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Monday, October 1, 2007


Take your basic visual style and adapt it to fit different subjects

Elephant seals, California
Elephant seals, California.

I’ve often admired photographers who are versatile, those who have the creativity to develop a personal style within diverse types of photography. For those interested in a career in photography, developing the skills to deal with many types of subjects is especially useful.

For me, being versatile hasn’t been a deliberate doctrine that I’ve focused upon in my own career, but I stumbled into the approach by means of having a great deal of curiosity and interest for learning more about the world around me. It has served me well, both artistically and in terms of my business. Creatively, it has been helpful for me to be open to exploring different realms of photography, such as travel or studio still-life imagery and fine-art efforts like my Impression of Light series (www.williamneill.com/ImpressionsofLight/index.html).

In terms of business, having more than one specialty will help you respond to the needs of clients and editors or with whomever you do business. When I worked on a series of books with the Exploratorium Museum of San Francisco, I was asked to illustrate such diverse subjects as the pattern of a honeycomb to the colorful face of a male mandrill to specific geologic formations in Yosemite. Fortunately, I already had experience with macro setups, wildlife photography and photographing mountain landscapes.

In the early years of establishing my career, I tried my hand at photojournalism and photographed assignments for Outside, Smithsonian, Natural History and even GQ magazines. Although the storytelling aspect wasn’t my cup of tea, I gained experience in editorial photography and in illustrating subjects with specific needs in mind. Over the years, I’ve also done a great deal of photography in India and the Himalayas, where I photographed portraits, wildlife, various aspects of Hindu and Tibetan cultures, religious architecture and other types of travel photography. For a glimpse of this work, see www.williamneill.com/notes/Tibet/tibet.html.

Some of my favorite photographers are, or were, very versatile. Ansel Adams often spoke proudly of his 60-year career as a commercial photographer. He operated a studio in San Francisco and took on assignments requiring him to photograph still-life studio setups and portraits, and he documented important social issues such as the Japanese internment camp at Manzanar located near Lone Pine, California, during World War II (see http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/collections/anseladams/).

Eliot Porter was another versatile photographer (see www.cartermuseum.org/collections/porter). He started out specializing in bird photography, worked in black-and-white, but became best known for his intimate, color landscape photographs made with a large-format 4x5 camera. Like Ansel Adams, he used his images very effectively in environmental causes and to inform the public about endangered landscapes. He created innovative photographs, based on his strong interest in the natural sciences while exploring such landscapes as Maine, Glen Canyon (before it was flooded by Lake Powell), Antarctica, Baja California and Iceland.

Bengal Tiger, India. These wildlife images are examples of Neill‚’s occasional venture into wildlife photography. As with any of his photographs, Neill looks for good light, strong graphic elements, such as the pattern of lines seen in the seals, and as in the tiger image, timing the exposure for the right moment.

Perhaps my greatest source of inspiration has been the photographer Ernst Haas (1921-1986). I was fortunate to meet him and show him my photographs when he taught in Yosemite at The Ansel Adams Gallery’s summer workshop. Besides being versatile, he was highly creative and innovative. I strongly recommend that you visit the library or an online bookstore to find his books and explore his official Website at www.ernst-haas.com. The site is full of images, essays and, most illuminating to me, the Philosophy by Haas section, which features his writings.

To see Haas’ genius in full display, check out his book, The Creation. The book includes landscapes and macro photographs, wildlife and aerials, creative imagery both blurred and sharp. This book had a great deal with inspiring me to become a photographer. In the back of the book are short, but educational annotations by Haas about the process of making each image.

Many amateur photographers show diverse interests within their work, which is great. Yet often they don’t take the time to develop any of them with significant depth. To avoid this tendency, start with one or two themes and explore them thoroughly. As you develop one area of specialization, you’ll gain the expertise and confidence to try out new directions. In the long run, you’ll have the satisfaction of completing comprehensive studies of those subjects that mean the most to you. Viewers and potential buyers of your images will respond more strongly when they see both depth and versatility in your portfolios. By being versatile, opportunities both creatively and in business will more likely come your way!

To visit his blog or sign up for newsletter updates on his Landscape Essentials course with BetterPhoto.com, or for information on his books, portfolios, new images and more, visit William Neill’s Website at www.williamneill.com.


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