My Favorite Photographs from 2023

December 31, 2023  |  Worldwide

It is my personal opinion that looking back at our work at the end of the year as photographers is a worthwhile process that fosters growth, appreciation, and offers us a way to see how far we have come and to identify trends in our work that we may otherwise be unaware of. As such, I've enjoyed creating a "best of" blog post each year to showcase my favorite images that I captured from the previous year. You can find previous years on this website, if you want to see how my work has progressed over the years: [2022] [2021] [2020] [2019].

2023 has been a wild ride. I finally quit my full-time job and started my journey as a full-time professional photographer, after years of hard work and refinement. It is something I'm very proud of and something that I find most people in this space are aspiring to do. It is certainly not easy, and sustaining it requires dedication, hard work, and a clear vision of how to get it done. 2023 also marked a year that I decided to embark on a 35-day journey to backpack the Colorado Trail while climbing 30 mountains along the way. I'm still editing those photographs, so unfortunately not a lot of my work from that project is in the mix yet. I have also found it challenging to make new work that is personally meaningful while fulfilling my duties as a workshop instructor, something I'm sure a lot of full-time professional photographers struggle with as well.

With all of that being said, I've found the time to make new work that I'm excited about, and I do see my work getting better year-over-year, so that is progress that I'm proud of. Lastly, one of my over-arching goals as a photographer is to create work that is unique to me. I hope you'll agree I at least have accomplished that goal to some degree! Without further ado, here are my favorite 15 photographs from 2023, captured in chronological order:

1. "Winter Stillness"

Snow-covered cottonwood tree in a snowstorm from Durango, Colorado.

This might be my favorite cottonwood tree image I captured on this afternoon stroll through the local park to photograph snow-covered trees. There is something about the structure of the branches and the interplay of soft light that really captured my attention. Photo © copyright by Matt Payne.

2. "The Arches National Park Experience"

North Window Arch and the La Sal Mountains at sunset - Arches National Park.

It's hard to believe that I have rarely visited Arches National Park, given I only live a couple hours away from it; however, I've always been turned off by large crowds at popular locations. I decided to let go of those turn-offs and spent a weekend in February exploring the park with my friend Kane. We had fun going off the beaten path but also indulged in some more popular spots like this one. I liked the idea of including vehicle traffic in the frame to give the full view of the experience of being in the park at night - lots of cars and trucks whizzing by heading back to Moab for dinner. Of course, the star of the show here is the sandstone formations that lit up in the afterglow that follows sunset. It is an impressive place for sure.
Photo © copyright by Matt Payne.

3. "The Steed of Daenerys Targaryen"

An abstract photograph that looks like a dragon.

Drogon, the mightiest of the three dragons hatched by Daenerys Targaryen, was a red and black dragon of great might. This abstract landscape photograph reminded me of that dragon from the classic novels by George R.R. Martin - A Song of Ice and Fire.

Photo © copyright by Matt Payne.

4. "Benevolent Maelstrom"

A powerful sequence of waves on the northern coast of Spain.

One of my favorite images I captured on my visit to Asturias on the Northern coast of Spain. I worked this scene for a good hour, experimenting with a variety of shutter speeds, compositions, and other settings, patiently awaiting the perfect synthesis of waves to produce this image. I'm very pleased with how it turned out considering I rarely photograph water. I hope you like it and the power and grace of nature it portrays. Photo © copyright by Matt Payne.

5. "Portal to Aquarius"

Portal to Aquarius (2023)
Sure, this image is just of some undulating rock layers partially submerged by water from high tide, but to me it represents so much more, such as curiosity of the unknown and the excitement created by the marvels of natural science. Photo © copyright by Matt Payne.

6. "Beautiful Huron Peak at Sunset"

Beautiful Huron Peak at Sunset (2023)
Perhaps one of my favorite photographs that I was able to capture while thru-hiking the Colorado Trail was this portrait of 14er Huron Peak. I purposely hiked off-trail several miles to camp at this lake adjacent to the Colorado Trail in order to see this particular scene and photograph it. Photo © copyright by Matt Payne.

7. "Immaculate Sunrise on the Colorado Trail"

Immaculate Sunrise on the Colorado Trail (2023)
The best sunrise I had while hiking the Colorado Trail was at Cataract Lake, across from the famous 14er, Sunshine Peak. I got super lucky with these conditions and made the most of them by being in the right place at the right time by hiking about 1,000 feet in elevation before dawn. Photo © copyright by Matt Payne.

8. "Lone Holdout"

Lone Holdout (2023)

Photographing single trees can be quite a challenge compositionally since it has been done so many times before and can get a bit tired; however, when I woke up to this amazing snow storm, I knew there were amazing possibilities in the landscape to find isolated aspen trees with fall foliage on them to leverage the immense contrast that exists in these types of photographs. The blowing snow was intense and the cold bit through my clothing like I was wearing nothing at all; however, I think enduring a few minutes of cold to capture this scene was worth it!

Photo © copyright by Matt Payne.

9. "Beaver Pond Leaf Study"

Beaver Pond Leaf Study (2023)

This year, I focused my attention on just a couple of areas in the San Juan Mountains and the West Elk Mountains and gave myself permission to scout new areas without any expectation to get a single good photograph. While I was driving one mountain road near Mancos, Colorado, I saw a beaver pond out of the corner of my eye and decided to investigate. I quickly realized that this series of ponds was full of fallen leaves and made for a fun challenge to locate patterns of leaves with just the right light in order to showcase the beauty that can be found in the chaos if one spends enough time and has enough patience to wait. I hope you like it as much as me.

Photo © copyright by Matt Payne.

10. "Light Rake"

Light Rake (2023)

One of my goals for my fall photography in 2023 was to capture aspen trees receiving the first light of day on the tops of the trees. I visited a location that had lots of hills and undulation, which provided the perfect landscape to maximize my ability to capture scenes like this one. I hope you like it as much as I do!

Photo © copyright by Matt Payne.

11. "Pastel Desert Dunes"

Pastel Desert Dunes (2023)

One of the most magical aspects of White Sands National Park is the way in which the white sand reflects back the quality and type of light that exists in the atmosphere at any given moment. Here, the blue and pink light of blue hour accentuate the dunes in a long exposure focus stack that was quite difficult to create given how low the light was that evening. It was one of the more magical moments from 2023 that I experienced, to be sure.

Photo © copyright by Matt Payne.

12. "Time Portal"

Time Portal (2023)

The setting full moon sits between two decaying cottonwood trees that I found deep within the dunes at White Sands National Park in New Mexico.

Photo © copyright by Matt Payne.

13. "Temple of the Antarctic Sun"

The setting sun in Antarctica captured by a telephoto lens on a moving boat - showcasing pink and orange light.

This photograph encapsulates one of the most memorable days of my life as a photographer. The day began with a 3AM wake-up call to photograph an Emperor penguin on an iceberg in the Weddell Sea, followed by a day-long adventure weaving through stranded icebergs, with our crew on the look-out for more Emperor penguins. After a long day of searching, we found another Emperor on an ice shelf and enjoyed joining the penguin there in golden light (see my Emperor penguin photographs). At the conclusion of the day, I noticed that the clouds were shaping up for a potentially bombastic display of light and color and decided to stay up all night to witness the setting sun at around midnight. I was rewarded by this intense scene, which I chose to leverage using my 200-600mm lens from the moving ship, which is quite a technical challenge if I'm being honest! The snow was being blown around by the wind (known as spindrift), and illuminated by the golden pink light of the sun. It was magic in a bottle, no doubt!
Photo © copyright by Matt Payne.

14. "Iceberg & Moon"

The rising full moon above a giant iceberg in Antarctica.

I made this photograph on the same night that I experienced one of the most amazing sunsets I've ever seen right after photographing an Emperor penguin in golden light (see this photo, this photo, this photo, and this photo). I was waiting for an iceberg to move between my position and the vibrant sunset clouds and decided to walk to the other side of the expedition ship where I found, much to my surprise, the rising full moon. I looked ahead in the direction we were traveling and noticed a large iceberg that would soon be between me and the rising full moon, so I waited for the perfect moment, using the iceberg's rounded shape as a cradle for the moon. It was certainly a quite memorable moment, and I hope you like the photograph as much as I do.

Photo © copyright by Matt Payne.

15. "Antarctic Erosion"

Eroding rocks create fascinating shapes in this minimalistic scene from Antarctica.
Eroding rocks create fascinating shapes in this minimalistic scene from Antarctica. Photo © copyright by Matt Payne.

That wraps up my picks for my favorite photographs from 2023. You can see all of my photos from 2023 here.

I'd love to hear what you think of my picks! Thanks for looking!


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