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  • Writer's pictureAlyce Bender

Year in Review: 12 images of 2021

It is that time of year again where I review my extensive catalog of images from this year and try to narrow it down to my twelve favorite images I created over the last twelve months. It was not made any easier by this year's weird travel situations considering I was able to do a fair bit of travel across the country and a lot of exploratory trips here in my newest home state of Texas.

One common theme throughout the collection is that the majority (9/12 or 75%) are wildlife images. Landscapes, especially grand landscapes, were really on the back burner for me for much of this year. I did a bit in spring between White Pocket, White Sands National Park, and the Tetons, but then it wasn't until fall that I returned to the genre when I visited the Salt Lake City area and Caddo Lake (article coming soon).

When it comes to the wildlife images, they range in subject and geography. From bees to elk and from Florida to Wyoming to California, these images span both focal lengths and the country.

Three American white pelicans float in calm waters reflecting pink from sunset on the Texas Coast | A. Bender Photography LLC
Nikon D500 | Tamron 150-600mm G2 | f/7.1 | 1/160 | ISO 2500

On one of my very first trips down to the Texas coast in January, I witnessed one of the most beautiful sunsets in my life. It is only the second time that I have seen everything the light touches painted pink from the afterburn of sunset. At the time I also happened to be sitting on the shore of a shallow estuary bay with a flock of American white pelicans in front of me. The calm waters reflected both the birds and the colors of the sky. When these three aligned so perfectly, I couldn't believe my good fortune. Careful to include the reflection, I had only a split moment to catch this particular frame which is one of several as I started shooting right as they aligned their bodies and kept shooting until they fell from formation.

Why did this image make the top 12: Since this is a list of my personal favorites from the year, really, because I love the three pelicans' composition, details, and light creating a solidly beautiful image. This image also merited in the PPA International Photo Competition this year.

A black tailed jackrabbit runs along a snowy trail in the Texas Hill Country during the 2021 snow storm snowpocalypse | A. Bender Photography LLC
Nikon D500 | Tamron 18-400mm | f/8 | 1/1250 | ISO 500

As you may know, depending on how long you have been following my work and blog, we moved to San Antonio, TX, late in December of 2020. Military life and all that, we are used to it though the pandemic did make things "interesting." Anyway, not even two months from us moving to town we (and the state of Texas) were hit by what many refer to as Snovid where areas of the state, like San Antonio, received several inches of snow. This caused all sorts of issues as this part of the country is not acclimated to such weather and temperatures remaining below freezing for over 100 hours. For many, both power and water were lost and it became a dire and deadly event. Many are hoping there is not a repeat this winter. Fingers crossed!

However; for us, we had water and a gas stove that kept working even as we lost electricity. Bored and cold inside the house, I took advantage of the fact I did have a complete wardrobe for such weather. Donning snow boots, pants, and multi-layer jacket with the requisite gloves and hat, I headed out in the morning enjoying the quiet that comes with fresh snowfall - and an entire city being shut down. With no rush to get back home to just sit and read under the covers (can do that enough when the sun is down via solar powered camp lanterns), I walked a ways.

At that time, only a few blocks from my house the land turned from suburbia to Texas scrub land (today it is now more houses). It was there I decided to travel off-road and walk along some of the hiking trails that crisscrossed the fields. My thought was that with the storm having hit late afternoon and through the evening, wildlife would be out as the sun rose on a clear, calm morning. This was not inaccurate as within a few minutes of venturing into the scrub I encountered a coyote hunting the above jackrabbit. Funny thing happened. The rabbit used me to deter the coyote! As it hightailed it across the field it came down the trail. When it saw me, frozen as I didn't want to stress either of them or get in the way (inevitable in this situations really though), it ran towards me! Thus I was able to get this image. I wish I had been laying down rather than just crouched but still....

A few steps beyond when this frame was taken, the jackrabbit stopped and caught its breath while sitting on its hind legs watching the coyote. The coyote had stopped hunting when the rabbit turned my way and he saw me. Here in Texas, coyotes are hunted ruthlessly and they have a good sense to be very wary of humans. After catching its breath the jackrabbit continued past me and then into the brush away from the coyote, who had given up and headed in the opposite direction to hopefully have better luck.

Why did this image make the top 12: Well beyond that it was taken during an extreme and unique weather event, it is also my first image of a jackrabbit in the open. I only have one other image of a jackrabbit taken in Nevada and it is mostly obscured by brush. This is not for the lack of trying as I have been trying to capture an image of these quick critters for years now. So it made the list.

Two large desert bighorn sheep rams surrounded by desert scrub burrobush creosote in the southern Nevada desert | A. Bender Photography LLC
Nikon D500 | Tamron 150-600mm G2 | f/7.1 | 1/1000 | ISO 800

I have been in love with this image since I first saw it on the back of my camera. Known as "Heads and Tails," this was captured while I was in Las Vegas and made an early morning visit out towards Valley of Fire State Park. I have been photographing the desert bighorns out in that area for several years now and it is always such a treat to see them.

On this particular morning, I encountered a large herd of rams. Outside of breeding season the males and females often gather in single sex herds (male vs females and babies) with some males choosing to be soloists. This was an impressive group as many of the males were older and had curls that told stories. Finding a place to pull off the road, I was able to observe and photograph them for a good hour as the sun rose in the sky.

Why did this image make the top 12: It is an image I really truly love. It is rare I have an image that I wouldn't change a thing about, but this image falls in that category. The light, the animals' position, the depth of field, all of it is just perfect to me. Never mind that the subject is a species I have a great affinity for as well.

A white gypsum sand dune at White Sands National Park Monument in New Mexico at sunset with cool tones reflected | A. Bender Photography LLC
Nikon D500 | Tamron 10-24mm | f/16 | 1/100 | ISO 800

The third image of the twelve is the first landscape. After years of trying to visit White Sands National Monument/Park, I finally made it! I also met up with my good friend Aaron Martinez for the first time in the field as this was his backyard for most of his life. Our visit happened to occur right after the area had received a small amount of rain and high winds had not yet cleared the droplet patterns from the surface of the sand. Hiking a ways out to find dunes without footprints, we stayed out as the sun dropped and I was able to capture the cool blue tones with just a hint of pink-yellow from the last of the sunlight. The light and shadow play along this dune helped bring out the wind carved lines and the dotted pattern left by the earlier rain.

Why did this image make the top 12: For me, again this is an image that represents a milestone as well as some unique elements. Not only was this taken during my first visit to White Sands but I also happened to be there shortly after a rainfall that did not have high winds. Beyond capturing the beautiful colors, the unique pattern and the experience gives this image a place in this year's top twelve.

A native Texas bee on a native cone flower with pollen in the Hill Country | A. Bender Photography LLC
Nikon D500 | Tamron 90mm Macro | f/5.6 | 1/2000 | ISO 400

This image is one that was kind of a slow burn to the favorites list. I honestly didn't think much of this image in the field. I had been preoccupied with a pair of mating Reakirt blue butterflies, which are these small, cute, and creamy colored butterflies. However, once I got home and had the images on the screen, this one really jumped out at me with the intense detail and pattern of this bee's eye, combined with the position on the flower. There is just a lot to like about this image. Even my husband was really intrigued.

However, insect images don't typically get a lot of attention, though there is growing interest in the subject which is wonderful for sure! And while social media certainly isn't everything, I often want my imagery to do well in order to bring awareness to certain species. I was thrilled when this received so much attention on Instagram and ended up being my third most popular image of the year (at the time of this article's publication).

Why did this image make the top 12: It is an example of the macro opportunities here in Texas and, after all the macro work I have been doing this year, it didn't feel right not to include at least one macro image. It also helped bring awareness to local and native bees due to how well it did on social media.

Two red fox kits seem to whisper to each other while sitting on their den in a summer green forest in the Tetons, Wyoming | A. Bender Photography LLC
Nikon D500 | Tamron 150-600mm G2 | f/6.3 | 1/800 | ISO 4000

By far the saving grace of my trip to the Tetons this past spring (besides meeting up with Carl and finding the raspberry jelly-filled powdered donuts) was the time I got to spend watching this family of foxes. A vixen with three kits, the den was located in an area that was heavily trafficked and it gathered quite a bit of attention as I'm sure you can imagine. However, while many people came and looked there was usually only a handful of us dedicated to be out early and staying late to capture the moments when the vixen would come back with food and the kits would come out to play.

As easy as it was to access, the position of the den and the summer track of the sun made for harsh lighting conditions almost all day. With bright blue, clear skies plaguing me on this trip, it meant only very early morning or late afternoon bordering on evening gave me even lighting. This also happened to be the time that the weather cooled down enough that the kits really took to playing. Thankfully the Nikon D500 handles low light conditions amazingly or images like this wouldn't be possible.

Why did this image make the top 12: It is my favorite image from my Tetons trip and the frame captured the mischievous energy these two kits had and how easy it is to anthropomorphize the situation as two siblings exchanging secrets. It is titled "Secrets" for a reason.

A western burrowing owl postures defensively as a wasp flies by its burrow on the high plains of Texas | A. Bender Photography LLC
Nikon D500 | Tamron 150-600mm G2 | f/7.1 | 1/2500 | ISO 1250

Moving from spring into summer, I took it upon myself to photograph burrowing owls both here in Texas and then again in Florida for an article that came out in the Journal of Wildlife Photography this past Fall. Not only did this assignment take me to new places but it gave me a summer project.

Usually, summer is my slowest travel and photography season. Maybe it's the heat but I also find I shy away from the crowds and summer is usually a very busy time for outdoor locations as families take advantage of the better weather and kids being out of school to travel. It is also when Europeans often take their work holidays as well. Yet, this summer, through this project, I discovered locations I can visit and find relative peace in nature without the crowds.

I spent several days camped in a beautiful high plains state park, Caprock Canyon, photographing this family of burrowing owls. I wrote extensively on my experience in this article and enjoyed it so much I want to introduce others to the area as well. July of 2022 I will be offering a Wild Grasslands photo adventure for those who want to join me in photographing the antics of burrowing owls as well as other grassland species and the unique environment that the Caprock Escarpment offers.

Why did this image make the top 12: Insects make up a large percentage of a burrowing owl's diet, so to me the fact that the owls don't even want to mess with wasps was funny to me. I also love the detail and posture of attitude this young owl is showing while the wasp just goes on with its day.

A purple gallinule balances on reeds to reach seeds dangling from another stalk in Gainesville Florida | A Bender Photography LLC
Nikon D500 | Tamron 150-600mm G2 | f/7.1 | 1/250 | ISO 5000

While in Florida, I took some time to visit some of my old stomping grounds and explore new conservation areas that had popped up around my childhood town. Early one morning, before the traditional summer thunderstorms of central Florida arrived, I was visiting a wetlands park when I observed this purple gallinule starting to climb, leg over leg, rather awkwardly up this reed stalk. Now, these birds have adapted to walking over carpets of water vegetation, not necessary climbing branches, so this was odd to me. But as it made its way further up the reed, I realized what it was going for, dangling seeds and delicate flowers of the plant.

Pretty skittish as subjects, I used taller vegetation to mask my approach and I was able to get within about fifteen feet of the bird as it performed this act of ungraceful balance before reaching its breakfast. Entitled "Balanced Breakfast," for obvious reasons.

Why did this image make the top 12: Again, I just really enjoy this image and the memories from the field it brings up. A unique pose and behavior paired with the beautiful color combinations really makes this image shine in my eyes. I wish the one strand of grass had not been in the foreground and that I had shot just a hair higher to be more at eye level with the bird rather than under eye level, but those are small tweaks I think.

A bull elk stands in the Californian Redwood forest overlooking his herd | A Bender Photography LLC
Nikon D500 | Tamron 150-600mm G2 | f/6 | 1/125 | ISO 8000

Fall brings about the rut of wildlife such as elk, moose, wild sheep, and deer. Since returning to the States from Japan, I have tried to visit the Wyoming/ Montana area to capture these massive beasts competing for the ladies. (Last year didn't count.) This year, on my way up there I had some urgent personal matters crop up and after stopping in Salt Lake City for my Antelope Island photo adventure, I turned around and headed back to Texas. What was suppose to be a five week road trip turned into a handful of shortened trips connected by flights. I ended up having to scrap my time in the Tetons and Yellowstone this past fall because of the new arrangements. Life happens and we just have to roll with it sometimes.

However, I did make it out to Oregon and California. Having been to these areas before I knew there were several areas that had elk as well. Between my Oregon coast photography meet-up and my Wild Monterey photo adventure I stopped in the Redwoods National and State Park area to search for the herds of Roosevelt elk known to roam these parts. The largest of the North American elk subspecies, these bulls can get massive and I was excited to see them.

However, after a day and a half of seeing the signs posted everywhere warning people to stay away from the elk and to watch for elk crossing, I had yet to see or hear one. Disappointed I went and drowned my sorrows in a cup of clam chowder (really it's just something I love eating on cold, blustery days on the coast). Making an early round on one of the hiking trails after lunch, I met a fellow photographer who tipped me off to an area further afield where at least one herd had been seen over the last several days and there was a good size bull protecting his haram. Acting on that tip, because what did I have to lose at this point, I went in search of them.

The sun was sinking fast and I had just about given up hope of finding them this trip when I saw something bright out of the corner of my eye. It was the lighter color rump hair of a cow elk that had stood up. In the clearing there were about another twenty cow elk mostly bedded down with one large bull in the middle. There was another smaller, younger bull that seemed to be acting as a lieutenant as the two seemed to have some sort of peace agreement. While I was observing them, the light kept getting dimmer and dimmer but the elk started moving around more. Really pushing my ISO, risking blur from animal movement or hand shake with a lower shutter speed, I was able to get several good images from the encounter.

Why did this image make the top 12: This one frame where he was just about to move to the right was my favorite as his posture gives a bit more anticipated action to the image rather than just a stately portrait of a bull on high. I really loved the dark green background with the suggestions of the trees and mosses that make up the bull's home environment. Also, the fact that I was able to create this image while hand holding in such low light really showcases the capabilities of the Nikon D500's sensor as well as the Tamron's vibration reduction.

Development tip: I started using Topaz AI DeNoise software this year when developing images with super high ISOs. This software plug-in for Lightroom is a very powerful tool that can help remove noise from an image. It doesn't fix focus or motion blur, but helps remove the grain that can be distracting in low light/high ISO images.

A green botanical desert plant photographed using intentional camera movement with a Tamron macro lens for an impressionistic look at the San Antonio Botanical Gardens in Texas | A. Bender Photography LLC
Nikon D500 | Tamron 90mm Macro | f/11 | 1/6 | ISO 50 | ICM

Back home briefly, I played tour guide for my visiting in-laws. One of the places I take anyone who visits me here in San Antonio is the Botanical Gardens. They are spectacular any time of year and are quite extensive. It is definitely well worth the visit for photographers and non-photographers alike. During this visit, as I have done during many visits before, I used a combination of my macro lens and intentional camera movement to create an impressionistic image of a sotol (thin bladed desert plant).

Why did this image make the top 12: Beyond the soothing cool tones with just enough structure, this image also sparked my creative vision beyond the norm. At first I flipped it vertically to the left. I liked the result but felt it needed to be mirrored in order to create a diptych image of "wings." The lines in the images didn't align as nicely as I would have hoped. However, this led me down a bit of a rabbit hole in Photoshop and online how-to articles (as I didn't know how to flip and mirror an image in PS before as I usually work exclusively in Lightroom.) Well, the image above turned into the image below. If you ask me how, I can't honestly say. I was trying to follow a tutorial but it wasn't going well so I did a few things on my own and then this popped up. I cropped it a bit and ta-da! So I love this little, unusual piece of art enough that I had to include the original since it is what sparked the play in post production.

A geometric pattern created in Photoshop from a creative capture image of a desert plant in San Antonio Texas | A Bender Photography LLC
"Sotol Strobe" - Altered Reality using Photoshop

Ok. With the addition of this derivative image there is a baker's dozen images in this article.

Hope you don't mind! Continuing on...

A female hooded merganser floats among fall foliage reflections in a pond at Huntley Meadows Park in Virginia | A. Bender Photography LLC
Nikon D500 | Tamron 150-600mm G2 | f/8 | 1/1600 | ISO 800

Directly after my in-laws' visit, my husband was called across the country for a work event in the D.C. area. Since we had hardly seen each other this season, I decided to go with him. With several friends in the area, I did get out of the hotel and was shown some of the natural beauty that can be found even just a half hour drive the the Capital.

On this cold morning there was frost covering much of the foliage but the leaves were still holding on. Walking out on a boardwalk, breath creating small clouds in front of my face, we watched as great blue herons fished and squabbled over territory. One even pulled up a goldfish!

PSA: Please don't release pets, especially fish and reptiles into the wild. They can complete with native species and unsettle the balance.

While watching the herons, ducks were coming at irregular intervals, winging in overhead before disappearing to a distant part of the pond. However, this one bird came in real low and by itself, smaller than the various teals and mallards we had been seeing. This little female hooded merganser landed just out of photographic range but in a beautiful spot with great sidelight and autumn reflections. In my head I kept willing her to come closer, frozen to the boardwalk boards where I sat (almost literally.) Eventually she came within reach of my lens (sometime even the 600mm with a 1.5 crop factor isn't enough) and gave me a handful of scenes before hauling herself out onto a small log and resting.

Why did this image make the top 12: This image in particular was an image I had envisioned for years. I would love to be able to be in positions to photograph more ducks in light like this. However, my current location doesn't really allow for such conditions. Getting close to the water's edge or in shallow fresh water ponds is not something I am ready to do as we are on the far western edge of alligator habitat and I'm not willing to risk it. So I have included this in my 2021 collection in order to remind myself of the opportunities I still have yet to reach. And because it's yet again another beautiful image in my eyes.

And last but not least, as these were not in order of favorites so much as the order in which they were taken this year, we have this image from my November exploration of Caddo Lake.

When we moved to Texas there were two things that I wanted to see and photography. One being the whooping cranes which I have had an amazing time doing and look forward to continuing to do so each winter with personal trips and through offering photo adventures to capture these endangered beauties. The second was to photograph Caddo Lake in autumn.

Well it seemed everyone had the same idea and what was a quiet corner of Texas has exploded in popularity. Fortunately, it is still a quiet place so don't get me wrong. As of right now, there are not the facilities nor logistics for large throngs of visitors to descend on the place, but there is more traffic than there was even two years ago. That being said, I think the place is epic! Maybe its my swamp blood, being originally from Florida and all, but this place is amazing. And I want to introduce you all to it as well. This past November I struck up some friendships with a few of the locals as well as scoping out the ideal facilities to get the best out of the area. If you are comfortable on calm, shallow water in a canoe and john boat, I urge you to check out my Colors of Caddo photo adventure.

Why did this image make the top 12: This is one of about thirty images I created over the four days I was at Caddo lake this year. You can find a full collection of images here. It was incredibly hard to choose one to showcase in my top 12. But since I had actually gone back to this specific tree a second night I figured it was a special enough subject to help represent the experience. It also showcases the various elements of the swamp, where mood, light, shadow, and the majestic stature of bald cypress come together with autumn colors to create a mystical place.

Well, I hope you enjoyed this collection of images that recap my photography adventures of 2021. It is images like these that make me wish I had more wall space as I'd love to hang many of them in my own home. Some will go on to live just in this collection and in my online galleries. Others will try to find their wings through contests or galleries and others still will be used to further the educational sessions I present throughout the coming years. Photography is not just about creating images but everything that comes before and after that physical moment of creation.

May you and your families have a wonderful holiday and a joyful New Year! I look forward to seeing what 2022 brings and hope to meet up with some of you in the field.


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