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My 25 Favorite Travel Photos of 2020 – A Year in Review

Photography will always be my greatest passion - and what better what to demonstrate than with my favorite photos of 2020?

By Jason Barnette | Travel writer and photographer with 15+ years of road tripping experience

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Wherever I travel, I always have a camera with me. It’s not out of obligation but rather the fact photography will always be my greatest passion. I love capturing the best photos possible of whatever I am doing, and travel photography gives the opportunity.

What I love most about travel photography is the diversity of subject. Food, wildlife, landscapes, portraits – just about anything is a possibility in the realm in travel photography. It keeps me on my toes and always striving for a better photo than I captured yesterday.

When I sorted through all the photos I captured in 2020 – albeit far fewer photos than any year since I started in 2009 – I found I had over a thousand decent images. But for this list, I needed only the very best. I whittled the list down to just my 25 favorite photos and then added a little description for each.

I ranked these photos in chronological order so you can get a sense of my travel adventures throughout the year! Enjoy!

A Year in Review

2020 has (thankfully) come to an end. It’s that time to have a Year in Review. I have rounded up my favorite travel photography, destinations I visited, travel experiences, and most popular travel articles of the year.

After being closed for a few years from hurricane damage, the county-owned Cypress Gardens reopened. One of my first adventures of the year was a guided canoe tour through the swamp. The tour guide – I have forgotten his name at this point – hopped into the canoe with five passengers, kicked off from the dock, and screamed because he had forgotten to bring a paddle! Fortunately, one of the other works tossed him one before we were lost at sea.

We had only been floating through the swamp for a few minutes when I noticed a giant alligator laying on a small grassy island. I immediately switched to my telephoto lens and started squeezing the shutter release – I had explained to everyone else in the canoe that I was a travel photographer.

The tour guide paddled us around the island, and just as I was about to put the camera away I noticed these baby alligators! One laying on top of the other, neither moving an inch. It was my first great photo of the year.

  • 300mm at ISO 400, f/5.6, 1/500
  • February 5, 2020

In February, I attended the first annual Southern Travelers Explore conference. I arrived a day early – that’s just what I do – and spent the day exploring a nearby plantation.

The conference began the next day at South Eden Plantation. It was early – maybe an hour after sunrise – when I parked beside these gorgeous oak trees draped with Spanish moss. I immediately grabbed my camera and captured exactly three photos – the last of which you see above.

  • 75mm at ISO 200, f/8, 1/60
  • February 22, 2020

When the pandemic hit, I retreated to the parents’ house in Charleston, South Carolina. I basically hunkered down for a few months without ever leaving the house. Eventually, I was eager to get out again.

I decided to become a travel expert for the greater Charleston area. That included visiting the new location of Firefly Distillery in North Charleston. Arranging the meeting ahead of time, I arrived to find myself meeting the founders of sweet tea vodka!

After a guided tour of the production facility and an hour with one of the owners, I was finally left to the tasting room – my favorite part. Eager to capture a few great photos to tell the story of a tasting experience, I worked with a young man on the photo above. It only took a few tries positioning the bottle and snapping photos continuously to get the shot. Get it? Shot?

  • 12mm at ISO 1000, f/4, 1/50
  • July 29, 2020

In August, I was in dire need of a trip to anywhere. I decided to visit the Great Smoky Mountains National Park – a place where I could easily social distance – and write a travel guide to the Foothills Parkway.

I spent three days traveling the 36-mile parkway, taking notes on all the scenic overlooks, and capturing photos for the travel guide. But that first night was the best of the entire trip.

An hour before sunset, I always start the same routine: I start looking for a place to capture a great sunset photo. I began traveling the parkway from Wears Valley heading south, looking for a great overlook. I couldn’t find one and I was starting to lose hope when I drove around this curve. I knew immediately that was my spot. I parked the car and quickly walked back about half a mile to capture the photo from the middle of a deserted and quiet highway.

  • 28mm at ISO 400, f/11, 1/640 bracketed HDR
  • August 11, 2020

In September, I began an epic five-week road trip with a few days in Asheville, North Carolina where I visited the Biltmore Estate for the first time. Although I did take the self-guided house tour, I mostly stuck to the outdoor spaces on the 8,000-acre property.

I visited the Biltmore every day for three days in a row so I could have plenty of time to explore. On the second day, I arrived early in the morning, eager for a great photo of America’s largest house.

Clouds were moving across the sky, periodically blotting the sunlight from the house. I waited until just the right moment – it took about twenty minutes – and finally I captured the photo at just the right time! I feel like this puts a spotlight on the house without having to do much more than capture the photo at the right time.

  • 28mm at ISO 400, f/10, 1/1250
  • September 6, 2020
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One of my greatest photography tips is to always look up. Of course, that usually means looking up at towering tress or canopies of leaves or gorgeous blue skies. But at the Franklin Park Conservatory, it was something else entirely.

I had been looking forward to visiting Columbus – the capital of Ohio – for weeks leading up to my epic road trip. I’m on a quest to visit all the state capitals, but I knew Columbus was something special. There were more museums, parks, restaurants, coffee shops, and neighborhoods I wanted to visit than almost any other capital I’d visited so far.

The Franklin Park Conservatory wasn’t my favorite place I visited in Columbus, but that is where I captured one of my favorite photos of the year. Inside the conservatory, I wandered along paths through dense indoor gardens beneath domes of glass and steel. But inside this one room, a tunnel passed beneath a waterfall. When I looked up, this gorgeous menagerie of glass was backlit from sunlight and created a kaleidoscope of color.

  • 12mm at ISO 400, f/5.6, 1/40
  • September 16, 2020

Toledo was one of the most unexpectedly awesome destinations I visited all year, but nothing was more surprising than the Toledo Museum of Art. The building itself was practically a work of art and it was one of the most impressive art museums I had ever toured.

My favorite room inside the gargantuan museum displayed nearly 30 Roman works of art in a recreation of a Roman home. The twilight blue ceiling lit by hidden light fixtures, the faux stone floors, and the quite ambiance created a peaceful escape inside the museum.

This is one of my favorite photos of the year because of the contrast of the “sky” and walls, the alignment of the arches, and the potential for telling a great story. I don’t know for sure if this will become “the” photo I use when talking about this art museum, but I do know it was one of my best of the year.

  • 10mm at ISO 250, f/1.8, 1/60
  • September 19, 2020

As soon as I arrived at Maumee Bay State Park, I parked at the edge of a sandy beach with an awesome view of Lake Erie. I was exhausted from constant travel throughout the day, so I took a break to enjoy the peaceful view of hundreds of seagulls pecking along the beach.

That’s when I noticed the man – his wife and shy son standing nearby – getting ready to run. I leaped out of my car, grabbed my camera gear, and start snapping photos.

His laughter pierced the air more than the surprised squawks of the fleeing seagulls. It was contagious and a moment later I was laughing, too. After peaking at the photos – I captured nearly 100 of him running through the gulls – I handed them my business card and offered to send them a copy of the photo. I never heard from them, but this instantly became one of my favorite photos of the year.

  • 150mm at ISO 400, f/11, 1/640
  • September 19, 2020

One area of photography I am still eager to improve is food. Needless to say, I eat a lot of food as I travel. I’m always eager to find great places for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. But the difficult part is capturing a great photo of food.

This burger from Maumee Bay Brewing Company in Toledo, Ohio, turned out to be my favorite photo of food of the year. I think what I love most is the contrasting colors – although I didn’t eat the onion – but it could also be the clarity of the photo. I give the large window behind my table credit for the great lighting on the food!

  • 4.2mm at ISO 400, f/18, 1/40 iPhone 11 Pro
  • September 20, 2020

In May, I splurged on the entire set of Moment lenses for mobile devices. I knew my iPhone 11 Pro wouldn’t hold up for wide format printing – or even magazine printing – but it would look great on the blog.

I captured lots of photos with my cellphone throughout 2020, but this was my favorite. I was touring the Armstrong Air & Space Museum in Wapakoneta, Ohio. I rounded a corner and saw this black corridor leading to a space suit – a backup for Armstrong’s famous mission to the moon. I was thrilled to see how well this photo turned out after a little bit of post-processing work!

  • 4.2mm at ISO 500, f/1.8, 1/30 iPhone 11 Pro & Moment Wide Angle Lens
  • September 23, 2020

National Park Week 2024

Learn about the annual celebration of the National Park System and read my travel guides to national park units across the country.

The biggest surprise of the year happened during a road trip along the Interstate 75 corridor through Ohio. When I rolled into Findlay, Ohio, I discovered the first of a series of absolutely gorgeous county courthouses.

The courthouses became a part of my road trip adventure. I even spent an extra night in one town just so I could capture photos in better lighting conditions! The photo here was my favorite. I worked hard to capture just the right symmetry, showcasing the statue on the roof of the courthouse.

  • 150mm at ISO 400, f/11, 1/400
  • September 24, 2020

Findlay Market was my first stop when I rolled into Cincinnati on a Saturday morning. It was alive with activity as vendors rolled open the doors to their shops.

This is one of my favorite photos because of the story it tells. The story of 2020. Everyone wearing a mask, nobody hugging or shaking hands, and everything somewhat subdued.

  • 46mm at ISO 400, f/8, 1400
  • September 26, 2020

Before arriving in Cincinnati, I had heard of the Five Way Chili. I looked it up online so I would know what to expect, but nothing prepared for seeing one for the first time.

When the waitress at Camp Washington brought the ginormous plate to my table, my jaw hung open. The shock lasted only a moment as I grabbed my cellphone – and Moment lens – and started capturing photos of the food.

Food photography is the most frustrating thing I do all day. By the time the food is in front of me, I’m hungry. But I can’t touch the plate until I’ve captured a good photo. During this particular example, it took me nearly ten minutes to capture a great photo. Can you imagine how hungry I was by the time I had the photo I needed?

  • 4.2mm at ISO 32, f/1.8, 1/270 iPhone 11 Pro & Moment Wide Angle Lens
  • September 26, 2020

I didn’t rank the photos because it was difficult enough to pick 25 top photos, let alone a #1 favorite. However, if I were to pick a single favorite I think this photo just might be it.

The Cincinnati Art Museum was an amazing place to spend two hours exploring. Room after room of gorgeous, unique artwork. I had just walked through this particular room when I turned around and noticed this…monk?

I’m not sure about his religious order, but there were a few of them wearing brilliant white robes exploring the museum. This one guy in particular, his robe contrasting the deep red walls, studied the artwork with intensity. I quickly captured a photo before the moment was gone and found a favorite of the year.

  • 4.2mm at ISO 500, f/18, 1/60 iPhone 11 Pro & Moment Wide Angle Lens
  • September 26, 2020

Capturing photos of animals at a zoo is not the same as wildlife. Chain link fences, artificial rocks, and dirty glass walls usually prevent capturing awesome photos. When I came to the enclosure where Fiona was peacefully napping in the water, I was facing one of those difficult situations. The glass was tinted blue, smudged with fingerprints and faces of children, and covered in a bad reflection.

I stood my ground at this particular spot with my 150mm macro lens – my favorite telephoto lens – and waited for just the right moment. For maybe fifteen seconds I had the tiny viewing room to myself – reducing the reflections to almost nothing – and Fiona opened her eyes. I captured exactly three photos, and after a little post-processing color correction in Photoshop I ended up with this photo.

  • 150mm at ISO 800, f/8, 1/250
  • September 29, 2020

The Roebling Bridge – also called the singing bridge because of the sound traveling cars make on the metal plates – had been a difficult photographic subject. Facing my last full day in Cincinnati, I decided to take a walk across the bridge for a different perspective. The entire are was bathed in darkness from lingering clouds, but I spent half an hour capturing photos from various angles anyway.

Just as I was about to leave, the sun broke through the clouds. I quickly recaptured all the photos in the warm sunlight. Landscape orientation, then portrait for magazine covers, and finally a few different angles. Satisfied with the results, I packed the camera away again.

That’s when I noticed the barge coming up the river – or down, I’m not really sure which way it flows in Cincy. I scrambled to unpack the camera, switch lenses, and capture all the photos all over again. Clouds were moving, sunlight was fading, but I think I ended up with a decent travel photo and one of my favorites of the year.

  • 12mm at ISO 400, f/8, 1/120 bracketed HDR
  • September 29, 2020

I will never forget Pyramid Hill in Hamilton, Ohio. Several hundred acres of private property along a hill were covered with outdoor artwork. I rented a golf cart for an hour and rolled around the property capturing photos. While I like many of those photos, this one was my favorite because it showed an interesting piece of artwork with colors that contrasted the approaching fall colors.

  • 75mm at ISO 200, f/4, 1/2000
  • September 30, 2020

There are three types of photos I always need at any destination I visit: downtown showing the businesses and decor, people doing something interesting, and one unique thing about the town. In this one photo in Hamilton, Ohio, I was able to capture something unique while showing off downtown at the same time.

  • 12mm at ISO 400, f/11, 1/250
  • September 30, 2020

One of my favorite travel experiences of the year was exploring the National Aviation Heritage Area across Ohio. After visiting eight of the stops on the self-guided heritage area map, I was eligible for a Will-bear – a bear that resembles Wilbur Wright! I got the bear at the Dayton Aviation Heritage National Historical Park from an awesome ranger who was kind enough to give me this pose.

  • 12mm at ISO 800, f/4, 1/540
  • October 2, 2020

One of the challenges as I face is to find a balance between writing and photography. As a writer, I need to take notes about travel experiences and capture mundane photos of restaurant interiors and downtown scenes. As a photographer, I need to spend an hour to capture a single photo and two more just to get there.

When October came around, I decided to spend some time focusing on photography. I drove four hours to Hocking Hills State Park in Ohio – and it was one of the worst travel decisions I made all year.

I booked a hotel too late. Everything in Logan – about twenty minutes from the park – was already booked. The nearest hotel I could find was located nearly an hour away in Athens. I got up early to head toward the park – but as it turned out 9 a.m. was already too late. By the time I arrived at the Old Man’s Cave Visitor Center, people were parking along the road nearly three miles away. I took a chance – and got lucky – creating a parking space on a grassy knob in the parking lot.

The park was filled with thousands of day visitors. Trails were clogged with groups of five or ten. A constant murmur interrupted any chance of peacefulness.

To make it even worse, I had traveled the park to photograph the waterfalls. I knew October was not the best time of year for waterfall photography – May is usually the best – but I didn’t think the waterfalls would be dried up entirely.

Despite the lack of waterfall, the scene at Upper Falls was still quite stunning. With my camera secured to a tripod in lowlight conditions, I had to wait nearly twenty minutes for a moment to capture a photo without people walking through. The wait was worth it, though, because this photo is one of my favorites of the year even without the flowing water.

  • 12mm at ISO 400, f/8, 1/320
  • October 3, 2020
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I had never been to Cuyahoga Valley National Park – so I decided to give myself three entire days to explore Ohio’s “Urban National Park.” On the very first day, I met a local couple with an equal passion for travel and photography and we became instant friends. She gave me one of the best tips I would get about the national park: go to the Beaver Marsh.

The Beaver Marsh wasn’t exactly peaceful – it was located beside the two-lane road passing through the park – but it was teeming with song birds. A wooden boardwalk crossed the marsh and a couple of benches offered a respite.

That’s where I pulled out the trusty 300mm lens with a 1.4x teleconverter. It’s not my sharpest lens – nothing beats the quality of the Sigma 150mm – but it was good enough to capture this great photo of a duck in the marsh. There was just something about the lone duck, brightly colored, that made this photo one of my favorites of the year.

  • 420mm at ISO 400, f/8, 1/320
  • October 5, 2020

The next day, I returned the Beaver Marsh shortly after sunrise for an opportunity to see more wildlife. There wasn’t much – and I’ll admit this photo isn’t exactly National Geographic worthy.

However, what I love about this photo is how the bird’s wings match the colors of the autumn leaves on the tree. I never could have planned such a photo but it worked out beautifully for me.

  • 420mm at ISO 400, f/8, 1/800
  • October 6, 2020

I visited a lot of covered bridges across Ohio and many of them were gorgeous, but this on at Cuyahoga Valley National Park was my favorite photo of them all. The vibrant fall colors at the end of the white bridge with daylight pouring through the slits made it really stand out.

  • 28mm at ISO 400, f/8, 1/320 bracketed HDR
  • October 6, 2020

The only thing I knew about Cuyahoga Valley National Park before I arrived was an area called The Ledges. They were a geological curiosity – an area surrounding a small plateau with about 30′ sheer cliffs exposing moss-covered rocks.

The first time I hiked this trail, I tried shooting photos handheld and ended up with no good photos. It’s just a frustrating reality of camera technology: even if the light looks good to our eyes, it’s often not enough for a camera sensor.

Two days later, I went back to The Ledges with a tripod, a big bottle of water, and spent nearly five hours capturing photos properly. I never packed the tripod because I used it about every 100′ along the trail, capturing hundreds of HDR bracketed photos. It took days before I could finally sort through all the processed HDR images and pick my favorite.

This was my favorite photo of The Ledges, and one of my favorite photos of the year. The vibrant moss stood out in the crevasse, drawing your attention to the very nature of The Ledges. It was also one of the first photos I captured that day and turned out better because I wasn’t tired yet!

  • 12mm at ISO 200, f/8, 1/2
  • October 7, 2020

One of my favorite photographic subjects is waterfalls. There is just something satisfying about capturing a long exposure photo of churning water spilling over a ledge. In Ohio, I had not found many fantastic waterfalls.

Then I visited Great Falls at Tinkers Creek. I could hear the roar long before I could see the waterfall. I had to descend a staircase and climb down an embankment to reach the bottom of the river in a narrow gorge. It was spectacular!

I captured photos of this waterfall from different angles and used different focal lengths. But this one was my favorite, and one of my favorite photos of the year. The vibrant pop of color. The contrast of water against the black rock. The details throughout the photo.

  • 12mm at ISO 400, f/8, 5 seconds
  • October 7, 2020

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Do you have a question about travel or road trips? Are you a CVB or DMO interested in working with me? I typically respond to emails within 24 hours. Quicker if you include a good riddle.
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