Solo Photography Awards of 2023

December 30, 2023

As 2023 comes to an end, instead of writing a typical "year in review" post I thought I'd do something a little different - I've started my own first-annual one-man photo competition with an arbitrary set of award categories! Let's see which photos won in 2023!


🏅 Cliché Tent Photo of the Year:

Camping amongst Joshua trees in the Castle Peaks.
Joshua Tree Camp

Camping amongst Joshua trees in the Castle Peaks.

In February Claudia and I spent two weeks exploring remote, craggy mountains in the Mojave and Sonoran Deserts. This photo above sums up the experience of camping amongst joshua trees in a beautiful but seldom (if ever) visited desert basin. Despite my fond memories from this trip, unfortunately our remote explorations came at a hefty price, as Claudia contracted a nasty case of Valley Fever at some point during the trip and was laid out by this mysterious and serious illness for the next three months. She has fully recovered though, thankfully!


🏅 Wildlife Photo of the Year:

A juvenile mountain lion in snowy sagebrush near Ridgway, Colorado - February.
Mountain Lion in the Sage

A juvenile mountain lion in snowy sagebrush near Ridgway, Colorado - February.

I am not a wildlife photographer by any means, but sometimes the wildlife photos just fall in my lap! I hate to disappoint you but I didn't shoot this photo while dressed in camo hiding in a blind in the wilderness. The lion was walking through my backyard and I literally shot this photo through a window of my house! I told you... I'm not a wildlife photographer! 🤣

My wife and I were sitting in our living room on this snowy February morning when some movement caught my eye outside in the sagebrush. I could see it was a smallish cat and I initially thought it was the bobcat we had seen just the day before. But no, it was a mountain lion prowling through the sage! I quickly grabbed my camera with telephoto lens and ran to the side of the house where the lion was heading. The lion paused and sat down for just a moment - just long enough for me to fire off a couple shots before it got up and continued its prowl. And then it was gone!


🏅 Winter Photo of the Year:

Aspens caked in snow in the Cimarrons.
Aspens in Snowstorm

Aspens caked in snow in the Cimarrons.

This was a moment during a March snowstorm when fog enveloped this snow-laden aspen forest in the Cimarrons. The fog gives the forest a mystical ambiance, and I also like how the scale is skewed with the seemingly giant aspens towering over the much smaller pines. See more of last year's winter photos from around Ridgway.


🏅 Ski Photo of the Year:

Vijay skis down the northeast face of Sultan Mountain. The town of Silverton is visible on the right, over 4,000 vertical feet...
Sultan of Ski

Vijay skis down the northeast face of Sultan Mountain. The town of Silverton is visible on the right, over 4,000 vertical feet below.

Snowboarding down Sultan Mountain near Silverton has been on my bucket list for years and I finally got it done in early May. I'm a sucker for landscape-style ski photos, and I like how this one shows the steep couloir and the vast expanse of the San Juans above Silverton.


🏅 "A for Effort" Photo of the Year:

Sunrise from the 14,022 ft. summit of Wilson Peak in late May.
Summit Sunrise on Wilson Peak

Sunrise from the 14,022 ft. summit of Wilson Peak in late May.

Beyond all my usual backpacking adventures, 2023 wasn't really a big year for me for "alpine" photo objectives. The one exception was this somewhat spontaneous mission to shoot sunrise atop Wilson Peak in late May, which involved a 2am start and a steep and spicy mixed snow and rock scramble up the west ridge via headlamp. Not sure the photo was worth all the effort, but sometimes it's fulfilling to just go do something really challenging.


🏅 Night Shot of the Year:

Lupine wildflowers and the Sneffels Range floating in the Milky Way galaxy, illuminated by moonlight. June.
Lupine Under the Stars

Lupine wildflowers and the Sneffels Range floating in the Milky Way galaxy, illuminated by moonlight. June.

June 2023 was another glorious lupine season around the Sneffels Range. This photo was one that I had preconceived and hiked out here to try to capture. The relentless breeze nearly squashed my hopes, but I managed to catch this one frame when the lupine weren't swaying and totally blurred. There was a perfect amount of moonlight illuminating the flowers but unfortunately the moon set behind the trees right before I could catch this shot, so I did my best to mimic the moonlight with some diffused headlamp light. I think it worked pretty well!


🏅 Mount Sneffels Photos of the Year

I have a ton of photos of Mount Sneffels; it's easily my favorite mountain and I see it from my window every day, so I think it deserves its own award category!

In early July the tundra is full of tiny wildflowers, as Mount Sneffels glows in the pre-sunrise light.
Sneffels Tundra Garden

In early July the tundra is full of tiny wildflowers, as Mount Sneffels glows in the pre-sunrise light.

For this up-close photo of Sneffels in early July I hiked up and camped on a high ridge that I can see from my house. The tundra was packed full of tiny wildflowers and I put my camera directly on the ground to emphasize the perspective of the miniature flower garden, then focus-bracketed the scene to get everything in focus from near to far. I also won't forget the lovely perfume that filled the air from the little white flowers. This was one of my favorite photos of the year.


🏅 Scariest Photo of the Year

A vast meadow of Indian Paintbrush wildflowers in the San Juan Mountains - August.
Paintbrush Afternoon

A vast meadow of Indian Paintbrush wildflowers in the San Juan Mountains - August.

Wait, what? How is a bucolic wildflower meadow in any way scary? Well, what the photo doesn't show is that shortly after shooting this scene at sunset, those clouds built up super quickly into ominous dark thunderheads. My tent was pitched somewhere behind those little trees on the far right side of the photo; when I surveyed the scene and set up the tent under clear skies earlier that afternoon, it seemed like a decently safe spot, but when I was huddled in my tent in the dark with lightning booming all around, I felt dangerously exposed and was cursing myself for camping so high up in the relatively open meadows. Lightning freaks me out more than anything else in the mountains, and I was nearly trembling in terror that evening. As soon as there was an apparent lull in the storm, I packed up my tent as quickly as possible in the rain and ran down to the bigger forest where I set up the tent again under the shelter of much larger and thicker tree cover.

See more of last summer's wildflower photos from the San Juans here.


🏅 Idaho Photo of the Year:

Mount Regan (10,190 ft.) reflects in the calm waters of Sawtooth Lake at sunrise.
Sawtooth Lake Reflection

Mount Regan (10,190 ft.) reflects in the calm waters of Sawtooth Lake at sunrise.

Okay, I just made up this category so I could include this photo. It's memorable to me for two reasons: First, because it was my birthday! And secondly, the breathtaking calmness of the lake on this morning was a striking contrast to the previous day and evening when the winds were blasting here - so relentlessly windy all day long that it became a bit psychologically unsettling. So I was elated to catch this perfect reflection in this huge and spectacular lake, especially after so much wind the day before.

See more photos from our two week Idaho road trip here.


🏅 Most Peaceful Photo of the Year:

Earthshadow and a full moon rising over Lake Aloha and its many granite islands.
Moonrise Over Lake Aloha

Earthshadow and a full moon rising over Lake Aloha and its many granite islands.

I know, I'm really stretching it with these personal photo competition categories. But for me this photo truly conveys the utter peacefulness of this particular evening, as Claudia and I relaxed on this high granite bluff watching the sunset then the earthshadow and full moon rising over the lake. Pure bliss!

Read more about this backpack trip here.


🏅 "Intimate Landscape" Photo of the Year

Granite islands amongst a reflected sunset sky.
Islands in the Sky

Granite islands amongst a reflected sunset sky.

Whatever you want to call it - intimate, close-up, abstract(ish)... I don't have a lot of these types of photos to choose from, but this is easily my favorite. Taken with a telephoto lens just minutes after the previous photo above, I love how these granite islands seem to be hovering in the pastel sky like a fleet of rock spaceships. But also, what a unique and wonderful granite landscape here in the Desolation Wilderness near Tahoe. I want to come back here someday with a packraft to paddle around all these little islands.


🏅 Black & White Photo of the Year:

Clyde Minaret reflects in Cecile Lake - September.
Minaret Reflection B&W

Clyde Minaret reflects in Cecile Lake - September.

This photo is also the winner of the "ONLY Black & White Photo of the Year" award. 😂

Taken during a 4-day trek along the Ritter Range in the Sierra, California.


🏅 Most Jaw-Dropping Scene of the Year:

A spectacular sunset over Half Dome and the Yosemite Valley, as seen from Glacier Point - September.
Half Dome Sunset

A spectacular sunset over Half Dome and the Yosemite Valley, as seen from Glacier Point - September.

You can probably imagine how elated I was to witness the sky explode in color at Glacier Point this last September. This is an iconic spot for a reason - it must be one of the most jaw-dropping vistas in all of the Sierra, if not the entire world. This was one of those moments when I almost felt like I had to slap myself to make sure I was awake and not just dreaming.


🏅 Most Creative Photo of the Year:

On this September evening, the headlamps of about 20 climbers are visible at various heights on the 3,000-vertical-foot granite...
Constellation of Climbers

On this September evening, the headlamps of about 20 climbers are visible at various heights on the 3,000-vertical-foot granite wall of El Capitan.

Earlier this evening, my wife and I were sitting here along the Merced River, enjoying a bottle of wine while I was shooting photos of the afternoon and sunset light on El Cap. We didn't have binoculars but we could pick out about four groups of climbers on the wall and watched them slowly progress up their routes. After sunset I stuck around a half hour longer to keep photographing El Cap in the after-glow light, and that's when I started seeing dozens of headlamps spread over the wall - many more climbers than we could see in the daylight! So I stayed there even longer after dark taking "star" shots of the constellation of climbers on the wall! Such a cool and unexpected experience.

The caption explains it. Just a spontaneous scene and idea, and so much fun to shoot night stars - except the "stars" were actually climbers hanging on the side of one of the earth's largest granite walls.

You can read more about our visit to Yosemite here.


🏅 Cutest Photo of the Year:

A curious pika checks out the photographer.
Curious Pika

A curious pika checks out the photographer.

I mean, come on. Look at the little fella! Awww... can I put you in my pocket?


🏅 Most Serendipitous Photo of the Year:

A herd of elk graze in a meadow surrounded by colorful autumn aspens near Telluride.
Elk Spotlight

A herd of elk graze in a meadow surrounded by colorful autumn aspens near Telluride.

We were here waiting for a grand landscape sunset, watching this herd of elk far below us and listening to their bugling, when a splash of sunlight momentarily illuminated the elks' meadow and surrounding aspens like a still life painting. Just a brief moment that I was fortunate to catch while I had my telephoto lens on.

It was another gorgeous autumn season in the San Juans this year; you can see my 2023 autumn photo collection here.


🏅 Strangest Photo of the Year:

The October 2023 solar eclipse "Ring of Fire" annular totality over the Valley of the Gods in Bears Ears National Monument.
Ring of Fire

The October 2023 solar eclipse "Ring of Fire" annular totality over the Valley of the Gods in Bears Ears National Monument. During an annular eclipse the moon is farther away from the Earth so when it passes in front of the Sun, its size in the sky is slightly smaller than the Sun's, leaving a visible circle called the "Ring of Fire".

The sky didn't actually get this dark in real life (unless you looked through solar glasses), but a gradient blend like this was the only way I could combine the extreme exposure range to show the whole scene. That said, I would say that the final image gives a decent expression of how it felt being there, putting the solar glasses on and off. Once the eclipse got going the light did get noticeably dimmer, and the temperature got colder and I had to put my jacket back on.

The annular totality only lasted a few minutes; it was mind bending to see a perfect circle up in the sky, like we were living in a simulation for a moment there.

Witnessing the perfect annular totality of the 2023 solar eclipse was a surreal experience indeed! This photo's also the winner of the "Most Planned-Out Photo of the Year" award. Lots of Photographer's Ephemeris and PhotoPills action leading up to this one.


🏆 Grand Prize Winner: Overall Favorite Photo of the Year:

As every photographer knows, it's nearly impossible to pick just one favorite photo from a year's worth of work, as they are all special for various personal reasons. Probably the easiest way to work through this pointless mental exercise is to ask the hypothetical question "If I could only keep one photo from this year, which one would it be?"

With that in mind, the winner is....... ( 🥁 Drum roll 🥁).......

Brilliant dusk glow over the Minarets, as seen from Minaret Lake.
Minaret Dusk

Brilliant dusk glow over the Minarets, as seen from Minaret Lake.

Our road trip to the Sierra last summer was definitely the highlight of the year, so it's fitting that my favorite photo would come from there. I witnessed and photographed many wonderful scenes during our three Sierra backpack treks, and since this moment happened on one of the last days of our final backpack trip along the Ritter Range, it seems to me like a grand finale photo that encapsulates the wild ruggedness of our time amongst the Sierra granite.

Of course as a reflection hound I was thrilled with the calmness of the water reflecting the jagged cornucopia of spires, along with the surprise clouds that drifted over the peaks during the twilight glow (the sky was totally clear just minutes before this).

Also, while the Sierra are generally thoroughly photographed (especially along the classic treks we did on this trip) and I've seen numerous fantastic photos of this lake too, this particular composition isn't one that I've seen previously (not saying it hasn't been done before, but at least I haven't seen it) so I feel I can claim at least a bit of personal originality with this comp!


Obligatory Acceptance Speech

👏👏👏 🏆 👏👏👏

As I take the podium to accept these generous awards that I've awarded myself, I would like to thank first and foremost my wife Claudia who, through thick and thin [mosquitos], dutifully carried our tent and backpacking food. I also want to extend my deepest gratitude to the Sony Corporation - none of this would have been possible without the exquisite 60 megapixels you have produced. And finally, I'd like to thank you, my dear reader, for making it through this ridiculous blog post.

👏👏👏👏👏👏

Happy New Year!!!!

Posted in News and tagged Year in Review.