My Best Twelve Photos from 2019 - A Landscape Photography Journey

December 21, 2019

2019 was an interesting year for me as a landscape photographer. When I look back on my journey this year, I am struck by the fact that I only really got out to take photos seriously six times over the course of the entire year. I suppose that is the result of the fact that I have been working tirelessly producing my landscape photography podcast, "F-Stop Collaborate and Listen," working a full-time job, working out 4-days a week to stay in good physical shape, and trying my best to be a good father and husband. My wife's mother passed away this year after a long battle with a rare form of dementia called Pick's Disease, which certainly put a strain on the family too. With all that being said, I am pretty happy with the quality of images I was able to create this year given my limited time behind the camera. Without further ado, here are my best twelve photos this year, as rated by... well, myself. Our journey back through 2019 begins on the mystical island of Kauai.

Panoramic view of the Na Pali Coast in Kauai, Hawaii.
Mystical Na Pali Coast (2019)

Late afternoon sun is diffused through clouds shining onto the rugged coastline of the Na Pali Coast in Kauai in panoramic format.

Photo © copyright by Matt Payne.

Kauai was absolutely stunning, especially from the air. We decided to charter a helicopter (which is a lot cheaper when you bring friends!) and really enjoyed the late afternoon light cascading down onto the Na Pali Coast. It was magical to say the least!

Next up, I chose three photos from my absolutely incredible trip to the desert southwest with my friends Michael Bollino, Jeremy Cram, Brian Kibbons, Dustin Gent, and Paul Bowman in March. We visited some wildly stunning locations, but my favorite of all was White Pocket / Vermillion Cliffs National Monument in Arizona. What an absolutely magical place for landscape photography!

Sandstone rock features glow at sunset with stunning clouds in the Vermillion Cliffs National Monument of Arizona / American Southwest.
Convergence (2019)

I know this isn’t an original composition by any means, but damn, it’s such an amazing scene to take in that I couldn’t help myself. Making it even more interesting and fun was the arrival of one of the craziest sunsets I’ve ever seen. It took me forever to edit this one. Because of how close I was to the foreground with my wide angle lens, I needed to use a technique called focus stacking to get both the foreground and distant rocks in focus. I also used three shots and stitched them as a panorama so it was quite a challenge to pull it all together. This one was taken in Arizona in 2019 in the Vermillion Cliffs National Monument featuring sandstone and amazing glow. The American Southwest is photography paradise!

Photo © copyright by Matt Payne.

We were greeted at White Pocket with one of the most intense and enduring sunsets any of us had ever remembered witnessing. It just went on for a good hour and created some jaw-dropping atmospheric light that just made photography a dream.

Rock formations and a small pool of water at sunset in the American Southwest - from Vermillion Cliffs National Monument in Arizona.
Dragon's Gaze (2019)

Upon my first visit to Vermillion Cliffs National Monument in Northern Arizona, I was graced with one of the longest and most wonderfull'y beautiful sunsets I've ever seen. The sun had set a good 45 minutes before this shot was taken, yet the red light still diffused through the atmosphere and lit up the clouds above me. This late red light also cast a soft light on the white rocks here and made for a quite inviting scene. I really loved how the small pool here looked like a dragon's eye.

Photo © copyright by Matt Payne.

After White Pocket, we took a long drive down to Toroweap Overlook in Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona. While this vantage is probably nothing new for most landscape photographers, I decided to do something a little more creative than usual and do some star trails from this location. With two Avery Reverend's in my system (10% ABV), I felt nice and cozy on the wind-swept cliff overlooking the Colorado River in the dark. It was a night I'll always remember, and this photograph takes me back, ever single time!

An artistic rendition of the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon from Toroweap at night.
Falling Stars at Toroweap (2019)

Toroweap is a magical place. Upon laying eyes on it for the first time, my brain went wild with ideas. The first that came to mind was a shorter star trail sequence as seen here, featuring the Colorado River cutting through the huge walls of the Grand Canyon. For this piece, I combined 110 layers of star movement (actually, Earth movement) and reduced the opacity of each layer sequentially to give it a meteoric or falling star feel. I also had to go in and eliminate all of the airplanes and satellites from the image, which took hours. I hope you enjoy the view offered by this nightscape artwork featuring the Colorado River under the stars!

Photo © copyright by Matt Payne.

We ended our amazing desert southwest where we started - near Hanksville, Utah for one final campfire and a great night of telling stories. We awoke the next morning to some really special light which I decided to capture in panoramic fashion. This place is absolutely magical and stunning and will always have a special place in my heart!

A panoramic view at sunrise with dramatic clouds and lit up badlands near Hanksville, Utah.
Utah's Finest Sunrise (2019)

On the last morning of my recent Utah/Arizona photography trip, I was sleepy and exhausted from putting over 1500 miles on my 4Runner, but I had a good feeling about sunrise, so I climbed out of my roof top tent and was greeted by this fantastic scene, which I captured in panoramic format. I was enthralled by this view which accentuated the impact of geologic time on rock and dirt. The early glow of the sun really made a surreal impact on the surface of the rock and sand and made for such an incredible scene.

Photo © copyright by Matt Payne.

It is hard to believe, but the next time I took a photo was a full three months later in late July. I went on an overnight backpacking trip with my friend Mason Cummings, who is the staff photographer for the Wilderness Society. On this trip, we decided to climb a high 13,000 ft. peak near Telluride. We witnessed a fantastic sunset behind the San Miguel Mountains including Mount Wilson, Wilson Peak, and Gladstone Peak. I'll always remember this photograph because on our way down in the dark, we risked life and limb down-climbing some absolutely awful boulders and loose rock. Good times!

The San Miguel 14ers and 13ers are seen behind the setting sun, including El Diente, Mt. Wilson, Gladstone, and Wilson Peak. Left of the sunset.
Sunset Behind the Wilsons (2019)

Taking in sunset from the summit of a high Colorado peak is hard to beat. In this scene, some amazing Colorado mountains are seen. The San Miguel 14ers and 13ers are seen behind the setting sun, including El Diente, Mt. Wilson, Gladstone, and Wilson Peak. Left of the sunset and above a frozen Lake Hope lies Sheep Mountain and San Miguel Peak. This amazing scenery that is hopefully going to be protected by the Sheep Mountain Special Management Area that's being proposed! Trout Lake is also seen at far right - one of the nicest lakes in the San Juan Mountains.

Photo © copyright by Matt Payne.

Ten days later, my wife and I took a trip to Montana. We always wanted to travel to Montana so we planned a pretty fantastic road trip there. While this was not a dedicated photography trip, I did come away with some interesting photographs. On one particular night, we decided to camp really high on a 4WD road above Cooke City. An insane Thunderstorm rolled in at night and when we woke up the next morning, everything was covered in moisture. I took a short hike and used a telephoto lens to capture the first moments of light hitting a large fog bank over a nearby lake, creating some wonderful atmosphere.

Fog at sunrise near Cooke City, Montana.
Cooke City Fog (2019)

After a night of crazy thunderstorms near Cooke City, Montana, fog developed over a small lake at sunrise, making for a very dynamic scene.

Photo © copyright by Matt Payne.

A short ten days after our Montana trip, my friends Kane Engelbert and Shane McDermott invited me out for a weekend camping trip near Silverton, Colorado. I could not pass up the opportunity. Unfortunately, it rained almost all night on our first night out; however, in the morning we woke up to some nice conditions and I was able to get one of my favorite images of the year - Red Mountain reflected in a high mountain tarn.

Red Mountain near Red Mountain Pass, reflected in a high mountain lake near Silverton, Colorado at sunrise in the San Juan Mountains.
Reflecting on Red Mountain Blues (2019)

I met my friends Kane and Shane at a remote campsite near Silverton, Colorado and Red Mountain Pass to enjoy a nice weekend and to photograph wildflowers. We were greeted with absolutely awful weather but the next morning we awoke to this beautiful scene. Red Mountain and Hayden Mountain reflected in a small tarn with reeds growing in the water. I loved the reflection of Hayden mountain in the distance and the pine trees with Red Mountain, near Red Mountain Pass - a nice combination indeed!

Photo © copyright by Matt Payne.

We were planning on doing a backpacking trip near Silverton, but the weather forecast was absolutely awful so we called an audible and drove to Utah instead. With lots of firewood and beer aboard, we head out to Cedar Mesa and witnessed one of the most mind-blowing sunsets we could remember. It was so fun to photograph. Kane and I found a really neat vantage point where you could just barely make out the San Juan River below us.

A sunset view into the Goosenecks and across to Monument Valley from Cedar Mesa, Utah.
Cedar Mesa Sunset (2019)

The San Juan River snakes through deep canyons formed by millions of years of erosion on the Colorado Plateau as seen from Cedar Mesa in Utah looking south across the Goosenecks and to Monument Valley in Arizona at sunset.

Photo © copyright by Matt Payne.

After a restful but uneventful August and September, I made my annual pilgramage to the forests for some autumn photography here in Colorado. I spent nine days in total with my friends and fellow landscape photographers Kane Engelbert, Jimmy Gekas, and Brent Doezerman as we meandered through Colorado searching for scenes that spoke to us. While I captured many amazing photographs on this trip, which you can view in my trip report, three photos really spoke to me.

First up, I found eight aspen trees all growing close together which absolutely blew my mind.

Black and white aspen trees featuring white bark and dark shadows in the West Elk Mountains near Crested Butte, Colorado in autumn / fall.
The 8 (2019)

Sometimes walking through the forest in autumn can be quite rewarding - in this case, I was able to find a very unique cluster of aspen trees - eight (8) of them to be exact - all growing together side-by-side. It was quite a discovery - only in Colorado! I decided to render them in black and white to bring out all of the texture and detail.

Photo © copyright by Matt Payne.

Next up, I was really happy to find this large field of ferns which I shot using a wide angle lens.

Ferns, yellow fallen aspen leaves, and aspen trees in a wide angle view of Aspen trees in the West Elk Mountains near Crested Butte, Colorado in autumn / fall.
Ferns and Trees (2019)

After a long walk through the forest of the West Elk Mountains near Crested Butte, Colorado, I stumbled upon this huge section of ferns nestled before a large grove of aspen trees - a true autumn delight.

Photo © copyright by Matt Payne.

Lastly, possibly my absolute favorite photo of 2019:

I stumbled upon this aspen tree that had very fresh bear claw marks all over it. The claw marks were so fresh, perhaps a day or two old, and I could not help myself but to study the tree for about an hour. I was really taken by it! I don't think I have ever seen another photograph quite like this one and I am very happy I was able to take it.

Fresh marks of bear claws on aspen bark on an aspen tree near Crested Butte, Colorado in fall / autumn.
Bear Claw on Aspen Bark #1 (2019)

On a hike through the forest in autumn near Crested Butte, Colorado, I stumbled upon this aspen tree that had very fresh bear claw marks running from the base of the tree all the way to the top. I was fascinated with the way in which the bark curled away from the aspen tree juxtaposed with the fall colors in the background.

Photo © copyright by Matt Payne.

Well, that concludes my selections for my best photos of 2019. Which ones are yours?

Posted in Articles and tagged Colorado, Utah, Kauai, Arizona, Autumn.

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