My top 10 images of 2016

I am continuing my tradition of taking the end of the year to review my photographs over the last 365 days and create a selection of 10 images that represent my best work over that time period. This year was mostly focused on family and work so I didn't get the chance to shoot as much as possible, but I was able to get some time in Chicago, Portland, and London which I am very grateful for.

To find my best work I have a smart gallery in Lightroom set to this calendar year + anything thats rated 3 stars or above. At the end of the year I start weeding out weaker shots, taking a few passes to get the collection down to the top 15 or so. This year I started with a set of 56 images, which seems about average for me.

Photos in 2016 rated 3+

After a few passes I narrowed it down to my 10 strongest. Lets take a look at what I chose, presented chronologically.

Since I work about two blocks from the Sears Tower and its between my office and the train station, I find myself constantly snapping photos and getting different looks at the building. In March when it started warming up a bit I wanted to see what kind of details I could get in the glass bottom viewing platforms using my 70-200 f/2.8. You can't get directly underneath and shoot upwards since there is a large atrium on the west side of the building, so I tried an angle I hadn't seen before. I walked over to the corner of Adams & Wacker Drive, almost completely around the to the side of the building, where I could barely see the west face of the building. From that angle the boxes were very pronounced outwards, combined with the 'shoulders' of the building making some interesting lines. A deep blue cloudless sky turned into a wonderful dark spotlight when converted to black and white.

Sears Tower skydeck
Looking up at the Sears Tower Skydeck

At the end of March I found myself out in London on business, and while I didn't have much time I was able to sneak out for a late night shoot along the Thames where I took this photo of Millennium Bridge and St. Paul's cathedral. I love the mixture of colors reflecting in the river in contrast to the almost purple night sky.

St Pauls Cathedral and the River Thames
St Paul's Cathedral reflecting on the River Thames

In May I headed out west to Portland Oregon, and while I was there I ventured out to Cannon Beach. An iconic beach instantly recognizable to anyone who has seen The Goonies, Haystack Rock is a beautiful rock formation over 200 feet tall jutting out of the Pacific coast. I spent two nights shooting sunsets from various spots around the beach, both in and out of the water. My favorite shot was taken at sunset as the tide was creeping in and I could barely feel my toes. The waves breaking over the large rock in the center of the frame combined with how the rip tide washed out the foreground make this one of the best landscapes I have taken in some time.

Haystack Rock
Haystack Rock at sunset, Canon Beach, Oregon

Another location in Portland I visited was Multnomah Falls just outside Portland. After a serious rain shower cleaned out the tourists I had a few minutes before it filled back up again. Making sure I had my rain gear covering my camera, I got my 16-35 f/4 setup on the tripod and started exposing frames around 1 to 2 seconds, trying to smooth the rushing water as much as possible without over-exposing the highlights. The dull gray sky wasn't adding anything so I cropped in-camera to just below the horizon above, and just below the base of the falls. This was the first time shooting at 16mm that I wish I had a bit more range on the low end, as I couldn't get as much of the lake below as I would like.

Multnomah Falls
Multnomah Falls waterfal

Back in Chicago, again shooting the Sears Tower, this time it was more of a learning exercise. I picked up some stackable ND filters so I wanted some practice making exposures with an ND16 (or more) sitting in front of the lens. I was able to open the shutter for 30 seconds at f/16, which on a windy day created the wonderful cloud movement that I was hoping for. After importing these into Lightroom I sat on them for a few months not paying them another thought. It wasn't until I started diving deeper into Lightroom's black and white conversion tools that I went back and took a closer look, which I am very glad I did.

The Sears Tower
Long exposure of the Sears Tower

Combining my ND filters with a straight up composition I used for some commission work earlier in the year I took some more black and white photos of various skyscrapers in the Loop. This next frame was taken on Wacker Drive and Monroe of the Deloitte building, a newer building in the skyline. Some minor sharpening with a little burning of some shadows, but otherwise this was almost straight out of the camera. I was surprised how much contrast I had gotten from the pylon at the bottom of the frame with the ceiling of the ground floor. Another piece for my architectural portfolio.

Steel Giants II
Looking straight up at various Chicago skyscrapers

During a brief trip to Los Angeles I was able to get out for one evening and was extremely lucky to make this photograph. I had digitally scouted quite a few areas around the city having only been there once before, finally deciding to shoot the Walt Disney Concert Hall after shooting the sunset from another location. I walked around a bit finally deciding to shoot from this angle. I fired off a test exposure, and made a few adjustments. In the middle of this exposure a police officer rode up telling me that there were no tripods allowed and I had to either shoot handheld or leave the premises. I heard the shutter click while I was talking to him so I quietly hit the remote one last time before he rode off, but I had to pack up my gear and leave which I was rather cross about. I could (well should have) taken some exposures from across the street but I was tired and hungry so I packed it in and headed back to the hotel. Looking back at the three shots I got I was delighted that the older couple taking a cell phone shot of the building stayed still for just the right amount of time. You can tell that they are all dressed up, the gentleman was wearing a very nice hat and suit, the woman in a wonderful dress. Contrasted against the angular and sharp building it made for a very nice overall composition. I am irritated that I couldn't spend more time on the property, but I do like what I was able to get.

Walt Disney Concert Hall
The Walt Disney Concert Hall exterior

My final three exposures were all taken in one day, almost on a whim. It had been a few years since I have shot in blizzard conditions and it's not something I particularly enjoy, but I can't argue with the results as some of my favorite landscapes are in the snow. Chicago was forecasted to get about a foot of snow over two days, so I thought I might be able to get something, but didn't have anything particular in mind. My wife sent me out to run some errands right as the storm hit which as it turns out was perfect. I grabbed my camera bag just in case, but as I got about 2 blocks from home I realized that conditions were absolutely magical for some landscape work. Knowing I didn't have much time I headed over to Leroy Oakes Forest Preserve which is only a few minutes from my house. Typically it is over-run with portrait photographers doing family shoots, but when the weather gets foul they all disappear. Pulling in my first thought was to shoot a scene I had taken back in 2013, a row of trees leading off into the distance. It wasn't snowing as heavily back then so I was hoping for something softer and more washed out, which is exactly what I got. Struggling to keep the rain cover on while still accessing the camera I reviewed my first few shots - I knew I was on to something. A slight color temperature adjustment and some sharpening was all that was needed. The rest was mother nature.

Snowstorm at Leroy Oaks
Trees in heavy snow at Leroy Oaks, St Charles, IL

Turning around and trudging through calf deep snow drifts I looked up to see what, in the summertime is a rather ugly clump of trees, but was now turned into a magnificent scene just fading off into the snowstorm. Every distraction was already taken out of the frame by the blanket of snow on the ground and even more coming down.

Outcropping of trees at Leroy Oaks
Outcropping of trees during a blizzard at Leroy Oaks, St Charles, IL

I kept trying different angles as I made my way closer and closer to the 'front' of the outcropping, finally getting what has to be one of my all time favorite shots. The snow was coming down so heavy that everything beyond about 20 or 30 feet was completely washed out. Grabbing a few more frames I headed back to the car, resolving to come back the next time we got socked with snow, which of course we haven't had a single flurry since.

Outcropping of trees at Leroy Oaks
Outcropping of trees during a blizzard at Leroy Oaks, St Charles, IL

Looking at the timestamps from my last shoot I spent exactly 13 minutes from first frame to last. It was unexpected, rushed, improvised, and wonderfully magical. It was a great way to re-energize me heading into the new year. For most of my landscape work I like to sit on it for a week or so, then if it still catches my eye I make the best frame my desktop to see how it holds up after repeated viewings. If it can survive that I know I am on to something, and the last two shots I keep flip flopping on which I like more. They are holding up a month later, and I think are really going to stand out as some of my best work. Not bad for 13 minutes.

Ready for 2017

I like doing this exercise to keep me excited and get me going more during the colder months. I definitely don't get out as much when it's cold and miserable outside, but a little end of the year retrospective always helps the winter blues. Here's to 2017!