The Best Photographs of 2022

It has become an incredibly fun yet challenging tradition to look back on my photography for the year to identify what I think are my best or favorite photographs of the year. This year will be especially difficult since I was probably more prolific this year than any year of my lifetime as a photographer. It was an amazing year, to say the least! I kicked things off in January with an incredible trip to Death Valley National Park with my friend Kane Engelbert and ended it with a trip to Antarctica in December. I am quite fortunate to have been able to photograph as abundantly as I have this year. I suppose it makes some sense to do this in chronological order, so here goes!

A magical wind storm blows sand at some beautiful dunes in Death Valley National Park.

This telephoto image is quite possibly my favorite one that I was able to make in Death Valley National Park on my first visit to the area. A persistent wind storm stirred up the sand and blew it across the dunes, creating energy and depth while providing an excellent subject through which the light transformed this scene into something a bit magical.

Photo © copyright by Matt Payne.

First up is one of my favorite images I captured in Death Valley. It was captured in mid-day sun in incredibly windy conditions. I just loved the flow implied by the blowing sands and the color contrast between the dunes and the mountains beyond.

White sand dunes and blue desert mountains seen at blue hour in Death Valley National Park featuring sweeping lines and textures.
When the sun goes down, a whole new world emerges before our eyes and creates new opportunities for interesting photography. Here, sand dunes create depth, wonder, and scenic intrigue at blue hour, with sweeping lines and interesting textures providing compositional visual depth where light typically paves the way. Black magnetite, a heavier substance than sand, provides up front visual interest and an anchor to this cold desert landscape photograph taken in Death Valley National Park.

Photo © copyright by Matt Payne.

Hopefully Chris Murray will forgive me for including yet another dune image here, but man, there's something magical about spending time in the dunes. I can appreciate his point in the above linked article in OnLandscape about it being an over-photographed subject, but I don't really care. I think they offer a patient and mindful photographer an incredible amount of flexibility and creative freedom for expression and to execute lots of ideas. This photo was actually captured the same day as the first one from just 100 yards or so away, albeit at blue hour. P.S. there will be more dune photos below!

Geologic patterns of colorful blue and orange rocks and minerals found in Death Valley National Park.
On my very first morning exploring Death Valley with my great friend Kane Engelbert, we embarked on an exploratory hike deep into the geologically diverse and compelling Black Mountains. These mountains are home to countless side canyons and steep, rocky collections of colorful rocks and minerals. This area, while lacking any meaningful trails, provided us with a literal playground in which we had a wonderful time scouting and looking for interesting subjects, which were literally in every direction imaginable. Imagine my excitement as someone who loves geology, rocks, and the interplay of light and color on a wickedly diverse landscape!

Photo © copyright by Matt Payne.

I'd like to include about 3 more images from Death Valley, but I think one more is quite enough. The above image was taken on my very first day in the Park on a very long hike into a remote section. I was pretty stoked to find this little scene as I felt the color contrast was so evocative! Death Valley is now a place I would love to revisit on a perennial basis! If you'd like to see more of my work from my one and only trip to Death Valley, you can find them here.

Canyonlands Sunrise (2022)

Here's one of the most amazing perspectives I've found of Canyonlands National Park. The sunrise effect of Earth Shadow / the Belt of Venus made for a nice combo with the curving river below.

Even though I live just 2 and a half hours from Canyonlands National Park, I have yet to scratch the surface of that place. I'm so glad my friend Kane invites me to go on trips to the southwest with him, where we explore new angles and perspectives of some incredible scenery.

Pastel sand dunes photo at sunset from White Sands National Park in New Mexico.

On my very first visit to the pristine white sand dunes of White Sands National Park in southern New Mexico near Alamogordo, I hiked deep into the park to capture this surreal pastel scene of the sand dunes at sunset. There was tremendous haze in the atmosphere due to high winds, which diffused the last light after the sun went down, casting amazing yet subtle colors on the white sand dunes, including orange, blue, purple, and pink. What an amazing experience to capture in a photograph!

Photo © copyright by Matt Payne.

Next on my list would be a couple of photographs I was able to capture on my very first visit to White Sands National Park in New Mexico. Over the course of just three days, I was able to capture some of my best work of the decade. The above photo was just an incredible scene to witness and actually was in the top 10 in scoring in the International Landscape Photographer of the Year competition. What makes White Sands so incredible is the fact that all of the sand is white gypsum, which reflects light like no other. Really quite spectacular to see it happen in real life.

A photo of a figure lost on the sand dunes of White Sands National Park at sunset.

A lone figure is seen in the distance on the sand in White Sands National Park at sunset. This particular image reminded me so much of a scene from a Star Wars Movie, so I decided to title it Lost Jedi. There is a calm tension seen here, with the figure appearing lost in the desert. As one of our fans describes it, "Lost Jedi has brought me a calm that has eluded me. The striations, the coloration, the movement, the wanderer who continues forward, the musical overture that gently whispers him forward..."

Photo © copyright by Matt Payne.

Another image from White Sands has to be on this list of my best photos of 2022. This one was taken on my very first evening in the Park, where I joined my good friend Wayne Suggs for beers and burritos! I have not seen many displays of sunset light that are finer than what we were able to witness on that incredible evening.

Dune on Fire (2022)
This photo is perhaps edited beyond my usual tastes; however, the lines and shapes of this scene afforded me great latitude to try out various techniques to accentuate the light and texture of the sand in black and white, all brought together with sand being blown behind the dune making it look like it is on fire. Photo © copyright by Matt Payne.

Sorry for all the dunes, but this black and white rendition from White Sands had to make it on the list as well. I don't capture a lot in Black and White, but when I do, I really enjoy the process. I hope you appreciate this one too. While I think I could probably include at least two other photographs from White Sands on this list, it might feel a bit repetitive, so I'll leave you with these three; however, if you want to see my whole body of work from that magical Easter weekend, you can check it out here.

Just a month after visit White Sands, I took a 12-day trip to Utah to photograph a variety of locations and subjects. While I felt like this particular trip didn't quite yield all of the photographs I'd hope it would, it was still a huge success and a ton of fun!

Colorful Cottonwoods (2022)

On my trip to Utah I spent some time in an incredible desert canyon full of cottonwoods, flowing water, and massive sandstone cliffs. I really enjoyed my time down there and can't wait to revisit.

Bentonite Erosion #5 (2022)

I also spent quite a lot of time in the Hanksville area of Utah exploring canyons, lookouts, and awesome bentonite formations and had a really great time photographing them all from both the ground and the air.

Awakening the Giant (2022)

Utah has quickly become one of my favorite places to make photographs due to the large diversity of subjects that can be found there. From mountains to deserts to huge canyons, it has something for everyone!

Life Finds a Way (2022)

Perhaps one of my favorite evenings from this trip to Utah was exploring this far-fetched location near Escalante, where I found cottonwood trees growing from huge sandstone potholes. It was really peaceful and quite enjoyable to just wander these rocks, looking for interesting photographs.

I was also able to spent quite a lot of time exploring some slot canyons in Utah which I found to be exhilarating and exciting. I made a lot of fun images there, but the one below is perhaps my favorite.

Glowing Sandstone Cavern (2022)

If you'd like to check out my full gallery from that trip to Utah, you can find it here.

Speaking of Utah, I also spent an incredible weekend this summer photographing some rare conditions of some amazing desert canyons and badlands with my great friend Kane Engelbert. We experienced multiple rainbows, an intense thunderstorm, and a trip up to Cedar Mesa that was cut short by mud that I'll never forget. After we turned around on a sketchy muddy dirt road, we got out of our trucks to evaluate the situation. The whole mesa had been drenched earlier in the day by a deluge of storms, and the air was filled by the smell of sage - a quite intense and unforgettable evening!

A curve in the San Juan River near Bluff, Utah featuring a double rainbow and the Mule Ear, which is a diatreme.

I've been visiting this geologically rich zone in Utah for several years now. As a former Geology major in college, I have quite a curiosity for how these amazing areas form. This photograph features a rock formation known as the Mule Ear, which is actually what geologists call a "diatreme." A diatreme is a volcanic pipe which was formed by a gaseous explosion. The way it works is that magma rises up through a crack in the Earth's crust and makes contact with a shallow body of groundwater, which creates a rapid expansion of heated water vapor and gasses, causing explosions and awesome rock formations. The aftermath is a shallow crater and a rock-filled fracture in the crust (the diatreme itself). Diatremes eventually breach the surface and produce a steep, inverted cone shape such as the Mule Ear as seen here near Bluff, Utah on the San Juan River. It was pretty special to photograph a double rainbow at sunset from this spectacular vantage point.

Photo © copyright by Matt Payne.

Capturing this double rainbow was an incredible way to kick off this trip and was one of the most exciting images I've made in a long time. It was only to be topped by the very next evening when we were treated with another rainbow while exploring some aerial scenes not too far from here.

An aerial view of the Navajo Rug near Mexican Hat, Utah featuring a rainbow and the San Juan River.

I ventured into the desert with my friend Kane for a relaxing time of desert exploration and catching up on life. We had quite the adventure filled with three straight days of rainbows and a massive thunderstorm at 1 AM that forced us both to retreat from our Roof Top Tents into our vehicles for safety. It was a wild deluge of rain! Anyways, I've always had a massive love affair for this particular formation, known as the Navajo Rug near Mexican Hat, Utah and got a bit lucky with the rainbow over the San Juan River. Hope you like this panorama of an amazing desert scene from the American Southwest!

Photo © copyright by Matt Payne.

I know what you might be thinking at this point. You're a Colorado landscape photographer - where the heck are all of the Colorado photos!? I'm getting there, I promise. On Labor Day I decided to go on a solo adventure after a rough bout with COVID-19. I had to take it easy but found my legs and lungs were at almost 100%, so it was not too hard to climb a few peaks and capture some fun photographs in the process. Perhaps my favorite from that trip of mountain climbing was this black and white image of a storm.

A Black and White photograph of Virga in the Mountains of Colorado near Telluride.

Back in September, I climbed an obscure mountain near Telluride, Colorado called S10, which afforded me beautiful views of the surrounding mountains, including Lone Cone to my south. As I hung out on the summit, I was amazed by this incoming storm that dropped significant moisture on the nearby hills and plains between me and Lone Cone.

It is rare moments like these that keep me coming back to nature as a photographer. Enjoy!

Photo © copyright by Matt Payne.

Six days later, I embarked on a 32-mile backpack with my friend Mason Cummings to a location deep in the Weminuche Wilderness Area that neither of us had ever been to or seen photographs from before. Our goal was to photograph some of our favorite mountains in the San Juan Mountains from vantage points never before seen. While we did not have the most spectacular weather conditions, we were able to climb an obscure 13,000 ft. peak and make some images from there that I was quite happy with, including the one below.

Wide angle mountain scene with a lake at sunset in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado.

I joined my friend Mason Cummings for a trip we've both been eyeballing for years - an off-trail exploration of a remote drainage in the nearby Weminuche Wilderness Area we both frequent. Ever since I saw this particular lake on the USGS Topo in 2007, I knew I wanted to know what it was like there... the problem is, there's no trail to this basin and its extremely remote and access is quite steep and inhospitable...

Well, we pulled it off. We originally wanted a view west at sunset of the Needles but the weather forecast shifted and we had to hustle to get this sunset in.

So, we started at 2 PM on a nice September Thursday, hiked 11 miles on-trail to the drainage intersection, stayed the night, got up at 6 AM to start the grueling off-trail hike with heavy packs up the drainage, gaining about 5,000 feet, and reached the lake at around 1 PM. We set-up camp, ate dinner, and then climbed to the summit of this 13,000 ft. peak to witness this nice sunset. We had unfortunately just missed some really rare gap light to the west of us; however, the ubiquitous cloud cover offered some nice diffusion of the entire area, which enabled some nice glow on the peak to our northeast. We thought about climbing to the summit of that peak on the right the next morning, but it rained all night and we woke up to being completely socked in.

The view of the Needles to the west at sunrise will have to wait for another adventure in the future!

Some pretty incredible stats for this particular trip, which included me carrying all of my backpacking gear, my 14-24 lens, my 24-105 lens, and my 70-200 lens.

3 days, 32.1 miles, 5,772' elevation gain, 17 hours of moving time, off-trail bushwhacking for 11 miles total on steep terrain.

This was all pretty encouraging for me since I had just gotten over COVID and was very concerned I would not be able to pull it off, but I felt great!

Hope you like this one, trying to get more to my roots in the mountains when I can!

P.S. the title of the image is an homage to the names of the lake and mountain, Lost Lake and Mount Oso.

Photo © copyright by Matt Payne.

Then, 20 days later, I embarked on a 10-day journey to photograph fall colors in Colorado, my favorite time of the year, and something I have been doing every single year since 2016. This year's journey was perhaps my favorite of all time as I explored a lot of new territory creatively but also some very new locations that I've always wanted to visit. I also experienced some of the most incredible conditions at my favorite Colorado fall color location in the San Juans with my best photography friends, a moment I won't ever forget. Choosing some favorites from this trip is not something that I find to be easy because I created a massive body of work in that 10-day span; however, here's where I landed!

Foggy Fortress (2022)

It is a rare event indeed to witness fog, golden aspen trees, majestic mountains lit up by gap light, and snow in a single image. I've been photographing this particular scene for over a decade and never have I seen it on display so magically before. I'm not sure I will ever see this scene in a more majestic display of nature again. This mountain is referred to as The Castles and it can be found near Crested Butte, Colorado.

Photo © copyright by Matt Payne.

I've been photographing The Castles for a long time and I'm not sure I will ever top this photograph from here. The conditions were incredible rare, with low fog, incredible fall color, and snow-topped peaks. It really is not possible to beat this from this location.

Approaching Autumn Storm (2022)

14ers Uncompahgre Peak and Wetterhorn Peak loom in the distance above a hillside of golden aspen leaves in fall near Lake CIty, Colorado. The vibrant aspen forest here created quite the contrast thanks to dappled afternoon light before the arrival of a cold snowy autumn storm that later coated these mountains in snow.

Photo © copyright by Matt Payne.

As a Colorado 14er fanatic, I have always wanted to photograph this vantage of Uncompahgre and Wetterhorn Peaks, and there's probably no better way to do it than with storm clouds and dappled light on the glowing aspen trees. Yes please!

Sleeping Ute Gap Light (2022)

Photographers live for light like this. We call it gap light. It happens when low clouds help to focus the intense colors of sunset for a brief moment, resulting in a radiant display of color and light, transforming everything in its path. Here, Sleeping Ute Mountain, rises tall above the desert floor near Cortez, Colorado. The Sleeping Ute is said to resemble a Ute chief lying on his back with arms folded across his chest. The mountain was valued as a sacred place by the Weeminuche Ute band and is still a sacred place to their descendants, the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe.

Photo © copyright by Matt Payne.

This image was a total surprise. I had no plans for a location this particular evening and just started hiking up a random closed forest service road to see what I could find. Much to my surprise, the road opened up after a steep ascent and presented with me with two incredible views and image opportunities. The first one is the image above, which showcased some of the most incredible gap light I've ever witnessed. The second was a massive 400mm telephoto panorama scene just left of this one featuring a sprawling forest as far as the eye can see all topped with the La Plata Mountains basked in glorious sunset light. Are you kidding me?

La Plata Mountains at Sunset (2022)

From my high perch near Dolores, Colorado, I was able to witness an incredible sunset illuminating a massive aspen and pine forest and the glorious La Plata Mountains in the distance, including 13,232 foot Hesperus Mountain.

Photo © copyright by Matt Payne.

One of the best aspects of this trip was that I did a ton of experimentation and slow photography, a style of image making that I highly recommend for all landscape and nature photographers. This approach to making images has really opened up the world to me and has helped me improve my images tremendously.

The Glowing 7 (2022)

I first encounted this rare set of trees in 2019 and decided to revisit them on a long hike through the forest near Crested Butte, Colorado. The light was absolutely sublime for this black and white rendering of these tightly spaced aspen trees. The texture and patterns on display here really captivated me.

Photo © copyright by Matt Payne.

While this set of trees was something I found in 2019 and later returned to this year, I found the light and conditions this year to be much more favorable and I really enjoyed making this black and white rendition.

Leaf Web (2022)

Backlit saplings showcase decaying leaves of black and yellow on this frosty cold autumn morning near Dolores, Colorado.

Photo © copyright by Matt Payne.

I also have been really enjoying using my telephoto lens to pick out small vignettes of nature and at the end of this I'll share some statistics of my best images from 2022 that might surprise you!

Rays of Hope (2022)

On a freezing autumn afternoon, I embarked on a long hike off-trail to one of my favorite spots in all of Colorado and arrived just in time to witness one of the most magical displays of light I've ever seen in my life. This light display lasted for almost 2 hours into sunset and absolutely stunned me to my core. Early on in the show, these light beams illuminated the forest and river 1,000 feet below me in the valley.

Photo © copyright by Matt Payne.

Earlier I mentioned witnessing some absolutely incredible light and conditions from my favorite perch in Colorado for fall color and the above photo was just the beginning of that, but still represents my favorite moment from that incredible evening.

If you enjoyed those fall color photographs, you can see the whole gallery from that mind-bending trip here.

Just four days after returning from my fall color trip, I embarked to the Oregon Coast to teach for Out of Chicago (Out of Oregon) for a week. It was a really great trip and despite spending the majority of my time teaching, was able to eek out one of my personal favorite images of the year while there, which was this fleeting moment of time at sunset on the beach near Newport, Oregon.

Temple of the Setting Sun (2022)

When I saw this lone bird (a cormorant, I think) posing on top of this set of cliffs on the Oregon coast, I knew something special was going on. I positioned myself so that the sun was behind the bird and was able to capture this really amazing scene just before sunset. I hope you like it!

Photo © copyright by Matt Payne.

In November I was all set to go on another fun trip to photograph slot canyons in Utah with my friend Eric Bennett when I received a phone call from Muench Workshops asking me if I'd like to take a trip to Antarctica at the end of November to try out as a workshop instructor for them. I quickly rearranged my entire life and schedule, unpacked for Utah, and embarked for Buenos Aires and then Ushuaia, Argentina, where we departed aboard the M/V Sea Spirit across the Drake Passage and into Antarctica. It was truly the opportunity of a lifetime. While I spent most of my time teaching eager workshops students my style of photography and way of seeing the world while helping them hone in on their own settings and compositions, I was able to create some great photographs while doing so, or at least I think they are pretty great! A few of them certainly rose to the top of my best of 2022 list.

Heart Penguin Colony (2022)
The scale of this image is quite mind-bending. First, you have a massive colony of penguins in the foreground, and then you have a sea full of interesting icebergs of all shapes and sizes, all in front of massive dominating peaks in the distance. Antarctica - WHAT THE HECK!? Photo © copyright by Matt Payne.

Since I have never been to Antarctica before, I really had no idea what to expect. Penguins? Sure. Icebergs? Of course. Huge mountains? WHAT? Yes! I was so happy to photograph this legendary landscape in my own way. One of my goals of my images from Antarctica was to showcase the sheer massive scale of the place while placing wildlife in their element and prominent as a part of the landscape. I hope it works for you.

Welcome to Antarctica (2022)
This lone Gentoo Penguin welcomes me to one of the most incredible mountain landscapes on earth - Antarctica. Who knew? Photo © copyright by Matt Payne.
Skua in Flight (2022)
Skuas are very ubiquitous birds in Antarctica and are famous for feasting upon the eggs of penguins. In fact, I watched this particular Skua flight in and out of several penguin colonies, searching for an untended egg. I loved how I was able to capture the full wingspan here, all in front of a huge scene of Antarctic mountains. Photo © copyright by Matt Payne.
Humpback Whale Pod (2022)
A large pod of Humpback Whales was quite the sight to see while on my trip to Antarctica. The sunset light created an amazing lighting opportunity with the whales' blowhole steam. Photo © copyright by Matt Payne.
Sharp Peak (2022)
Shortly after exiting the Drake Passage south of Ushuaia, Argentina, our trip took us through the South Shetland Islands. I was immediately blown away by this mountain, aptly named, "Sharp Peak." It rises just 1,174 ft. above the sea, but is one of the most impressive things I've ever seen! Photo © copyright by Matt Payne.

While there were many other favorite images from the Antarctica trip, I still think these are my top picks. I'm definitely curious which ones you like though, and if you want to see the full gallery, you can check it out here.

In 2022, at least so far, I have 411 images that I rated highly in my Lightroom catalog. The statistics of my lens choices and focal lengths may surprise you!

Lens / Focal Length Count of Images
14-24 mm 40
Mavic Air 2S 48
24-105 mm 93
100-400 mm 233

I spent over 70 days in the field this year, which I'm sure contributed to my success. The more opportunity for failure the better! It was also interesting that I didn't make a single image in the months of March, June, or August! I'm certainly hopeful that in 2023 I'll be able to focus a bit more on Colorado again, but only time will tell. I'm currently working on a project for Atlas Obscura and Visit Colorado which I'm excited about, and we will see what comes of my time with Muench Workshops! Thanks for checking out my photographs, and if you have any comments or thoughts, I'd love to read them below!