My top images of 2020

Connections, light, and learning: a look at the best of my wildlife and landscape photography this year.

In the past I’ve sometimes selected five top images from the year. It’s a useful exercise, but this year I’ve failed to narrow it down anywhere near as tightly.

I believe that, despite my lack of travel compared to recent years — or perhaps because of my lack of travel — 2020 has been the most important year so far in my development as a photographer. Of course, I still have much to learn and a long way to go. In some respects I am a harsher critic of my own photographic skills now than I’ve ever been, but I am also pleased with what I’ve been able to create in a year with precious little travel.

Although I’m not always a very good critic of my own work, looking back over the last three years I can see clear evidence of progression. My top five images from 2018 were all landscapes, mostly shot on the trail — and only two of them remain in my ‘best ever’ collection in Lightroom. In 2019 I was able to narrow my top selection down to eight (although I never got around to blogging about them). I remain happy with last year’s selection, but this year I believe I’ve been able to hit a higher note.

For me, 2020 has been the Year of the Telephoto. I’ve seldom used a wide-angle lens at all, and only two of my top images use a wider perspective. I think this has helped me to concentrate on subject, and it has certainly helped me to achieve simpler, stronger compositions.

In 2020 it’s all been about craft and diligence: fieldcraft in patiently studying the animals and birds I photographed extensively in the early part of the year, planning and previsualisation for a few key landscape shots, a more exacting approach to composition, and greater ruthlessness in culling sub-par images.

I’ve listed seventeen photographs below. I hope you enjoy them!

These images are low-resolution versions compressed for the web. You can click on any of the thumbnails to see a larger image. All images © Alex Roddie and All Rights Reserved. Please don’t reproduce these images without permission.

Wildlife

Subjects that have fascinated me this year include common whitethroats, barn owls, deer (roe and muntjac), and foxes. Only a couple of these photographs were not ‘worked for’ in some way; in most cases I spent days or even weeks studying the animal and its habits before succeeding in creating the image.

14 March 2020. I studied these snipe for about an hour, and found them challenging to photograph, as they blended in so perfectly with the reed cover at their feet. Sadly, the first national lockdown meant that I was unable to return to the hide for a long time after this day, so I didn’t see the birds again.
28 May 2020. I’d seen this magnificent roebuck several times over the previous weeks, and had observed that he tended to make a predictable tour of the various hedgerows and meadows in the area each morning, starting at one end and finishing at the other. On this morning I succeeded in capturing this image of him at rest from close quarters.
28 May 2020. After several off-the-cuff attempts to photograph this beautiful barn owl when I came upon it by surprise, I began to study its habits. Although it didn’t always hunt in these meadows, when it did it tended to use a highly predictable pattern of flight from one meadow to the next, up and down. This helped me to get in position for this image well in advance. Although I captured several other images of this individual later in the year, this remains my favourite.
31 May 2020. An opportunistic shot of an azure damselfy while walking through a small patch of woodland — nothing revolutionary, but I find the colours and composition most pleasing.
17 June 2020. This muntjac is another creature of habit that I saw several times a week for most of May and June. Like the roebuck, he had a predictable round through the area. On this morning of dense fog I secreted myself in a ditch and managed to capture this image from only a few metres away.
30 June 2020. I’d only seen this doe a couple of times, and her movements seemed less predictable than those of the buck. On this particular morning I saw her rolling about in the long grass of one of the meadows. A bit of belly-crawling for a few tense minutes brought me incredibly close, and I ended up wedged painfully in a thorn hedge. I’ll never forget the moment of connection as our eyes met — genuinely like nothing I’d ever experienced before. The resulting image is the most personally meaningful from the whole year.
1 July 2020. The common whitethroats became a bit of a long-running project for me over the spring and summer. I was there when they first started to appear and select their spots in the hedgerow, I was there to hear their first tuneful songs, and I was there during the nest-building stage and for the chicks hatching. It took me a while to figure out how to best approach them, and I captured many images of these marvellous little birds, but this is my favourite. You might be able to see the spider clutched in its beak.
6 August 2020. I think of this handsome chap as the Gunby Fox. He patrols the patchwork of woods and fields around the Gunby estate, and I’ve seen him quite a number of times, but never this close. On this particular morning I happened to spot him at the far side of the moat earthworks, his attention captured by a bunch of magpies sitting on a fence, and I crawled very close through the long grass. I was able to squeeze off a short sequence of images. This is the precise moment when he realised I was watching him; within seconds he had bounded away, an orange blur in the grass.

Landscape

Most of my landscape images this year have been telephoto shots of local details, such as autumn leaves in the hedgerow. The Poet, of course, my favourite local subject, makes an appearance in this list. There are also three images from my March trip to the Cairngorms. These were more spontaneous and relied on the luck of the light.

19 February 2020. A straightforward planned landscape image. I knew the location and perspective needed to capture this image, and used a combination of the Photopills app and the weather forecast to plan my shot. Happily, the Belt of Venus created just the right delicate gradient of colour across the frame when the moon was where I wanted it.
25 February 2020. I’d had this image floating about in the back of my head somewhere for ages, but never managed to quite pull it off. My goal was to make the defocused sun look like an opening flower against the stark winter thorn hedge. I closed the aperture down by about a stop and shot several different versions before I managed to get the sun looking even enough.
3 March 2020. I’d walked past this spot many times and had always wanted to create an image here. Nothing complicated in this photograph, just a tripod and an ND filter and a few attempts to get something that looked right. It is one of the few classic wide-angle landscape images I’ve made this year.
4 March 2020. Conditions were stunning on this particular day high in the Cairngorms, and just begged for some perspective compression with a telephoto lens. For me, this composition works thanks to the ‘stepping stones’ formed by the peaks moving left to right through the frame, and also the dramatic clouds billowing over the slopes.
5 March 2020. Beautifully clear light and crisp blue tones washed over the pristine landscape after sunrise. I took a few images from this location, but for me this one communicates the essence of what it felt like to be there.
17 June 2020. A morning of mist and exceptional silvery light in the barn owl’s meadow, with moisture droplets clinging to many of the stems. This spray of grass heads laden with pollen appealed to me for the way it seems to be etched onto a plate of frosted glass.
4 November 2020: autumn this year was early, short, and vivid. I made many attempts to photograph similar ‘hedgestars’ but this is one of my most successful images. I love the contrast of warm and cool colours, and the nautilus-like shape formed by the leaves in the composition.
11 November 2020. This was my third attempt on consecutive mornings to photograph this particular hedgestar. I could never get the light or composition quite right, but I could see the potential, with multiple converging leading lines and some gorgeous warm tones in the background, and on this try I think I managed to achieve what I was looking for.
1 December 2020. Another planned and plotted landscape image. I was at the right place at the right time thanks to Photopills, the colours in the sky were just colourful enough, and I even had the presence of mind to do a focus stack. The final result you see here has depth of field throughout the frame due to compiling a final image from the stack in Photoshop. It’s a technique that can sometimes be useful with telephoto landscapes.

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By Alex Roddie

Award-winning outdoor and nature writer, editor, author, and photographer.

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