As I write this, it’s the last day of 2020. It has been a very interesting year to say the least. This year has reminded us how truly fragile life on this planet can be. Despite all the changes and difficulties, I believe there are still many things to be thankful for. For me, one of these things has been the ability to continue to go out and make pictures. Being able to do so has helped keep me motivated even through the most uncertain and stressful times.
At the end of each year, I’ve made it a practice to look back on the past twelve months of images, pick my top 10 favorites and share their back stories. It’s a nice walk down memory lane that gives an overview of where I was as a photographer and even as a person. Perhaps the thoughts shared can even be helpful to some readers. This list is chronological and very much subjective. Without further ado, let’s check out my top 10 photos of 2020!
Los Baños, Philippines
Xiaomi Mi A3 + GCam App
On January 12, 2020, the Taal volcano erupted after several decades of being dormant. We were in the Philippines for our annual vacation and it was just a very chill and normal afternoon when the eruption happened. Our town of Los Baños is a mere 60 kilometers from the volcano, so we were able to see the massive plume rise into the air. The mountain in the photo is our town’s very own dormant volcano, Mt. Makiling. The view was awe-inspiring and scary at the same time as everyone went on high alert to prepare for possible further eruptions. Fortunately, that was the worst of it and I was able to get a possibly once-in-a-lifetime image. It’s interesting to note that the image I chose was taken with my smartphone. I did have my “real” camera with me at the time, but the lenses were either too wide or too tight. The field of view on the phone was just right for the scene and the quality of the image is actually not bad, especially with the very capable Google Cam app. You do what you can with the tools that are available.
Fujfilm X-T2 + Samyang 12mm f/2.0
This is a meaningful photo because it was taken on the morning of my dad’s 70th birthday. We all took a family trip out to Laiya beach to celebrate the special occasion. Laiya is a great spot for milky way photography as it faces southeast. January is not really the ideal month for milky way photography in the Philippines, but I decided to give it a try anyway. As you can see in the image, the milky way came into view close to sunrise. That made the photography window very small. Moreover, this shot was taken during a waning crescent moon, which is that bright dot near the horizon. Good thing the moon was dark enough to allow the milky way to be seen. Despite the less-than-ideal conditions, the shot came together and there are even some additional light trails from some unidentified sources (UFO’s!).
Danyang, South Korea
Fujifilm X-H1 + XF 16-55mm f/2.8
This image was taken during a trip with my friend and colleague Dylan Goldby. We usually take side trips when we work photography jobs together, and this time we decided to go shoot the Dodam Sambong Peaks. We were hoping for a golden sunrise, but the conditions turned out to be less than ideal. Moreover, a local fishing boat went out and started getting into our frame. I was pretty annoyed at first, but I decided to experiment a bit. I dragged the shutter as the boat passed the middle of the foreground. The orange, white, and blue boat actually made for an interesting accent to an otherwise fairly bland image. This image is a reminder that even when things aren’t going your way, roll with the punches and be open to experimentation. You know what they say, when life gives you lemons… 😉
Tongyeong, South Korea
Fujifilm X-T4 + XF 16-55mm f/2.8
This image was taken during a spontaneous trip to Miraesa Temple. It was a rainy morning and had been itching to get out and shoot for a few days. On a whim, I took out my weather sealed cameras and lenses and decided to go check out the nearby mountain temple. I’m very glad that I did because the combination of light, mist, and rain was amazing that morning. Me and my cameras were all soaked but it was totally worth it.
Hongryong Temple Falls
Yangsan, South Korea
Fujifilm X-T4 + Samyang 12mm f/2.0
This photo was taken in July, which is typically monsoon season in Korea. If I remember correctly, I think there was actually a typhoon during that time. This was another post-work shoot with Dylan and our attempt at Haedong Yonggungsa Temple the day before was quite a rainy disaster. The rain just kept coming and even caused us to go 20 km/h on the expressway at one point due to zero visibility. However, we pushed on and went to Hongryong Temple as planned. Our efforts were rewarded with a truly epic waterfall scene.
Hapcheon, South Korea
Fujfilm X-T4 + Helios 58mm f.2.0
Good things come to those who wait. This saying is actually quite fitting for street and travel photography. Dylan and I took a much-anticipated trip to Gayasan National Park and Haeinsa Temple and it did not disappoint. This is one of the most active monasteries we have ever seen in Korea, which means some great opportunities to photograph the monks in their surroundings. Going back to my first statement, this particular image took quite a bit of waiting. I had found this beautifully juxtaposed scene with the temple courtyard, overlapping roofs, and misty mountains in the background. The problem was, it seemed to be a lull during the day and no monks were walking through the scene. Dylan, who had just finished his own shot after waiting for a long time, came up to my spot to see how I was doing. I was very tempted to give up, but I took Dylan’s advice of giving it a bit more time and “counting to ten”. True enough, some moments later a couple of monks came out of the library and I got my shot.
Fujifilm X-T4 + Samyang 12mm f/2.0 + Godox AD200
Yes, it’s three of me. It may seem a little self-indulgent but hear me out. 😀 Due to Covid, my daughter has been home doing her classes online. Now that we are pretty much together the whole day (I work from my home office when I’m not out on assignment), we have had to go through some adjustments in terms of each other’s work and personal space. Long story short, in order to give myself a quiet space to work and give her freedom from a micromanaging daddy 😀 , I converted our guest room into a man cave / studio / music room. The setup fulfills all my needs and we are both happy with the additional work and personal space that we can now enjoy. To commemorate the new space, I decided to make a photo that would sum up the room and how I would use it. I put the camera on a tripod and shot the 3 positions, each lit by a single flash diffused by a white umbrella. Finally, I composited the 3 images in Photoshop. I think it’s a fun and meaningful self portrait and a reminder of a good thing that came out of this year’s pandemic situation.
A Sunset Situation
Geoje, South Korea
Xiaomi Mi A3 + GCam App
Some photo opportunities just pop up out of nowhere. One afternoon while running errands with my family, we looked up and saw what was possibly the most beautiful sunset of the year. We quickly made our way to the nearest seaside area and proceeded to shoot for the next 40 minutes. Even my daughter really got into shooting the scene with her iPhone. Unfortunately, I did not have my big camera with me, so I had to once again call on the powers of my Xiaomi Mi A3 smartphone. The camera’s Sony sensor actually does quite a good job and the GCam app allows you to shoot very good quality RAW images. The resulting image is one I would not hesitate to print. Thank goodness for improved technology in smartphones. However, the thing I will remember the most about this scene is the bonding time with my daughter. She was really enjoying taking photos with me and we still talk about that day fondly.
Seoul, South Korea
Fujifilm X-T4 + XF 16mm f/2.8
This image was taken just after Dylan and I wrapped a big e-commerce shoot. There were some pretty stressful challenges at the beginning of the shoot, but our amazing team got through it and made it a success. At the end of the final day, we were rewarded with a perfect reflection on the Han River. I think this was a fitting image of the calm we felt after a hectic week. By this time, I actually had to get on a bus back to Tongyeong, but it was totally worth changing it to a later time so we could take a walk and shoot this beautiful scene. This is one of my favorite compositions from that walk, with the pillars of the Olympic Bridge creating a vanishing point and the road above framing the Lotte World Tower.
Dawn of a New Day
Gyeongju, South Korea
Fujifilm X-T4 + XF 27mm f/2.8 + 10-stop ND filter
I chose this image to cap off the set because I feel like it kind represents 2020 for me. It’s a long exposure, so you can see the movement in the sun. The line under the sun is a reflection on the filter, basically a defect in the image, but I chose to keep it. The waves were crashing, but the slow shutter smoothed them out into a peaceful, misty blanket. The resulting image is a flawed, turbulent but peaceful, surreal but beautiful representation of time passing. At the same time, the sunrise symbolizes a new beginning, hopefully a good beginning for 2021.
There you have it, my top 10 photos of 2020. I feel like I selected more photos based on their attached memories and meanings this year, which is cool. It’s a reminder that photography is much more than artistic compositions and technical excellence (although these are important as well). It’s also the first time that two mobile phone images have made it to the list. The best camera is truly the one that is with you, whatever it may be.
I hope you enjoyed the images and stories, and maybe even picked up some ideas and inspiration along the way. If you are so inclined, let me know in the comments section which image you like the most.
Thanks for reading and I wish you all the best in 2021!