Having skipped selecting my 2010 Top Ten images at the start of 2011, because I was simply too busy, I really missed going through the exercise, so this year, I was sure to make time to reflect on 2011, and select my favorite images. The act of looking through a year of photos is always a learning experience. Especially when you compare your image from previous years, you often start to see new patterns emerging, which I’d also like to touch on today as well.
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The Selection Process
To start, let’s go over my selection process, and recap on a few workflow details. If you recall from my Lightroom Digital Workflow Podcasts, when I finish a shoot, I initially work through all of my images in a Year > Month > Day folder structure, in what I call my Photo Originals folder. I star rate to bring the best images from the shoot to the top, usually using 4 stars at the point, then once I have been through all the images, I show only the four stars to get rid of anything that wasn’t selected in the first run, then single out batches of images of similar subjects, and try to narrow the selection down to just one or two of each, by giving them five stars, and at the same time, I demote anything that doesn’t make the cut to 2 stars, my “once great” rating. I also hit the X key to mark anything that is technically flawed and now even anything that is just a duplicate or insurance shot of the same thing.
As my five stars float to the top, I start to look at the entire selection, to see if anything stands out as not really fitting, and continue to try to get to as few images as possible, hitting the number two key every so often to demote images out of the selection. By now if there’s something that needs to be done like working on the images in Silver Efex Pro 2 or Color Efex Pro 4, I’ll do that and leave a copy in my originals folder. The resulting TIFF or PSD file becomes the five star, and the orginal RAW file becomes a 3 star. That’s just my way of keeping the originals with the final processed version that I’ll take and put onto my Stock site or my gallery. If I don’t need to edit the image at a pixel level, the original RAW file is what I use. I only create a copy when necessary.
I then add titles and keywords, and change the filter in Lightroom to display 3 stars or above, to reshow my original RAW files as well as the modified files, select them all, and select an Export Preset that sends my selected images to my @Finals folder for that particular year. This does mean that I end up with a copy of the RAW or any PSDs etc. in both my originals and my @Finals directly, but I like that redundancy. Of course, I also make other backups locally and in the cloud, but we won’t go into that today. I generally end up with 300 to 500 @Finals each year, and last year I finished up at 491.
So, I then created a 2011 Top Tens Collection in Lightroom, and made that the Target Collection, so that when I hit the B key, the images is added to that selection. I then selected my @Finals > 2011 folder and started to go through my year of images. As you work through the year doing your photography, you start to create a mental list of images that really stand out, so my first pass was just a case of hitting the B key as I saw these images, but once done, I had 48 images in my list, roughly 10% of the year’s best shots.
I now selected my new 2011 Top Tens Collection, and went through again, thinking to myself, “if it was a toss-up between this and another favorite, which would I chose?” and that usually makes it easier to hit the B key again, and trim down the selection. After doing this a few more times, I got my list of candidates down to this 28 images (click on the image to view larger).
From this point on, you have to start to get pretty ruthless to drill down to just ten images from a year. I cut my driftwood camel, horse, cow shot because although I really like it, it was a man-made object, and I was still trying at least to reduce this selection down to my nature and wildlife work. Similarly, I removed the following boats in the Souya Harbor shot, though I couldn’t bring myself to remove the shot of the wrecked minesweeper that we came across on New Island in the Falkland Islands on our way back from Antarctica.
As we can see in the following screenshot of my now 15 selects, at this point, I also still had one shot of the Cocoon Tower in Shinjuku from the Gyoen Park, that I really love as a photograph. To the right of that I also still had a shot of a Airship flying over the main street in Ginza, in the center of Tokyo. I begrudgingly hit the B key to remove these two shots, and was down to thirteen, though two of these were now slotted to get an honorable mention, so I was aiming for twelve, just one more to go.
Continuing to weed out the weakest, the last shot I decided to remove was my “Get the Flock Outta Here” shot from just a few weeks ago, when I’d traveled over to Kotokunuma, a pond where a large group of Whooper Swans winter, and I captured a number of swans in a bit of a ruckus, which I really like too. I removed this because it’s a very busy shot, with water flying everywhere, and maybe more an action shot than anything, but it was a very tough decision.
I was now down to twelve shots, but two of these alone were not in my top images. Before we move on to the Top Ten, I wanted to talk about a new pattern that I’ve noticed in my work, or at least my way of thinking about my work in 2011.
New Pattern – Synergetic Image Sets
A number of times throughout the year I found myself treating multiple shots as a group of images, where the synergy between two or more photographs raises the group of images above the sum of the individual shots alone. I’ve started to see more beauty in these small sets of images, such as the two iceberg shots from Antarctica that I made into gallery wraps to hang on my studio wall.
In this case, the top image did make my top ten, but the bottom image did not, but as a pair, or set of images, I find this to be much more than just two images. It works really well, and I enjoy having them both of my wall.
An even more powerful example in my opinion is the two photographs of Whooper Swans in flight that are left in my Collection of Top Ten images, pushing the count to twelve. These really do stick in my mind as two images that I love to look at together. Neither of these images individually would make the cut, as a set, they blow my socks off. The pale background with the white birds appeals to me a lot, and I did select both of these images for upload to my gallery after my first visit to Hokkaido in 2011, from the end of January to the start of February, before I went back with my workshop group in mid-February.
New Pattern – The Appeal as a Print
As you all know, I’m an avid printer, and I’ve found myself more and more being attracted to these sets, not so much as a Web offering, but as a printed set. The subtle shades of grey and pale blue with the white of the swans in these images make an absolutely beautiful set of prints. In this case, I don’t necessarily think that either image alone would look that great as a solo print, but two prints together, slightly off set on the wall looks incredible, and I’m finding myself drawn towards looking at and selecting images and these sets of images based on their appeal as a printed set.
This can also be said of the single print to a degree of course. Some images sing as a print, when they might not be appreciated as much on screen, especially at the size that we share images online in. I’ve had this appreciation for a long time though, and so today really just wanted to talk about my new appreciation for a set of images, and the printed set, in addition to individual prints.
OK, so having covered my selection process, and my growing love of the photograph set, let’s take a look at my top ten images of 2011. This first image happens to have been the first chronologically as well, though I have ordered this list in my favorite order, and we’ll count down from ten to number one.
#10 – Given in to the Elements
This first shot, “Given in to the Elements”, was shot on January 29, during a solo trip to Hokkaido when I pretty much circumnavigated the island. I don’t think I talked about this trip in a Podcast, but basically I traveled by Ferry, which takes about 20 hours, up to the port of Tomokomai, and then drove across to near Sapporo in the south-west corner of Hokkaido, and the drove up the west coast over a couple of days, across the very top, down the east coast, and then over to the where we photograph the Red-Crowned Cranes in my Hokkaido tour that we’ll be starting this year in just a month now.
I noticed this derelict house with the collapsed roof from the weight of the snow as I drove along, just after stopping for another few shots just a mile or so back. There’d been a heavy snow over night, so the white pristine snow coupled with the still heavy sky made for what I consider to be quite a nice image. I worked the scene for some time, with some shots with the house framed more tightly, but this one remained a favorite because we still see that heavy sky. I purposefully framed the shot almost half and half for balance, and love looking at the detail in this shot in a print. This really stands out to me as one of my favorite shots of 2011.
#9 – Shower Me!
At the other extent of the timeline, the next shot is the most recent, shot on December 28. I’d driven over to the Kotokunuma Pond in the Ibaraki Prefecture, as I do as most year’s draw to an end, and spent a couple of days photographing the Whooper Swans that winter there.
This year was especially poignant as I learned that the quake of March 11 had cracked the embankment of this pond, and most of the water had ran off in March, leaving not much more than a puddle. The Swans that had probably intended to stay for a few more days or weeks left, flying back to Siberia for the summer and there was concern that this experience might have caused them to find somewhere else to winter this year, but the crack was fixed around October time, and the water levels are slowly rising, though still about 1.5 meters or five feet lower than usual.
As you can see in this image though, as they splash around, the water is still quite muddy, but the swans did come back. I counted 75 on my second day there. This shot is very dynamic, and although this was a show of superiority from the swan to the right, it almost makes me feel as though they’re frolicking, and the guy at the back is enjoying his shower in the relative warmth as the ice that was on the pond just a few hours earlier thawed away.
#8 – Swans’ Attension
Number eight is a simple shot from Hokkaido on February 18, and you may recall the story of this shot from my Hokkaido Tour update episodes. We’d just been photographing a tree just down from the beach, where the hot springs that flow into the Kussharo Lake keep the sand warm and the water from freezing just enough for some of the swans that fly down from Siberia for the winter to make this their home until Spring.
I saw these swans all looking in the same direction, off to camera left, and grabbed a shot. My friend Graham Morgan asked what I was photographing, and I got one of those affectionate expletives that Graham does so well as he saw the image on my LCD, and looked up to see that the scene was gone.
I like this shot for its simplicity, another trend that I’m finding in my work. The swans are just close enough that the snow storm doesn’t remove much of their clarity, but the rest of the image up to the copse in the distance is gradually hidden by the snow fall.
#7 – QI #2
On our third day in Hokkaido, it was snowing heavily after breakfast back at the hotel, and although we were scheduled to go over to the Kussharo Lake where a couple of hours later I’d shoot the last image that we looked at, I made the call to first go back to the Akan Crane Center, because we hadn’t had any decent snow there over the first few days, and I was unhappy that the group hadn’t been able to get any shots with a beautiful white background.
As if it had been prearranged, shortly after we got there and the group had all set up their tripods and long lenses, there was about thirty minutes or so of frenzied mating dances where pairs or birds like this did their Kyuuai dance in the heavy snow that pretty much blotted out the dark top half of the frame that had been getting in the way on previous days, and now with the fresh snow cleaning up the field that had become somewhat soiled, the scene was set for us all to get some shots of a lifetime. This is my favorite from this thirty minutes or so.
#6 – Wrecked Minesweeper
On our way back from Antarctica, we traveled around a few of the Falkland Islands, and this Wrecked Minesweeper had been run up onto the beach at New Island.
We’d seen the ship when we first arrived, but I wasn’t overly thrilled with the scene as the tide was much further in, and it wasn’t obvious that the ship had been run aground. After spending a magical few hours photographic albatross on the other side of the island though, I set up for a few long exposures of this ship with the tide now further out, as we waited for some others in the group to get back.
You might recall that I did a color version of this shot in my Color Efex Pro 4 video, which I also like a lot, but again, the simplicity of this shot wins me over for my top ten.
#5 - Gentoo Point – Antarctica
When I first got back from Antarctica, I’d have said that this shot, from Gentoo Point, was going to be my favorite for the year. I still love it a lot, and have a print of this at 24×36″ on my studio wall, but it kind of got pipped at the post by the next four images in the larger scale of things throughout the year. Part of it is most certainly a heightened appreciation for the simpler image, but this shot is still in my mind a kind of classic scene, even though I say it myself.
This too is a long exposure at just under two minutes, which gave the sea a cotton candy feel to it in the bottom right side, but also made the clouds flow a little, which coupled with the magic of Silver Efex Pro 2, created a beautiful dramatic sky. The distant peaks add to the drama and then the seven penguins that had stayed almost perfectly still for two minutes top this off, especially in a large print.
#4 – Deception Island Iceberg
As we sailed home, past Deception Island, this beautiful blue iceberg caught my eye, and with the help of a bit of Lightroom processing then later some Color Efex Pro, I was able to really bring out the heavy sky and blue of the ice to surprisingly to me, bring this shot ahead of the Gentoo Point shot in my ranking for the year.
This is one of the pair that we looked at earlier, that I do believe stands well on its own too. Note that this wide 2:1 ratio is something else that I’ve found myself doing quit a lot this year too. The gallery wraps that I have on my wall here are 13×26 inches, and another size of these that I’d like to do is 20×40. That would be impressive, if I had the room left on my wall.
#3 – Reverence
Shot number three is from February 13, on the Snow Monkey leg of my Winter Wildlife Wonderland Tour. I’m still enjoying this shot so much, despite the fact that the young monkey’s face is very slightly out of the depth of field.
This was a bit of a grab shot as I saw the youngster watching adult snow monkey shaking the snow of his mane, and I didn’t quite get it lined up squarely enough to get both of their faces sharp. Still, the expression on the youngsters face was enough for me to not only keep this in my selection, but to secure their place in my top ten for the year.
#2 – Journey Begins
Number two was a bit of a surprise, almost like a present. On the fifth of May my wife and I went for a walk in the Shinjuku Gyoen park here in Tokyo, and we’d been trying for a while to time it so that I could capture a macro photo of the seeds of a dandelion puff-ball as my wife blew them away. The timing of this was incredibly difficult, and she was starting to get frustrated, and this was one of the last shot that we made.
When we got home, I went through the images, and in the original color version, I wasn’t really taken with this shot at all, so left the images in my library as they were too good to throw out, but not good enough to process.
Then, towards the end of August, as I recuperated from my surgery in June, to remove that pesky brain tumor, I went back through my library and these images jumped out at me. I figured that if the color version wasn’t working, it was at least worth trying a black and white version, so I threw this into Silver Efex Pro 2 and immediate fell in love with what I saw.
A little bit of selective darkening on the right side and the bottom below the seeds as they fly away, and a color filter to darken the background even more really brought this shot out for me, and this is one of those that made the hair on the back of my head stand up when I held a print of it.
#1 – Tanchou Study #7
At the end of my first trip to Hokkaido, after circumnavigating the island doing landscape work, I hooked up with a friend and went to the Akan Crane Center for a few more days before sailing home again on the ferry.
During those few days, I made a number of close-up crane shots that I call my Tanchou Studies. Tanchou is just the Japanese word for the Red-Crowned Cranes. I’ve been making these studies each year when I go, and always like the results, despite them starting out as a way of killing time while we wait for the birds to dance or fly in or out of the field at the center.
This particular shot though became an instant favorite of this year’s series of studies, and has pretty much stayed at the top of my list for favorite shots of this year, and may even be my favorite shot of my own, of all time. I just love it.
Again, the simplicity is appealing, to me and the fact that the white along the left side of the bird as we look at the photo is darker than the background, but then the right side, being hit by the light from a slightly overcast sky, is just a bit brighter than the background, giving us just enough separation to make us think.
The angle of the head and the eye, even though it doesn’t have much of a catch-light, has reflected just enough of the white of the snow to separate it from the black of the feather on the crane’s face. To top it off for me, the crane has that beautiful splash of red on its crown, giving us a nice color contrast. This to me really portrays this beautiful bird at it’s best, despite it not being a dancing shot like the one we looked at earlier.
So, there you have it. That’s my Top Ten shots from 2011, a year that came with its fair share of challenges too. As I mentioned earlier, and as many of you already know, in June we found that I had a sizable brain tumor, and by the time we found it, I’d started to have funny turns and then as we started to work on some plans for the surgery, it caused a kind of a mild stroke that caused a change of plans, and semi-emergency surgery.
Of course, the fact that I’m still here, now working again and Podcasting each week, shows that not only was the surgery successful, but I’ve recovered well, thanks to the amazing staff at the Jikei University Hospital in Shimbashi, Tokyo.
You might also recall that although most of the tumor over my pituitary gland was removed, the surgeons decided that it was too dangerous to also remove the cyst that was the size of a golf ball in the right side of my brain, knowing that they had a good chance of shrinking that down with medication later. Despite the fact that I had an allergic reaction to the planned medication that almost killed me from liver failure a week later, I started on some new medication that would hopefully shrink the cyst a month after the surgery.
An MRI scan after two months of taking the medication, and three months after the surgery, showed that the cyst had shrunk to around 1/10th of it’s original size. Then, last weekend, I went back for another MRI, almost six months after starting on the new medication, and as the neurosurgeon, Dr. Joki, flicked through the MRI images with the wheel of his mouse, he had to do a double take. He went right past the only two images that showed anything at all. He was jumping up and down with delight as he exclaimed “We’ve won!”.
He sat down again and we shook hands, with our other hands cupped around the back of each others, and he smiled a broad smile as I fought back the tears and we looked back at the screen to see a tiny slither of soft tissue that is what’s left of the cyst. I tiny bit of membrane. That’s all there is now. The MRI also shows a bit of space above the slither of membrane, which means that it is no longer putting any pressure at all on my brain.
My wife was with me, and the three of us couldn’t believe our eyes really. Dr. Joki had thought it would take much longer to get rid of the cyst, and he’d beaten himself up about having to leave it in, in the first place. He told us though that I’d lost a lot of blood, and every time they went after the cyst, I bled so much that I any more would have meant a blood transfusion. Also, he feared that had they gone after it, they would have damaged my optic nerve, or something else, maybe causing paralysis, and he knew that I’d just given in my day job and started out as a full time professional photographer, and thought that a photographer without his eyesight might as well be dead, so he decided to stop there, again, knowing that they could probably shrink the cyst with medication.
It was touch and go for a while, with the allergic reaction and everything, but his decision turned out to be perfect. I’m so grateful to not only have come out of this alive, but to have no side affects that we are yet aware of at least. I’m grateful to Dr. Joki, the neurosurgeon, for his skills as a surgeon but also for having the wherewithal to stop when he did. I’m also grateful to Doctors Matsuwaki and Mori on the ENT department for their part, making it possible to do the operation through my nose, and then taking care of me afterwards. I’ve been washing the back of my nose out with salt water every morning and night for the last six months, but that also stopped last week, as things are now cleared up enough for that to no longer be necessary.
Of course, there’s a whole plethora of other people that cared for me in the hospital during that time, and none of it would have been possible without the entire infrastructure, but I’m just so grateful for the way things went.
As we welcome in 2012, a number of friends online said that they bet I was happy to see the back of 2011, but that really isn’t the case. For sure, I was unlucky to get the tumor in the first place, but I was so lucky to have been here in Tokyo at this point in time, and to have been almost miraculously channeled through to these amazing doctors from the first few hospitals that I visited. It’s almost a miracle that I came out of 2011 at all, but I truly feel that I’ve come out of it stronger than ever, so to me, 2011 was not a bad year. I’m still able to do what I love, and love what I do.
I wanted to also once again thank my brother Sean and his wife Zena for coming over to support us, and of course my wife Yoshiko, for their support during that traumatic time. Finally I once again want to thank each and every one of you for your friendship and support, and thank you for sticking around. That was my 2011, and here’s to what I think will be an amazing 2012, and beyond.
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