Digging Deep

Make the effort to create a meaningful body of work

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Giant sequoias, Yosemite

I can’t stop taking pictures these days. I see images everywhere, and the world is truly a beautiful place. While I live near Yosemite, I needn’t go far beyond my door to be inspired. There‚’s a wonderful spreading oak tree in my front yard. My backyard is a hillside forest of ponderosa pine, oak and manzanita. Seeking the beauty around me is my ballast, my counterbalance to the craziness out there in the world! The process reaffirms the goodness and beauty that prevails.

One bit of craziness these days is the photography business, especially regarding stock photography. Digital capture has taken over, and with that rise so has the number of photographers trying to sell their work. As far as I can tell from here, the overall quality of images has fallen, along with the prices being paid for them.

With the massive amounts of photographs being produced and marketed these days, one needs to find ways to distinguish oneself.There are many ways for aspiring photographers to do this. One way is to specialize in photographing a certain location. Another would be to photograph a subject special to the photographer. The common necessity here is to develop greater skills and personal style and to choose subjects about which you’re passionate in order to rise above the rest.

The next step is what I call digging deep‚ dedicating great effort and time to create a unique body of work, of the highest quality, with a style of your own. One example of this approach can be seen in my Impressions of Light series. When I started work on this portfolio three years ago, I saw many beautiful images in a similar style by many different photographers, but I rarely saw a developed, extensive body of work. As my passion for this style of painting with light evolved, I resolved to go deep by making a portfolio that offered viewers a consistent style with a broad range of subjects and locations.

Yosemite has given me the greatest source of focus in my career. I’ve lived in and near the park for the past 30 years, and I still don’t tire of photographing its landscape. This experience has taught me so much about working past clichés and about the value of learning a landscape’s moods, light and seasons. Although everyone doesn’t get to live near such a great resource, I believe that most photographers could greatly benefit from exploring their own local landscapes in more depth and for extended periods of time.

This image was taken at a familiar location in the Mariposa Grove of giant sequoias. I return to this spot in different seasons and light. On this day, it all came together. I made about 100 exposures while panning the camera vertically and varying the shutter speed. In spite of the large number of frames, the process is highly unpredictable. Sometimes, I get nothing; other times, I get many acceptable images. This time, I got one.

I teach a course called Portfolio Development (at BetterPhoto.com), and the key elements of the course are that of theme development and learning to better edit one’s work. Helping my students through the lessons and assignments, with weekly critiques, has proven that the skills taught are valuable. Every one has improved simply by recognizing the concepts consistent in their images, building upon them with new images and learning how to better edit their work.

Taking workshops where you can get feedback on your images will help you know where you stand and what you need to work on. There are many options for photographic education, both in the field and online. If you feel like your work has potential for stock or fine-art print sales or other commercial uses, find a course that includes portfolio reviews by master photographers, editors or other industry experts. The emphasis of many offerings is on digital photography or exotic locations, so check for classes on your specialty or on career development. Some of the larger workshop programs like the Maine Photographic Workshops, Palm Beach Photographic Centre or Santa Fe Workshops offer such classes.

Pushing oneself in terms of education and refining the focus of one’s subject matter and creative viewpoint are essential elements needed to become a better photographer. Dig deep, and you’ll rise above! Most importantly, to paraphrase a Navajo prayer: Walk in Beauty.

To read William Neill‘s PhotoBlog, sign up for updates on his Landscape Essentials course with BetterPhoto.com and get information on his books, portfolios and more, visit 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”.