What Was Your Favorite Photograph From 2021?

We ought to always be looking forward to our photography, but it's also important to add some ceremony to our achievements and use the past as a learning tool for the future. So, what is your favorite photograph from 2021, why, and what can you learn from it?

From a photography standpoint, most of 2020 and almost the entire of 2021 were disappointing for me. I conducted several shoots for regular clients, but there weren't many interesting trips or unusual shots for obvious reasons. 2021 had the fewest images of any year in the last decade and less than half what I usually shoot. It's disappointing, but that in itself has value: I need to force myself to shoot more in 2022 even if the outings aren't to exotic countries or for interesting editorial briefs.

Nevertheless, I need to look back on 2021 and see what I can learn.

2021: The Year of the Drone

The most obvious takeaway from 2021 for me is that my portfolio barely changed. This isn't as dreadful as it might sound as more of my work has been with private clients and contractually, I am not allowed to share the work. Nevertheless, I have a secondary, almost imaginary portfolio where I just store my favorite images from my entire career. That only had a few additions — and fewer than most years — but they were also different from what I usually add.

The most prominent shifts in images I was taking were due to two instances of gear acquisition: a drone and my medium format camera. I had wanted both for a while and decided that even if they were not the most prudent of investments, I wanted to shrug off the stagnation and sense of jadedness that had crept in with the pandemic. While the medium format body was more applicable to my usual style of shooting, it was the drone that did the intended job.

The Surfer

I took a lot of images with my drone this year and many of them — perhaps even most — are better technically and compositionally than the above image. I spent a week flying my drone around Devon in England, which is one of the most beautiful places my country has to offer, and every outing I found patterns and angles that perfectly adhered to simple rules of composition, like this:

It's undoubtedly a strong image and I like it, but I don't love it, and it's far from my favorite; the image is too obvious. It isn't a memorable shot to my eyes, and there isn't a story being told either in the image or out of it. It's technically proficient but dull. The image of the surfer is objectively worse in almost every metric, and yet, it's most likely my favorite image of the year.

The innovatively named "The Surfer" image was taken after sunset, in the blue hour, and when the waters were getting rough and the wind was cold. I was thoroughly impressed by how well my little DJI Mavic Air 2 was countering the strong coastal winds, but it was offset by how dreadful ISO performance is on all drones. It's an unfortunate consequence of sensor size among other factors. Sadly, I needed a fast shutter speed to capture the waves, the light was dying, and heavy grain was the result of both high ISO and underexposure.

Nevertheless, I got the exact image I wanted: a surfer, tiny, outrunning the great abyss. The composition doesn't necessarily adhere to any rules and the image quality is middling at best, but to me, it's a memorable shot. It sticks in my mind in a sort of "man versus nature" dynamic and there's a sense of drama. I'm not certain anyone will agree that the surfer shot is "better" than the rule of thirds cliffs shot below it, but it's my favorite.

What Can I Learn?

My knee-jerk reaction to the question, before I'd truly thought about it, was "not much." But, there's rather a lot I can learn in retrospect. Firstly, I appear to have graduated from the school of composition obsession. My value of an image I'd taken was always tied up with how well it interacted with the rules, but now, after over a decade of shooting, I just don't care. Sometimes, it makes sense to use the rules to present a scene, but if it doesn't, so be it. I am likely a late bloomer in this regard, but better late than never, I suppose.

Another takeaway is that I need to try new things as much as possible. It has been a difficult few years, and in 2020, once lockdowns had started, I stagnated, saved only by my interesting work opportunities at the start of that year. In 2021, had I not taken the leap into drone photography, I would have likely done the same. Innovation doesn't necessarily require a purchase, just a change; do something you haven't done before and experiment.

Finally, what information can I glean that will aid me going forward? It's a simple answer for me: I am enjoying drone photography and I need to make more of a conscious effort to do it. That is, go to places that will be interesting to observe and capture from the air, experiment with techniques, and practice this form of image creation.

What Is Your Favorite Image From 2021 and Why?

Now, it's time to put the question to you, to be answered privately or, preferably, in the comment section below. Perhaps an image immediately jumps to mind, or perhaps you need to sift through your Lightroom Catalog from the last year and identify some contenders for the title. Whatever the case, once you locate it, start to pick apart why. What do you like about it? Why did it beat other images? What can you learn from this shot is your favorite?

Many photographers, from professionals through to beginners, didn't shoot as much or as often as they usually would; This has information hidden in it. Ask yourself whether you would have shot more often if during the pandemic you had been a beginner photographer. I think the answer is "yes" for most of us. This isn't a sad reflection, but a call for action. A call to rekindle that wide-eyed curiosity for the craft and find a way of innovating your way back to it.

How was 2021 for you? What does your favorite image tell you about the last year?

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16 Comments
Michael Breitung's picture

Really like your surfer shot, it's something special.

As for my favorite: It is the Ent below. It's more of a classibal woodland shot with fog, autmn colors and some foreground. But it's my favourite because I was trying to get a photo like this for a couple of years now. I had known this tree a long time and often tried to photograph it. But only last autumn did I finally get the perfect conditions and also found the for me best possible composition of the tree. There's usually a lot of branches and trees in all directions and although to the eye this tree looks instantly beautiful, it's not that straight forward to get a strong composition. So a lot of pieces fit together that morning, which make this a memorable photo for me.

Robert K Baggs's picture

I have so many interesting trees near where I live but I can never capture them as well as you have here. Such a good image! Composition is superb.

Michelle VanTine's picture

Wow, what a wonderful piece. That was very brave of you to write. I think it's natural to have that response over the last two years. The physical restrictions in addition to the mental and emotional exhaustion of disease, fear, death, politics and more were extremely taxing. As artists, we create often from something inside of us. A passion for life. Love. Drive. Happiness. It's not a surprise that these last two years have been survival years for many artists. I'm wishing you a rebirth of passion for this year, and I look forward to seeing what you will produce.

Robert K Baggs's picture

Kind words, Michelle! Definitely tricky not to stagnate in recent conditions. Perhaps a break of sorts is good long-term anyway.

Ofer Tenenbaum's picture

Robert, I'm with Michael, I think the surfer shot is special. Drone photography used to be special just by being drone photography, the bar now is much higher and your Surfer image certainly crossed it. Very lyrical! A painting I'd love to have on my wall.

2021 for me brought a lot of favorites, to pick one is almost like asking to pick one from my two daughters, I can't, so what I did is went to lightroom, hit 2021, hit the 5-star filter, and ended up with about 100. In the end, I chose the image that represented the core of my photography activity during 2021 and certainly raised the bar for me to a new level. Thank you for asking and sharing.

Robert K Baggs's picture

Great shot! Has a real painterly quality in composition.

Brachenland Fine Art Photography's picture

To date this is my favorite (The Girl in the Black Dress) and although it did not turn out as I had hoped, I'm still please at the results the Holga 120N camera gave me. Technically, this was only the third photo using a model I asked to pose for me without any sort of payment. she was happy to have done it.

Robert K Baggs's picture

That's awesome! There's a quality to film photography that I just don't seem to tire of.

Ofer Tenenbaum's picture

So good! Love the scene tension!

Stuart C's picture

As others have said, that surfer shot is brilliant.

Here is my top pic from 2021, I live not far from here and headed down on a whim to test my new tripod I had just received in the post (3 legged thing Winston, well recommended)... its not often still enough for the reflections and the council had only just updated the lighting, whilst also setting it to come on slightly earlier. Coupled with the stormy clouds rolling over it gave the whole scene a nice mood.

I guess its one of those moments, as often in Landscape Photography where you get lucky with the conditions.

Ed Kunzelman's picture

I had three or four images which really stood out for me from last year's collection. For different reasons. The weather where I live in Colorado can be harsh in the winter, and hot with smoke filled skies in the summer due to western states wildfires. I'm not getting any younger, and challenging the outdoor elements is becoming less appealing than those days when I'd gladly strap on the skis in the coldest of winter weather. The pandemic hasn't helped either for getting out and about.

But even before any of those external conditions started to influence my photography, my eye began searching for something different. I suspect we all evolve as artists in one way or another. I initially focused on the grand landscape, and then turned more to the intimate images found through my macro lens. And then when I got bored on a cold winter evening, I'd go looking around the house for images. Which brings me to one of my 2021 favorites.

The piano sits in my living room, and I looked at it for several nights trying to isolate key features. I had also seen a poster of a bunch of musical notes overlaid on just a white background, so I took the idea, photographed several pages from a Beethoven sonata (my wife is the pianist... not me), and overlaid them on the piano in Photoshop. For what it's worth... there are six pages of music, using the multiply blending mode to knock out the white and keep the black.

As I mentioned at the outset, I have a few other images that I really liked from 2021, but I think we all have a greater sense of home after two years of a pandemic than we did before. And that's reflected in my photography.

David Pavlich's picture

My favorite shot doesn't have the drama or flair of these shots, but it's my 2 year old granddaughter that has stolen my heart. This is typical of her:

Tom Reichner's picture

The pandemic hasn't really had any effect on my photography. These past two years I've traveled around a lot - just as much, or even more - than before the pandemic. Ditto for many other friends of mine who are wildlife photographers. We go where we want to go - pandemic or not!

This is my favorite photo from 2021. Why? Because it is refreshing to my eyes to see a deer smaller in the frame, with lots of surrounding habitat. I have grown tired of the countless frame-filling buck portraits that I normally shoot, and that I see on so many hunting magazine covers. I know they are the types of images that sell, but sometimes I need to shoot for myself, instead of always shooting what I can derive income from.

So, while this photo will probably never be published and bring in dollars, it is pleasing to my soul. For to me, not only is the buck grand, but the habitat in which he lives is grand, also. Those distant snow-covered foothills ... and that sky! This image reminds me so clearly of what it was like to be there that morning. Of the way the air felt. Of the way the sun and the clouds were wrestling with one another. Of the buck being both aloof and playful, simultaneously.

So this is my favorite. All about the interplay of light and shadow and the way the sky and the prairie and the buck are interacting with one another .... not just about antler size. A "real" photo, with no need for photoshopping or editing. A photographer's image. Not a publisher's image. Not a trophy hunter's image. I love it whether anyone else has any use for it or not!

Stuart C's picture

Nice shot Tom, I happened to be out shooting some deer a couple of weeks back… not my usual style or pace of photography but enjoyed it.

David Pavlich's picture

Yes! As a guy that likes to photograph deer, this is what I'm talkin' about! Tail up, front hooves off the ground, that's a whitetail in form.

Tom Reichner's picture

Thanks, David!