Always Take The Next Step

Progressing as a photographer and artist means striving to see things in a new way

Always Take The Next StepI’m always looking for the next step for my photography, asking myself, “Where can I take it from here?” I’m a big Tiger Woods fan, and one thing I admire in him is his constant desire to improve, no matter what level of greatness he has achieved. He seems to genuinely take pleasure in his hard work and training. The question, specifically for landscape photographers, is how can we take our own technique and creative vision to a higher level?

Always Take The Next StepOne way to do this is to focus on adding new work to specific areas of interest. The first step is to see clearly what you’ve worked on previously—in other words, where you stand on a specific theme. This is an important way to analyze your strengths and weaknesses. When you’ve thought through some goals for a body of work, you can photograph with the needs of that group in mind.

For example, I have an ongoing theme of patterns in nature. Within that group, I have a series of macro images of autumn leaves. Every autumn, I keep an eye out for interesting leaves to photograph. The two photographs shown here are part of that series. The image of a red maple leaf was photographed many years ago in Acadia National Park.

The second image is of a leaf I found outside my studio. Several years ago, I planted a cottonwood tree, and I’ve been watching it grow ever since. Last fall, as the leaves turned yellow, I noticed that some leaves developed an interesting combination of green and yellow. I found this leaf after it fell off the tree, and I photographed it with my Canon EOS-1Ds Mark II, 50mm macro lens and a nifty device called a McClamp ( to hold the leaf in a fixed position. The late-afternoon light was shining on the backside of the leaf.

The two images are shown here as an illustration of the evaluation process for adding new work to a portfolio. The red maple leaf photo is an established image in my Patterns portfolio and was included in a book I illustrated, By Nature’s Design. By comparing the two images, I could judge whether my new image was worthy of adding to my Autumn Leaves portfolio. I asked myself, “Is the quality consistent? Does the new image add depth to the portfolio, or is it repetitious?”


Although I’ve used only two images here for example’s sake, in actuality, you’d place a new image next to all the images in that group to make the comparison. This can be done on the computer, with prints or with slides on a lightbox. Just make sure to use a simple, clean background and format. With practice, you can refine your themes and continually improve the group’s overall quality.

To summarize, here’s a list of steps that might help you reach the next level for your photography:

  • Explore what themes you have in your files, especially those about which you’re most inspired and passionate.
  • Practice organizing images based on a theme.
  • Establish a consistent standard of quality.
  • Research other photography that has the same themes that interest you and improve your visual literacy in your field.
  • Examine the possible contexts in which you might use your images. Thinking about how you might use a certain group of images may help guide you in your editing.

I suggest that you don’t force new images into a portfolio. It’s better to add only one or two than dilute the prime group with weaker images. Adding no new images is okay, too. Give yourself time to consider your choices. Ansel Adams always talked about making a print and then placing it out where he’d see it often. Look at your new images for a while by themselves. We’ve all had images we originally thought were great, only to have them fall from grace with time! For those that still hold your interest, find a way to group the new ones with the “golden ones,” whether by using work prints tacked on the wall or thumbnails on your computer screen.

Given the time constraints of everyday life, creating new photographs that qualify for your favorite portfolios is difficult. Creative inspiration tends to ebb and flow, as I’m sure you’ve experienced. With practice and persistence, however, you’ll make the next step!


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”.