Another year has come and gone. And wow, what a year it was. This year, I was fortunate enough to check off several bucket list items from my list. I’m well aware that one of those items, the eruption of Kilauea, was a highly destructive event for many other people, and my heart continues to go out to all of those affected. I am in awe of the natural beauty and raw nature I witnessed. All told, including time lapse frames, I shot more than three terabytes of RAW files this year, which is a new record. Storage is really starting to become an issue as I deal with (and back up) more and more data each year. I have marked over 2200 images as “picks” among the nearly 48,000 raw files. In my own super simple organizational hierarchy, I define an image flagged as a pick in Adobe Lightroom to be one that is worthy of further exploration and is potentially postable online when I circle back later and look at the picks with more scrutiny. From that 2200…. I have whittled it down to just ten. Is this ten the correct “best of 2018”? Maybe? I’ve been sifting through my images from this year for weeks and I’m just going by feeling at this point. Perhaps in a month I’ll read this post and think “oh no I should have included that other image instead” or “what was I thinking?” I could for instance easily fill up a 10 best list with just images of red hot molten lava in Hawaii, or another top 10 list of just Yosemite Valley under fresh snow. But I forced myself to just do 10 overall, and for better or worse here they are. We start first in Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada, which is a park I had been wanting to visit for years and just somehow never got there until the New Year. In fact, I sat at the campground in Valley of Fire and compiled last year’s 10 best while in the park.
On this trip to bring in the New Year of 2018, I had a brand new lens in my collection that I was eager to try out. That lens is the Canon 11-24mm f4L. It is an incredibly wide wide-angle lens, with a rectilinear (not fisheye) focal length of just 11mm and a field of view of an enormous 126mm. I’ve seen a lot of views of this location, called the Fire Wave, and I think so far as I can tell my 11mm composition here looking over the dry fall is pretty unique. Add to that the soft light and gorgeous sunrise clouds and perhaps you can see why I selected this image alone of all the ones I took on that trip (which also included Zion, Bryce Canyon, and Capitol Reef).
Fast forward to March and the stars aligned for me. On the night of March 2nd, an amazing alignment happened. A winter Yosemite snowstorm bringing snow to the valley floor at just 3800 feet was coming and it was going to coincide with a weekend that I could escape my day job. Not only would I get to experience a rare snowfall event in the valley, but it was going to be a big one. After work on Friday night I drove my car up north, sleeping in my car at a rest stop for a few hours before finally arriving at the park around 7am. Between 18 and 24 inches of fresh snow were in the park. Every single tree branch and granite wall was completely covered in snow. In short, it was a true winter wonderland and I felt as though I had stepped inside an Ansel Adams photograph. Narrowing all the images I took on that Saturday and Sunday is difficult, but I come back again and again to this other ultra-wide image from along the banks of the Merced River. I keep coming back again and again to this image and staring at it, getting lost in the puffs of white snow that cover every rock.
I cannot wait to come back to Yosemite one day in the snow again. It was just amazing. And speaking of snow, I came back just two weeks later for another storm, but this time I stayed a little further south and went to Sequoia National Park. Just like Yosemite, for years I had wanted to visit the great red trees in the snow. And at long last, I did. I captured this image of the General Sherman, the largest tree by volume on the Earth (no slouch for height either). The way the red bark stands out against the white snow is truly a superlative experience.
By far my most incredible photographic experience in 2018, indeed in my entire life, came at the end of July. For years I have wanted to see the lava lake on Kilauea. I wanted to visit hopefully before my friend Sean Goebel left the Big Island. I was working like crazy trying to finish the visual effects of a movie at my day job when in May the eruption began. During long hours at work I watched as fissures started to crack open in the Lower East Rift Zone, and the webcams of the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory as the lava lake drained completely from sight. After the lava lake drained from view earthquakes and explosions started happening at the summit, and then finally lava started erupting in Leilani Estates. I watched endlessly the videos of the eruption, including streaming live webcams at my desk while I toiled on the movie. I resolved to go to Hawaii just as soon as I could, but my hope that I could witness Kilauea in action were dim as I ended up arriving more than 90 days after the start of the eruption and the previous similar eruptions had lasted at most 88 days. But at last on the 93rd day of the eruption, as it was already winding down, two friends and I flew a charter helicopter from Paradise Helicopters over the lava rivers and the ocean entry.
Having never flown before in a helicopter, let alone one with no doors over a lava river, the experience was incredible. Here we see the view looking towards Fissure 8, the eruptive point for the majority of the lava. The molten river of basalt reached as much as 1300 feet wide near the source before breaking into braids in the same manner that a water river does. At its height, 26,000 gallons per second were effusing from the fissure where lava was expelled at 18 miles per hour. The flow was hot enough and the flow was fast enough to remain molten all the way to the ocean 8 miles away without crusting over. We were not allowed to fly lower than 3,000 feet, but all I can really say is wow!
I could post dozens more photos from the air, but I’ve chosen to limit myself to just one lava shot from the air, and one lava shot from the water for the purpose of this list. Having seen the eruption by air at sunrise, later the same day we made our way by boat to the ocean entry. Through very choppy water in which our 40 foot boat took flight over the top of a wave, we arrived at the bizarre and otherworldly scene of boiling oceans and fresh land. Clouds of saltwater steam, hydrochorlic acid, and tiny particles of glass stream into the air. This unfriendly mixture is called “laze” and is not something you want to spend time in. The USGS likens it to a cloud of diffuse battery acid. The trade winds were constantly blowing the laze inland when we were there, and it would form into interesting shapes at times. I managed to capture this moment where it, in my mind, formed a dragon hovering just above the hot land at sunset.
The next day my friend took us along to the summit of Mauna Kea to shoot night photography and time lapse of the observatories there. At 13,800 feet, the view of the night sky is quite amazing up there, and in this view three of the telescopes, Keck I, Keck II, and Subaru, stand out against the stars in a 15 minute exposure. The two Keck telescopes were using their high powered lasers for use with their adaptive optics systems. These systems act in essence like noise cancelling headphones but for atmospheric distortions. Faintly just to the right of Subaru Telescope is a green laser coming from the top of Mauna Loa. With freezing temperatures and clear skies high above the tropical warmth and rain down below, it was an amazing experience. We could see the lava river from up there too.
Continuing with the night sky in my first visit to Hawaii, we spent a sleepless night photographing at Papakōlea Beach at the southern end of the Big Island. In this view, nearly two hours of two minute exposures have been added together to get the view looking north over the little bay. The green sand beach is at the left just under the North Star and the swirl of stars around it. On the right some clouds and half a moon provide illumination of the landscape. This was one of very few star trail photos I managed to take this year.
From Hawaii this list veers into more familiar territory, with one of my favorite places: The Alabama Hills. I have long held this little section of Movie Road to be special, even before it became a star of Instagram photos galore. This fall after shooting sunrise at one of the arches I was heading back to camp when a rainbow appeared. I pulled over and composed this image, which I think captures the spirit of this place on a fall morning. A storm hovers over the Sierra Nevada crest and the rocky landscape of the Alabama Hills granite looks just magnificent in the morning light.
On the theme of “I’ve been wanting to shoot X for years” we come next to North Lake in the Sierra Nevada. This lake is perhaps the most popular single fall color spot I can think of in all the Sierras. And for years I have wanted to be there in the fall when weather happened, since in the fall the odds of weather happening on a day of the week when I can intercept it are very small. And that storm would have to happen too in the small window of when color is at its peak. Well just like the stars aligned for Yosemite snow, they aligned for a dusting of snow and fantastic morning light for me here. It came down to 50-50 between this image and this one. From one moment to the next I honestly could swap either of these into the list.
I don’t know how many times I drove past this tree before finally taking note of it in fall 2017. Lots. But that fall I ventured over to see and photograph it, and while it was pretty neat the tree itself was a little past prime then. In fall of this year however the time was right. This lone cottonwood was in its full prime golden color. Last year I didn’t quite figure out how to get the composition I really wanted. This year I made it happen. I stood on top of a rock and pointed my camera crookedly on the tripod towards the tree. Then I used the whole tripod to extend the camera up above my head and to the left, clumsily looking at the camera’s view through my phone. I framed Mount Whitney to the left of the tree and clicked the shutter before reeling the tripod back down. I gave it a few tries before I achieved the image I was after. I think perhaps I will be returning here in other seasons to see how this tree looks. I feel like this image captures fall there quite perfectly, with afternoon light providing backlight for the glorious color of the leaves.
That concludes my list for this year. It’s fun to go through the mental exercise to really force yourself to cut through what you may consider to be the best of the year. From over 2200 to just 10 is quite challenging. I could easily do a top 100. In fact I have a best of 2018 gallery on my iPad that is just over 200 images. It’s just been that great of a year. I hope you have had a great year too. I look forward to what new adventures await in 2019. And let’s just say my new year’s resolution is to write more blog entries, seeing how the last one was the 10 best of 2017. I will make time to write more. Happy New Year!