I hope everyone is having a blessed Christmas season.  As is my ritual, once a year, in December, I put together a list of the photographs which I think are the best.  Some may be personal favorites and some may be both personal and favorites of those following my blog and social media outlets.
After each image, I will write a blurb explaining the image, and why I picked it as one of the best of the year. The images are ordered starting with what image I think is the best. I also wanted to say that I think this is a great exercise for us all to do once a year to grow as photographers. By the end of the year, you will know how you have progressed by doing this simple and fun exercise.
#1 American Black Bear

Without a doubt my vote for the best image of 2015 has to go to "American Black Bear."  First, I think this image has incredible impact.  The composition is such that I have intentionally cropped out the ears and left the viewer with the intense stare, while his paw across the bottom acts as an ideal framing element to bounce the user back to the eyes and nose.  Composition aside, the eyes of this bear are very intense, and it leaves the viewer unsure of the bear's intent.  Finally, I like the lighting coming in from the right giving the guard hairs the bright silver highlights.  Thanks teddy for giving us a great look into your personality : )
This image was a finalist in the "Outdoor Galore" photo contest.
  • Date Taken: August 15, 2015
  • Camera: Canon EOS 7D (classic)
  • Lens: Sigma 150-600 C
  • Focal Length: 600mm (960mm effective with APS-C)
  • Aperture/Shutter-speed:  f6.3, 1/100th of a second
  • ISO: 1600
  • Tripod:  Yes
  • Flash: No

#2 The Call

Number two has to go to this screech owl.  I labeled this image "The Call", but honestly he is doing a bit of vocalization combined with working on his breakfast.  I like this image from a behavior perspective as it gives the viewer a more intimate view of an owl that is normally only seen and heard during the evening and early morning.   The burned out tree behind it is the perfect background for this beautiful bird. There is also a subtle gradient in the far background as the morning light of the forest illuminates a portion of said forest. This image will also be published in the January 2016 edition of Wildlife Magazine. 
  • Date Taken: March 20, 2015
  • Camera:  Canon EOS 7D (classic)
  • Lens:  Canon 70-200L f4 IS
  • Focal Length: 200mm
  • Aperture/Shutter speed: f4, 1/125th of a second
  • ISO: 1250
  • Tripod Mounted:  Yes
  • Flash:  Yes/fill flash

#3 Hummingbird in Flight

Coming in at number three is this shot of a ruby-throated hummingbird lapping up nectar from a petunia.  There are several reasons I like this shot. First, I like the composition of having the two petunia flowers offset by the single bird.  This forms a triangle of leading lines.  Next, I think the green background accentuates the bright green iridescent feathers of the bird and contrasts nicely with the red flowers.  Next, I like the fact that I was able to freeze the wings using a high speed flash technique while leaving just a slight ghost to suggest movement.  Finally, come one, who doesn't like a hummingbird!
  • Date Taken: June 6, 2015
  • Camera: Canon EOS 7D (classic)
  • Lens:  Tamron SP 70-300 VC
  • Focal Length: 200mm
  • Aperture/Shutter speed:  f11, 1/250th of a second
  • ISO 125
  • Tripod Mounted:  Yes
  • Flash:  Yes, multiple lights

#4 House Finch on Peach Branch

I really have no idea why this is not popular among the public, but this image is one of my favorites from the year so I have positioned it at number four.  First, this image just screams springtime!  The beautiful pink peach blossoms, set against the earthy background fill me with the joy of this time of the year.  Next, this house finch is a beautiful male in full breeding plumage, and his feather color and detail are accentuated by the brilliant afternoon sun coming in from the right.  Finally, from a technical perspective, I love the sharpness of this image, contrast and the beautiful bokeh. 
  • Date Taken: March 23, 2015
  • Camera: Canon EOS 7D (classic)
  • Lens: Canon 70-200L f4 IS
  • Focal Length: 200mm
  • Aperture/Shutter Speed:  f8, 1/250th of a second
  • ISO: 320
  • Tripod Mounted:  Yes
  • Flash: No

#5 Powder and Lead

Number five goes to a still life I created early last year called "Powder and Lead."  First, I like this image because it speaks to a rustic time long ago in American history.  The old pine table is the perfect backdrop, and could have easily been a table found in a high ranking Union officer's tent during the Civil War.  Finally, I like the positioning of the elements in the photo, which gives the composition a nice balance.  The eye is taken in a large circle, starting in the top left, and ending in the round pile of gunpowder in the center.  
  • Date Taken: April 20, 2015
  • Camera:  Canon EOS 7D (classic)
  • Lens:  Canon EF 50 1.8 II
  • Focal Length:  50mm
  • Aperture/Shutter Speed:  5.6, 2 seconds
  • ISO: 100
  • Tripod Mounted:  Yes
  • Flash: No

#6 American Flamingo

Number six goes to this amazing example of an American flamingo.  First, I love the bright orange feathers which frame the focal point of the image: the bird's eye.  Images like this which have great impact and and intimate look into the animal's personality are rapidly becoming part of my style as a photographer.  Finally, I like that there is just so much detail to absorb here.  Look at the fine detail in the feathers, and the eye.  This is the type of view that only a camera can produce.
  • Date Taken: June 26, 2015
  • Camera:  Canon EOS 7D (classic)
  • Lens:  Tamron SP 70-300 f4-5.6 VC
  • Focal Length: 300mm
  • Aperture/Shutter Speed:  f14, 1/250th of a second
  • ISO: 400
  • Tripod Mounted: No
  • Flash:  Yes

#7 Tri-colored Heron Display

On to number seven which is an image of a tri-colored heron who is not very happy that another heron has invaded his hunting ground.  Here, he is flashing his wings to and making aggressive movements to let the other heron know he is unhappy.  Right away I am drawn to this image by the somewhat odd, but interesting composition.  The bird's left wing is at a very high angle and provides a beautiful look at his wing feathers.  I think I also like this shot because it is has a lot of action and tension.  Viewers like to see animals in action rather than a subject just standing in one place.
  • Date Taken:  November 18, 2015
  • Camera: Canon EOS 7D (classic)
  • Lens:  Sigma 150-600 C
  • Focal Length: 600mm
  • Aperture/Shutter Speed: f6.3, 1/320th of a second
  • ISO: 1000
  • Tripod Mounted: No (bean bag supported)
  • Flash: No

#8 Anhinga Portrait

Number eight is a portrait I recently took of an anhinga while in Florida.  I like this shot because it has impact.  The bird's eye is intense, his bill is lifted and he is vocalizing.  That combined with a simple background make this a winning shot, in my opinion.  Finally I like the detail produced by the lens.  When you are taking a tight portrait, it helps to have good glass.  Again this type of image is really becoming part of my style as a wildlife photographer.  Get close and get impact! This stylistic approach is in sharp contrast to photographers like  Moose Peterson who tend to shoot more environmental portraits.
  • Date Taken: November 15, 2015
  • Camera:  Canon EOS 7D (classic)
  • Lens:  Sigma 150-600 C
  • Focal Length: 600mm
  • Aperture/Shutter Speed:  f6.3, 1/500
  • ISO: 400
  • Tripod:  No (bean bag supported)
  • Flash: No

#9 Laughing Gull with Shrimp

One of the hallmarks of becoming a better photographer is being able to photograph the mundane in a new way.  I think I have done that here with this image of this laughing gull eating a shrimp from the nearby salt marsh.  First, I think this image has impact by showing a tight portrait of this gull, but more than that, I think the element which makes it unusually is this perfectly focused shrimp hanging from the gull's bill.  Finally, I like that the image has a nice, smooth gradient background.  The gradient is caused by the water and a row of brown grass along the water's edge.
  • Date Taken: October 19, 2015
  • Camera:  Canon EOS 7D (classic)
  • Lens:  Sigma 150-600 C
  • Focal Length: 252mm
  • Aperture/Shutter Speed: f5.6, 1/2000th of a second
  • ISO: 160
  • Tripod:  No
  • Flash:  No

#9 Carolina Wren in Snow

Finally, at number ten, we have the Carolina Wren in Snow.  Honestly, this could just has easily been in fourth place as it could tenth, but I knew it had to be on my list, and I thought it would be good to round it out as we head into the winter.
I like this shot because first, it is a snowy winter image.   The snow provides a nice soothing element to the photograph, and if you look closely you will see the wren has a snowflake in his beak.  Finally, I like the way the ash tree and the bird provide complementary leading lines.  I really like the angles produced here.  
  • Date Taken: February 15, 2015
  • Camera:  Canon EOS 7D (classic)
  • Lens:  Canon EF 70-210 f4
  • Focal Length: 95mm
  • Aperture/Shutter Speed:  f10, 1/320th of a second
  • ISO: 400
  • Tripod: Yes
  • Flash: No

What a great year and I can only hope and pray that 2016 gives me the same or better results.  If you have not subscribed to my podcast, check it out by going to my website http://mattcuda.com/index.php?/pages/podcast/ 

God bless and I wish you a wonderful year in 2016...

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