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.
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?