Daily Lessons

When you have a camera with you, photographic opportunities just seem to arise

Sunset Clouds
Sunset Clouds

Last summer, I had to make a quick trip to the San Francisco Bay area. I didn’t take my camera since I was picking up family at the airport and thought I might not have enough space for my camera bag. We headed home at sunset and watched the most amazing rainbow, with great clouds, strong colors and a full 180 degrees for most of the 20 minutes it lasted! It was thrilling enough at the time that I didn’t dwell on not having my camera, but later, as I replayed visions of the scene in my mind, a bit of frustration surfaced.

Two days later, as I left the house to take the family for a swim at a local lake, I packed the camera as I normally would—just in case I got inspired. After getting some relief from the heat with a swim, I got out my Canon EOS-1Ds Mark II and made 249 images of water reflections! The ripples, the colors, the light all were working together, and I immersed myself in the visual feast.

I made both sharp and impressionistic photographs (that I create with camera movement during a single exposure). I only photographed for about 30 minutes, and during that time, an intermittent breeze provided a wonderful display of reflection patterns in the water. That the sun was setting gave me a variety of shadows in the trees. The reflection image shown here is my favorite from the session. I also have many sharp photographs from the evening that I like. The lesson from that rainbow is simple and obvious: Be prepared. This is one of those lessons we all relearn over and over again!

About a week before I made this water image, another valuable lesson was brought to mind when I almost missed a great opportunity right out my front door. I had company visiting that weekend, and my mind was neither on photography nor on the light or weather conditions. Fortunately, this amazing sunset was brought to my attention just as the clouds began to light up. Even though I have a daily habit of watching the weather and noticing the lighting conditions around my home and wherever I travel, this sunset almost got away from me, and I was reminded to stay in tune with nature on a daily basis.

As the sunset unfolded, I was hoping to add new work to my impressionistic series. I worked the scene by varying shutter speeds to create blurred images. I also made sharp images as well as some blurs using camera movement. As I composed the images, I looked for a good balance of dark and light forms in the frame while isolating the clouds from surrounding trees. Although all the versions I made showed the spectacular clouds, some had better balance than others. Upon reviewing the new work in Photoshop Lightroom, I found that I preferred the sharp ones the best. I’ve been using Lightroom on a daily basis, and one of my favorite features is Compare View, which allows me to quickly compare similar frames in order to pick the best among them.

The cloud image shown here also was made with my Canon camera using my favorite lens, a Canon 70-200mm ƒ/2.8 L series lens, handheld at 1/250 sec. I use this lens far more than my wide-angle zoom for landscapes. I’m usually looking to zero in on patterns and to simplify a landscape rather than photographing more broadly and descriptively. My options for adding foreground elements to the clouds were limited, and the clouds were the obvious focus in this situation, so most of the images were made with only clouds.

If you haven’t visited my website lately, you now can follow my blog (http://web.mac.com/wgneill/iWeb/wnblog/Blog/Blog.html). In fact, the ideas and images in this article started as entries in the blog at the time the images were made. I’ve been having fun sharing my thoughts on landscape and nature photography and showing new work as I create it. I’ve also been mentioning helpful links, products and resources. I’ve especially enjoyed the comments and feedback from all the visitors!

One of the most vital qualities a creative person needs is a hunger to learn more and to see mistakes as lessons, not failures. In order to grow, we must take risks and experiment with new ideas. Lessons and reminders appear before us continually, no matter what level your photography is at. As Joni Mitchell sang, “…life is for learning.”

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