Ben’s Picks: 20 of 2021’s Best Maine Landscape and Wildlife Photos

Down East staff photographer Benjamin Williamson's favorite shots of the year.

Ben’s Picks: 17 of the Best Maine Photos of 2021

Another year of spectacular made-in-Maine images, and I’m honored as always to collect a few of my personal favorites. This list is far from exhaustive, and I’ve focused on my favorite sorts of images — ones that show off the state’s scenic splendor. (To see some of the year’s best reportage- and documentary-style Maine photography, watch this space at the Portland Press Herald). The photos that move me most are the ones that make me feel connected not only to the content of an image but also to the photographer behind it. I like to see their unique ways of looking at the world and to see work done with feeling — and all these images exemplify that.

West Quoddy Reflection, by Allie Wityak

West Quoddy Reflection

Photographed by Allie Wityak

Taking notice — that’s what photography is all about. Wityak’s shot of the iconic candy-cane–striped tower of West Quoddy Lighthouse, reflected in the window of the keeper’s house, takes very literal advantage of the technique of framing. The red colors pop and contrast nicely with the harmonious blues, greens, and whites.  

Popham Beach Sunrise, by Nate Johnson

Popham Beach Sunrise

Photographed by Nate Johnson

This simple image shows you don’t need a lot of elements to make a stunning impression. The light and atmosphere are obviously the highlight here, the layering just wonderful. For me, the diagonal line of the land, sloping down from left to right, evokes a feeling of calmness and relaxation. Kudos to Johnson for capturing such a simple scene so effectively.

Sirens Song, Monhegan Island, by Kurt Budliger

Tidal Inlet, Monhegan Island

Photographed by Kurt Budliger

Lines and shapes, color and contrast, movement and mood: all of these elements come together so nicely in this image. You can feel the deliberate composition, the thought put into getting that little cove in the bottom right corner, and the way it balances the yellow glow of the sunrise behind the cliffs on the upper left. Budliger took this at just the right moment, the colors peaking in the sky and the waves swirling in the foreground, all accentuated with a long shutter speed.

Seaweed Study, by Brenda Petrella

Rockweed Study

Photographed by Brenda Petrella

I’ve been known to scorn seaweed from time to time, a slimy black mass uglying up an otherwise pristine shoreline in the foreground of a photo. But Petrella finds beauty in the lines, shapes, and hues of this fascinating vegetation. With the blue-hued plant in the center, framed by shades of yellow and orange, we focus on the alluring branched structure. I’ll be sure to look a little closer at seaweed next time I’m down on the rocks at low tide.

Fox Kit by John Putrino

Fox Kit

Photographed by John Putrino

In late winter, I start looking forward to seeing fox kits — not just in person, but also through the eyes of talented photographers like Putrino. This shot stood out, not least for its perfect lighting. The dark background of the den creates great contrast with the animal’s fur, which almost appears to be glowing in the soft light. The curious gaze and peaceful expression are captivating. The best wildlife images make you feel connected to the animals being photographed, and this one makes me feel like I’m right there. 

Power of the Sea, by Dominic Trapani

Cresting Waves

Photographed by Dominic Trapani

Wow. What a capture of the raw, rugged power of the ocean. The square crop perfectly frames the elements here. I can feel the wind peeling the water backward, away from the forward motion of the wave, and that little curl at the bottom of the frame just steals your attention. Who needs golden light to create a dramatic image of nature and landscape? Not Trapani, who took this in bright daylight. I love images like this one that make a simple, strong statement.

Dinghies in the Mist, by Ann Pollard Ranco

Dinghies in the Mist

Photographed by Ann Pollard Ranco

This image captures the Maine mystique so well. I’m a sucker for images that feature dinghies, and these two lead my eye perfectly into the scene. The midground is a dream of rocky shoreline and conifers. That pocket beach is so inviting. The hues are perfect, from the sandy oranges that tie the dock, dinghies, sand, and rocks together to the blue greens that link the water to the trees and foggy sky. I love that this could be anywhere on the coast — there are no iconic lighthouses, no familiar structures or landmarks. It’s just beautiful Maine, captured in such a wonderful mood.

Standing on the Edge, by Jamie Malcolm Brown

Milky Way, Edge of the 100-Mile Wilderness

Photographed by Jamie Malcolm-Brown

This image fills me with awe. I was so moved by it, and what I eventually realized was that what initially struck me as a story of joy and wonder was actually tinged with sadness. When I ponder the clear-cut the figure is standing in, my feelings are mixed: gratitude for such an opening for that view, sadness for the destruction that allowed for it. It feels like an allegory for the modern condition of nature: ravaged by man but also shaped into landscapes that benefit us. Then there’s the isolation of that lone figure: Solitude can be beautiful — some of my happiest, most meaningful moments have been when I’m alone. But solitude can also be oppressive when I’m not in the right frame of mind. This one reminds me that art involves a dialogue between creator and viewer, a collaboration of intent and interpretation.

Sunset Over Manana, by Scott Thorp

Sunset Over Manana Island

Photographed by Scott Thorp

Ah, Monhegan. I’ve had a love affair with this island for almost a decade. There’s simply nowhere else like it. Thorp beautifully captures the view from beside the Island Inn, towards the landing and Manana Island. I love the mixed lighting here, the balance between natural and man-made light sources in the sky and foreground, and how Thorp kept things pretty dark, as they’d appear in person. This just captures what a special place Monhegan is.

Cold Morning on the Moose River, by Isaac Crabtree

Cold Morning on the Moose River

Photographed by Isaac Crabtree

How about that tree? I love when an element in an image breaks the pattern. Trees can often be stubbornly upright, but this tree, leaning over the water, is interesting by itself, and using it to frame Mount Kineo is a genius touch. All the negative space contributes to the visceral feel of the cold — the cold that created the mist rising in the background, the ice in the foreground, the snow and rime on the shoreline and in the tree. I love winter photography, and this shot checks off so many of the reasons why.

Boon Island Eclipse, by Jamie Walter

Boon Island Eclipse

Photographed by Jamie Walter

When an interesting meteorological or astronomical event is coming up, many Maine photographers will ponder the best way to showcase it. Whether he’s shooting the Northern Lights or comets or eclipses, Walter takes creative and inspirational approaches, often going to great lengths to make beautiful photos happen. To get this shot, he had to get out on the water very early and motor more than 8 miles out. The lighthouse pointing up at the crescent sun is great composition — it’s not often the sun takes on the shape we so readily associate with the moon.

Early Morning Loon, by Nancy Murphy Campbell

Early Morning Loon

Photographed by Nancy Murphy Campbell

The framing is perfect here. Cropping off the loon’s back half keeps the attention on all of the interest and action at the front. Campbell photographed this loon in conditions any photographer would be envious of, the mist rising off the water so beautifully. And that poor fish, the focal point of the image, is colored a wonderfully translucent yellow by the morning sun.

Grafton Notch at Night, by Moe Chen

Grafton Notch at Night

Photographed by Moe Chen

Chen’s work has long been an inspiration for me. I happen to know that work and family keep him very busy, but he still finds time to make compelling images like this one. For those of you who recognize Screw Auger Falls, this feels like an impossible photo to take. There is nowhere to stand here. To get this perspective, Chen used a drone, in unbelievably low light, to frame the foreground. Although this is a composite, I still get the feeling of being here, in this dark space with rushing water around me and the wonder of the night sky above. It’s an evocative image that creates a wonderful mood. 

Moose Reflected, by Laura Zamfirescu

Moose Reflected

Photographed by Laura Zamfirescu

I love Zamfirescu’s wildlife photography (and she’s also a great landscape photographer and drone operator, as evidenced by her shot on the cover of the December issue of Down East, a brilliant capture of Camden Harbor in winter). This image of a moose is so mesmerizing. I can’t imagine how she captured a reflection that still, what with the moose dipping its mouth into the water and the fact that this was taken from a kayak or canoe. Stillness and patience are qualities absolutely necessary for wildlife photographers, and clearly Zamfirescu is a master of both.

Special Moment, by John Putnam

Deer on Sand Beach

Photographed by John K. Putnam

Sometimes, a great photo shows us something differently that’s always been there, while other times, it captures something totally unique. This one’s an example of the latter. Why this beautiful forest creature felt compelled to walk down to the ocean, among the sand, boulders, and saltwater, I can’t fathom. But there’s more than just good fortune at work here — Putnam has framed this nicely and captured the posture of the deer at an interesting moment. And how about that smooth water in the background? That’s not because the sea was calm but because Putnam used a long exposure — a skillful choice, indeed. 

October Light, by Laura Casey

October Light

Photographed by Laura Casey

This is so well seen! This fall, Casey posted a series of images to Instagram that amounted to a master class on capturing what makes the Carrabassett Valley special. This image was a standout. Birches are beautiful under regular circumstances, but these whimsical trunks are something else. The colors contrast so well — red and green are complementary on the color wheel, you know. This one just illustrates how beautiful autumn in Maine can be.

Deep Woods Moon, by Chris Bennett

Deep Woods Moon

Photographed by Chris Bennett

Of all the wildly adventurous and interesting things Bennett posted to his Instagram this year, this simple image was the most compelling, in my mind. It’s just a simple, lovely capture of something universal but at the same time deeply regional, with those shapely spruce tops. And that purple sky is awfully nice too.

Rocks and Reeds, by Stanley John

Rocks and Reeds

Photographed by Stanley John

The light and mood in this image convey such a sense of peace to me. I feel like I’m out here on a warm summer afternoon, wandering among the rocks and reeds. There’s nothing that ties this to a specific location along the coast, and I like that. John has made a wonderful composition with the textured reeds in the foreground, beautifully side-lit rocks in the midground, and the jut of rocky headlands and puffy summer cumulus clouds in the background. This is the type of image that you could hang on a wall and just stare into to recharge any time of day.  

Hello Spring, by Nick Staples

Portland Cherry Trees

Photographed by Nick Staples

Portland’s cherry trees are something to see, and Staples captured the peak of the season here. This composition puts me right there, on a beautiful brick sidewalk with those wondrous trees above, backlit with a perfect sunstar. I like how bright this feels, even though it’s totally backlit.

Blue Moon Thunderstorm, by Ben Pearson

Blue Moon Thunderstorm

Photographed by Ben Pearson

Pearson dropped a terrific photo book, The Rangeleys, this year, and I’m so glad it brought his work to my attention. I’m a total weather nut and a big-time moon chaser, and this here is one of the coolest cloud captures I’ve ever seen. How awesome is that towering cumulonimbus cloud, lit from within by lightning? Looking at Pearson’s images makes me really appreciate how special the Rangeley area is, as well as what a great documentarian he is.

Happy Holidays from all of us at Down East!

Working on your photography in 2022? Sign up for a photo workshop with Down East staff and contributors, held all over the state, from Acadia to Monhegan to the western mountains.