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Impressions of Light

Using the capabilities of a digital camera and embracing a desire to experiment, William Neill is producing a body of unique images that go far beyond literal landscapes
DogwoodsDogwood Blossoms, Yosemite National Park, California, 2007
I photographed these dogwood blossoms along the Merced River in Yosemite one evening last spring. I immersed myself intensely for two hours, creating 648 images! Although this may sound excessive, I knew from the previews that it would be difficult to blur this type of subject. Without the clearly defined lines of a horizon or tree trunks, the dogwood required more subtle and varied motion in order to maintain their shapes clearly while still creating an impressionistic effect. Canon EOS-1Ds Mark II, Canon EF 70-200mm ƒ/2.8L with a Canon Extender EF 2x, ISO 100, exposed for 1/5 sec. at ƒ/5.6

I’ve been a photographer for 35 years. I started out with my first camera in 1974, a 35mm Pentax Spotmatic. I most often photographed natural patterns and other details in the landscape. In 1982, I acquired a 4×5 field camera, and for the next 20 years, I photographed mostly with 4×5 transparency film. I continued to concentrate on photographing landscape details, as well as broad views and dramatic light.

My intention in using a large-format camera was to render nature with great detail such that the amazing textures and eloquent light on my subjects became extraordinary. I currently use a high-resolution Canon D-SLR, the EOS-1Ds Mark II, to create most of my images, and will soon upgrade to the EOS-1Ds Mark III. No matter the tool, my goal has remained the same: to inspire passion for the natural world and convey my emotional response to the subjects I photograph—that of awe and wonder.

My most recent work is entitled Impressions of Light. About two years ago I discovered a new way to convey such an emotional response I give credit for this inspiration to students taking an online course I teach, which is offered by They had picked up some blurring or “painting with light” techniques from other instructors. I had a visceral response to their images. I tried it out myself in the summer of 2005 and have been immersed in creating this body of work since then.

I’ve long been intrigued by the motion studies of the great color photographer Ernst Haas. Freeman Patterson also has use camera motion as a technique, as well as other methods for creating impressionistic photographs. Patterson had even written a book on the subject, along with Andre Gallant, entitled Photo Impressionism and the Subjective Image. Since I was a boy, I’ve loved impressionistic painting. My mother was a docent at the National Art Gallery when we lived near Washington, D.C., when I was a teenager. I was inspired by the en plein air approach of Monet and the pointillism of Van Gogh I viewed there.

For me, the motion studies seen in my Impressions of Light work are simply another way to depict the deeply moving beauty I see in nature. The technical aspect of sharpness or softness of focus doesn’t matter to me ultimately.


Carp, Bronx Zoo, New York, 2006
During a visit to the Bronx Zoo with my family, I stopped to watch these carp in a small pond. I zoomed in tightly in a section of water where there were no distracting reflections so that the fish would be set off against dark tones. I’d start my exposures as I saw action coming into the frame. Canon EOS-1Ds Mark II, Canon EF 70-200mm ƒ/2.8L with a Canon Extender EF 2x, ISO 100, exposed for 2.5 sec. at ƒ/13

Dancing TreesDancing Trees, Sierra Nevada Foothills, California, 2006
It always pays to have your camera handy! I was visiting a friend’s house when I spotted these trees. The actual scene was fairly busy-looking, with tall grasses and the leaves of these live oaks. The up-and-down camera motion softened and simplified the subject. I used the Singh-Ray Vari-ND filter to slow down my shutter speed. Canon EOS-1Ds Mark II, Canon EF 70-200mm ƒ/2.8L, ISO 100, exposed for 5 sec. at ƒ/18, Singh-Ray Vari-ND fi

I try all kinds of movement, up and down or sideways, starting and stopping and changing direction in the middle of the exposure. Sometimes I just jiggle the camera. It’s a learning process, a sort of feedback loop. Every frame is different. I tend to photograph in bursts of five to 10 images at one shutter speed. I then watch the images come up on the LCD to see what happened. Based on what I see, I adjust shutter speed, focal length or my camera position to refine the effect.

This process continues until I think I’ve created something good. I may end up with dozens and sometimes a few hundred images after I try all the creative options I can think of. I’ve recently been using the Canon EOS-1D Mark III with the new three-inch LCD. The additional size and brightness is very helpful in previewing my results.

Editing the large number of images I create during each session is greatly aided by the use of Adobe Lightroom. The selection process involves rating of the images that appear to have the most potential, and once I have several similar frames, I use the Compare View feature. My ranking system is simple. The initial edit of images that have possibilities receive three stars. After using Compare View, the best of similar frames receive four stars. As I begin to work with the four-star images in Lightroom’s Develop module or in Photoshop, the very best of those receive five stars.

In terms of composing, I start out with an image design that would work for me as a sharp photograph. A great advantage to making these images is the free-form and spontaneous style of capturing them, but I’m very careful to apply the same standards of quality of any composition I make. Since the camera is moving during the exposure, it’s impossible to control exactly where objects land within the frame. Most compositional issues, such as distracting bright areas along the frame’s edge, can be corrected by responding to feedback from the LCD. Any other problems with composition can be solved in the editing process, as I make enough similar images that usually at least one works out.

The most important note on my technique is that these images are all single exposures created with camera motion only. Having seen other techniques used, such as multiple-exposure methods, I find the single-exposure approach works best for the mood I wish to create. The resulting images have an organic and painterly look. Other approaches often look heavily manipulated or Photoshopped, while my style is to work with the textures, light and color in front of my camera.

Sand DunesSand Dunes, Death Valley National Park, California, 2006
Prior to working with the Singh-Ray Vari-ND, I’d often use a polarizer with the lens set to the smallest aperture to get the slowest possible shutter speed.

I had less options and control, especially in bright light, but I managed anyway. Here, I moved
the camera quickly with a horizontal motion while holding down the shutter speed. I picked out the area of most visual interest to me, in this case the receding ridges outlined by shadow and light. My panning motions were centered there, but only a few recorded the right composition I had seen since I was panning so quickly. This process was exhilarating, in part because of the aspect of chance! Canon EOS-1Ds Mark II, Canon EF 70-200mm ƒ/2.8L, ISO 100, exposed for 1/6 sec. at ƒ/32

Yellow ForestYellow Forest, Watchung Reservation, New Jersey, 2006
I found this forest scene in a local reserve in New Jersey. Using the Singh-Ray Vari-ND filter, I made up-and-down panning motions. I maneuvered my camera position to create the spaces between the trees. Canon EOS-1Ds Mark II, EF Canon 70-200mm ƒ/2.8L, ISO 100, exposed for 2 sec. at ƒ/10, Singh-Ray Vari-ND filter

Even when I use my camera set to its lowest ISO and the lens stopped way down, often there’s still too much ambient light to permit a long enough exposure time. In that case, I use a Singh-Ray Vari-ND filter, with which I can adjust neutral density to reduce the light entering the camera by up to eight stops. This tool has greatly increased both my options in bright lighting conditions and in controlling the balance of aperture and shutter speed. For example, with my flower close-ups, I can still use a slow shutter speed even when using the widest apertures.

In most images, I make a few minor adjustments in Photoshop, including boosting contrast lost when a scene’s brighter areas blur into darker ones. I output images with the 12-color, pigment-based Canon image PROGRAF iPF5000 and iPF8000 printers, which have 17- and 44-inch carriage widths, respectively. I usually print on Canon’s Hahnemuhle Photo Rag, a watercolor-style paper. This paper is very effective at accentuating the painterly feel of these images.

The other night I watched an amazing DVD, Andy Goldsworthy’s Rivers & Tides. If you’re unfamiliar with his art, I highly recommend that you check out his books and this DVD. Goldsworthy is dedicated to connecting with nature, especially around his home in Scotland, and the DVD shows him at work and talking about his art.

I scribbled down some notes as I watched. His commentary made me realize, in a more concrete way, what I’m trying to do with my Impressions of Light series: remove the context and distill down to the essence to convey the energy of a subject or scene in a fresh way, much as snow simplifies the landscape.

For me, these images deflect the mind’s tendency to dwell on the concrete issues of place and name when viewing a subject. The spirit of a place or an object can be more strongly conveyed.

I’m trying to stretch, but it’s only to find new ways to express what I’ve been trying to show all along—the beauty of nature. It may sound trite, but that’s still what motivates my photographic explorations. In order to both grow and survive creatively as an artist, I’ve found it’s important to push myself in new directions, in other words, to evolve. Success toward this goal can’t be achieved passively, but it must be sought out. I’ve tried to adhere to the concept that, as an artist, one should always question one’s own preconceived notions!

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”.