As 2021 comes to a close, it is time for me to review my favorite photographs of 2021. As always, these images are my personal favorites. They may not necessarily be my best images, or the images that others like best.
Because I am no longer posting to social media, I feel mostly free of any outside influence. I haven’t even photographed a coastal sunset since February 2021, and as we enter another year of the pandemic, I will stick to the photographic niches I like best.
This means, of course, more mountains, more clouds, and more clouds without mountains.
Jim Goldstein used to curate an annual list of these posts, which was a great project every year, but that project appears to no longer be a going concern. I tried to manually create a list last year (see this link), so perhaps if you would like to see your annual on a new Page on my website, I would be happy to add it. Just Contact Me. This is the link for the 2021 page, which at the moment only has friend and reader Alex since he had the first annual post I have seen so far.
This year, the pandemic and various needs at home kept my photographic pursuits local, except for a wonderful month-long working trip to Utah (thanks to longtime friend and reader, Bill). I also got fed up with the Escape that was beginning to die at 175k miles (don’t buy a Ford, I’ve owned 3 in my lifetime), and finally got All Wheel Drive in my life with a Subaru Forester. I look forward to getting plenty of dirt under those tires.
What follows are 12 selected images throughout the year. They are posted in chronological order, although I have not selected an image per month. That is what my 105 Photos of the Month posts (and counting) are for. These 12 just stayed with me, regardless of when they were taken. I started with 85 candidate photographs before narrowing it down. Without further ado, here are the images.
This image was created in January with some beautiful overhead clouds. I doubt my Modern Equivalents portfolio is everybody’s cup of tea, but I just enjoy exploring shape, texture, and style in these clouds. Look closely, and these clouds show a little bit of vertical layering, which some pinks, purples, and clouds depending on the elevation and angle to the sunset.
One of the most overlooked watersheds in San Diego County is the Sweetwater River, which rises in the foothill canyons of Laguna Crest, follows several valleys and canyons from the State Park to the urban centers of the South Bay, and ends as an ugly channelized “river” that splits State Route 54.
This is a section of the upper river, perhaps showing stress from ongoing drought, below some beautiful clouds in March. I would like to find more spots along this river that others don’t think to photograph.
This image is from a May hike with friend and reader Alex, doing a loop into Palomar Mountain State Park. Part of the goal of the hike was to photograph rare Pacific Dogwoods, but I still found myself drawn to the weird and twisted shape of the oaks and other old growth trees in the State Park. There is such little Old Growth forest left in California, and you can see the difference between a woodland left alone, and another that we have been harvesting for the last 150 years.
This image was created at one of the favorite spots of friend Alex, in San Dieguito River Park. I have a habit of creating compositions that take a subject and emphasize verticality, so so much so that I created a Vertical Portfolio Gallery for them.
I suspect most people would shoot directly where the sun was setting, hoping to get the most color of the clouds. But I prefer shadows and side-light, which help bring a sense of depth. This area is but a quiet spot surrounded by urbanity, but with a little work that city-space can momentarily disappear.
I love Sunrise Highway, and have always enjoyed Kwaaymii Point. It is one of the best overlooks in the County, which is why the County decided to keep the upper section available even when the road was later bypassed.
Storms can be incredibly dramatic up here, and it is one of the windiest spots in San Diego County. Here, a monsoon-drive storm pounds the lower desert sections of Anza-Borrego Desert State Park and Imperial Highway below.
This is my local spot, and one of the few spots I can get a good image of the San Diego River. This was a nice evening with beautiful clouds and a very peaceful moment. Besides being an overlooked location, it is also a challenge to frame the lake in this manner, but I will not tell you what magic I used to get as much of the river/lake in frame as possible.
Now we are progressing to my Utah trip, where I made 60 keeper images (and counting, I still have many to work on processing). This redrock image is not from Southern Utah. Rather, it is from a narrow section called Echo Canyon, where Interstate 84 and Interstate 80 meet. There are numerous side canyons that go for about 23 miles. This was a spot I really liked, for the light, shadow, clouds, and the majesty of the redrock formation.
Not every landscape composition requires clouds. Many days, especially where I live, are simply clear skies. I suppose you could give up and just not bother to create an image. But I prefer to find a way to make something beautiful no matter the weather. This section of Red Maples below Mt. Timpanagos were only in bloom for a few days, before an early storm rolled in. And it was nice to be up and about by 4 AM knowing exactly what I was going to shoot. I found this spot the day before and knew I was coming right back. Only a few days later, the leaves were gone.
This volcanic plug was too much for me to overlook. It was just off the freeway, but a little challenge to photograph. I had to find a spot to park the car, then walk 1/4 mile to set up my tripod just off the frontage road.
Guardsman Pass is one of the most popular spots in Utah, which I found out would be crowded while I was in Utah. the Pass itself is now “drop off” only, although I found many people flouting that regulation. It felt a lot like my home State of California. However, I was successful find other spots along the road with compositions more to my liking. This area shows a wide expanse of the beautiful Aspen country, below some fantastic clouds. These leaves were gone a couple days later, as a big storm rolled in and they closed the pass for the Winter season.
This is a section of East Canyon Creek, and despite the water, the reservoir it drains too was suffering from catastrophic drought. People stayed in the upper elevations, despite the fact that the “lower” elevations around 5,000 feet were beautiful as well. This area is in the rain shadow of the upper Wasatch Range, and because of that looks more like my home California chaparral than the pine forests at 7,000 – 10,000 feet.
My final image for this year is that rustic and collapsing cabin on the outskirts of Henefer, Utah. For images I like, I have a Lightroom publish folder that keeps 16×9 images for my dual 27″ monitors at home. As I was playing chess in the evening with my daughter, this image popped up on screen and she said she really liked it. That was enough for me to want to include it.
Thank you very much for reading, and I hope you enjoy the images. Next up will be my Favorite Music of 2021, followed by a year-end recap. I will probably spend another Christmas in Joshua Tree National Park. With the holiday season here, I wish all of you the best, and a more prosperous and healthy 2022.
T.M. Schultze is a San Diego-based photographer, traveller, and writer. He writes, photographs, and draws things of the outdoors that have inspired humans for thousands of years. He co-authored the Photographer’s Guide to Joshua Tree Park which can be purchased here.