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My 10 Best Photos of 2023

This past year was a big one for me. Between seemingly non-stop work travel, a variety of illnesses (thanks again, COVID!), and more responsibilities at work, I almost feel like I did not get out nearly as much as I wanted to. And even when I did make it out to shoot photos, I was not always super happy with my results.

 

So, at the close of this year, I thought it would be a good exercise to reflect on the ten shoots I think went the best, maybe dissect why, and lay out my plans for the future.


Without further ado: I present my 10 best photos of 2023!

 

10. Mule Deer in Rocky Mountain Arsenal

I began 2023 with a trip out to Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge. During an afternoon drive through the refuge, I spotted some deer crossing a freshly snow-covered field. From my position on the eastern edge of the refuge looking west, the deer were layered nicely in front of the mountains on the horizon.

 

Two deer walk through a field of snow.

I was really happy with this shot for two main reasons. First, the snow on the ground really helped the deer pop in the photo. Without snow, the warm hues of the grass and brush would have blended right in with the deer.


Second, it was cold enough that day to make the mountains a little more visible through the metro haze. The added variety of shape and color against the sky adds a pleasant background – well, at least for me.

 

The time of day, recent weather, and transit of deer all lined up perfectly for this shot, making it my tenth favorite of the past year.

 

9. Mule Deer on St. Patrick’s Day

I promise I am not going to inundate you with deer pictures.


I got this shot of a mule deer in Garden of the Gods, in Colorado Springs, on St. Patrick’s Day. My original destination that day was the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, but I had to turn around due to inclement weather near La Veta pass.


A deer stands behind some bushes in falling snow.

I was annoyed that my original plans were foiled, but I was also determined to get photos of something that day. So, I walked around the Garden looking for fun subjects.

 

This shot made it into my top ten – and higher than my previous deer picture – for three main reasons: proximity, layers, and the technical changes I made in the moment.

 

First, as you can plainly see, these deer are much closer than those in the previous shot. As much as I like getting wide shots of animals in their habitats, I also like getting what could almost be described as portraits of the animals.

 

The second reason, the layers of the photo, beats out the previous photo, too. I have in the foreground more elements like bushes and snow that offered greater color contrast from the deer than my previous shot.


And in the background, rocks lined with trees hem in the scene, making it feel a little more self-contained. On top of all of this, the snow adds depth throughout.

 

The final reason, the technical decisions I made at the time, largely relate to the snow. In the moment, I was struggling to balance getting an exposure that was long enough for the early morning scene to be properly lit, but short enough to freeze the snow in place to get that dreamy, floaty look.


I wound up juggling changes between my exposure time, aperture, and film speed, but ultimately got a shot I was super happy with.

 

8. Horseshoe Park, Rocky Mountain National Park

I have said before (and I’ll say again!) that a huge part of why I moved to Colorado was the mountains. But as much as I love being in them and taking pictures of them, I feel like getting good photos of them can be a challenge.

 

Enter: panoramas!


Clouds drift through a mountain valley.

Until this year, I had not experimented with panoramic shots very much. That was due, in part, to not being familiar with how to shoot them, but also because it usually did not occur to me in the moment.

 

That was not the case this spring, when I went on a weekend jaunt to Rocky Mountain National Park. While visiting a valley known to host elk, moose, and bighorn sheep, I was struck by how magical the clouds looked as they drifted through the valley. If only there was some way to capture an expansive view of them!

 

This shot is comprised of five separate photos blended together. I really wanted to emphasize the size of the mountains, which meant I needed to also include other things like trees and ponds for scale.

 

But in order to get the detail and depth I wanted out of the shot, I needed to use a longer focal length. That narrower field of view meant the only way of getting this kind of image was to blend multiple shots together.

 

I have to say, I am happy with the result. As an aside, the aspect ratio of this image is 32x9, meaning if you have two computer monitors at home, this photo should nicely stretch across both screens without distortion.

 

7. A Moose and Her Calf

As far as shot composition goes, this is not my favorite; it would have been nice to not have trees in the way or maybe have a little extra light.


A closeup of the moose calf would have been the dream but, at the same time, I value my life and not getting too close to a calf.

 

So, this photo makes it into my top ten purely for sentimental reasons.

 

A moose cow nurses her calf.

Getting this shot required a lot of patience. I spent close to two hours standing along the edge of a road, waiting for this moose to emerge from the dense wetlands she was lying in.

 

Other people nearby, also waiting for a glimpse, told me the moose had given birth to a calf just two days previously. As luck would have it, that meant the calf shared a birthday with my mom.

 

When the moose did finally get up to get some food and nurse her calf, I had to reposition a bit to actually see them. Although there were still some tree branches in the way, I was really glad I stuck around.

 

6. Washington Monument Reflection

This photo made it into my top ten for symmetry.

 

When I lived in D.C. in 2019, one of my favorite things to do was walk around the monuments at night. It was quieter, cooler, and usually less crowded.


The Washington Monument is reflected in the Reflecting Pool.

 

However, that was four years ago – about a year and a half before I started getting into photography. I did not get a chance to return until just this past October for a work trip. But I made sure to set some time aside to get out and put my camera to use.

 

I had really good luck with the weather. The night was both clear and, more importantly for me, still. Achieving this shot relied on both calm waters in the reflecting pool and using a long exposure to allow enough light to actually reflect into the camera.

 

The shot that made it out to the world was probably my third or fourth take after I got my settings dialed in and the camera aligned. But man, am I happy with it.

 

5. Elk Bugle

If you haven’t made it out to Rocky Mountain National Park for the elk rut, I cannot recommend it enough. Bulls will fight each other for the chance to win a harem of mates, but the opening act of each bout is equally impressive.


Valleys and meadows echo with the bugles of elk, ready to either issue a challenge or defend their harem.


An elk goes "rooty-toot-toot" in Rocky Mountain National Park.

It is tough to describe the trumpet-y sound accurately; suffice it to say it sounds impressive coming from an elk but would be disappointing coming from an actual trumpet player. I would bet, though, that to other elk, it sounds… hot? Maybe?

 

Anyway, I have had terrible luck in the past trying to get shots of these guys tooting their horns. They have always been shrouded in trees, facing away, or hidden by hills. One of the biggest challenges for me is that they tend to be active around sunrise, and I am so very famously a morning person.

 

So, I decided to take two weeks off in September and just travel around Colorado, looking for fun shots or new opportunities to take photos. That included a couple sunrise trips up to RMNP to try to catch these guys doing their thing.

 

And I think a combination of timing, patience, and sheer dumb luck paid dividends.  

 

4. Mountain Goat

Earlier in the summer, I made plans with a friend to get out to Rocky Mountain National Park for a two-day backpacking trip through the wilderness. Those plans fell through, unfortunately, but it opened the window for me to go check out Mt. Blue Sky, which I do not think I would have done otherwise.

 

The summit is known for its local populations of mountain goats; they did not seem to stray far from the top of the mountain, either. After a long drive up – the summit is over 14,000 feet – and few sightings of any wildlife along the way, I was surprised to find the end of the road was practically a mountain goat conference.


A mountain goat peers into the soul of the photographer.

The one you see in this shot followed me around the summit on my first visit. Upon reaching the end of the road, I went to briefly use a vault toilet on the edge of the parking lot. When I opened the door to leave, I was greeted by this mountain goat quite literally blocking me in.

 

I jumped. It jumped. Other people looked, laughed, and filmed.


Once it got bored of watching me stand in a concrete box, it wandered away and I was free to leave. I grabbed my camera and got this photo of it contemplating how best to scare me next.

 

3. Black Canyon // Bright Night

Clocking in at number three we have this terrific shot from the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park.


The Milky Way hangs vertically over the Black Canyon of the Gunnison. A dead tree lies in the foreground.

The park’s infrastructure really emphasized how rarely-visited the park was. All of the overlooks and parking lots only had space for a handful of cars each, and the visitor’s center was little more than a  large cabin.

 

One drawback of driving around the park was that the main road follows the South Rim of the Canyon. If I wanted to get a shot of the Milky Way, which rises in the south, that also had the Black Canyon in the photo, I would need to travel to the North Rim of the canyon.

 

That meant fully exiting the park and taking another hour-and-a-half drive to get all the way back to the other side of the canyon. I basically drove 90 minutes to move a whole quarter of a mile.

 

By the time I made it to the North Rim it was already quite dark. Paved roads turned to gravel, and the warm day yielded to a surprisingly cold September night. Thankfully, I had my parka in my trunk which I used to stay reasonably warm.

 

I took a trail from a nearby campground to the actual rim of the canyon. I was concerned that one wrong step would be enough for me to spill into the empty chasm, so I kept well clear of where I thought the edge was. One problem with how absolutely completely dark it was here was that I could not actually properly tell where that was, even with a lantern.

 

But once I got to an acceptable place, I set up shop and began taking photos. I used my headlamp to illuminate the foreground in front of me with some success. Had I gotten there earlier, I would have done a time blend with the canyon in view.  

 

However, I think I like the Black Canyon living up to its name in what became my final Milky Way shot of 2023.

  

2. Colorado in Layers

Back to Mt. Blue Sky for my second-favorite shot from this year!

 

After my first trip up and with a better idea of what to expect, I made plans to return at a better time, with a longer lens, and with a friend.

 

Visiting the summit required a timed entry reservation, which were available on a first come, first served basis. However, these reservations were not required after 6:00 p.m., which was perfect for my schedule. Based on how long it took me to drive the first time, that would put me near the summit with about 45 minutes to an hour of light before sunset.

 

Getting to the summit was another adventure all in itself. Dense clouds blurred into thunderstorms, which in turn gave way to clear skies and dazzling rainbows.

 

The sun was already beginning to set by the time I made it to the summit, so I needed to move quickly. As I was taking closeup shots of my new pals, the mountain goats, I noticed a bighorn sheep getting ready to crest a ridgeline further down the road.

 

I got into position, waited for the sheep to get to its imaginary mark, and then let her fly.


A bighorn sheep stands in front of a mountain sunset.

Of the shots I got that evening, this one was my best. I submitted it to the 2023 National Photography Show at the Lincoln Gallery in Loveland, CO, on a whim. You can imagine how stoked I was to learn it was accepted into the show - even more so once I got there to see I had won first place in landscape photography!

 

If you’ll indulge me, I have the judge’s notes below:

 

“Stunning layers. Is it wildlife, is it landscape? This is wildscape - beautifully captured wild animal, sunlight kissing its face, set in context. And what a context! Even without its living subject, this would have been a landscape contender. As it was, this was a close second for Best of Show.”

 

Damn. Here’s to taking more wildscapes in 2024.

 

1. Star Navigator 

My space shoot from the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve has to take the top spot for my favorite photo of 2023. The planning, execution, and processing were probably the best I did this year.


The Milky Way rises over the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve. A brass compass sits in the ripples of the sand.

During a casual conversation with my boss in late May, she mentioned that the Great Sand Dunes usually had a seasonal creek that ran through the spring and into June. Plus, she added, the dunes would not be too hot that time of year.

 

I made plans with about two-weeks’ notice to go spend a long weekend checking out the dunes, with a base of operations in Alamosa. The weekend I planned to be out was also over a new moon, so the skies would be extra dark.

 

I got lucky with the weather – or so I thought. The forecast was for good conditions and clear nights, perfect for stargazing. The weather during the day, though, was a bit more volatile.

 

After staking out my spot out in the middle of some towering dunes, a sandstorm turned into a thunderstorm. And without waterproof protection for any of my equipment, I was forced to make a run for it back to my car.

 

Editor’s note: given the nature of the sand, the slope of the dunes, and the weight of the gear, it was much more a brisk, terrified trudge.

 

Once the weather cleared up enough to return to the dunes, I set up and got to work. I positioned a brass compass from my parents in the foreground and made sure to get the Milky Way in frame. Then I took well over a hundred photos over the course of about 45 minutes.

 

These photos were with slightly different focal points and exposure times, but they all served an important purpose. Using the help of post-processing software, they helped my computer determine what was actually data from light entering the lens, and what was just random noise.

 

After a few hours, I got the end result you see here… my favorite photo of 2023.

 

That’s a Wrap

If you made it this far through my post, thank you for sticking through it to the end. And really, thank you for reading these posts throughout the year. It is a small but meaningful way to support what I do, and I genuinely appreciate it.

 

Hopefully, by now you will have seen I am selling a small selection of matted prints directly through my website. I also offer prints and wraps through a third party service called Picfair, which has just listed me as one of their best stores of 2023!

 

Even better, I can also now ship metal prints for larger displays! This is what I used in the National Photography Show, and I am super happy with how they look. If you think that is something you may be interested in for yourself or as a gift, shoot me an email at contact@zaakbarnes.com, and I can get you some quotes.

 

Looking Ahead

I learned a lot this past year. Aside from my actual skill behind the camera, I feel like I also got a little better at running this site and the logistics behind making, selling, and shipping my art. I never thought I would have said that a year ago.

 

Speaking candidly, though, it was only small growth – but it was growth nonetheless.

 

I have a few ideas for things I would like to accomplish or photo projects to attempt over 2024. These range from new locations and subjects to themed blog posts and shot breakdowns.


Depending on how creative I am actually able to be with these, this could mean slightly more frequent posts, too. If you have ideas for things that would interest you to read more about, please comment below or send me a note! I would love to hear your thoughts.

 

Thanks again for reading through this whole thing. Here’s to 2024!


Zaak


 

2 Comments


Zaak! Great post - and I so love the stories behind your amazing photography. Thrilled to come see some of your favorite spots you Last fall - you’re truly an artist! Love every one of these shots too (haven’t ordered the goat yet but it’s on my list)! Thanks for sharing - looking forward to your 2024 adventures

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Ooohhh, Zaak. I love reading your writing - #9 of the mule deer is one of my favs. "Valuing your life" re the moose calf - SMAHT CHOICE! And wait, whaaaat? You're not a morning person?! ;) Also LOVE that mtn goat story & pic. Glad it turned out well for both of you! The judge's notes impressed me - when I thought I couldn't be more impressed with your burgeoning skill! Lastly, that compass one is so very special....I'm eager to read/watch all thru the coming year! <3

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