When I was a kid, I had my own little Saturday morning ritual. Starting around 1980, not long after my father passed, I'd make a bee line to the grand room in our house, sit on the couch, and turn the radio to Z-93 in Atlanta to hear Casey Kasem on American Top 40. And for four hours, I'd sit and be mesmerized by the tunes Casey played, some of which weren't even on Z-93's playlist. I'd listen as he counted them down, from 40 to number one. And I did this for years, all the way until Z-93 changed into a Classic Rock format in 1989, and after Casey himself jumped ship and started his own countdown show independent from AT40 in 1988.
To this day, if you ask me about a particular song, I could likely tell you the artist and even where it peaked on the chart. My co-workers often challenge me on this, if they're singing along with some obscure tune from the seventies or eighties (which they do often, even if it's truly bad karaoke, but I digress). My manager Eddie will then turn around and ask, "Okay Casey, where did this one peak?" And then, I'll break out into my Casey Kasem impression and say the song title, artist, and where it peaked; all in Casey's voice, everyone breaking out in laughter. I am a pretty decent impressionist, able to do impersonations from Bugs Bunny to Rodney Dangerfield to Jay Leno, and so on. Not quite in the Frank Caliendo league, but still entertaining enough to my co-workers or anyone in my company.
This is the first year where I truly feel confident in the quality of my work to bring you my own sort of countdown - my top 10 favorite images I've taken this year, and the stories behind them, and of course in true Casey style, I'll count them down from ten to the big kahuna, the Number One. These images may not necessarily be the best images I've taken, even this year, but they are endearing to me; as some were hard won, some were atypical, and some suggested small breakthroughs in my abilities.
Now, to quote the late, great Casey, on with the countdown!
10. "Sky Valley Light Show"
I'm cheating a little here, as this one was actually taken December 26, 2015 (close enough, I say). I had left my sister's house in Mobile, Alabama that morning, after another wonderful Christmas with my family. I had an eight hour drive ahead of me; and at first I didn't think about capturing anything, as I had shot a nice sunset on Dauphin Island the night before. I just wanted to get home.
But I made really good time, even losing an hour from the switch in time zones; and I arrived in the North Georgia mountains as the sun faded. I decided to see if I could perhaps salvage a sunset, so after passing through Dillard I drove up Georgia Highway 246 to the Sky Valley Overlook, where I literally drove upon a stunning, golden light show unfolding - one that was so vivid that it was impossible to capture in a single frame without blowing highlights; but since I only shoot single exposures, here it is, blown out sky and all. And it was notable, as it was the first time I had ever shot a beach sunset one evening, and a mountain sunset the next. Don't think for a moment that I don't recognize how blessed I am to be able to do that....
9. "A Spot Of Winter"
This one was from the dead of winter - mid-February, temperatures in the teens, inaccessible roads; yet there was this one loony guy who decided to hike two plus miles in shin-deep snow to capture this sunset from the "Beauty Spot" lookout on the Appalachian Trail in northeast Tennessee. I'm no less loony now than I was then - probably more so, but I digress....
8. "Waterrock Rainbow"
This one forms a synergistic pair with number seven, as they were both taken minutes apart from each other. I'll explain further in my caption for number seven.....
7. "A Burst Of Light"
So there was this fateful day in August where the elements (and elevation) combined to create dynamic scenes, everywhere I looked. I got off work early, so I did my due diligence and made a sweep of the Blue Ridge Parkway close to home near sunset; and sure enough, there was enough drama in the sky for some awesome views, and I knew once I had reached Waterrock Knob, the highest point in the area near home, I'd be treated to something special - and I was.
The Waterrock Knob Overlook is the only overlook on the Parkway (to my knowledge) that gives a view of both the eastern and western skies, mostly unimpeded. As I arrived that evening, to the east was a stunning partial rainbow with a rain shower nearby (that would be number 8). To the west, light rays punctuating the setting sun; and I managed to catch a nice "sunstar" as it poked a hole in the clouds. So I kept running from one end of the overlook to the other as all of this unfolded. People were looking at me as though I were mad (and well, they're probably right). As I said, I'm totally loony. But it was good exercise. And I got two nice images out of my lunacy to boot. So I wear that badge well, thank you very much......
Robert Stephens around wildlife = bull in a china shop.
Let's face it - I have absolute zero finesse around wildlife, which is why I have so few wildlife images in my repertoire. As soon as I sneak up on some woodland creature, it goes batty and scampers off (mainly, because I have as much subtlety as Michael Bolton, but I digress).
But this little creature you see here didn't seem to mind my presence. I had come to Roan Mountain - mind you, numerous times through May and June - in hopes of catching something special in terms of the Rhododendron bloom, only to be disappointed by the drab skies and wilting blooms. The only truly usable images I captured were ones I hadn't looked for - the blooms of the elusive Gray's Lily, and this little mama bird, as she was building a nest. She flew onto a branch long enough for me to snap a sharp image of her as she clutched straw in her beak. I really loved the colors in this one, as this was shot on my ancient Nikon D2X - an ancient camera that, despite its limited technology, has yielded one gorgeous shot after another, as the character of the images shot with this camera are unlike any I've ever encountered before or since. And that's why I still use it.....
5. "A Mother's Light"
There has yet to be a Mother's Day where I don't feel my Mom's presence from Heaven. And on this Mother's Day, she again showed up, on Milepost 339 on the Blue Ridge Parkway. In terms of sentimental value, this would be a solid number one. In seeing this image, light rays shining down, illuminating the landscape, I need not have taken another image that day or the rest of the week. Her presence was so palpable. Just seeing this was enough......
4. "Ravenel Light"
I needed a getaway, a change of pace; a diversion from the mountain scenes that had, by late summer, left me feeling a bit stale and disillusioned.
So I took a page out of my Mom's playbook and made a totally impromptu, totally unscripted, totally spontaneous trip to the South Carolina coast, staying overnight in Charleston for the very first time, even staying at the Holiday Inn Express, which instantly made me feel smarter (I may have never shot images before in Charleston, but I did stay at a Holiday Inn Express that night). And I was feeling mighty smart as I found a spot to catch these anti-crepuscular rays at sunset, framed by the mighty Arthur Ravenel Bridge. Easily my favorite journey of the year, and I can't wait to go back to that beautiful low country......
3. "Parkway Under The Stars"
For some odd reason, I had never attempted to shoot images of the Milky Way until this August. It wasn't too difficult to figure out, as I had plenty of experience shooting night images - it was just a matter of spotting the Milky Way in the sky, getting my settings honed in, and capturing it in a fairly compelling scene. This one was shot close to home, as I used a flashlight to illuminate the road; while the long exposure, shot at a high ISO speed, picked up the beauty of the Milky Way - and a couple of shooting stars to boot.
Not only does this image go completely against type in terms of my style, but this is the first time this image has been seen anywhere. This was, like many of my images, a spontaneous affair - I had gone to shoot waterfall images early spring at the Clark's Creek Recreational Area near Greeneville, TN, and chanced upon this blooming wildflower instead. My old Nikkor 35-70 lens (built in 1986) has a rather primitive "macro" feature that allows me to manually focus at very close range, and I used that here. What I didn't expect were the colorful orbs and sun flares that gave this otherwise mundane macro image a bit of character. Macro is certainly not one of my strengths; yet this image has always stood out for me for some reason. A departure for me, no doubt.....
1. "Into The Wild"
If ever there were an image that tested every bit of what little patience I possess, it would be this one. I mentioned this before in a recent blog, but coming to this image was one of the more difficult scenarios I had ever faced. I went to Rough Ridge on the Blue Ridge Parkway in hopes of a nice sunrise, only to be greeted by 30-40 MPH winds, with gusts over 60. I never made it to the spot I had envisioned, as the winds were too strong; leaving me shouting out expletives to whomever was in my shouting distance, as keeping my camera still was a near impossible task. But God somehow broke through to me to change cameras, lenses and settings, and widen my composition; so I waited for a moment when the wind would die down, then boosted my ISO sensitivity, opened up my lens as wide as it would go, and quickened my shutter speed. And out came this.
Considering the conditions I had to face, I was willing to accept whatever imperfections this image contained. The most hard won image I have taken by a long shot, and my favorite image of the year.
There are other images that would have made the cut, but they were also made in ideal conditions, during planned trips. The spontaneous, improvisational images always tend to stand out for me a bit more. They're certainly more rewarding than showing up some place, standing still for thirty minutes, and getting a mundane shot that has been taken a million times before.
I like surprises. And hoping for more in 2017.
So, until then, as the late, great Casey Kasem would say, "Keep your feet on the ground, and keep reaching for the stars......."