Each December, I make my family calendars with some of my images from the previous year as a Christmas gift. It’s no surprise to any of them, but they look forward to them each year and it’s become one of our Christmas traditions.

Creating the calendars also gives me the chance to go through my images from the past year. It’s a good way to review and assess the work I’ve created. Sometimes I find images I forgot about, or images that I’m proud of from a technical standpoint. But most often, I find the images that are personal favorites because they hold meaning to me, whether because of the people in them, or the circumstances surrounding them. 

This year’s favorite

This year, I think my favorite image has to be “Neo and I.” It’s a self-portrait I created in July when Comet Neowise was visible in the night sky for a couple of remarkable weeks. It’s not perfect from a technical standpoint, but the story behind it makes it special to me, and is why I have it printed and framed in my house as well.

While 2020 was difficult in many ways, Comet Neowise was one of the unique and positive things that I hope to remember from the year, a literal beam of light in a darker than usual year. 

My personal favorite photo of 2020, “Neo and I.”

The shoot

While Comet Neowise was visible I spent the nights out chasing it around my hometown from different locations. On the day of this particular shoot, I’d been thinking that I would like to get an image of myself with the comet down at the beach in front of my childhood home. I know the beach intimately as I spent a large chunk of my first 18 years there. It’s where I built fires, fished for bullheads, swam off the raft my dad built, and slept in the sand under the stars. It is the very definition of home for me. 

So, with all of that in mind, I took off to my parents’ house just before dark with a shot in mind. I visited with my parents until it was dark enough to head down the path to the beach. Much to my surprise and delight, my mom decided to join me instead of heading to bed. As our flashlights led the way through the darkness down to the beach, I could see that the tide was a bit too far in for the shot I’d had in mind. I was disappointed, but determined to come up with another option. 

The rocks that I had originally hoped to use in my shoot were too far under water by the time Neowise was visible.

I could see that Neo was lined up well with a large rock across the bay, so I decided to try and use it as my prop. The incoming tide was quickly devouring the peninsula of rocks that I was setting my gear up on, so I knew I had to act quickly.

It was at this point that I realized just how much I process out loud when I’m setting up a shot, as I think my mom was quite entertained with my constant stream of consciousness while I frantically worked. I took a few test shots of the rock and the comet, getting my composition and exposure set as quickly as I could. Once that was set, it was time to put myself into the image.

A dusk view of the beach where the shot took place. My camera was set up on the first line of rocks, while I stood across the bay on the larger rock.

Co-creating with mom

At this point I would usually use my intervalometer to set up a timed “selfie” of sorts. But because my mom was with me, I thought it would be fun to get her involved and put her to work. I set the two-second timer and showed her where to press the shutter. I then started the couple minute run over the seaweed covered rocks in the dark, to get to the large rock at the other side of the bay. 

Once I approached the rock, I could see that the incoming tide had swallowed up the dry land around it. This meant sacrificing a pair of shoes to the salt water as I waded to the lowest point of the rock and climbed my way up. In my haste to set up the shot before the tide came in too far, I hadn’t come up with a good communication system with my mom to let her know when to hit the shutter. I now carry walkie talkies for this type of situation!

At this point the wind and waves were drowning out most verbal communication between us so I just yelled “Fire!” at the top of my lungs and then proceeded to stand as still as possible for the 20-second exposure, precariously balanced about eight feet above the shallow water below me. I changed position a few times and went through the same routine, the whole time having no idea if my mom was hitting the shutter again or not but hoping for the best. 

A closer look at Comet Neowise shot on the same night.

The result

Finally, after a heart-stopping moment of almost falling off the rock, I carefully climbed down and made my way back over to the other side of the bay. My mom and I laughed a little about our horrible communication skills as I started reviewing the image playback to see if we’d gotten any keepers. Image after image didn’t work until, finally, I got to the very first one we’d taken. It was exactly what I’d hoped for. With a wave of relief washing over me, I got to show my mom the image we’d created together on the back of the camera. 

Now don’t get me wrong — the image isn’t perfect. Ideally I would have spent another hour perfecting it. I would have liked to light paint the rocks to show the foreground a little more. I would have shifted the composition a little to the right to get away from some of the noise pollution on the horizon at the left of the scene. But given the time constraints I was faced with regarding the quickly incoming tide, I was happy to get the shot.

But more than that, I got to show my mom a little piece of my world. I got her out under the stars to experience the comet firsthand, and she got to co-create an image with me, in a place that means so much to both of us. And as an added bonus, I even convinced her to get into a shot as well. In a year that will be remembered for so many negative things, I’m happy to have these photos and memories to look back on as a highlight for my 2020.

My mom’s picture with Neowise.