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”.