My top photos of 2020

As I count down the hours until I have to return to work for 2021, I thought I should enjoy my annual trip down memory lane by putting up my top 10 photos for 2020.
Now I know that in the past I’ve done my top 18 in 2018, and my top 17 in 2017…but there is simply no way I can be bothered doing 20 photos for 2020. I tore the tendons in my ankle, Ruth Bader Ginsberg died…and I’m pretty sure there was something else that happened that wasn’t good. So in no particular order, here are my top 10, and you can just assume the other 10 are screenshots from Zoom meetings where I’m saying ‘You’re on mute’.

National Photographic Portrait Prize

My lanyard and program from the National Photographic Portrait Prize

Impressed with how many times I can work the fact that I was a finalist in the National Photographic Portrait Prize (NPPP) last year into conversation? Well you should be…and you should be glad I now have to devote equal gloating time to this and the Ironman I did in 2015.
This is a photo that acts as proof that it actually did happen. I actually did get to go to Canberra, and see my photo hanging in a gallery, and get a lanyard with that photo so that people could decide if they wanted to come over and talk to me about it, and that the event where it was all going to be announced had to be scaled back drastically because of COVID restrictions…and I thought that this was DEFINITELY THE WORST THING THAT WAS GOING TO HAPPEN TO ME AS A RESULT OF THE PANDEMIC!!!
Good times…good times.

Horsing around

Black hats and colourful ribbons

The day after the NPPP, we took my daughter and niece to The Saddle Club where they learnt how to groom, feed, saddle, and ride horses. In my head this was going to be an amazing place to get some photos…in reality, it was bushland that was recovering from recent bushfires and was in full sun that made everything look ‘meh’.
But at the end of the day, one of the instructors was walking along a corridor inside the house and I saw this photo opportunity. So all hopped on the confidence that being a finalist in the NPPP (and also an Ironman) brings, I asked if I could take a quick portrait, and this was the result.
I love the colours, and the light, and the fact that Grace was rocking a hat that I could never dream of wearing.

Opportunities and bees

Abandoned shed on the road to Warrnambool.

The last couple of times I’ve driven to Warrnambool, Google Maps has taken me via Camperdown and past this abandoned house/shed. Each time I’ve seen it I’ve thought “That would be a great photo!” But each time I’ve also thought “I’m already late for whatever it is we’re filming in Warrnambool so I can’t stop!”
But late last year I was heading home from a job (there’s nothing better than driving to Warrnambool, doing a days work and then driving home at the end of it!) and I saw the shed, and I saw the wheat, and I saw the skies, and I realised I had to pull over and get the shot or I would never forgive myself.
So I found a spot where I could park, and waded my way through the waste-high wheat, keeping a keen eye out for snakes. When I got to the shed I could see a small swarm of bees by the door. I’m not particularly worried about bees, and have a strong belief in ‘If you don’t bother them, they won’t bother you’. So I took a few shot in and around the shed. But the whole time, there were a few bees flying around my head…then they started landing in my hair, then they started stinging my head, then I started flailing my arms wildly and running at high speed through the wheat back to the car, all the while trying not to drop my camera or get bitten by a snake (although I did wonder if I got bitten by a snake AND a bee at the same time, would I get super-powers?)
Mid-scamper back to the car I looked back at the shed hoping I wouldn’t see a plague of bees coming my way…instead I saw this shot. I took one shot standing up, and then another crouching down to make the wheat the foreground.
I was really happy with the result…and it nearly made up for the long drive home with bee-stings in my forehead.

Just a test

Portrait of my Dad

If there were a theme to the portrait shots that I’m really happy with, it would be ‘people not smiling, but not unhappy, in black and white’. This is a case in point.
On the last day that I had the GFX (Fuji’s Medium format camera) I spent the whole day taking portraits with my softbox. Dad was the first cab off the rank and so this shot was literally a test shot to dial in my settings. The shot was badly over overexposed, but the incredible amount of data in the medium format images meant I was able to pull it back in post-production, and it’s one of favourite photos from the day.
It’s also a fitting tribute to Dad’s ‘Lockdown beard’.

They shoot piers don’t they?

The early bird

As mentioned in the previous photo, I was lucky enough to borrow an eye-wateringly expensive camera from Fuji and play with it for a couple of weeks. During that time we went to Lorne and one morning Josh and I got up super-early to take some photos down on the Lorne Pier. I got some really nice landscapey photos of the pier…but I always much prefer to have a human element in my shots. We were just about to go when this old guy in a bright yellow jacket started walking down the pier, I took a few snaps…and this one with the bird just above him just really clicked with me. I liked to imagine that he was such a wily fisherman that he always got the fish, and the birds knew it…that’s why they were circling him.


An extra from a Wes Anderson film if ever I’ve seen one

In that wonderful time in between lockdown 1 and lockdown 2, we were lucky enough to get to Bright. The place we were staying had a billabong, and so I got up to get some ‘sunrise over water’ shots. I knew that these were going to be purely landscape shots, so I put my wide-angle 10-24mm lens on and trotted down to the billabong. As I stood there trying to work out the best shot, I heard a noise behind me. I assumed it was one of the kids coming to see what I was doing, but when I turned around I saw this fox. Now I know that foxes are pests and eat native animals…and so I shouldn’t have been so stoked to see it. But in my defence…check out that tail!
The problem was, I was stuck on my wide angle lens, so unless I could get really close to the fox, it was going to be a very small part of a larger picture. I walked to a different part of the billabong, and noticed that it followed me the whole way. It always kept a safe distance…but was clearly interested in what I was doing. So I just settled into one spot and waited. Sure enough, it came in a bit closer, and then a bit closer still. If I moved the camera in front of my face it moved back, so this was taken from the hip and with a lot of faith in autofocus.
To be honest I just wanted a memento to prove that this really did happen…I didn’t need to hear ‘Dad’s seeing foxes again’ from my kids.


Sandy Point legend ‘Bones’ on his way to the surf

At the very start of the year, Holly and Josh got surfing lessons from ‘Bones’. He’s an incredible character who has been part of Sandy Point for as long as we’ve been going there.
I was out of surfing action as I had done my ankle and was still in a brace. But after the lesson I asked Bones if I could take a few photos. I was so relieved when he said ‘yes’ that I really rushed through the photos as I was paranoid about taking too much of his time. As a result, the photos were OK…but I didn’t think I’d really captured him as I see him.
Fast forward 11 months and Josh and I are heading out for a surf and Bones is walking in front of us. I had the GoPro with me to take some shots in the surf…so I grabbed this shot. I love the clouds, the green and blue and the leading lines of the fences…but most of all, I had finally captured Bones as I saw him.

Advanced photography in the surf

Josh tearing up the waves at Sandy Point

A good photographer should be able to see the shot they want, compose for it and then nail the execution. What they should NOT be doing, is setting their GoPro for burst mode and taking 10 shots in 3 seconds and simply pointing their camera in the general direction of their subject.
So for the record, I knew that if I took this photo at this exact moment, then I would frame Josh inside the breaking wave as it crashed over me. Furthermore, I was not joyfully surprised when I looked back at the dozens one single photo and saw this.

Caught by the rising tide

Caught out by the rising tide

I know that for someone who spent a LOT of 2020 not being able to travel more than 5kms from my home…I sure do have a LOT of photos from the beach! Actually the majority of these photos were taken during that brief window between lockdowns. At the time it seemed insane to be travelling from Sandy Point for one weekend, then Lorne the next…after all, we had the rest of the year to travel!
Bwah ha ha! Bwah ha ha! Bwah ha ha ha!
I can’t begin to desribe the number of times Katie and I thanked our lucky stars that we travelled while we had the chance!
Anyway, this weekend at Sandy Point was meant to be the starting point of me borrowing the Fuji GFX. But in a magical example of the world mocking my best laid plans, the GFX body arrived in time…but the lenses didn’t.
So I was down on the beach, during an incredible sunset, cursing the fact that I had a $10K camera…but no lenses that would fit on it, when these two guys got caught out by a wave that came up a lot higher than its predecessors and I took this shot.
I was a bit filthy that I didn’t have the big medium format camera to get this photo, as the colours were so amazing…but in reality, this was such an instinctive shot, that I think I would still have been messing with the settings of the GFX as this unfolded before me.
As they say, ‘the best camera, is the one you have with you.’

2020 in a shot

Our protector

2020 was a year of many things for our family. A lot of time inside, a lot time feeling that people outside were having fun and that we couldn’t be part of it, a lot of time walking ‘all of Brighton’…and a LOT of time being super grateful to have our Beagle ‘Marnie’ in the house.
I hope that after the front-line workers get their hard-earned thanks…the pets of Melbourne get some sort of acknowledgment for the work they did keeping us all together during COVID times.
So here’s to the dogs!

Fuji GFX

Have you ever seen an older gentleman in a hideously expensive sports car and thought ‘That machine is capable of so much more than you could ever ask of it. That is such a waste of potential!!!’ Well me using Fuji’s Medium Format GFX is pretty much the photographic equivalent. But that didn’t stop me from borrowing one from Fuji try it out. Here’s how it went.

The camera

If you’ve come to this blog knowing a bit about photography, you will already know what a Medium Format camera is…and if you’ve come to this blog not knowing much about photography you really won’t care about pixel counts and sensor sizes. So I won’t waste any time throwing numbers at you.
In short, the camera I normally shoot on (the Fuji x-T1) has a sensor about the size of a postage stamp, and the GFX has a sensor about the size of a tea-bag.
Do I think for a second that Fuji want me making this comparison? No.
Do I think it’s very helpful for people trying to picture this in their mind? Also, no.
But it basically means that each photo has a lot more pixels and therefore a lot more information and detail. When I had my photo (taken on the x-T1) in the NPPP I had it printed as large as I could without it losing any detail…and when I saw it compared to the other photos, my first thought was ‘Why is my photo so small?!’ Part of the answer may have been that the other photos were taken with cameras with a bigger sensor.

‘Soooo…your Dad’s photo is pretty small huh!’

So part of me wanted to see just what was possible with a camera with a bigger sensor…the other part of me knew that I had purchased my entire Fuji kit (camera body and 4 x lenses) for $5K, and $5K wasn’t even going to get me the camera body of a GFX, let alone lenses. So were my photos going to be 4 times better with $20K worth of camera gear? Let’s find out! (Narrator’s voice – ‘They weren’t”)

The lenses

I was lucky enough to be sent 4 lenses; a 45mm, 63mm, 120mm and 250mm. Instead of banging on about them, here’s a snapshot of each:

The 45mm

I REALLY liked this lens. Wide enough for landscapes and architecture, but tight enough for an environmental portrait.

The 63mm

Hey, do you know what’s fun? Maths. So this 63mm on the medium format, is about the same as a 50mm on a full-frame and a 35mm on my Fuji x-T1. So this is a convoluted way of saying that if I could only have one lens on the GFX… this would be it.

The 120mm

The 120mm was probably my revelation as a portrait lens. I’ve never really done portraits where people’s hands are cut off, or heaven forbid, part of their head is cutoff. But I LOVED how some of these shots turned out with this lens, and I’ll definitely be using this in my future portraits…albeit with a LOT fewer pixels!

The 250mm

I added this to my list of lenses because I thought I was going to take photos of wildlife. I didn’t. So this lens didn’t get as much of a workout as the others. But I also took one of my favourite GFX pictures with it, so on average is was probably the best performer!

So what’s it actually like?

You 100% feel like a Pro with this camera in your hands. It feels solid and purpose built, the sound of the shutter is brilliant and it has the same functionality as my x-T1 so everything I needed was at my fingertips. The file sizes are enormous! I’m used to having my RAW files as 20mb files on the x-T1, whereas the jpegs that come out of the GFX are 20mb…the RAW files over 100mb! So on my first day of shooting I went to a skate park where I was shooting RAW+Jpeg on burst mode, and just about filled my entire 32GB card! There are a lot of reviews of this camera where people say ‘It really made me slow down and consider my composition’ which I had thought was a comment on just how much you can fit onto the sensor…but I now realise it was just code for ‘I can’t afford to buy another hard-drive to store these files!’

Should have gone on the wider lens!
I missed SO many of these photos where I tried to follow the skater to keep them sharp while everything else is blurred that I almost cried.

I loved the amazing detail in the photos. I loved being able to shoot at f32 for a long exposure and not have to worry about ND filters.

f 32 and 7 second exposure at Kalimna Falls
f 22 and 5 seconds at a Lorne sunrise

I loved that even shots that were brutally over-exposed could be made to look amazing!

This was just a lighting test to set the level of the flash. Did I turn it down after this shot? Damn straight I did. But when I worked on it in Lightroom it actually became one of my favourite shots.
I had been taking photos on the other side of the pier and when I turned on the camera it still had the old settings. It looked so ethereal in the viewfinder that I had to take the shot.

I loved the results I got when using a soft-box or off-camera flash.

But most of all I loved the motivation it gave me to get out and take photos ‘You’ve got $20K worth of camera equipment for a short period of time’ is a VERY strong motivator to get out and shoot!

The photo prior to this didn’t have the bird flying through…the bird really makes it.
Kids in trees…always good.
Families in trees…also good.
Photo of the photographer…with thanks to Katie!

But would I buy one?

Well first and foremost I would like to thank Fuji Australia for allowing me to borrow the camera. Outside of some bizarre ‘You’ve seen this camera in the hands of the best…now see it in the hands of the rest?’ angle, there really was no reason for them to take a chance on me. I can’t imagine there is a huge demographic of my readership with $20K burning a hole in their pocket just looking for a camera to spend it on. So I can’t imagine sales are going to skyrocket after me writing about it. But to Fuji, and in particular Neil, thank you so much for this. You were fantastic to work with, and I really appreciated this once in a lifetime opportunity.
But would I buy one? No. If I had the money would I buy one? Yes. Would I hire one to shoot a wedding or a proper photoshoot? Yes. Is Fuji likely to loan me gear again after saying this? Probably not.
But this is not a reflection on the camera, it’s a reflection on where I am with my photography. When I was training for the Ironman and the 3-Peaks, I could never justify buying a new super-fast bike, or super-light wheels to get myself some ‘free’ speed, until I knew that I had done everything in my power to make myself as fast as possible (train more, lose weight, race smart etc). Not surprisingly I never bought a new bike…because I never got to the spot where the only thing holding me back was my gear. Similarly, there are still SO many things that I can improve with my technique, my discipline, my willingness to approach complete strangers etc that will result in better photographs. I need to get them sorted before I can look to better gear to raise my game.
I have also had my x-T1 for nearly 5 years now. I’ve shot a documentary on it, multiple videos, weddings, award nominated portraits and even a photo where 9 children are all doing what I wanted them to at exactly the same time!
If, in the process of trying to get an epic shot, my camera got hit by an errant skateboard, or fell into the ocean, or was eaten by a surprisingly fast and aggressive turtle…I could live with it. I certainly wouldn’t be happy about it, but I could live with it. And that gives me a level of freedom that simply doesn’t come with holding a camera worth more than a family holiday to somewhere NICE.
Plus, if I take a photo with my x-T1 and the 35mm lens and it’s an abject failure, people think ‘Well, he only has that little camera that looks like it’s from the 1970s…what did you expect?!’ But if I take a great shot, suddenly I’m a genius who may get upwards of 7 or 8 likes on Instagram! Follow me a @sumo_21 😉 But if I take a great photo on the GFX people will think ‘Well yes OF COURSE he took an amazing photo…he has that amazing camera.’ Worse still, if someone sees one the of MANY crap photos I took with it, they’ll think ‘Why does he have such a fancy camera, when his photos are so average?!’

Plus, every photographer knows about Gear Acquisition Syndrome, you always need something to aim for, and if I had a GFX 50, what could I possibly have to look forward to after that?! It’s not as if Fuji are going to do a GFX 100 that has a 100 megapixel sensor…I mean that would be insane, and…what? They have made one?!


Excuse me…I have to change the entire tone of this blog…and then make a grovelling call to Fuji!