Light on the Landscape: Photographs and Lessons from a Life in Photography with William Neill

William Neill at Yosemite Valley
What is the most crucial aspect of photography? The light? Composition? They are essential elements but not THE most critical key.

I have often opened my workshop instruction with this question: What is the most crucial aspect of photography? The light? Composition? They are essential elements but not THE most critical key in making photographs to me. YOU are the most vital part of making an image. You are a unique individual and therefore have a unique perspective on the world. Although many of us grow up thinking we are not artistic. I believe we all have artistic potential. Happily, photography is an accessible art form. While great photographs require great skill, even the simplest of cameras can create deeply personal photographs, including by those people most self-denying their artistic potential. Once that door of self-belief is opened, your artistic potential expands greatly. As my friends and photographers David Bayes and Ted Orland wrote in their seminal book Art And Fear:

To make art is to sing with the human voice. To do this, you must first learn that the only voice you need is the voice you already have.” 

I like to think that most of us make photographs for ourselves to enjoy experiencing parts of the world that inspire us and not to please someone else. The less concerned we are with who will like or approve of our images, and the more concerned we are with the process of creating art, the better. Photographer and writer Freeman Patterson puts it this way:

Shooting for yourself, creating truly personal work, is what I’ve been encouraging photographers and creators in other media to do in virtually all of the Zoom presentations I’ve made this winter, in fact for years in all sorts of workshops. It couldn’t matter less if nobody “likes” what you’re doing, as ego gratification is not the purpose of art. Art begins somewhere in your unconscious – in your imagination and your dreams.” 

My favorite and most expressive photograph, "singing with my human voice!"
 Photo ©
William Neill/WilliamNeill.com

Another lesson I’ve learned, in order to stay creatively active as a photographer over four decades, is to make “seeing” the beauty around me a daily practice— to photograph at or near my home. I have been teaching this lesson for many years. Many of my students only photograph when they travel a few times a year. When they do go travel, they are out of practice both visually and technically, at least initially.

I have lived in my home near Yosemite for 20 years. I’ve always found something to photograph here, be it my purple plums in bloom, the oaks or pines or manzanitas, moss-covered boulders, fog or snowstorms, or the clouds. Irises or poppies or lupine blooming, or the first fresh leaves budding out on the large oak in my front yard. I watch the light and weather daily and wait for inspiration. I designed and built a waterfall feature that provides photo options. In the feature’s little pond, I planted lilies to photograph. I leave out my tub of colorful pebbles on my patio, waiting for the right conditions. When extraordinary ice patterns crystalize around those rocks in the winter, I am ready to make images.

Ice patterns and pebbles, taken on my back patio. Ice and Pebbles, Ahwahnee, California, 2007.
 Photo ©
William Neill/WilliamNeill.com

Of course, many photographers observe their surroundings too. When the magic light or the peak season arrives, be ready! Allow time for exploring and photographing, even if that time is brief. Plan your driving/walking/running route to go by that favorite field/stream/pond when the light/weather might be best. I had the great fortune of commuting to work into Yosemite Valley every workday for five years. I often left for work early enough to photograph, especially when the weather was favorable.

I’ve continued to find the beauty of nature to photograph throughout my life’s phases. As my wife and I raised our kids, the camera often came along as I chauffered them to and from school, to sports games and practices, to dance lessons and performances. In other words, the making of my art is woven into the fabric of my daily life, not separate. As for many of us, I’ve been most productive on planned photo trips, but those were often with family in tow. Fortunately, my wife and children have been infinitely patient with me, adjusting to a photographer’s schedule. Looking back, I’m pleased that I have managed a good balance of being a parent and an artist.

I planted purple plum trees in front of my living room window. Every spring when they bloom, I watch the light and weather waiting for some magic!
 Photo ©
William Neill/WilliamNeill.com

During my April presentation, I will cover many more topics and more fully illustrate my ideas with my photographs. You will see and hear the stories behind the making of many of my favorite images. I am sure that you will learn new techniques and ideas for improving your photography.

William Neill at Yosemite Valley

William Neill is one of Out of Chicago’s diverse team of world-class photographers. To learn more about William and our photography conferences he’s teaching at, click here.

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