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Dancing Dogwoods

Revisiting comfortable locations lets you feel at ease and frees your creativity

This Article Features Photo Zoom

Dancing Dogwood, Yosemite National Park, California

Life is full of lessons. When I went to Yosemite Valley this spring, as I have nearly every spring for the past 33 years, I photographed dogwood in bloom. I always gravitate to the same tree where I’ve made my best dogwood images. After trying a few frames of this tree again, I realized that my past images were better. So I moved on. Upriver, near Pohono Bridge, I worked along the riverbank, but the blossoms weren’t very dense. I tried a few frames anyway, then headed upstream to another location where I’ve rarely photographed. Unfortunately, I was running short on time. The first composition I tried was the vertical image shown here. The branches were graceful and full of blossoms. The wind was calm, so there was little movement in the branches. The river was running high and smooth, with only a few curving breaks of whitewater. I’m pleased with the image, but it’s not up there with my best.

Moving on, I spotted a dogwood tree next to the river that had a broken branch dangling in the rapid water. The blossoms danced to the movement of the river like so many dancing fairies. My first instinct was to use a fast shutter speed, so that the dogwood would be sharp. Even if I could freeze the action of the tree, the river rapids would look stiff and unnatural. So I turned my aperture down to ƒ/32 to see what kind of impressionistic effect I could capture by allowing the blossoms to dance their dance and for the river to blur softly in the background. Since only parts of the branches were being shaken by the river, the two-second exposure has an intriguing blend of sharpness and softness. I feel that the black-and-white treatment adds to the delicate effect.

Dogwood and Merced River, Yosemite National Park, California

Lesson One: I feel it’s important to revisit locations where I feel at home. In this case, it was my favorite dogwood tree and, in general, the stretch of dogwood trees below Pohono Bridge. But in order to continue one’s own creative growth, one needs to push oneself to seek new views, new angles. Each time I photograph, I hope to better my best imagery!

Speaking of Yosemite, I’m just now releasing a new ebook. The book is a collection of my best film work in the park from 1977 to 2004. I’ve written notes and thoughts on each image, including camera data and location information. In the introduction, I share a few thoughts about the lessons that landscapes like Yosemite can teach us:

Excerpt from William Neill’s Yosemite: Volume One:

“At the core of what I have learned is that Yosemite, beyond its role as a nature preserve and place for recreation, it is a sanctuary for the soul. Millions of visitors love this place, for a wide variety of reasons. Some come to climb Yosemite’s cliffs. Others come to hike, fish, camp or swim in its wild nooks and crannies. Many simply drive through, stop at the turnouts, see the famous Yosemite Valley, and then leave. I came to explore these mountains, inspired like so many by the images of Ansel Adams and the words of John Muir. The bottom line is that, for whatever reason, people feel good here. When I first read these words by John Muir, the resonance was deep and profound inside of me.

‘Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves.’

Few other words had ever rung so true to my own experiences in these mountains.”

Lesson Two: Follow your bliss. I found my own path in Yosemite, leading me to “Dancing Dogwood” and beyond. Where does your path lead?

To learn about his one-on-one work-shops, ebooks (William Neill’s Yosemite, Meditations in Monochrome, Impressions of Light and Landscapes of the Spirit) and online courses with, as well as check out his PhotoBlog, go to William Neill’s website at

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”.