Category Archives: Images

My Favorite Images of 2016

Yes, you read that right, even though I’m writing this in the last month of 2017. As I was deciding on my five favorite photos from 2017, I realized I had never posted my favorites from 2016. So, better late than never, here they are:

Grass in Dune Shadow. (Nikkor 80-400mm on Nikon D810.)

Grass in Dune Shadow. (Nikkor 80-400mm on Nikon D810.)

White Sands Yucca Pano. (Nikkor 80-400mm on Nikon D810.)

White Sands Yucca Pano. (Nikkor 80-400mm on Nikon D810.)

Backlit Tree at Elkmont. (ZEISS Otus 85mm f/1.4 on Nikon D810.)

Backlit Tree at Elkmont. (ZEISS Otus 85mm f/1.4 on Nikon D810.)

Clingmans Dome Sunset. (Nikkor 80-400mm on Nikon D810.)

Clingmans Dome Sunset. (Nikkor 80-400mm on Nikon D810.)

Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress Engines at Commemorative Air Force Museum, Mesa, AZ. (ZEISS Otus 55mm f/1.4 on Nikon D810.)

Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress Engines at Commemorative Air Force Museum, Mesa, AZ. (ZEISS Otus 55mm f/1.4 on Nikon D810.)

Remembering the discussion of “favorite” versus “best” images from an earlier post, these are my favorites because they not only showed what I had intended in the way I had intended with the quality I had intended, but they also satisfy me emotionally, and I still enjoy them.

I’ve still got almost a month of shooting to go before I have to determine my favorite images from 2017!

The Recency Effect, So Don’t Delete

Foothills Parkway, Smokies. (ZEISS Otus 85mm f/1.4 on Nikon D810.)

Foothills Parkway, Smokies. (ZEISS Otus 85mm f/1.4 on Nikon D810.)

I made this image in October 2015, but never thought of it again until December 1, 2017. Why did I let it languish? Obviously, the scene struck me enough to make the photograph. But I can’t explain why it took two years to do something with it.

Often, when I come back from a trip, I’m initially disappointed with the collection of images I made. Sure, I’ll have a couple I’ll send to friends to show where I’ve been shooting, but they’re not anything great. Later (and sometimes much later), I reluctantly look through them again, and find one or two that I might be able to make into a decent image. That’s always a fun discovery.

How about you? How many times have you gone back through your older images and wondered why you hadn’t done anything with a specific image? Or, more poignantly, not only do you not remember making that image, but don’t even remember seeing an image like it before? Yet you made it!

Or how about the opposite effect? Several of my photo friends come back from a week shooting, and struggle for a few days to get down to their top 100 favorites from that trip. Ask them again in a couple months, and they’ll tell you they didn’t get anything at all from that very same trip!

What in the world is going on? That phenomenon is often called the recency effect. It can affect photographers in different ways—initially for good or bad. For some, their most recent images are all masterpieces, and they have a hard time choosing just a couple to show. But then, they lose interest in most of them. Others, like me, after an initial period of disappointment, find images they come to really like out of what seemed like a batch of rejects.

This leads to an important point. DON’T EVER delete images that don’t resonate with you the first time you see them. You made them for a reason. Let them simmer, and revisit them on occasion. You might be pleasantly surprised what’s already in your files.

Trains, Planes, & Automobiles Gallery

I’ve changed, renamed, and greatly expanded my old Steam Trains gallery. Yes, I know the movie title is Planes, Trains, & Automobiles, but since my new gallery used to be Steam Trains, I let trains keep top billing. http://tomvadnais.com/?page_id=352

Mid-50's GM PD-4501 Scenicruiser. (ZEISS Otus 85mm f/1.4 on Nikon D850.)

Mid-50′s GM PD-4501 Scenicruiser. (ZEISS Otus 85mm f/1.4 on Nikon D850.)

B-17G Flying Fortress. Commemorative Air Force Museum, Mesa, AZ. (ZEISS Milvus 15mm f/2.8 on Nikon D810.)

B-17G Flying Fortress. Commemorative Air Force Museum, Mesa, AZ. (ZEISS Milvus 15mm f/2.8 on Nikon D810.)

As an automotive engineer, I’ve always been fascinated by all forms of transportation. As a photographer, I am enthralled with both overall and detail images of these intricate machines. I hope these images inspire you to see, enjoy, and photograph trains, planes, and automobiles yourself.

ZEISS Milvus 1.4/25 mm and ZEISS Otus 1.4/28 mm Lenses

As mentioned on my Gear page, I almost exclusively use ZEISS manual focus prime lenses. I’m sold on their consistent color, sharpness, micro-contrast, and precise manual focusing ability. But before buying any new lens, I’ve gotten in the habit of renting one from LensRentals www.lensrentals.com. I can’t recommend the practice of renting before buying, and of renting from LensRentals highly enough.

For a recent trip to the Smokies, I rented a ZEISS Otus 28mm f/1.4 Apo Planar T* lens. I already own, and love, the ZEISS Otus 55mm and Otus 85mm (my favorite) lenses, and figured I’d love the 28mm Otus, too. Sure enough, it was the most amazing wide angle lens I’ve ever used. It was bitingly sharp corner-to-corner, with negligible aberrations or distortion. Even stars in the corners of night sky shots showed almost no coma. Silky smooth, beautiful, and incredible. I hated to return it, but still was not sure that I would find the 28mm focal length particularly useful—especially considering the price and the giant size of the lens.

With ZEISS’s recent announcement of the new Milvus 25mm f/1.4 lens, I decided to wait to try it before deciding on a new wide angle lens. I already own the ZEISS 25mm f/2 Distagon T* lens, which I regularly use for my engineering work. It’s wonderfully small and light, and perfect for my work kit. It’s quite sharp across much of the image, yet is just a little soft around the very edges and corners.

Abandoned motel with 4Runner. (ZEISS Milvus 25mm f/1.4 on Nikon D850.)

Abandoned motel with 4Runner. (ZEISS Milvus 25mm f/1.4 on Nikon D850.)

The 28mm Otus proved that a wide angle lens can be sharp from corner-to-corner, with negligible distortion. But I wished it was just a little wider.

Before my return trip to the Smokies a couple weeks later, I noticed that LensRentals had the brand new 25mm f/1.4 Milvus lens available to rent. After nine days of shooting with it, all I can say is it was magnificent. It’s near-Otus quality for about half the price, in a smaller package with a smaller filter size, and less weight—plus it has weather sealing the Otus lenses lack. I absolutely loved it. I was only a little sad to send it back, though, because I put my name on the list at B&H to buy my own copy once they become available.

On my way home from the Smokies, I stopped by a long-abandoned motel near the GA/TN state line. I then parked my Toyota 4Runner TRD Pro at one end of the motel, and made the image above with the rented ZEISS Milvus 25mm f/1.4 lens on my Nikon D850. It’s a single frame, with some of the top, a little of the bottom, and a tiny sliver of the right side cropped off. There was no cropping of the left side. Because the lens was so new, there was no lens profile available in Adobe Camera Raw, so what you’re seeing is how sharp and distortion-free this lens is right out of the box. Neither the bricks at the left nor my 4Runner at the right are distorted.

Images from my field testing were all incredibly sharp edge-to-edge and corner-to-corner. The lens was easy to focus and a joy to use. Can’t wait to get my copy.

Old Car City USA, White, GA

In late June 2007, I stopped by an old junkyard called Old Car City USA just off US-411 in White, GA. I asked owner Dean Lewis if I could make some photos there. He said okay, just be careful. It was overgrown, and there were no trails as such, as it was a working junk yard for older cars. While there, I made this detail photo of a 1948 Hudson:

1948 Hudson at Old Car City USA. (Nikkor 28-70mm on Nikon D1x.)

1948 Hudson at Old Car City USA. (Nikkor 28-70mm on Nikon D1x.)

The next day, I returned with a friend. Dean again welcomed us in to shoot, with no charge either day. A couple years later, I stopped by again to ask about bringing some photographers from a camera club for an outing. Dean again said okay, and it would be $10 each. He also told me he was converting Old Car City USA from a working junkyard to an old car junkyard museum, and would be charging admission. What a great idea to preserve a unique place.

In November 2017, I went back with a couple friends from out of town. It’s now $25 for photographers, and is a bargain. Dean has completely transformed Old Car City USA from overgrown junkyard to photographer’s paradise with about seven miles of trails through nearly 4,000 cars! Many of you will have heard of Old Car City USA, as it has been featured in many websites, news articles, and television shows. Countless photographers have also held workshops there. It’s a truly wonderful place. Here’s a link to Old Car City USA: http://oldcarcityusa.com/

Trabant & Others. Old Car City USA, White, GA. (ZEISS Milvus 25mm f/1.4 on Nikon D850.)

Trabant & Others. Old Car City USA, White, GA. (ZEISS Milvus 25mm f/1.4 on Nikon D850.)

Buick LaSabre in Old Car City USA. (ZEISS Milvus 50mm f/2 macro on Nikon D850.)

Buick LaSabre in Old Car City USA. (ZEISS Milvus 50mm f/2 macro on Nikon D850.)

My friends and I stayed most of the day, and shooting there only made me want to go back. I intend to return often for the amazing photographic potentials and the riveting history there. There is also a gallery of Dean’s unique art, along with other collections all around. I’ve included several images from there in my new Trains, Planes, & Automobiles gallery. http://tomvadnais.com/?page_id=352

After you pay the fee at the entrance, this gate allows passage into the yard. Note the red button you must push to enter. It’s actually just a painted round wood piece nailed onto the sign. My kind of humor.

Old Car City USA Entrance. Note Push Button to Enter. (ZEISS Milvus 25mm f/1.4 on Nikon D850.)

Old Car City USA Entrance. Note Push Button to Enter. (ZEISS Milvus 25mm f/1.4 on Nikon D850.)

I’ve always had a fondness for both intentionally and unintentionally funny signs. Old Car City USA is a gold mine for signs. I can’t recommend Old Car City highly enough. You’ll never find another place like it. Give yourself plenty of time, and make sure you talk with Dean. He’s a great guy with the best stories.
Old Car City USA Signs. (ZEISS Milvus 25mm f/1.4 on Nikon D850.)

Old Car City USA Signs. (ZEISS Milvus 25mm f/1.4 on Nikon D850.)

You Can’t Control Mother Nature

While scouting in preparation for our Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont (GSMIT http://gsmit.org/photography-workshops/} fall photography workshop, I visited one of my favorite cascades to make sure it would be a good place to bring the participants. This first photograph was made on Thursday, October 19, 2017—the day before the workshop was to begin. Water levels were so low, that even the full bottle of water I had with me wouldn’t help the situation! No rain was forecast until the last day of the workshop. Obviously, we’d have to find other subjects to shoot.

Tremont Cascade 10/19/17, (ZEISS Otus 28mm f/1.4 on Nikon D850.)

Tremont Cascade 10/19/17, (ZEISS Otus 28mm f/1.4 on Nikon D850.)

It poured rain overnight Sunday, October 22, and continued through when the workshop ended mid-day Monday. Monday afternoon, I returned to the cascade. This time, it was almost overflowing with silt-filled water. Still not photogenic.

Tremont Cascade 10/23/17. (ZEISS Milvus 50mm f/2 macro on Nikon D850.)

Tremont Cascade 10/23/17. (ZEISS Milvus 50mm f/2 macro on Nikon D850.)

Water levels change rapidly in the Smokies, and by the next day, the water was clear and at nearly perfect levels and flow rates.
Tremont Cascade 10/24/17. (ZEISS Milvus 50mm f/2 macro on Nikon D850.)

Tremont Cascade 10/24/17. (ZEISS Milvus 50mm f/2 macro on Nikon D850.)

These were good reminders that landscape and nature photographers are completely reliant on Mother Nature for the conditions we face. We must incorporate whatever water levels, fall color changes, light, clouds, fog, wind, rain, snow, dust, drought, fire, etc., we encounter. That’s why it’s so difficult to duplicate an image we’ve either made or seen before. It’s also why we need to remain flexible when we go out to shoot.

Photographing from a Plane & the Dog Cloud

The Elusive Dog Cloud. (ZEISS Milvus 50mm f/2 macro on Nikon D850.)

The Elusive Dog Cloud. (ZEISS Milvus 50mm f/2 macro on Nikon D850.)

While I end up flying fairly often for work, I usually choose an aisle seat. They don’t seem as confining, and allow me to get up and move around if I choose. This is especially important on cross-country flights. But on a recent return flight to Atlanta from Los Angeles, I was able to get a window seat in first class on a new Delta Boeing 777-200LR. On this plane, there was only one lay-flat seat on each window side. It was the best of both worlds: window and aisle access all in one.

You can adjust your lay-flat seat into all kinds of positions. Since it moves and takes up so much room, each seat is in its own “pod”, surrounded by walls except for the opening to access it. While this is nice and private, the walls impede your direct access to most of the windows. (I found that only Row 5 had direct window access. I was in Row 4.)

Wanting to take advantage of window access to shoot with my new Nikon D850, I made sure to sit on the left side of the plane so it would be in shade most of the eastbound trip. I planned to use both my ZEISS 135mm f/2 Apo Sonnar T* and ZEISS Milvus 50mm f/2 macro lenses.

Right after takeoff from LAX, I noticed the pod wall made getting a DSLR and lens perpendicular to the window nearly impossible. Since this plane was meant for long flights at high altitudes (the flight preceding mine came in from Sydney, Australia), the multi-layered windows seemed particularly thick.

I had started with the 135mm lens, which was physically long enough to force me to hold the camera at an angle to the window. Even though the ZEISS 135mm lens is one of the sharpest ever made, I could never make a sharp image with it on the plane. I reluctantly abandoned it.

When I got home, I looked at the images on my desktop monitor, and saw just a narrow band of focus on each image I made with that lens. Focus rapidly dropped off in either direction from that narrow band. All those window layers had increasingly distorted the image the further away from the focus plane you looked.

Fortunately, I was just able to fit the D850 with the 50mm macro lens perpendicular to the window. Of course, if the lens was against the window, vibrations from the plane would have made every image blurry. So I had to hold it back just a little, while making sure to keep the window frame out of the photo. It was a tight fit, but I was able to get sharp images with this combination.

As we were approaching Atlanta, thunderstorms began to form. Our pilots zigzagged around them, which gave plenty of opportunities to photograph their incredible shapes. During one of our pivots, I saw and photographed the elusive Dog Cloud! Granted, it’s not quite as famous as Bigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster, or Elvis sightings. But being a dog lover, I was glad to prove it exists.

When shooting from aircraft, a fast shutter speed is required to compensate for vibrations on the plane and for the high speed of the plane. The closer your subject is to the plane, the faster your shutter speed needs to be. This photo was made at 1/800 second to make sure the relatively close Dog Cloud would remain sharp.

Shooting from commercial airliners has plenty of challenges, but is fun and can be rewarding.

My Five Favorites from 2015

In my last post, I mentioned inviting 21 friends and fellow photographers to submit their five Favorite, not necessarily their five Best, images from 2015. Almost everyone participated, which created an amazing and inspiring collection of images. But even better, this exercise sparked many discussions ranging from practical techniques about how, to more esoteric questions about why, we made or chose a certain image. Much fun.

One of the more esoteric questions still being discussed was how to distinguish between a best and a favorite image. My conclusion, as I proffered in my last post, was that your best images would be interesting, technically sound, and what you intended, but to be a favorite, they also have to evoke an emotional response in you. What we’ve all found is, just like with songs or pieces of music, what moves one person may not register, or may even engender strong dislike, in another. That’s great; it makes us all different. (Some are more different than others, but we’ll ignore that for now…..)

So, here are my five favorites from 2015, with captions showing where they were made. I felt something special when I was drawn to make each image, and I still get that feeling when I look at each of these images. To me, that’s the very essence of a favorite.

Angel Oak, Johns Island, SC. (ZEISS Otus 55mm f/1.4 on Nikon D810.)

Angel Oak, Johns Island, SC. (ZEISS Otus 55mm f/1.4 on Nikon D810.)


Clouds over Abiquiu, NM. (Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8 on Nikon D810.)

Clouds over Abiquiu, NM. (Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8 on Nikon D810.)


Mossy Tree, Carmel Valley, CA. (Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8 on Nikon D810.)

Mossy Tree, Carmel Valley, CA. (Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8 on Nikon D810.)


Clouds over Ridgway, CO. (ZEISS 135mm f/2 Apo Sonnar on Nikon D810.)

Clouds over Ridgway, CO. (ZEISS 135mm f/2 Apo Sonnar on Nikon D810.)


American Beech Tree, Tremont Road, Fall, Smokies. (ZEISS Otus 85mm f/1.4 on Nikon D810.)

American Beech Tree, Tremont Road, Fall, Smokies. (ZEISS Otus 85mm f/1.4 on Nikon D810.)


All images and words ©2016 Tom Vadnais Photography

Favorites vs. Best

At the end of December 2015, I asked 21 friends and fellow photographers to upload their five favorite images made during 2015. The result was a visual feast of fantastic images made anywhere from a backyard to some pretty exotic locations. Many interesting comments and discussions followed, making the exercise even more fun.

One topic that was mentioned in a few group e-mails, and was discussed among several smaller groups, is the difference between a “favorite” and a “best” image. The choice of the word “Favorite”, without a definition or without restrictions, was intentional from the beginning.

There is no single definition, of course, and I’m not sure I can even consistently articulate what distinguishes one from another in my own work. One test I initially thought of was asking myself, “Which five images, if I were to frame them and hang them on the wall, would I still enjoy looking at and have feelings about over time?” I figured those would be what I would consider my favorites. But would they also be the ones I would choose as my best? Are my best images my favorites? So that definition didn’t really help, either.

Does it even matter whether we call them “favorites” or “best”? I think it could.

I was surprised that no one posted any image of any family member, including pets. It’s interesting that a couple people mentioned in e-mails about having favorites of their grandkids, but none of those were submitted. On purpose, there were no restrictions that images had to be of nature, or even made outdoors, although most of them were. There were no limitations on natural or added light; post-processing; subject; or, with or without people. The only restriction was that the images had to have been made in 2015.

Most of my friends know how much I love my God-dog Fredo. I have been her Godfather (Dogfather?) since she was brought home by a friend just a few weeks after she was born. (She’s 7 ½ as of January 2016.) I helped raise her, and we have been best friends since we first met. I made the image below of her in 2009, and it has been my favorite photo ever since. It’s in a frame on my credenza right in my line of sight when I look up from my desk. If I had made it in 2015, it would definitely have been in my five favorites from that year.

Fredo in Office

Fredo in Office

The reason I bring this up is that unfortunately, in 2015, I made only a few quick snaps of Fredo with my cell phone. They remind me of things she does and of times we shared, and they never fail to make me smile. Yet, while they mean a lot to me, and I’m really glad I have them, I didn’t consider them when I was choosing my favorite photographs. The question is “why not”? If she means so much to me, and if I treasure the pictures of those moments with her, how can they not be among my favorite photographs?

Taking that a step further, I regularly take pictures—often with my iPhone, but increasingly with my D810—of places or things I like or have enjoyed. Those photos may be of a favorite restaurant (inside or out), an interesting vehicle, a clever sign, or even a place I regularly stop when I’m on a trip. They are all photos of things that have meant something to me, yet, again, none of those would make the cut as a favorite photograph from any given year. Why not?

Is it the technical quality that makes an image a favorite? Well, I would argue that a well-executed image that doesn’t have any real meaning is nothing more than a technical exercise. That would never be a favorite. (And I still have to fight the urge to make those! But I digress…..)

After several general discussions and much pondering, I’m starting to think that my favorite and my best photographs are tightly intertwined. In fact, they are likely identical. (I haven’t done an exhaustive analysis, but that’s my strong suspicion.) The above image of Fredo would have made the cut if it had been made in 2015 because I like the subject, the subject’s gesture (as Jay Maisel calls it) means something to me, and the technical details (light, composition, framing, sharpness, etc.) all come together, for me. In other words, I captured my chosen subject, at the right moment, with the right composition, at the right exposure for creating the image I intended. If I had made a similar snapshot on my iPhone of her looking off to the right, I might have treasured capturing the moment, but without the technical execution of the version above, it would not likely have made it as a favorite photograph. A favorite memory, certainly, but not a favorite photograph.

So it seems that to be one of my favorites, an image has to be what I intendedbe well-executed, and evoke an emotion in me. All three elements must be there. Fortunately, looking back, the five I chose as favorites of 2015 meet those three criteria for me. (That being said, I have already had at least one person looking through my five 2015 favorites ask how could I have chosen that image?)

As to best versus favorite, the argument could be made that your best images would be interesting and technically sound, but to be a favorite, they also have to evoke an emotional response in you. In the end, most photographers could probably agree on which images are your best, but only you can determine which are your favorites.

If one of my images doesn’t evoke an emotion in me, I wouldn’t consider it one of my best. Hence, for me, my best and my favorites are pretty much the same.

I hope this helps when you’re reviewing your own images. For me, it was worth the exercise. 

NANPA Field Event in the Smokies

From April 30 through May 3, 2015, NANPA (North American Nature Photography Association) hosted a Regional Field Event in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park (Smokies). I helped lead the event with my great friends Willard Clay and Bill Lea. Together, we have led many Smokies workshops over many years, and had a lot of fun with a most wonderful group.

Jakes Creek in Elkmont in the Smokies.

Jakes Creek in Elkmont in the Smokies.

We were based in Townsend, TN, known as The Quiet Side of the Smokies. Townsend is a wonderful little town just a 20 mile, half hour drive from the Knoxville airport. Our base, Talley Ho Inn is only about a mile from the Park entrance.

Spring Tree in Fog in Cades Cove in the Smokies.

Spring Tree in Fog in Cades Cove in the Smokies.

This Field Event went from 5:00 PM Thursday evening at Talley Ho Inn and ran until the end of the optional critique session at 4:00 PM Sunday the 3rd. For more information on NANPA, including their Regional Field Events, check out this link: www.nanpa.org.

Spring Tree in Cades Cove in the Smokies.

Spring Tree in Cades Cove in the Smokies.

This was a wonderful opportunity for participants to experience the most visited National Park in the country with three experienced nature photographers and teachers who have cumulatively led countless photo workshops in the Smokies over many years. All participants got to experience areas of the Park many of them had not even heard of.

Dogwood along the Middle Prong of Little River in the Smokies.

Dogwood along the Middle Prong of Little River in the Smokies.

Spring is a luscious time to photograph the Smokies. Photographic opportunities include all kinds of amazing wildflowers, plenty of waterfalls and cascades, and the classic receding mountain views. Among my favorites are the vivid and varying Spring greens that are everywhere. Deer, birds, wild turkeys, and even a couple black bears were there for the wildlife and bird photographers. And while not strictly nature, the fascinating historic buildings in Cades Cove and Elkmont were outdoor photography favorites.

Trillium and cascade along Tremont Road in the Smokies.

Trillium and cascade along Tremont Road in the Smokies.

Of course, Nature determined what we shot. Fortunately, She cooperated with us quite well. Areas we visited included Cades Cove, Elkmont, Tremont, and the Foothills Parkway overlooks.

Deteriorating Elkmont Cabin in the Smokies

Deteriorating Elkmont Cabin in the Smokies

Throughout the Field Event, the instructors gave an overview of every place we visited, along with specific suggestions of what to shoot there. We then worked with participants in the field, assisting wherever we could.

Spring Colors from Foothills Parkway overlook near the Smokies.

Spring Colors from Foothills Parkway overlook near the Smokies.

If you missed it, you really should watch the NANPA website for future events. www.nanpa.org

©2015 Tom Vadnais Photography. All Rights Reserved.