It’s time once again for my annual feature sharing the top photos of the year from my fellow photographers. Each year I ask my friends and peers in the industry to send over one of their favorite images taken during the past twelve months, along with a link to their year-end galleries. This past year was a disaster on so many levels, but many of these photographers managed to make the most of it and work behind the lens when the opportunities presented themselves.
Some of these folks are pros, while others are semi-professionals or hobbyists, but they all have produced some fantastic images over the years. I hope you’ll take time to see their highlighted images below and visit their websites/social media accounts to see their full “Best of 2020” galleries or their general photo collections.
All photos below are posted with permission and remain the intellectual property of their original owners. Please respect their copyrights!
Ken and I have crossed paths several times shooting wildlife and birds in the Pacific Northwest. Having worked for decades in journalism, Ken now leads photo tours in North and Latin America.
About the photo: “I have been living in southern Idaho for nearly two years now, and one thing I am grateful for in 2020 is that it gave me the opportunity to explore and gain more intimate knowledge of many of the wild places around my home. Augur Falls Park in the Snake River Canyon is just a few miles from my home and has become a favorite place for my dog (Ahnaee) and I to walk, watch wildlife and explore. There are many miles of walking and biking trails here. In late November we meandered out to one of the canyon wetland ponds in the afternoon to find it mostly frozen over. The late sunlight bathed the canyon walls in warm light which reflected beautifully on the icy pond as several ducks rested on the ice. I chose this single Gadwall to be part of the composition to help emphasize the ice patterns and pastel colors.”
John is a nature and wildlife photograph who documents subjects in the western US, particularly in Utah and the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. He was also a fellow Highly Commended recipient in this year’s Wildlife Photographer of the Year Animal Portraits category, and we also shared honors in the 2017 Windland Smith Rice photography awards.
About the photo: “I had been observing this female Northern Harrier’s hunting routine, and positioned myself late one afternoon to hopefully capture her hunting prowess with the camera. Watching a harrier turn in mid-air happens so quickly you really don’t see the amazing aerobatics these raptors deploy to quickly strike on an unsuspecting vole or filed mouse below, and luckily I got a number of frames showing their remarkable skills.“
Jim is a Yellowstone regular. We met over a decade ago while shooting mule deer together in the Grand Tetons, and have run into each other a few times a year when our visits to the park coincide with each other. In addition to spending several weeks in Yellowstone every year and shooting studio work back home, Jim gives photography talks and presentations around the country.
About the photo: “Mandarin Ducks are native to China, Japan, Korea, and eastern Russia. The ducks were believed to have been imported into England in the 18th century. Now found in the United States they can likely be traced to private collections. A famous Mandarin showed up in New York City’s Central Park in 2018. This one was on the east side of Cincinnati.”
See more of Jim’s work:
Zack continues to explore the western Rockies and produce wonderful landscape and wildlife images from his travels in the backcountry. He has received honors in the Nature’s Best Windland Smith Rice Awards, and this year, the Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition. Zack’s images have been displayed in the Smithsonian and London’s Museum of Natural History. He and Steve Hinch are co-authors of Glacier: A Photographic Journey.
About the photo: “I captured this chilling image of a very large, very hungry grizzly bear with the help of a DSLR camera trap. I set the camera up during the winter after coming across the remains of a bull elk while I was out skiing near my home in Montana. This camera was positioned at this location for nearly two months before this bear emerged from hibernation and discovered the carcass. Returning in the spring to check the camera required a combination of mountain biking/snowshoeing/skiing, not to mention the construction of a makeshift bridge to cross a very swollen stream. By the time I finished building the bridge it was late afternoon. When I finally arrived at my camera’s location I immediately noticed my set had been trashed. The bones of the elk had been picked clean, and massive footprints in the vicinity alerted me that a bear was to blame. The spring melt had begun and a nearby stream was flooding. With my camera nearly underwater I decided to pull the set, a decision made easier upon viewing the images I captured on the camera’s LCD. Knowing this bear was in the area definitely had me a little on edge as I packed all of my gear out that evening!”
See more of Zack’s work:
Jill Cooper and Simon Jackson
Jill and Simon are conservation-minded photographers based in Canada, who have been spending a lot of time photographing western North American wildlife, including in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. They are the founders of the Ghost Bear Institute, which emphasizes youth-oriented education and conservation, and Nature Labs, a virtual textbook being used to advance nature literacy. This year they each submitted a photo to the collection!
About the photo: “With fewer than 2000 mountain caribou remaining in the wild, not only is this subspecies critically endangered, it’s also one of the rarest sights in the Rocky Mountains. And to find two large bulls fighting it out for rut supremacy? We felt as if we’d won the lottery. We were filming a large male and his harem, when Jill spotted a second large male quickly making his way down the side of a rock slope. Within seconds, the two large males were in battle—the fiercest we’ve seen during any ungulate rut. While Simon worked to keep the battle in the video frame, Jill dropped onto her belly to grab the stills. It was over in mere seconds, with a clear winner and loser, and we felt immensely grateful to have been in the right spot, at the right moment, to capture this story across multiple mediums.”
About the photo: “By rights, we should never have been able to find a swift fox in the wild, in Canada. You see, by the 1930s, the species was extinct in our country, but through one of the world’s great environmental success stories, diverse stakeholders worked together to lead a sustained reintroduction effort that is giving the species a second chance. Today, 650 individuals are found across the highly endangered Canadian prairie ecosystem, but there is hope for their future on the landscape. Which is why we set out to find these primarily nocturnal canids in the wild: It’s an optimistic story that can show students the art of the possible when we all work together for a common purpose. Of course, wishing to find a swift fox and finding a swift fox are two very different things. But we had a bit of luck and found an active den site that, thanks to the kindness of a proud rancher, we were able to observe for a week this past July. Watching these foxes hunt, interact and play was one of the greatest joys we’ve ever experienced in wildlife photography. So too was having the kits investigate their observer, in this case Simon, just as the sun set on another perfect prairie day.”
Jess is one of Canada’s leading nature photographers, and has made a name for himself in recent major international competitions. He’s a past winner of the Windland Smith Rice Youth Photographer of the Year Award, and has multiple honors in the Wildlife Photographer of the Year’s senior competition. Much of his work highlights the amazing wildlife of British Columbia, as well as tropical birds and other species in Central and South America.
About the photo: “Each spring I have the pleasure of guiding group photo workshops in the Interior of British Columbia. Though it’s one of the highlights of my year, it commits me to being in the same location, focusing on more or less the same species every June. If you’re a bird photographer, no matter where you are in the Northern Hemisphere, this is the month you want to be pretty much everywhere at once. So with my workshops shelved until better days, I decided to use this spring to focus my efforts on some of my own top photographic goals, not knowing when I might have this opportunity again. For quite some time, I’d thought about putting some serious time and effort into finding and photographing Flammulated Owls. Here in British Columbia, they’re a migratory species that winters in the mountains of Mexico, returning in mid May to their breeding habitat in the Douglas Fir/Ponderosa Pine forests east of the Coast Mountains. Though they can be somewhat abundant in the right habitat, they’re extremely cryptic, strictly nocturnal, and are therefore rarely seen or photographed well. My goal was to find a photographable nest, and hopefully come away with some decent images of a roosting adult. I knew this wouldn’t be an easy task, but thankfully what I lack in photographic talent, I can often make up for with stubborn persistence. This image is the result of 11 days of hiking off-trail in some fairly unforgiving terrain. I suspect the opportunity to photograph this species in such a photogenic location won’t come around again, so I feel super fortunate to have been able to dedicate the time to pursue these special little birds.”
Colleen is a nature photographer based in Alberta (yes, I feature a lot of Canadians here!), and she specializes in documenting North American wildlife. Colleen’s work has been featured in numerous publications, including BBC Wildlife, Canadian Geographic, and Nature’s Best.
About the photo: “A gray wolf howls in the Canadian Rockies. I had spotted this wolf all alone resting in a meadow. I watched for awhile to see if I could catch sight of the rest of her pack but there were no signs of other wolves. Then suddenly, I heard something off to my right—at first it was difficult to tell what it was but then the sound grew louder—it was howling. I watched as the lone wolf perked her ears up and moved her head from side to side, listening. Then she sat up and gave the most beautiful, haunting howl I’ve ever heard. She then stood, crossed the meadow and made her way into the hills to rejoin her family. It was incredible to witness and one of my favourite moments of the year.”
See more of Colleen’s work:
Liron is a standout photographer from British Columbia (a hotbed for young talent!). He has been awarded in the Wildlife Photographer of the Year and other competitions, and has had his work displayed at the Natural History Museum in London and the Smithsonian. This is his first time participating in my peers collection, and he picked a doozy of a photo to start with…
About the photo: “Without a doubt, the night of July 13th 2020 was one of the most magical nights I’ve ever spent out under the stars. I was stargazing from less than a couple hours outside of my home city of Vancouver, Canada, enjoying a spectacular naked-eye view of Comet NEOWISE stretching across the northern sky. The scene was taken to the next level when the Northern Lights showed up, ‘photobombing’ my shot. A very rare occurrence at my latitude of 49 degrees, I first noticed the Aurora as a purple smudge on my image, and for a brief moment wondered if it was a lens flare or similar artifact. However, pointing my camera directly to the north revealed a beautiful green glow on the horizon. Shortly after, the intensity of the Aurora increased, and pillars of light were clearly visible to the naked eye, dancing across the northern horizon. The colours were difficult to see, but showed up beautifully on-camera. This image was taken at 100mm at f/2.8, with the help of a star tracker. I began with a 30-second exposure of the sky, then turned off the star tracker and took a stack of eight 30-second images for the foreground, resulting in a final image with more signal and reduced noise compared to what would be possible with a single image.”
Bill is a long-time friend with whom we’ve shared adventures in Yellowstone, Africa and Australia. It’s only taken him five years to contribute an image to this list, so even though he doesn’t have a website and only shares photos on his personal social media account, I’m happy to include this here.
About the photo: “We didn’t do anything this year except shoot bears so that’s what you’re going to get. I’ve got plenty of 399 and her 4 cubs but so does everyone else so I’m choosing the shot of Blondie and Peanut. We found her early one morning all by ourselves about 15 minutes north of Leeks Marina. I caught a glimpse of her on a tree-covered hillside and luckily there was a pull-out to park in about 50 yards nearby. Since it was about 6:00am there was no traffic and I was able to bounce along the road trying to get a glimpse of the pair as she grazed the hillside. I got super lucky when she stopped literally between a hole in some branches with a peek through onto the hillside. The cub came down and wanted some affection and they both posed for about 30 seconds. They then continued on and she found an elk calf in the trees and after that horrible sound of her taking down the calf she disappeared and apparently wasn’t seen the rest of the summer and Peanut wasn’t seen when Blondie reappeared in late fall.”
Steve is an award-winning nature photographer who is fortunate to capture some wonderful scenes from the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, which he calls home. He and Zack Clothier are co-authors of Glacier: A Photographic Journey.
About the photo: “Once Yellowstone National Park opened for the summer season, I headed in before sunrise. Stormy clouds were moving in from the west, which meant bad weather was likely to follow but the sky to the east was still mostly clear. I headed to one of my favorite locations and within a few minutes of arriving, the sky began to light up. This image was looking back to the west and the approaching rain created a beautiful rainbow over the river will the rising sun painted the sky. A few more moments after this and the rain was on me and it was time to retreat.”
I was fortunate to meet Florian during my short trip to Sanmenxia, China, in November of last year (before everything blew up). We were among a small group of photographers invited to exhibit our work at the Swan City’s nature photography exhibition. Florian specializes in photographing wildlife and natural areas in the earth’s polar regions. He has won multiple awards, including commendations in Wildlife Photographer of the Year.
About the photo: “A polar bear rests on an iceberg in front of the front of the Austfonna Ice Cap in Svalbard during summer. The bear stands on the edge of the iceberg and constantly monitors the water for seals.”
Megan is yet another Yellowstone acquaintance. She’s a grand prize winner in the annual Nature’s Best Windland Smith Rice photo competition, and photographs wildlife anywhere from Canada to Costa Rica.
About the photo: “Although 2020 has been a difficult year which has not allowed for any travel or time behind my camera, it started off in a wonderful way! A Female Canada Lynx I’d been photographing for years decided to return for another winter and as a nice surprise…she brought her first two kittens with her. The kittens quickly became accustomed to my presence as you can see from this photo which was my personal favorite of 2020.”
Jérémy is a colleague who specializes in still and video photography. Though he is from France, we met in Yellowstone, where he leads tours each year. Currently based in British Columbia, he’s taking advantage of his time abroad to explore many of North America’s wild areas.
About the photo: “I took this photo of a black timber wolf in northern BC, while I was traveling for 3 months, discovering the northwest of Canada. I was in my “ghost of the forest” hide, in a place close by a creek full of salmon where I noticed a lot of footprints left by wolves and bears. After 3 hours, this wolf came close to the hide. He was clearly able to smell me and very curious, ultimately coming so close that I had to make noise to stop him when he was one meter away. That was a very intense feeling. In retrospect, I feel lucky to have had this experience with a wolf rather than a grizzly!”
See more of Jérémy’s work:
Mario is an award-winning photographer who specializes in capturing vibrant and dramatic wildlife scenes in Africa. Mario actually didn’t take any wildlife photos in 2020 (he has a good excuse, I’d say), but he did present a retrospective on his favorite photos from the past decade, including this shot, which was Highly Commended in the 30th Memorial Maria Luisa photo competition. I thought it would be fitting to share this fantastic compendium in lieu of new photos.
About the photo: “This was captured in Etosha at the Nebrowni waterhole at sunset. A pride of lions were in the area and had several goes at this black rhino, hence the dust in the air that added texture and drama to this scene. Tired of the annoying lions the rhino started walking towards our vehicle presenting this great photo opportunity.”
Judd is an excellent bird photographer based in Florida. Though he works for the National Park Service in a capacity outside of photography, he travels frequently with camera in hand in his free time, with a focus on avian subjects. I interviewed Judd and highlighted some of his excellent work a few years ago here in the blog.
About the photo: “Despite their large size and vivid color, American Flamingos hide quite well in the vastness of the Florida Keys and Everglades. This past summer a small flock emerged for a few days, and one individual was in a spot where I knew I’d have a chance. I set out early to get in position and had lovely conditions with warm morning light and a subtle reflection as the flamingo fed between the mangroves. It was a special moment with a species that has quite a unique story in Florida. For those who are interested, here is an article that I helped to write about that history.”
See more of Judd’s work:
Heidi is a Yellowstone friend who is known for her northern light photography (which she photographs frequently near her home in northern Minnesota), and she also teaches and gives talks at the International Wolf Center. But as you’ll see from her collection, she photographs quite a variety of subjects!
About the photo: “It was the goal of my autumn trip to observe moose heading into the rut. Lining up the setting moon just far enough into the scene to catch morning’s first light on the mountain range with a bull moose was just the kind of photograph I was hoping to make.“
Kate and Adam Rice
Kate and Adam are award-winning photographers who roam the West in their Sprinter van, searching for all manner of wildlife. They lead tours and workshops in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.
About the photo: “We saw this bobcat hunting way off in a distant field and as we watched him he disappeared behind some vegetation. Feeling like we had a good idea where he was we made our way out. As we go closer we spotted him napping right where we though he was. We laid on the ground waiting as he slept. Once he awoke, his curiosity got the best of him and he walked right at us.”
Dave covers sporting events in the Pacific Northwest for various publications. I know him through my work in Husky Football, but Dave travels around covering other Pac-12 schools as well.
About the photo: Dave’s recently become more active with drone photography, and actually send me a nature image this year! Here’s a shot of a colorful shoreline at Heather Lake, Washington.
See more of Dave’s work:
A biologist and photographer, Anton does a lot of work in the Americas, highlighted (in my opinion) by his fantastic macro photography featuring reptiles and amphibians.
About the photo: “A California red-sided garter snake gulping and producing excessive saliva after eating a toxic California newt — I’d been lucky to photograph the predation event and got some images of the snake with newt in mouth. But this photo from well after the newt had been eaten was my favorite of the bunch. The newts are extremely toxic and most predators are unable to eat them, these snakes are one of the only animals that can stomach the newts and not even all populations of the snake are so toxin resistant. Moreso, after eating a newt even the resistant garter snakes spend some time in a lethargic drugged state. It was while the snake was in this state drowsily gulping amidst the thistles that I was able to get my favorite image of the year.”
See more of Anton’s work:
Connor is a standout photographer from British Columbia, whom I first met in Yellowstone… and I badgered him for year, he’s finally participating in this feature! A multiple honoree in the Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition, Connor has also assisted on video products for National Geographic.
About the photo: “A Grizzly Bear walks along the sedge banks of a small estuarine island in the Great Bear Rainforest. This past spring, I had the privilege of staying at Great Bear Lodge for a few weeks while tourism was all but shut down in the world. It was a rare opportunity to explore the area without tourists. As I saw the bear walk towards this scene, I quickly switched to my wide-angle lens to make an image that I think represents a classic Great Bear Rainforest moment. Although this may not be my best image of 2020, it is my favourite from my most memorable trip of the year.”
See more of Connor’s work:
Jort is part of the Yellowstone photography community. He leads private photo tours in the park and has a knack for finding and photographing many of the more elusive species found in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. Case in point…
About the photo: “Boreal Owl!!! One of my most epic finds in 2020 was this Boreal Owl. However, the story towards it is one I will never forget: Me and my friend Mitch are driving on the first day of November, when I text him to go on a hike to scout out an area where we thought could be some potential for wildlife. We both agree it will be fine to do it without a camera. We don’t see anything in our first part of the hike, and actually are heading back. Mitch tells me to go check one further area, which sounded fine, so we casually walk. Then, I freeze: “A BOREAL OWL!” …and we’re without cameras! I take some video with my phone, but this owl is wide awake, and seemingly hunting. We quickly discuss our options, and decide that Mitch will run to our cars to get equipment, and I will try to keep an eye out on the little elusive owl. Not soon after Mitch went for the run of his life, the owl flew. And it flew again. I then look up, and there’s a SECOND Boreal Owl! I’m about to lose it, but try to keep calm. One blink of my eyes, and the first owl flies to the second, and together they hop in a tree, and then another, and I lose them. Mitch sets a record time, and comes back with our gear, but I had lost the owls. Mitch and I split up and look in every tree. After another thirty minutes my excitement is nearly gone, and I accepted I would not find them again. But then, at that moment, I see one owl fly right in front of me. I message Mitch right away, take some photos, and keep focused on the owl. Mitch arrives some five minutes later. The owl had then found his perch and fell into a deep sleep.”
See more of Jort’s work:
I met Marcus during the Wildlife Photographer of the Year festivities in London in 2019. Since then, he has been named a category winner in the prestigious European Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition. Marcus is also a contributor to the Remembering Wildlife book series, and has created a series of travel photo essays for The New York Times.
About the photo: “When I decided to spend this autumn documenting Sweden’s green myth—the idea so often put forward by our government and large industries, that we are leaders of sustainable forestry and environmental care—one of the challenges I gave myself was to find ways of documenting wonton environmental destruction with images that nevertheless beautiful at first sight. These two trees were, not so long ago, part of an extensive forest. Now, this is all that remains. The auroras were the most incredible I have ever seen. But for much of the time I simply sat in this graveyard of ancient trees, staring at the sky, thinking about the centuries of aurora this forest had seen before being cut to the ground and the ground ploughed to make way for a plantation.”
More top work from my peers:
More Year in Review Content
Max’s Best of 2020 (coming next week!)