A Dance On The Beach

Focus on the fundamentals to make great strides in your photography

While working on a completely different photo, these gulls offered up an unexpected sunrise opportunity. Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III, EF 70-200mm ƒ/2.8L USM, 8 sec. exposure at ƒ/27, ISO 100

I began teaching photography 33 years ago. So much has changed since then. Cameras. Software. Digital printing. It's such an exciting time for photographers, but it can be difficult to keep up with all the rapidly changing technology. After a couple of decades of using film, large-format cameras and darkroom printing, I've managed to adapt. I switched to digital printing 20 years ago, and put the use of film behind me in 2005. I have no regrets.

Recently, I began teaching private workshops in Yosemite again after a long break. It has been such a pleasure to share my enthusiasm for this great national park with my fellow photographers once again. In the process of teaching these sessions, I realized that although the tools have changed over the years, the lessons I'm teaching now are much the same as when I started. Here's a reader's digest of what I teach:

Compose precisely. Watch the edges of your composition. Eliminate any distractions. Draw the viewer's eye to your subject. Consider proportion and spacing of items within your frame.

Find great light. Get up early. Stay out late. Pick dynamic conditions for dynamic photographs. If the sky is boring, don't include it. Watch the weather, learn the light, wherever you are. Don't settle for "okay" light.

Be ready for inspiration. It will come if you have a sense of wonder about the world around you. Be ready to fail. Mistakes will happen—and become our greatest lessons. Practice is the process of being ready for it all to come together! Trust your vision; you have a unique point of view. Having faith in yourself is critical.

You'll become a better photographer by focusing on these fundamentals.

I often see photographers giving up too soon, or not moving from one spot, or only trying a few variations. Photography is a dance of possibilities! Experiment with everything from camera and light angles to shutter speeds to lens choice, and have fun with the process.


This Article Features Photo Zoom

In contrast to the final seagull image (previous page), Neill started out with a broader and more typical view of the beach and arch formation that emphasized the sky colors. Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III, EF 70-200mm ƒ/2.8L USM, 8 sec. at ƒ/27, ISO 100

The tip I'd like to focus on today is the willingness to push oneself creatively. This has been a key trait for me as I try to grow as an artist. I often see photographers giving up too soon, or not moving from one spot, or only trying a few variations. Photography is a dance of possibilities! Experiment with everything from camera and light angles to shutter speeds to lens choice, and have fun with the process. The risks taken will result in many failures, but they also will lead to new ideas and creative breakthroughs.

On a recent trip to the coast, I was eager to photograph a local state beach at sunrise rather than the classic sunset hour. I got out there in the near darkness of dawn. It was a beautiful morning, with warm glowing light, crashing waves, and birds calling and scurrying to feed along the surf line. I was moving constantly, trying different options, focal lengths or foregrounds, and playing with blurring the waves. I was especially intrigued with a natural arch formation, so my compositional arrangements centered on the arch and surf. I was having a great time when a flock of seagulls landed right in front of my viewfinder. At first, I was frustrated with them "blocking" my view and wanted to chase them off. But then I decided to incorporate them. I experimented with various shutter speeds, hoping to have gull impressions "painted" onto the beach. The resulting image shown here pulls together my vision. A few small tweaks in postprocessing emphasize the mood of misty light backlit by the early-morning sun with the ghostly birds like a dream.

Soon the gulls were gone, the good light passed, and I was famished, ready for breakfast after a joyful, two-hour dance at the beach. Some things never change.

To learn about William Neill's Yosemite workshops, iTunes app, ebooks (William Neill's Yosemite, Meditations in Monochrome, Impressions of Light and Landscapes of the Spirit) and online courses with BetterPhoto.com or visit his PhotoBlog, go to www.williamneill.com.

William Neill is a renowned nature and landscape photographer and a recipient of the Sierra Club's Ansel Adams Award for conservation photography. Neill's award-winning photography has been widely published in books, magazines, calendars and posters, and his limited-edition prints have been collected and exhibited in museums and galleries nationally, including the Museum of Fine Art Boston, Santa Barbara Museum of Art, The Vernon Collection and The Polaroid Collection. Neill's published credits include National Geographic, Smithsonian, Natural History, National Wildlife, Conde Nast Traveler, Gentlemen's Quarterly, Travel and Leisure, Wilderness, Sunset, Sierra and Outside magazines. He is also regular contributor to Outdoor Photographer with his column “On Landscape”.

13 Comments

    Those of us who are avid “picture takers” should long meditate on what William says in this short piece. He is a true artist, driven by the same passion that drives all artists … The desire to create something lovely, beyond the ordinary.

    Forgive me if this us a dumb question or comment, but does the “dance on the beach” really make sense with the claimed exposure? First off, what is the globe looking thing in the background? It’s not the sun, the shadows on the gulls are originating from the left of the frame and travel to the right. And it’s not the full moon! A full moon would actually have to be to the right of the frame (actually the shadows would point directly to where the full moon would be placed, it physics). And then the exposure info… 8 seconds long? Sea gulls staying THAT still for 8 seconds? Maybe 1 sea gull, but like 20?. No way is this one exposure, but no where do I see that it claims to be otherwise.

    Sorry but I have to agree with Just a spectator the photo just does not make sense from a composition aspect would have been a big improvement had he cropped what appears to be some kind of hole with the sky behind it and why would you use a exposure of 8 seconds when you are using a 5D 1DS Mk111 which has fantastic low light capabilities when using increased ISO settings as well as a fast 2.8 lens.
    Sorry William not your best example

    Yeah, spectator, I think the stated exposure for the first image is incorrect, since it is exactly the same as that for the second landscape exposure. It happens. As you point out, multiple birds are unlikely to remain sharp at anything approaching that exposure time. It also seems unlikely to me that the second image was taken with a telephoto zoom; it looks more wide-angle-ish to me.

    The “globe looking thing in the background” is not some astronomical phenomenon but the open space under the rock arch (see second image) which is illuminated by sunlight on the water/fog behind it.

    @Stratocaster thanks for the clarification on the globe looking thing, I see it now. I’ve been focusing on moon photography for some time now, and in my email, the thumbnail link for this article appeared like a moon shot. It was a mind trick that made me see nothing but a “moon” in the shot from that point forward. Then I saw the exposure info and was like “really?!?! An article on getting back to basics, and this is example shot?” I now stand corrected and feel less “hostile” about the shot, but I do find it a little disconcerting that this lack of attention to detail seemed to slip by the writer and editors and publishers, and some random spectator has to bring it up in the comments section. Who knows how many young photographers have read this article and tried to learn about exposure and other basics of photography and will forever be crippled and never be able to really ever make any kind of image that will amount to anything! 😉

    I think in the previous comments the individuals were a bit quick in their judgement. The rock cropping may not extend much further to the left allowing the
    sunrise to be split. Shinning from the back of the rocks onto the opening as you can see bright lighting reflecting on the right side edges of the opening. and
    also the light coming in front of the rocks shinning
    on the seagulls with the shadows at the same angle to match the ligh on the rocks from behind. I enjoy taking pictures of raptors and water fowl weekley and have witnessed hundreds of seagulls at a time stand still for much longer than 8 seconds with no movement. Thanks for sharing your articles and experiences. SA.

    I don’t think anyone was to quick to come to a judgement, anyone that knows photography should question that exposure and the direction of the lighting. If you don’t question this shot then your not doing your job as a photographer, albeit Scott may very well be correct, never stop your studying work and drawing conclusions.

    I am stunned by these comments questioning the veracity of my exposure data, etc. The image was made with one exposure. The exposure length really was eight seconds, as I used a Singh Ray Vari-ND filter to allow me to blur the crashing waves. The rock formation and arch were in shade, since the sun was just breaking the horizon coming from the left side of the frame, but the beach had strong sidelight causing the gulls to cast the shadows. The birds were mostly still, but as you can see there is some slight movement during the exposure.

    I have been teaching photography since 1980, and I always appreciate good questions. I find it is best to ask questions before making assumptions.

    FYI, the camera data listed under each image was pulled exactly as listed in the LR details on the image.

    Thanks for your interest in my photograph.

    Please don’t feel slighted Bill, heck I question the Bible everyday, I question everything. To do so is human. We live in an era where people try to pull the wool over ours eyes all the time. People cheat on literally everything these days, our values as a society are disappearing with the wind. Ansel Adams was the master of the darkroom which as far as I am concerned does not make him a cheater…au contraire. Your image is spectacular and very artistic. It takes a master to know that when you saw the birds there on the beach that you could obtain an image like this …and for that a big BRAVO.

    I?۪m sorry to see that many of the posters are questioning the truthfulness of William Neill?۪s photograph. I?۪m betting you just don?۪t know Bill.

    I was fortunate to get to know Bill nearly 20 years ago through my job at the Ansel Adams Gallery which represents and sells his work. His book ???Yosemite: The Promise of Wilderness?۝ stands as one of the finest collections of color Yosemite work made, and that book is a perfect example of Bill?۪s mastery of the craft.

    If you have had a chance to spend time with Bill, you?۪d know he approaches life and photography with a honesty and integrity that is very genuine. I am very blessed to count him as a friend.

    If there is something you don?۪t understand about his photograph, ask and he will explain it. That?۪s why he writes this column and teaches. There is no trickery, but a mastery of craft applied to the vision he wishes to communicate, and a desire to share the craft with others so they can communicate their vision.

    I guess it?۪s just a symptom of the digital age that we assume things we don?۪t understand were ???Photoshopped?۝. But in this case, it?۪s Bill?۪s application of the craft from which there is much to learn as we share his wonder in exploring the beauty found in nature.

    Nice photo. Very “dreamlike” quality. Photo makes perfect sense if one takes the time to read the article. But then again, does it have to make sense? It’s an artist’s interpretation of a dream.

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