I think it is fair to say this was a long year for everyone. In my case, I earned my master’s degree while working full time, I accepted a new job, and I moved across the country, to name a few. But through it all, I took photos as a (comparatively) low-stakes way to relax and be creative.
I managed to get some shots I really liked, so I thought I'd share those with you in mostly chronological order. As a quick note, it took a lot of restraint to limit the space photos to only five of the ten, for some variety. So, with that out of the way, here are my ten favorite shots of the year!
1. The Moon at Six Hundred - March 19, 2021
As the title of this one suggests, this is the Moon. The rest of the title is an allusion to the focal length I used to take this shot, 600 millimeters (23.62 inches). That distance is not the length of the lens, but rather the combined distance from the subject to the lens and from the lens to the camera's sensor. In practice, bigger numbers mean more magnification and tighter shots, smaller numbers mean less magnification and wider shots.
I had just acquired a new 600mm lens earlier this day, and was excited to test what far-off things I could see up close. Shooting the Moon did not disappoint.
2. Taking Flight - April 2, 2021
Building off the concepts from earlier, longer focal lengths lend themselves to wildlife photography quite well because you can shoot photos from further away. I took this photo of geese in Waterworks Park using the aforementioned 600mm lens. I was also experimenting with the "continuous shooting" mode on my camera, allowing me to capture fleeting moments like this.
3. Tower of Memories - May 19, 2021
Here we have a decent example of shorter focal lengths at work! Even at close range, you can fit a tower, landscape, and much of the sky into your shot. In this case, I was at the Highland Memory Gardens cemetery in Polk County, IA, shortly before a storm swept through. Lenses with shorter focal lengths typically allow more light into the camera, enabling you to see more of the shadowy parts of an image - in this case the tower and much of the foreground greenery.
4. Galactic Core at Lake Sugema - June 12, 2021
This is one of my favorite photos, full stop. One of the main reasons I even got a camera was to capture images of the Milky Way. Getting this photo was the culmination of a lot of work, practice, patience, and a grueling four-hour drive. I would especially emphasize patience in this case because the galactic core is not visible year-round. I had to wait nearly six months after getting my camera to attempt this shot.
Another reason I am proud of this photo is that it was added to the Bruce Murray Space Image Library, curated by the Planetary Society. Iowa has a reputation for being kind of plain, but opportunities for stargazing abound in the darkness between cities. Being able to share this scene with other space enthusiasts was super special.
5. Paialoa Fishpond, Moloka'i - July 8, 2021
Over the summer, I was super fortunate to be able to go to Hawai'i with my family. As much as I love them, I also love exploring and adventuring on my own. Although planning my own mini-vacation was a bit of a risk, that was also part of why I chose do it - for the sake of taking a chance.
I took this photo from a helicopter flown by Blue Hawaiian Helicopters, based out of Kahului. I had never flown in a helicopter before, but I absolutely would again. Being able to see as much of the state as I did, in as short a time as I did, only made me want to return and explore more on the ground. This shot is of Paialoa Fishpond, with Kamakou shrouded by clouds in the background.
6. Milky Way at Maunakea - July 8, 2021
One of the biggest obstacles to astrophotography is Earth's atmosphere. Depending on the day, it can be hazy, cloudy, dusty, rainy, you name it. All of these conditions make it harder to photograph the stars because the air itself diffracts the incoming light. Part of the reason astrophotography is so rewarding for me is because a lot of things have to be planned in advance for the shot to work. The time, the weather, the scene - even the stages of the Moon - everything came together for a successful shot.
I knew I was going to be in Hawai'i during a new moon, so it was a "simple" matter of finding a good spot from which to shoot the Milky Way. The Island of Hawai'i is the tallest mountain in the world (from base to summit), making the Maunakea Visitor Information Station an ideal location to shoot from. At 9,200 feet above sea level, I was able to shoot photos from above the clouds without having to worry about as much air diffracting the incoming light. Getting this shot required months of planning and several hours of flying and driving. I could not be happier with how this shoot turned out.
7. Fishing at South Point - July 9, 2021
The day after my most successful Milky Way shoot, I decided to visit a coffee farm and Hawai'i Volcano National Park. On my way, I took a somewhat lengthy detour to visit the southernmost point of the southernmost state. South Point was a mix of volcanic rocks, turbulent waves, and steep hills and cliffs.
I saw these two people fishing off one of the cliffs some distance away, but they left before I could make my way over to talk to them. I love this photo because the two guys emphasize the scale of the cliffs, and the way the clouds hang over the ocean is simply immaculate.
8. The Gang Goes Stargazing - August 7, 2021
This photo made the list not because of the space, but because of the people I shared it with. Earlier I mentioned how the Earth's atmosphere can really mess up photos of the stars, and this is a great example why. In the week leading up to this photo, wildfires in Canada caused smoke plumes that billowed south and blanketed much of the Midwest.
However, I was not going to abandon this shoot. I spent nearly a month planning this photo with friends from Iowa State University, and I was not going to let some smoke ruin it. We made the trek to Southeast Iowa anyway, and had a great time catching up and generally goofing around. From left to right are myself, Nathan Davis, and Neil Vezeau.
9. Milky Way at Forest Canyon Overlook - September 4, 2021
In August, I earned my master's degree in Communication with an emphasis in Public Affairs and Advocacy from Drake University. Doing both school and work full-time was stressful, so I decided to take some time to relax and unwind. I took a trip to Estes Park, CO, over the long Labor Day weekend to get in some astrophotography and hopefully a hike or two.
By now I was more comfortable shooting the Milky Way, so really the main challenge this time was the wind and temperature. I took this photo from the Forest Canyon Overlook in Rocky Mountain National Park, at an elevation of about 11,700 feet. With as high and as twisty as Trail Ridge Road is, I would definitely recommend a reconnaissance drive through during the day beforehand.
10. Saint Catherine of Siena Chapel - September 4, 2021
While on my Labor Day vacation, I drove south along Highway 7 to make a quick visit to St. Catherine of Siena Chapel, also called Chapel on the Rock. In the background, Mount Meeker looms over the landscape behind this iconic church. This photo is among my favorites simply because the scenery and architecture completely made the journey here worth it.
Bonus: Todd Copley - April 13, 2021
Don't let that intense gaze through the viewfinder fool you, this dude is simply one of the nicest guys out there. Todd is the president of my former union, AFSCME Local 1868, which is how he and I got to know each other. He is also a (significantly) accomplished photographer who took the time to share some tips and advice with me.
Learning photography has, at times, really been a challenge. But with a friend and father figure like Todd there to show me the ropes and share some knowledge, I have gone much further than I would have thought possible. Thanks for everything, Todd.
And there you have it, my top ten (plus one) photos of 2021! I am super excited for what 2022 brings and to share it with all of you. Have a safe, happy, and healthy New Year, everyone!
Till next time, fly safe!