My Best Landscape Photographs from 2021

December 22, 2021  |  Utah | Colorado | Oregon | California

As has become customary, I decided to go through and pick out my favorite and best photographs from 2021. 2021 was a really challenging year for me as a photographer, mostly because I was incredibly busy pursuing several projects, including writing a book for CMC Press on the San Juan Mountains of Colorado (due out 2022), organizing and creating the inaugural Natural Landscape Photography Awards, and producing my weekly landscape photography podcast. Oh, and I still managed to climb 22 mountains too. Yeesh!

I'm going to show you my favorite photographs in chronological order.

This year, my winter and spring was focused on exploring and photographing parts of Utah with my friend Kane. This was incredibly fun and very rewarding.

Monocline at Sunset - Vertical (2021)

With the incredible scouting skills of my friend Kane, I was able to bear witness on this tremendous scene in January, 2021. In college, I started out as a geology major - ever since I was very young, I've had a massive fascination with the scientific and natural processes that are responsible for forming our earth's landscape. Finding and seeing a scene like this certainly sparked my appreciation for these geologic processes again.

In this particular scene, what we see is a perfect example of an "monocline."

A monocline is a one-sided fold-like structure in which layers of rock warp upwards or downwards.

This monocline was the perfect "toy" to use in a photographic composition such as this. The lines created by the uplifted strata of earth lead and curve, hopefully causing your eye to follow along and to look at the mountains and sunset light in the distance. Geology can be a really amazing thing to examine and include in landscape photography. This is why I love photographing the desert Southwest of the USA - it is full of wonders such as this.

Photo © copyright by Matt Payne.

Jurrasic Park (2021)

Geologic time presents us with awe-inspiring views that captivate our imaginations and fosters a deep appreciation for nature, natural processes, and the humbling scale of our planet. Photos at sunset like this one evoke so many emotions for me, including wonder, curiosity, gratitude, and reflection.

The Mesozoic Era (240 - 66 million years ago) created much of what we see in Utah's landscape today. In the Cretaceous Period, lake and river systems gradually declined. Sediments from highlands near the Utah-Nevada border spread eastward. In eastern Utah, seas invaded from the east. Dinosaurs and reptiles wandered through major coal-forming swamps and marshes near the coastline that gradually retreated from central Utah eastward. Dinosaurs disappeared at the end of this period.

During the Jurassic Period, a large, sandy desert covered most of Utah, the resulting rocks created some of the most spectacular scenery such as what we see here.

To learn more about the Geologic history of Utah, be sure to visit the Utah Geological Survey website.

Photo © copyright by Matt Payne.

The San Rafael Swell (2021)
Geology has always fascinated me as a landscape photographer. One such geologic feature that really gets the creative and scientific curiosity juices flowing is the San Rafael Swell. The way that the layers of the earth form, lift, change, and erode over millions of years is something to behold and see in person. Here, ancient beaches form an anticline of sandstone, shale, and limestone that was pushed up during the Paleocene Laramide Orogeny 60–40 million years ago. Since that time, infrequent but powerful flash floods have eroded the sedimentary rocks into numerous valleys, canyons, gorges, mesas, buttes and badlands.

Seeing these massive formations lit up by the early glow of sunrise creates defining shadows in the rock and showcases the intricate textures found on the landscape.

Photo © copyright by Matt Payne.

After a couple of months of taking a break to focus on my book project, I embarked on a journey to the Alvord Desert of Oregon and to the Redwoods of California. This was an amazing trip that produced some really unique images. I had never been to either location before, and yet I felt like I was able to produce some unique and interesting photographs.

Muddy Sunset in Oregon (2021)

Huge saturated mud tiles as far as the eye can see reflect vibrant sunset colors in the evening light in the Alvord Desert of Oregon.

Photo © copyright by Matt Payne.

Fern Hug (2021)

While roaming a trail on the California Coast through the Redwoods forest, I stumbled upon this fantastic scene featuring various fern plants seeming to hug another plant on the forest floor. It was quite a challenge to compose, but I was quite happy with the end result.

Photo © copyright by Matt Payne.

Elegant Maple (2021)

Finding and photographing this incredibly photogenic maple tree was quite an exciting moment for me on my trip to the California Redwoods. There was something quite wonderful about the arrangement of the ferns on the forest floor combined with the shape of the elegant maple tree and the quality of light breaching through the tops of the Redwood forest through the maple leaves. Like most photographers, I find photographing forest scenes to be the ultimate challenge which requires one to lose all expectations and to be open to seeing possibilities all around.

Photo © copyright by Matt Payne.

Driftwood Patterns (2021)

On one of my days in a recent trip to the California Redwoods, I decided to take a long hike down to the beach and explore it with my camera. I expected to find sea stacks, waves, interesting patterns on the sand, and other interesting sights. Perhaps my favorite discovery was this small remnant of a tree which had been moored on the beach and beaten down by the elements for quite a long time. The patterns and colors I found inside of the tree's exposed wood were nothing short of extraordinary. Using my macro lens, I isolated these patterns, which to me resembled a topographic map.

Photo © copyright by Matt Payne.

After this trip, I spent a lot of time on solo backpacking and mountain climbing trips here in Colorado close to home to round-out my book project. This brought me to some really amazing places that have almost never been photographed before.

Yellow paintbrush wildflowers found at 13,000 feet near Silverton, Colorado in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado at sunset.

I went on a solo backpacking trip deep into the San Juan Mountains to climb some lesser-known 13,000+ feet peaks. I found this incredible scene of yellow paintbrush wildflowers (Castilleja Sulpheria) at 13,300 ft. while on the way up one of the peaks. After dodging several thunderstorms throughout the day, I head back down to set up a campsite. The clouds were thick and abundant on every horizon.

After setting up camp below near a small lake and after enjoying some great green chili mac and cheese, I decided to head back up to the ridge with all of my camera equipment and wait for sunset in the hopes of capturing something special. With fingers crossed, I found several interesting compositions featuring some of my favorite peaks, including the Ice Lake Basin 13ers on the upper left, the Wilson Group to the right of that, and of course Mount Sneffels to the far right.

My patience paid off and I was rewarded with some sweet light! The backlit flowers were so incredible to photograph - the red light passed through the lobes and stems, creating an amazing display of light.

More on the flowers: red is the usual color of paintbrush flowers, but Castilleja Sulpheria is one of the few yellow species, and can sometimes be pale orange. The greenish yellow bracts along the uppermost few inches of the stems are divided into long, narrow lobes (3 to 5 of them); as are the light green leaves lower down. The narrow flower tubes at the top of the plant are about one inch long, enclosed by yellow-tipped sepals.

Photo © copyright by Matt Payne.

San Juan Bouquet (2021)

While hiking around one of my favorite areas in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado, I discovered this incredible meadow of wildflowers, including Owlsclaws (yellow), Lupine (purple), Paintbrush (pink), and Cow Parsnip (white), all in front of a wonderful view of Red Mountain, near Silverton.

Photo © copyright by Matt Payne.

At the end of summer, I took one last trip out to Utah to explore some new areas to my friend Kane and I, which was very fun and rewarding.

Sandstone Pools & Utah Buttes (2021)

These potholes, known as Ephemeral Pools, are holes in the sandstone rock. They are a rare find in the desert of Utah - and only hold water in them for a few days after a big monsoon comes through the area. Here, the pools provide an excellent juxtaposition with the distant red buttes at sunset near Moab.

Photo © copyright by Matt Payne.

As is typical for me, my last big trip of the year was at the end of September and early October where my focus was on capturing the beauty of Colorado in fall. This was a particularly special year and I could have probably made a whole blog just on the images I was able to create on this year's journey; however, if I had to pick out just two, it would be these.

Colorado Fall Color Photography Print - A hillside of yellow and gold aspen trees near Aspen, Colorado featuring a snow capped Capitol Peak after a clearing sto

After two straight years of photographing fall in Colorado with zero clouds and no snow, we were treated with incredible conditions in 2021. The rare combination of snow on 14er Capitol Peak with excellent colors and dramatic clouds called for a visit to this iconic spot. I’m super thankful I made the journey even though it was packed with people. I was able to find solitude by seeking out a slightly different vantage point, and enjoyed this special event. For me, the combination of snow-capped mountains and yellow aspen trees in this grand landscape represents classic Colorado in fall. This may be my favorite Capitol Peak Print I have ever made.
Photo © copyright by Matt Payne.

Colorado Fall Color Photography Print - Colorado autumn fall color foliage including aspen trees and dramatic clouds from the San Juan Mountains.

This fall / autumn mountain scene was taken well before sunrise during blue hour. It is a 20-second exposure and the conditions were optimal to say the least! There was no wind and the scene was just simply idyllic.

There's something magical about the glow on fall foliage and aspen trees that occurs before sunrise and after sunset in the right conditions. The colors all seem to pop with luminance, which creates depth and drama - two of my favorite features in landscape photography. I love the San Juan Mountains of Colorado in fall!

Photo © copyright by Matt Payne.

I hope you enjoyed my picks. How do you think I did in selecting them? You can check out all of my 2021 photographs on the site as well.

Thanks for looking - have a wonderful Holiday season. Here's to an even better 2022!

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