It’s time once again for my annual “Best Of” list, which gives me a chance to reflect on the past year. Work as a full time photographer remains challenging (and it’s not always exciting), so it’s particularly gratifying when things go well. It could be nailing one particular image I’ve visualized for some time, or perhaps finding an elusive subject. And sometimes it’s just enjoying the chance to share my adventures with some wonderful clients. Once again, I had a lot of great clients during my tours. I’d like to thank them for a fun year. Thanks also to the customers who purchased prints, calendars and other gift items. You helped support my business, and once again I was able to donate a portion of my annual store proceeds to the Husky Marching Band scholarship fund and the Yellowstone Park Foundation. A final thanks to the folks who bid on the prints and items I donated to charity auctions this year. With your help, we’re able to keep supporting good causes.
Best Photos and Standout Moments of 2015
It’s always fun to look back at the previous twelve months and narrow down my favorite standout images and moments of the year. Some years I’m able to come up with a long list and have a difficult time whittling it down to around 15 photos (if you missed my runners-up this year, click here). Other years aren’t quite as eventful, or the photos simply didn’t turn out the way I’d hoped, so I may have only a dozen images or so.
2015 was a good—not great—year for photography. It was pretty easy coming up with at least a dozen photos or memorable moments. Note that these aren’t always the “best” images, but they do represent many of the significant events that occurred in the past twelve months. Read on to learn more about the images and moments that stood out to me, listed below in chronological order:
January 6 – Short-Eared Owl
A while back I picked a flying short-eared owl image as my favorite photo of 2011. It was a classic head-on shot that I always figured would be hard to improve upon… except for the fact that I was using inferior equipment and the resulting photo came out much grainier than I would have preferred. Ever since, I’ve been trying to duplicate that shot or get something very similar with better gear. I didn’t quite do it here, but this is as close as I’ve been the last few years.
Short-eared owls are great subjects. They fly low, close and relatively slowly when they are hunting. If you’re lucky, they’ll turn right toward you before veering off. Nobody needs to “chase” these owls. Wait for them to come to you. On this particular morning, the shorties were extremely active at a spot near Stanwood, WA, where I’d never really had much luck before. This owl swooped over the grass and turned right toward me. Though the conditions were rather dark, I managed to capture a few relatively sharp images in this sequence. As a change of pace, I decided to convert the photo to black and white. The high-key monochrome look proved to be a nice touch. I love the way this turned out.
Purchase a print of this image.
January 16 – Marine Iguana
Travel dominated the first half of the year. In the first six months of 2015, I spent more time on the road more than I did at home, the first time that’s ever happened. My first big trip was a long-awaited return to the Galapagos Islands, where I lead a photo tour. The Galapagos is one of my favorite wildlife trips because it’s relaxed, easy and fun. Casual walks, snorkeling nearly every day and the closest wildlife encounters you can imagine. The 2015 trip was so good from a wildlife perspective that I plan to return in 2017.
One of the highlights of our journey was the opportunity to visit the western islands of Isabela and Fernandina. These house some of the largest and most colorful marine iguanas in the archipelago. Like so many of the other animals, these prehistoric-looking creatures aren’t shy. They have no natural predators, so it’s possible to get close from time to time and shoot with a wide angle lens. That’s what I did here. Though I didn’t want to crawl up and try and get directly in the lizard’s personal space, I did reach out my camera and attempted a couple of “blind” shots from a low angle. This sunbathing shot was one of my favorites of the many, many marine iguana photos that turned out well.
Learn more about the 2017 Galapagos tour.
January 18 – Frigatebirds at Sunrise
Another image from the Galapagos adventure that stood out came from our final morning in the islands. It was our only opportunity to get on land at sunrise, and we took full advantage of the great light. Not far from our landing point, a colony of great frigatebirds was just waking up and taking to the sky. As the rest of our group continued down the path with our guide, I lingered in hopes of capturing some of the birds silhouetted in flight. Luckily, a few shots turned out. We were close enough that I struggled to keep the birds in the frame, but I barely made the scene fit in this case.
Learn more about the 2017 Galapagos tour.
February 17 – Find the Snow Leopard
I can officially say I’ve seen one of the world’s rarest large predators in its natural, rugged environment. But at what cost?
The vast majority of the snow leopard photos you see these days depict captive animals photographed at a game farm. It’s gotten to the point where I can readily identify 99% of the snow leopards I see in pictures as “tame.” To find one of these endangered cats on their home turf is difficult enough. Getting a decent photo that’s not taken with a camera trap is even harder.
And yeah, I failed. I actually saw three snow leopards, which is quite a feat. I spent nearly a month in India (my first visit), with the entire first half of the trip devoted to a search for snow leopards. I camped in the Himalayas in northern India, and each day had to trek at 12-14,000 feet (~4000 meters) in frigid, windy conditions just in hopes of glimpsing a cat. As it turned out, the conditions worked against us. They were too nice. Not enough snow had fallen, meaning the leopards and many of the other species inhabiting the high desert (Tibetan wolves, red fox, ibex, etc.) were sticking to higher elevations while food was readily available.
Ultimately, I saw my snow leopards, but at a great distance. This last one was the only one moving, and it was a full 2 kilometers away. Even with a 500mm lens mounted with a 2x teleconverter on a 1.6x crop body (the rough equivalent of 1100mm), I could only get this dot. At least you can tell what it is. Sort of.
This is far from a great image, and I paid a price to achieve even this. Brutal conditions, health issues and cancelled flights (which adversely affected my search for tigers later in the trip) all made for a downer of a trip. But it was certainly memorable!
By the way, have you found the snow leopard yet? Hint: look in the center of the image.
See what happened with tigers on this trip in my “Not Quite Best of 2015” article.
March 19 – Barn Owl
My first visit to California this year didn’t quite go as planned. I traveled to Pinnacles National Park in search of bobcats—surprisingly common in the area—but didn’t have many sightings, and only one good encounter. That doesn’t mean that I didn’t enjoy some pleasant surprises along the way. Among them was my very first wild barn owl sighting.
I love owls, and have photographed well over twenty species around the world. So it was a bit odd knowing that the world’s most widespread owl was not in my portfolio. Barn owls are found on every continent except Antarctica. They’re even here in Washington, in my own back yard. Yet I had never seen, much less photographed one.
As we were driving down a country road looking for cats, I peered up into a cave high above us and spied a distinctive white shape. It was certainly a large bird, and it seemed to be a perfect hiding spot for an owl (sure enough, when I returned to the spot in December, a great horned owl was perched there!). Though the hole was very far away and seriously backlit, I took some distant shots for documentation. They were washed out, but I applied a monochrome conversion that boosted the contrast and enhanced the texture of the surrounding rocks. The end result turned out much better than expected, and I finally had a barn owl in my collection.
See more photos from Pinnacles National Park.
PHOTOS OF THE YEAR: May 21 & 29 – Black Bear Family
Earlier this year I counted down my favorite wildlife encounters from my six week spring adventure in Yellowstone. These bears came in at #1, and they managed to claim top honors for the entire year as well.
It was just too good! I had multiple encounters with these bears, both during tours and on my own, and they seemed to always put on a show for those who were watching. The sow was quite tolerant of the big crowds (even leading her youngsters through a parted group of photographers as she crossed the road at one point… yes, rangers were present), and the little ones always put on a rollicking show.
It was very difficult to pick my favorite image of the bear family, so I settled on three. But there are a lot more I could have chosen. Check out the full spring bear gallery.
June 15 – Bighorn Sheep
Hmm… distant animals on rocky cliffsides seems to be a recurring theme for 2015.
There were a lot of good wildlife encounters that occurred during my spring Yellowstone trip. You’d hope so, given that I spent six weeks there! However, one of my favorite photo opportunities came during one of the more distant encounters. During one of my photo tours, we stopped near the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, which is always good for a spectacular view, but sometimes produces animal sightings as well. In this case, I spied a few bighorn sheep on the far side of the canyon. During spring, the female sheep in this area like to go descend into the canyon to give birth to their lambs. Very few predators are brave enough to scale the steep walls and cliff faces, so it’s generally a safe spot to start raising a family.
On this day, a pair of ewes had two little lambs in tow. They were picking their way under the towering columnar basalt formations that line the canyon walls. It was too far for close-ups, but with a long lens I was able to produce a nice composition, emphasizing the patterns in the basalt to create a pretty unique image. A lot of folks gloss over this one because of the subject, but it ended up being one of my favorite photos of the entire trip.
See more wildlife photos from my spring Yellowstone trip.
June 19 – Wild Horse Battle
At the tail end of my spring Yellowstone adventures, I made a trip out to Wyoming to visit the McCullough Peaks wild horses. It was my best visit to date, with a huge herd of horses providing some good action. It was pretty difficult getting clear shots of some of the stallions facing off with each other. This was probably the best view of one of the battles, even if it wasn’t the closest.
See more wild horse photos from this trip.
August 11 – Coastal Wolf
Wolves are high up on many photographers’ wish lists. I’ve been fortunate to photograph many of them over the years in Yellowstone. I never get tired of seeing them at close range, since close encounters are hard to come by. There are other opportunities to see wolves at close range outside of Yellowstone, and though it’s not necessarily any easier to find them, environment and circumstances often lead to some incredible moments.
I’ve seen coastal wolves in the past, and even had a brief photo encounter back in 2011 on Vancouver Island. Coastal wolves live different lives than their inland cousins, often foraging along the beaches and tidal flats for food. This makes it possible to see them from water. If you’re lucky enough to find coastal wolves, more often than not you’ll be photographing them from a boat rather than from land. This also means you can approach at much closer range than you could on foot, as proven by the special encounter during my summer Coastal Wolves and Sea Otters tour.
We spied this wolf from quite a distance as we were cruising along in our Zodiac. It continued at a brisk pace along the shore, so we pulled ahead and stopped the boat at a rocky outcropping in hopes that the wolf would continue on its path past us. A few moments after we arrived, the wolf rounded the bend and walked along the slippery rocks a mere 20 yards away. The wolf paid little attention to us. It did pause for a moment and give us a glance (captured here) before continuing on its way.
See more photos from this trip.
September 12 – Another Season of Husky Football
I wasn’t sure I wanted to shoot football again this year. As I detailed in this article, I wasn’t even sure if I’d have the opportunity, but I was pretty certain I wouldn’t miss football. But the opportunity presented itself, so for the 16th year in a row, I photographed Husky Football games. And you know what? I really enjoyed it.
As with my nature photography, I like being able to share a closer view with an audience that may not otherwise get to see some of what happens in the field… or in this case, on the field. So I felt lucky to make all but one of the Husky home games this year. As the year progressed, I felt myself growing more comfortable shooting games, and I felt some of my best stretches of photography came late in the season. But one of the first photos I took this season may have been my favorite.
In this image, senior receiver Jaydon Mickens is firing up the team well before kickoff of the first game of the season against Sacramento State. I happened to still be up in the press box when I saw the Washington players huddling together, so I grabbed my long lens and fired off a couple of shots before they dispersed. It’s nice to get some images that depict the atmosphere of Game Day. Action isn’t always a requirement. Mickens’s speech fit the bill.
See more photos from the 2015 Husky Football season.
October 5 – Autumn Gold
My final Yellowstone trip of the year took place in the fall. I was co-leading an autumn photo tour with Zack Clothier, but wanted to spend a little extra time on my own in the park. Following the conclusion of the tour I was able to get in some solo exploration.
One afternoon, as I was driving home through the Lamar Valley I spied a herd of bison on the hillside high above the road. The sun was peeking out from behind the clouds as I drove through, and happened to shine on the golden foliage of some nearby cottonwood trees. Glimpsing the bison through the leaves, I pulled over immediately. Of course, then clouds rolled in and killed the lovely light and color I had witnessed. I had to wait a bit longer before the trees finally lit up again, providing a colorful window through which I could view the bison. This is certainly one of the more colorful wildlife landscape shots I’ve ever taken in the park.
See more photos from the fall Yellowstone trip.
October 31 – Zombie Dance!
I was in the Husky Marching Band for five years and never had a chance to perform on Halloween. What a bummer. This year’s game against Arizona happened to line up perfectly, and the band took full advantage. They performed in costume and even played along during a live performance of Ghostbusters! with Ray Parker, Jr. It was the most well-received show by the band in a looooong time, harkening back to the old days when they used to let loose and have fun a lot more often.
In what is a pretty good representation of the general zaniness on this night, saxophone player Will McMinn performs the Zombie Dance from Michael Jackson’s Thriller video.
See more photos from the Halloween game.
December 15 – Bobcat
Photographing wild cats in the western hemisphere is a tough proposition. Unlike Africa, the cats of North America are elusive, with wide territories and what is often densely forested terrain. But there may be an exception to this rule in California.
After only getting a few bobcat sightings during my Pinnacles National Park visit earlier in the year, I returned in December to try again. Good thing, too, as I came away with a lot more sightings and good photos. This is a hotbed for bobcat activity during the winter, due in part to the high density of prey species (particularly the California ground squirrel). This may have been our best photo op, one of nine bobcats seen during the first of two day-long sessions in and around the park. We were very fortunate that this cat was coming right toward the road, so we were able to stop and snap a few quick shots before it crossed.
Despite the fact that bobcats are common in this one spot, it remains one of the most elusive North American predators, and I’m looking forward to seeing my next one (hopefully during my upcoming winter trip to Yellowstone). Now with bobcats and even a mountain lion under my belt, I just need to find the rarest of the North American cats, the Canada lynx!
See more bobcat photos from Pinnacles.
I guess 2015 ended up being a pretty good year. 2016 is going to be even busier, with trips to Yellowstone, Costa Rica, Patagonia, Africa and the Great Bear Rainforest scheduled. So there should be plenty of interesting encounters on the horizon. Hopefully I can make the most of them!
Remember, you can order prints of nearly any of these images in the photo archive. If you don’t see them in the archive yet but would like prints, feel free to contact me with your request.
More from 2015 in Review
More articles from my look back at 2015:
Max’s Not Quite Best of 2015 Photos
The Best Photos of the Year from My Peers
Great images Max. I especially like the b/w of the barn owl in the cave near Pinnacles and the bobcat from day one of the two-day bobcat shoot. Hope 2016 is filled with many more great shots (you know, plenty of badgers and other things like that!)
What an amazing set of photos Max. You saw in one year what most people won’t see in a lifetime. I’m sure it was hard to pick a favorite shot of all the adventures you had but I can see why the bear family would be a special experience. The cuteness, personalities and expressions on their faces are priceless. Well done and I’m sure you’ll outdo yourself in 2016.