It’s difficult whittling down my list of favorite images of the year. Over the last few years, I’ve settled on something akin to a “semi-final” list of photos, which eventually gets trimmed even further until I’m left with ten to fifteen finalists. But I still like to share the runners-up, those photos that stood out either aesthetically or because they represented a fun or memorable moment during a shoot.
Enjoy the Not Quite Best of the Year, and be sure to check back in a few days for both the Best of 2019 from my peers, and my own favorite images of the year.
February 16: Verreaux’s Eagle-owl with Black-winged Kite
I know, I know. It’s not too surprising to find an owl on my Favorites list. Still, this was a pretty remarkable sighting. We saw a number of Verreaux’s Eagle-owls while exploring Ndutu as part of my Tanzania photo safari. Unlike past encounters with this species, the ones in Ndutu were often brief. The owls there were fairly shy compared to the ones I’ve come across in southern Africa. I think in both cases when we found a Verreaux’s that didn’t fly off right away, it was because it was sitting on a kill.
In this case the victim wasn’t a small rodent or other harmless bird, but another raptor! This Black-winged Kite obviously chose to land in the wrong tree. The size difference between the small kite and massive owl is quite apparent in this image, one of the things I love about it.
Incidentally, this tree was pretty fruitful for us. We also found a rock python hidden in the branches above, and a leopard killed a vulture and was feasting on it in the brush below. Next time, someone may want to post some warning signs for the prey species out there!
February 16: Plains Zebras
That same morning, and only a few hundred meters away, there lay a small alkaline lake that was attracting tens of thousands of animals. It was the culmination of the Great Migration, something I had kept in mind when scheduling the Tanzania trip for this time of year. Of course, most people just think of wildebeest when it comes to Migration. The zebras kind of get forgotten. But they really shouldn’t. We actually saw a lot more zebras than wildebeest, and there had to be at least 30,000 clustered around this one lake on this particular day.
They were coming and going… some crossing, some drinking, many milling about while keeping an eye on the nearby pride of lions. Zebras, unlike wildebeest, are pretty smart. They were quite skittish, constantly watching for threats. Though there were no crocs in the water, most of the zebras coming in for a drink didn’t stay long. There were numerous false alarms, which sent them running back to the safety of shore. So all we had to do was sit and wait a few moments to get some running, splashing or other activity to photograph. I spent a lot of time working on shots that would emphasize the distinct graphic nature of the zebras’ fur patterns and forms. In this case, the pairing of in- and out-of-focus elements made for a fun, slightly abstract composition that lended itself well to monochrome. This photo also landed on the cover of my annual photography yearbook magazine (see below).
February 18: Nairobi Grass Rat and Starling
I guess Ndutu was pretty good to us. So many of the photo ops from our Tanzania safari came during that part of the trip. This one was completely unexpected. It was taken on the grounds of our lodge. I had brought my big lens to the dining area, to photograph weavers from the deck. After wrapping things up with the weavers, I spied some rats scurrying across the path and through the bushes. I had caught glimpses of these rodents from our safari vehicles, but hadn’t landed any shots, so I stuck around a bit longer to try my luck.
They moved so quickly, and were often out on the concrete pathway, so the photo ops weren’t great. At one point I had to urge the kitchen cook not to throw crumbs of food at them. I wasn’t interested in that type of shoot. So I waited a bit, and eventually saw a nice opportunity when this rat climbed some of the tall grass in search of (more natural) food. A Superb Starling was perched nearby at the same time for the same reason, and I was able to line them up together in the same frame.
March 19: Dumb Cows
Certainly one of the more humorous moments of the year. During my Costa Rica tours we schedule a river cruise on the Rio Tarcoles. It’s a great opportunity to photograph wading birds and other avian species, and gives us occasional close glimpses of the large American crocodiles found near the mouth of the river. In this case, we had spotted the croc known as “Osama,” a hulking beast thought to be the largest reptile in the river.
Some cows had wandered down to shore from a nearby ranch as we floated by. Their curiosity got the better of them, and they just had to see the celebrity croc up close and personal. Presumably, Osama had eaten in the past few months, or it was simply the cows’ lucky day. The big fellow slowly opened his mouth a bit to show off his winning smile, and they finally got the point and danced away.
May 5: Guanacos at Sunrise
This was literally the first shoot of our very first morning exploring Torres del Paine National Park at the start of my Patagonia tour. We had actually stopped to wait on a potential sunrise shoot with the famed peaks of Chile’s most famous park, but I noted the fiery clouds on the opposite horizon and convinced one of my clients to head up in our vehicle to look for some wildlife that we might be able to pair with the landscape.
We lucked into a herd of guanacos which, with their long legs and necks, offer up great silhouettes on just about any horizon. It took a little bit of work walking up and down the road until we were able to get the right angle (guanacos showing above the horizon, clouds not too high above), and several shots came out well as the colors continued to change on us. As it turned out, this herd was on alert. We heard alarm calls echoing across the hills, which meant a puma was around. Based on where they were looking, the cat seemed to be over the far hillside and out of our sight, but I wasn’t too worried about our chances of seeing pumas on this trip…
May 9: Mother Puma
We had a few encounters with a family of five pumas during the Patagonia tour. It was a mother with four little cubs, and the cubs were absolutely adorable (more on them next week). It took us a while before we got a really good look at the mother though. The cubs weren’t shy, and come out in the open a few times. On this day, we had spent a couple hours watching and photographing them before we ever caught a glimpse of their mom, who was napping in the long grass out of sight. It wasn’t until the sun went down that she finally roused herself. The cubs had settled down as darkness descended, so she left to go get some food (remains of a guanaco carcass were high up the hill above us).
As she emerged from the grass and slowly walked uphill, we were all focused on photographing her. I knew her angle would bring her within close range of my 600mm lens. I’ve had a fair share of close puma encounters before, so this didn’t bother me, but I was so wrapped up in capturing the close portrait (love those amber eyes!) that I didn’t quite realize how close she had come. I looked up and she was maybe 10-15 yards away, tops. Nothing new for me, but these close encounters are always special. I just stopped and watched as she strolled by.
May 29: Dusky Grouse Color Change
This is definitely one of those shots that’s more about capturing unique behavior than anything particularly “beautiful.” I do have fond memories of this day, which was spent exploring Yellowstone with a photographer friend. We wandered away from the roads and the crowds into some wilder areas, looking for just about anything that might pique our interest. What we got was the best grouse shoot I’ve ever had.
As we were huffing and puffing (okay, it was mainly me doing that) our way to the top of a steep hill, we encountered a male Dusky (Blue) Grouse in full display. He was pursuing a couple of hens, and kept at it for some time. I’ve seen and heard drumming grouse fairly often in the park, but one doesn’t always see them in full courtship mode, with tail fanned, rosy breasts exposed, and the combs a fiery dark orange. It’s that last part that makes this photo significant. See those eyebrows? They’re call combs, and they’re not actually plumage (which is what I used to think). It was only in recent years that I started to note that a Dusky Grouse’s combs can change color, from a golden yellow to a deep orange. In some grouse species, the darker color is more attractive to females.
Anyway, this was the first time that I had actually witnessed the color transition happening as I watched. It was pretty cool capturing the combs as they switched from yellow to orange-red.
August 15: Humpback Whales
My August trip to Tonga was the event scheduled this year. Swimming with humpbacks (and photographing them while doing so) was the number one item on my bucket list for some time. This trip was originally slated for 2017, but we couldn’t fit it in… then we were planning to go in October this year, but had to change plans (pretty good excuse though), so at last we finalized plans and were in the water with whales this summer!
I knew two things going in: the experience would be magical, and the photography would be very challenging. That certainly proved to be the case, the latter even more so than expected. I had high hopes for clear water and cooperative subjects, but that wasn’t the case most of the time, so I came away treasuring the few photos that did turn out clearly enough (though they all still required a fair bit of processing work in post) to present. This shot, and most of the other successful underwater whale photos, came on the very first day, when I was still stumbling through the process of taking pictures with my rented housing. It also happened to be our only day swimming with calves. To get a clear view of this little one rising to the surface under the watchful eye of its mother was a victory, all things considered. But I still ended the trip feeling I needed to return and give it another try. There’s a lot of room for improvement!
August 31, 2019: Aaron Fuller’s One-Handed Touchdown Grab
It often takes me a while to get back in the swing of things when it comes to photographing football. I only get to do it four or five times a year, all during one short stretch in the fall, so I always feel rusty once summer ends and the early season games at Husky Stadium kick off.
This year’s home opener was on August 31st, and all things considered I did okay. Often I find that my reaction times are a tick slow, so shots like this are few and far between. In this case, Aaron Fuller hauled in this dramatic one-handed grab on the edge of the end zone for a touchdown against Eastern Washington. The Huskies seemed to be off and running… but they thudded back to earth the next week against Cal. Thankfully, I was out of town for that one!
September 6: Grizzly Bear with a Salmon
This year’s Great Bear Rainforest tour wasn’t dominated by any single subject. Sometimes the spirit bear steals the spotlight. Other times it may be grizzlies. Twice, whales have been the main highlight. This time we got a little bit of everything. It was nice to have good encounters with all three of the region’s bears (white, black, and brown). This grizzly sow was looking after three yearling cubs. She’s a favorite bear of my longtime partners who lead trips to the area, so they were delighted to see her again. I was simply happy to watch a healthy and responsible mother going about her business within close range of our Zodiac.
At one point she waded out into the mouth of a river and, as the grizzlies in this area tend to do sometimes, proceeded to feel around on the bottom of the river bed, looking for salmon carcasses. Finally she pulled one up and began to secure it as she slowly shuffled through the water back toward shore.
November 29: Jacob Eason Gets Fired Up
Jacob Eason came into this season with too much hype. Once the top quarterback recruit in the country, Eason transferred to UW from Georgia, and after sitting out two years was anointed the starting quarterback this season. Most fans’ expectations were far too high, as they completely ignored a number of factors well beyond Eason’s control that would ultimately lead to a disappointing season for both the quarterback and the Huskies.
As folks quickly realized the season wasn’t going to meet lofty expectations, critics emerged (often the same people who blindly bestowed a Messianic status on this kid beforehand), and people wondered if he was much of a leader. So when the Apple Cup rolled around, and Eason plowed into the end zone—losing his helmet in the process—to erase an early deficit, there’s was no question how much Eason cared about this rivalry game and closing the season on a high note.
Sure, Eason would eventually declare for the NFL draft after his sole season as a Husky starter, but his intensity and passion in this moment will always stick with me.
Stay tuned for more of my Year in Review content, including my Best of 2019 photos coming next week!
More Year in Review Content:
Purchase PHOTO/19, my annual photo yearbook. This year’s issue is 68 pages and contains dozens of images from my various adventures, including my Best of 2019 collection. $17.99 for the print magazine, $4 for a digital copy. Purchase a copy of PHOTO/19 here.