Favorite Photographs of 2020

A family sits in natural hot springs near Mammoth Lakes, CA

This is about the time of year that all sorts of family traditions resurface. It starts with the Halloween pre-trick-or-treat pizza, and continues with the Thanksgiving Nerts tournament, followed by exchanging Christmas jammies on Christmas Eve and wrapping up with Fritos and sherbet punch on New Years Day. Oh, and there are about two hundred other traditions packed in between each of those. Though over the past few years, I suppose that I’ve started a new tradition right here on this blog. At the start of each new year, I share some of my favorite photographs (and the stories behind them) with those who happen across my blog.

2020 may be a year that many would like to forget, but the frames you’ll see below are some moments I’ll never forget listed in no particular order…

10. Lake Tahoe for Two (Incline Village, NV)

Wintertime sunset photo captured at Sand Harbor State Park near Incline Village, Nevada.

Sometimes the view behind the camera is just as sweet as the one in front of it. During a winter trip with friends to Lake Tahoe, I stole some hours to escape to the lake. Before becoming a photographer, snow was enough to keep me indoors by the fire. But that night, I couldn’t resist the chance to get out and see the show that nature might put on for me. Only this time, my daughter chose to tag along too. She, with her canvases and watercolors, and I, with my tripod and camera bag, walked down to the water’s edge and set up shop in our different corners. Each of us was looking to capture the waning light. I smiled each time I looked over at my little artist, brushing away on her own version of the sunset. And though the beach was crowded when we arrived, in the end, there was scarcely a soul around. Triumphant in capturing our view of the chilly night, we chugged some oversweet hot cocoa from our thermos and swapped stories all the way back to the cabin.

9. Life and Death In The Backyard (Sacramento, CA)

A female teacher leads her class through a cat dissection on Zoom during the COVID-19 pandemic.

During the course of this pandemic, my family has lived a lot of life in the backyard. The list includes roasting smores, grandpa building a treehouse, enjoying socially distanced movie nights and greening up our thumbs in the garden. Though my intrepid wife Erica can also add “dissecting a cat” to the list. You see, she’s a high school physiology teacher, and being the absolutely essential and undaunted educator that she is, she decided that COVID wasn’t going to stop her from sharing an unforgettable experience with her students. So she scrubbed in, pulled a preserved (and totally-not-from-our-neighborhood) cat out of the bag, welcomed her students into the Zoom meeting and got to work with that scalpel. I think this was the moment she explained the difference between ‘prone’ and ‘supine’. I love this woman.

8. Faceful of Jenga (Sacramento, CA)

A young boy is hit by a collapsing Jenga tower during a neighborhood party.

A happy consequence of lockdown has been getting outdoors and into the lives of our neighbors. When so much of life was put on hold or put at arm’s length, these are the kind-hearted folks that we’ve still been able to do life with. One of our coping mechanisms has been throwing all manner of outdoor get-togethers, including a Halloween block-party. On this particular afternoon, my youngest son played into his first game of Jenga with giant blocks. He was so confident that he clutched a bag of candy in one hand while playing with the other. But when the blocks came tumbling down in his direction there wasn’t much he could do to stop them. In spite of his shock, he managed to nurse his sugar high late into the night.

7. The Best Laid Plans . . . (Fremont, CA)

Newlyweds stare off into the sunset at Coyote Hills Regional Park

Katy and Bryan were to be married on 10/10/2020: a day of the year with more weddings scheduled across the country than any other. Though most of those couples canceled, postponed, or downsized their weddings due to safety concerns and distancing orders. As a wedding photographer, I can attest to how all this made for rapidly evolving and unprecedented takes on wedding planning. When the going got tough, these two got going. They relocated the wedding from a vintage venue to her parent’s home. They shrunk the guestlist to safe levels and asked guests to wear masks. They patched in their officiant (stuck in the Netherlands) using Zoom and a mannequin with an iPad for a head. And they threw a drive-by reception in the street afterward with shave ice, individually boxed donuts and music to keep everything light. This shot came from the end of the day, as I snuck away with the newlyweds to soak in the sunset at a nearby stretch of the bay. Their drive to include their loved ones and the creative lengths they took to make it happen absolutely inspired me. And their donuts sustained me. Did I mention I love my job?

6. Western States Trail (Auburn, CA)

Photo of the North Form of the American River along the Western States Trail in Auburn, CA.

Speaking of traditions, one of my family’s newest is to take a hike with my brother’s family just before the new year. Though we’ve all got kiddos in tow, we’ve made these hikes for the past few years now. They’ve ranged from epic, to overly ambitious (slogging through feet of snow), to downright casual. This year’s hike was a tiny trek (with an infant) along the Western States Trail, not far at all from where we live. And while calling this a hike might be a stretch, the surroundings, the hazy winter light, and the company made it all a breath of fresh air in spite of the masks we wore.

5. Looking Up (Vallecito, CA)

Winding Staircase at Moaning Caverns.

We’d planned to pack the suitcases and pull out the passport over the summer–but you know the deal–our international travel plans were put on hold. So when the world reopened enough that we could get out of town for a few days, we rocketed to nearby Angel’s Camp for a change of scenery. And that included a 180 foot descent into the belly of Moaning Caverns. Perhaps this photo can help you understand why I felt like we had made our way to some strange planet in a galaxy far, far away. A pandemic can’t stop your imagination, right?

4. Splashdown (Sacramento, CA)

Water droplet illuminated by blue and orange gelled flashes.

At the start of lockdown, the optimistic influencers of social media pumped out all sorts of lists of how to spend our time at home. One of those lists suggested that we set some new goals. So, of course, my first goal was to photograph a water droplet in motion. This is probably part of any Photography 101 course, but since I’d never formally studied photography, I’d missed out on that. You should’ve seen me there in my living room, hanging a sandwich bag like an IV drip from my step ladder, drip, dropping into a lasagna dish below. And of course, I had to set up my color gelled flashes to get some dramatic lighting for good measure. It only took about 100 tries to get this shot, but hey, now I’ve got a new skill to add to the resume.

3. Incoming (Folsom, CA)

Maternity photo of an Indian woman standing in Lake Natoma

In my line of work, I’m learning more each year about the power of being at the right place at the right time. Working in the field means I’ve got to understand how to leverage the time of day to harness natural light–and how to compliment it with artificial light if need be. For instance, I love this image of Nina, just weeks away from the arrival of her little boy. She looks eager, radiant and hopeful. With this image, I wanted to capture all of the color of sunset, and darken the environment to add a bit of drama. But adding in a bit of flash helped her to shine, like she’s got some inner light giving her joy. This sort of image wouldn’t have worked 30 minutes earlier, or 30 minutes later. I’ve got a lot left to learn, but images like this help me feel like I’m moving forward.

2. Steamboat Slough Ferry (Rio Vista, CA)

The J-Mack ferry serves at the Steamboat Slough Ferry Crossing near Rio Vista, CA.

Following a day of remote learning, my wife and I conspired to load up the kids and get lost along the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta. Meandering roads followed the path of the waters, leading us through small towns and lovely countryside. Eventually, those roads led here: a place where it evidently makes more financial sense to ferry cars across the water than build a bridge. As you can imagine, we loved every minute of our experience on the ferry. We rode it across to Ryer Island, and within a few minutes rode it back again. Driving on to that ferry felt like we travelled back in time, experiencing what an earlier and less-developed California might have been like. Best Delta drive ever.

1. Nevertheless (Mammoth Lakes, CA)

A family soaks in natural hots springs near Mammoth Lakes, CA.

Not only was 2020 the year of COVID, but in California, it was also a banner year for wildfires. After weeks of summer smoke in Sacramento, we hatched a plan to escape to a clear-skied spot in California. Mammoth Lakes looked like just the place. But just a day after arriving, a fire in nearby Yosemite sent smoke our way yet again. Nevertheless, we went canoeing, hiking, biking and exploring, and the natural beauty of this place shone through all the haze. But it was during this moment, visiting a natural hot spring outside of town that we got an altogether different view. A wall of smoke hovered at our backs, but in front of us was this clear view across the Long Valley Caldera. And we got to soak it all up together from the warmest seat in the house.

Runners Up

Fall colors on display near Mammoth Lakes, CA.
Fall colors on display near Mammoth Lakes, CA
A family plays on the shores of June Lake in Mono County.
My favorite people at play along June Lake during a break from paddling
A mother hugs her little boy while wearing masks on a train ride.
A blustery, masked train ride in Jamestown, CA
Photograph of a wall of letter blocks collapsing.
Wreaking havoc in our living room
Two boys play on a pump rail car at Railtown 1897 State History Park in Jamestown, CA.
My boys going nowhere fast at the Railtown 1897 State Historic Park

Thanks for looking in on some of my favorite photographs and memories of 2020. I only hope that your 2020 was just as memorable–and that you stayed healthy throughout. And now I pray that 2021 is unprecedented in all the right kind of ways.

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