This week I’m going to share the 2015 top ten photographs that we edited down to last week, with a little information about each image. There is a lot to be learned about our images from this exercise, so this is something that I like to do each year.
If you didn’t catch last week’s episode, in which I walked you through the selection process, you might want to check that out first. I really think that it’s important for a photographer to get used to whittling down images to a finite number, even for personal benefit.
There’s nothing worse than sitting through hundreds of photos from someone’s photo trips. In any situation, if you get a chance to show your photos to others, it’s always going to project you in a better light to show a tight edit of your images, and whittling down an entire year of photographs to just ten is great practice for this.
In a professional environment, I feel that providing more images than you are asked for is not only unprofessional, I think it’s disrespectful. You are basically saying that your time is more precious than that of the person asking for the images, because you are forcing the selection process on them, when it’s really your job.
Anyway, I went through that last week as well, so let’s jump in and start to look at my 2015 Top Ten photographs. Remember, these are my personal selected images. It’s highly likely that you’ll wonder why I didn’t include others, or why I even included some of these. Again, we talked about that process last week, but do keep in mind that this is a personal preference. What I consider to be my best ten, and we’ll work through these in chronological order.
I started 2015 with an amazing winter landscape tour in Hokkaido, the northern most island of Japan, and this first image was from the second day. The trip depends heavily on having good snow cover and when possible also falling snow, which we didn’t have for the first two days, so we drove to a few locations that I had in mind, and on the way, we drove past an opening through which I saw this tree with the line of posts (below).
I could see that many people in the group weren’t really seeing this, but this ended up being one of my favorite images from the 12 day tour. I waited for the patches of lighter sky that were in the scene when we walked back to it to clear, before capturing this shot. I feel the very subtle line between the line of the hill and the almost uniform white sky works really well here. I love white on white, when the boundaries between the two is almost not even visible. The line of posts punctuates the shape of the hill nicely too, and the tree, being almost totally black adds the necessary weight to balance the image out nicely. I shot this at f/8 for 1/200 of a second at ISO 200.
I made the next photograph five days later on the same Hokkaido Landscape tour (below). We were photographing a small fishing port, and to the side there were these seven boats that had holes in their hulls and other places, so we figured this was like a boat graveyard. We also had a very dynamic sky with rain or snow falling on the horizon in the distance, so there are lots of different levels of detail to explore in this image.
I converted both of these first two images to black and white in Silver Efex Pro 2, my “go to” black and white conversion software, because I love the control it gives me over the conversion process. I love to bring out a dramatic sky like this, while maintaining the subtle tones in fallen snow. This was shot at f/11 for 1/160 of a second at ISO 100.
This next photograph was from the last day of my second Winter Wonderland tour, also in Hokkaido (below). We saw this young fox at the side of the road, probably hoping for a scrap of food from the tourists, so we stopped our bus and all of the group shot from the bus through open windows. This lovely little fox walked around and then sat for us for a while. It sounded like the Olympics inside the bus as we all made the most of the opportunity.
I thought I’d gotten my shots, and I do like the other images that I had, but then one of the participants closer to the middle of the bus, with a better angle said that he’d done, and offered me his window. As I walked up and started to raise my camera, the fox yawned, so I was able to grab this and a couple of other frames. I felt really bad for the guy that gave me his window, but this happened so quickly that as he walked away he would have missed it anyway.
I shot this with my 7D Mark II, so the fast frame rate helped me to get more than one frame. I’m going to take the 7D2 with me on this year’s tours, but will be trying to use the two 5Ds R bodies mostly, as I really want the higher resolution. I’ll let you know how this goes over the next few months as I complete each tour. The settings for this image were f/8 for 1/1000 of a second, ISO 400.
Some months past between the last and this next photograph, as I made my first summer visit to the snow monkeys that we also visit during my Winter Wonderland tours.
I’d been hoping to visit during the summer for some time now, as the babies are born in May each year, so this little guy was just six weeks old when I photographed him here (right).
It was a very different experience to that which I’m used to in the winter months. You can sense the lack of hardship in the monkeys, as they don’t have to battle the cold to survive. They lay on the rocks and seem generally more relaxed in the summer.
I shot this hand-held at 400mm with the 100-400mm Mark II lens from Canon, and the 5Ds R, which I had just bought and was testing out for the first time during this trip. I was happy to find that despite the ultra-high resolution, it is very much hand-holdable.
There’s just something beautifully innocent and yet slightly playful in the expression of this young monkey, which have made this a favorite photo for 2015. My settings were f/5.6 for 1/500 of a second at ISO 400.
During the same trip to photograph the snow monkeys in summer, while testing out the new 5Ds R camera, I also spent a lot of time in the Shigakougen (Highlands) and one of the things I love to do up there is to photograph Ichinuma, which means literally the number one pond (below). I always wish for a bit of mist, and usually go there before breakfast just for that, but as I walked up to the location at the end of the day, after photographing the snow monkeys, this mist rolled in for a brief time, as low cloud engulfed the top of the mountain.
Feeling very lucky, I quickly rotated my camera with the lens ring on the 100-400mm lens and shot a series of vertical orientation images for a stitched panorama photograph. Of course, with mist like this, moving quite quickly, you can’t wait too long between each exposure, or it becomes difficult to stitch them in Photoshop, but this worked well, giving me a 144 megapixel image. I can print this huge without any enlarging, and the detail is just spectacular. Regardless of that, this has also remained a favorite for the year, and one that I pretty much knew I’d include here from the start of my selection process. The exposure here was f/10 for 0.6 seconds, at ISO 100.
In August, I was lucky enough to be able to go back to Namibia with my friend Jeremy Woodhouse, to cohost another tour there with him. As part of my personal project to recapture some of my old favorites at the new 50 megapixel resolution of the 5Ds R, on my first visit back in Deadvlei, I recreated my 2013 image of the camel-thorn trees in silhouette at dawn. The following day though, I wanted something new, and this photograph was it (below).
I think of the two images, this is actually my favorite, so I’m not just trying to include fresh work here for this 2015 selection. I really like the way the left tree is very similar in shape to the right tree, and yet the image is asymmetrical in terms of size with the second tree being much further back in the scene. The settings here were f/16 for 1/15 of a second at ISO 100. I used a focal length of 349mm to compact the elements of the scene to emphasize the relationship between the trees and the orange dune in the background.
As I’ve mentioned before, this contrast is caused by the sun coming up over the sand dune behind me as I shot this, and there is a one or two minute window each morning when the sun only illuminates that dune in the background, before it starts to illuminate the clay floor of the valley that the dead camel-thorn trees are standing on. The contrast is amazing, and I think this is perhaps one of my favorite spots in the world to photograph.
I’m actually finalizing plans for a 2017 tour in Namibia right now, and will be releasing details in the coming weeks, so if you want to be one of the first to hear about that, do sign up for my Tour & Workshops Newsletter.
During the same trip, we were privileged to be able to spend some quality time with the Himba People, and this is one of my favorite images from the amazing cultural exchange that we had (right).
We are able to ask the Himba People to go inside their small huts, and here I photographed this young girl in just the light entering the hut through a small doorway, that you have to crouch down to pass through.
It’s all natural light, but I had increased the ISO to 5000 for this image. I know a lot of people are afraid to increase the ISO for fear of causing grain, but that same fear also makes people allow photographs in such conditions to become a little dark as well.
Here I was literally just about over exposing the girls eyes and the decorative items she was wearing, so although much of the image is still very dark, I was essentially exposing to the right, and this really helps to keep noise to a minimum. The image is not without any noise, but the levels of noise are so low that this is still a wonderfully high quality image.
My settings were 1/80 of a second at f/5.6, ISO 5000.
At the end of the same day with the Himba People, we went back to their village to photograph them herding their goats back into the coral, and that resulted in a photograph that I love so much I printed it at 24 x 36″ and now have it framed on the wall behind me. The sun was still hitting this scene over the top of the hill in the background, so although it wasn’t quite golden hour, the light is still very warm, helped by the color of the brown dust that the goats were kicking up as they walked (below).
I love how each of the goats is slightly different and that one with the big horns in the middle of the herd is a great character, as is the smallest goat at the front of the group to the right as we view the scene. The thing I love the most about this photograph though is the smiles on the faces of the Himba People, probably as they find humor in the fact that there’s a line of 12 photographers kneeling in front of them as they simply perform a task that they do every day.
These are wonderful exchanges that I treasure, and I hope that even a tiny piece of that comes across in the images I make there. If you are interested in taking a look at more of my Namibia work, my portfolio is here.
After Namibia I visited Iceland for my 2015 tour. We’re taking the group full circle in 2016, so we’ll be taking in some even larger waterfalls, but so far, the largest falls we’ve visited each year has been Gullfoss, that we can see a tiny segment of in this photograph (below).
It was unfortunately a sunny day when we visited in 2015, which is not great for photographing waterfalls. They always look better in the shade or on overcast days, because there is less contrast to deal with, and you can concentrate on recording the subtle beauty of the water and rocks. As usual though, as photographers it’s our job to find something of beauty to shoot, under the conditions we’re presented with. Of course, ideally we’d be able to go back when conditions are better, but there is only so much we can do when we have an itinerary to work with, and places to be, so we did what we could.
I was in the end actually very happy with some of the shots from this year, despite the conditions. This is perhaps my favorite, as I picked out just a small section of the falls, as they cascade down towards the main drop down into the gorge a little further along. I used a one second exposure at f/14 to record the movement of the water. I like to use around a half to a full second exposure for waterfalls, as I feel this records a nice amount of movement without removing all texture.
In this photo (above) I particularly like the area of texture in the water in the bottom right, just in front of the rocks, but I find myself pouring over a number of areas of detail in this image. I also like how the light mist above the center of the cascade enables us to see a little bit of detail in the cliff in the distant background. Looking at the focal length in the EXIF data, I shot this at 114mm, which also gives me confidence to take my 100-400mm lens with me on my Hokkaido Landscape tour for 2016, which I’ll have just started as I release this episode.
I’m really hoping that Canon release an updated 24-105mm lens at some point soon, as I currently have a gap between my 24-70mm and the 100-400mm, which makes me uncomfortable, but I’m finding that I am tending to be getting by without that 30mm at the moment, so the 70-200mm is generally staying at home now. I’ll probably hang on to it for the wider f/2.8 aperture, but I am definitely giving preference to using the 100-400mm now, even for my landscape work, as I really like being able to just zoom in past 200mm without using an extender.
Last up, is another photo from Iceland, which is this image of the blue glacial waters from Jökulsárlón as the water flowed through the narrow estuary to the sea as the tide went out (below). We were driving past the lagoon on the way to another glacier when we noticed a couple of icebergs trapped in the estuary as there are some large concrete blocks under the water to stop large icebergs from flowing out and breaking down the bridge that were were driving over. You wouldn’t normally see this sort of flow unless the iceberg is grounded like this.
I enhanced the color in this a little bit by increasing the Vibrance and Saturation in Lightroom, but these are generic changes, so you can tell that the blue really is there in the glacial ice and water. I really like the curves of the flow of water here, leading down to that plume of white water at the base of the ice. I used a 1/4 of a second shutter speed for this at f/16, ISO 100. I was zoomed in to 312mm, as it was this bottom corner of the iceberg that I found most appealing.
A Rolling Record of Progress
I really do find this exercise to be useful each year, and this year has been no exception. Looking at my images, I thankfully continue to get a sense of improvement in my work. The beauty of doing this selection each year, is that you can go back and compare your selections to previous years easily.
I didn’t do this in 2010, as I was busy exiting my old day job and incorporating Martin Bailey Photography K.K. but just for fun, I just displayed all of my top tens since I started doing this in 2007. Here’s a screenshot from Lightroom showing each year on a single row (below). I love that having these Top Ten Collections saved enables me to quickly go back and compare my work to previous years and view trends.
By the way, if you use Lightroom for this process, keep in mind that if you create a Collection referencing images on a hard drive that you later stop using, you basically lose your collections. They just become empty. So even if you start to use a new hard drive, instead of re-importing your images from the new location, it’s always best to right click the hard drive in Lightroom after moving the images, and tell Lightroom where to find the images in the new location. If you do this, the linkage will be maintained, and you won’t break your collections.
Looking back over the years though, I find it interesting that there were no black and white images at all from 2007 and 2008, and only one from 2009. In fact, to say how much a part of my photography black and white plays, there is generally still only around 2 to 3 of my ten images from each year that is black and white, which surprises me, although this is probably because I don’t tend to convert much of my wildlife work to black and white.
I feel that my photography probably took the largest leap forward between 2009 and 2011, rows 3 and 4, although that isn’t surprising either, because that’s when I severed the cord from my day job, and started to do photography full time. In all honesty, I have probably done less photography some years since going full time than I did before, because I spend a lot of my time now on the business side and marketing, and I also now do more writing about photography, but I feel as though my approach to photography changed as I started to make a living from my photography alone. I have become much more deliberate in my work, thinking through my technical and creative processes more each year, and I feel that this is showing in my work.
I am of course incredibly fortunate to have been able to visit the locations that I go to, and without that, many of these images would not have been possible. I would of course have still been doing going through this process though, even if I had only gotten images from here in Japan where I live. I hope you don’t decide not to do this with your own 2015 images if you haven’t been to exotic locations. It’s all relative to where we live and where we are able to shoot.
You’re Playing Against Yourself
I don’t think photography should be about trying to beat anyone. Of course, it’s important to try to improve, but I think photography in many ways is like golf, and although I haven’t played for years now, I always found that regardless of the fact that I would be playing with others, I never felt it necessary to compare scores. Ultimately, you are playing against yourself. If you allow yourself to ponder too much on how your golf, or your photography, compares to others, it can be crippling.
I’ve been saying this for years now, and my stance has not changed, but I truly believe that we should create photographs firstly and foremost for ourselves. The most important thing is that you are happy with your current work, and if you are not, take the necessary steps to create work that you are happy with, or at least moving towards what you believe you will be happy with.
Be it working to find new locations, new genres to work in, or even dare I say it, buying that new piece of kit that you believe will open up some new doors for you creatively. Don’t get caught up in gear acquisition syndrome or GAS as it’s affectionately known, but sometimes, a new piece of kit can open up doors both technically, by removing obstacles, but also creatively, by inspiring us to make new work.
However you take your work to the next level, the main thing is to continue to improve, and I hope we all continue to do that together through 2016 and beyond. As I said last week as well, if you do post a selection of your own 2015 top ten somewhere, please drop a link into the comments for this post, and also try to include a few sentences about what you found useful or interesting about defining your own top ten for 2015.
Martin’s Portfolios can be found here: https://mbp.ac/portfolios
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