, f/22 @ 0.5 second, tripod).
A Winter Sight – And finally, agony and ecstasy to capture for last sunrise of the year. The agony – its 20F with gusty winds and a crusty snow-covered Roan Highlands. The ecstasy – sunrise on Roan with glowing pre-dawn backlighting of the clouds on the left, the long-range view of the Black Mountains on the RHS, the waves of clouds and the many snow-covered hills and mountains of the High Country. (Roan Highlands on December 31 @ 7:26 am, Canon 5DIII with 24-105 mm f/4 @ 28 mm, ISO 100, f/16 @ 1.5 second, tripod, three images stitched together to create the panoramic composite).
I can assure you that selecting the Final 12 was more difficult than picking the Final 16 in a NCAA basketball pool. Your job is relatively easy – review the Final 12, pick and rank your top 4. I’d love to hear from you via a blog Comment or email. I will publish my four favorites along with your collective results in a future blog post.
Incidentally, high-quality prints of any of these images are available in various sizes. If interested, just reply by email – firstname.lastname@example.org. If you visit the High Country, please stop and check out my images in the Morning Star Galley in Blowing Rock and The CatchLight Gallery in West Jefferson.
Send me your rankings but more importantly – live and love life to the fullest!