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Experience & Perseverance

Create separation of tones to coax nuances out of your images

Aspen and approaching storm, Conway Summit, California, 2010. Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III, EF 70-200mm ƒ/2.8L USM at 160mm, 1⁄45 sec. at ƒ/16, ISO 400

When I’m teaching photographers how they can improve their photography, I often talk about the need for separation of tones in postprocessing. The idea is simple: Key areas of an image, especially highlights and shadows, should show good detail and tonal separation. This concept was drummed into my head when I listened to Ansel Adams teach in the early 1980s. In making his prints, Adams used the Zone System to handle contrast decisions when developing and printing his negatives. His brilliant printing style gave a luminous quality to the shadows and smooth gradation in the highlight tones. Digital processing and print technologies currently allow for very high-quality printing, too.

Even though many photographers know various capture and processing techniques such as using HDR or both digital and glass split ND filters, I still see many photographs from students and online that fail to show this quality in the highlights and shadows. I realize that contrast in processing and printing is a creative decision, and that some prefer the strong impact of high-contrast imagery. I have photographs that are better because black shadows accentuate the graphic qualities of the subject or slightly washed-out highlights give a special glow to the image. But overall, with most landscape photographs, good separation of tones makes a better image.

When I work with private students in my studio, I teach them simple methods to pull these nuances out of their files. Many whole books have been written on postprocessing, and new software continues to become more powerful for refining your techniques. Updates for Adobe Photoshop/Camera Raw and Lightroom (LR4) show new tools for highlights and shadows, improved versions of the already powerful Recover and Fill Light tools that I use often. Reading up on the subject, keeping up with software improvements and practicing diligently all will help you improve your skills.

The photograph here illustrates a simple method of creating a good-looking print from a high-contrast landscape. A few years ago, I made a trip over Tioga Pass for the fall colors. The timing was good for the aspen trees, and the conditions of an approaching Sierra storm made for dramatic conditions. My photographic style leans strongly toward making detailed and intimate views of the landscape, often not including the sky. However, the amazing light I experienced at Conway Summit demanded that I widen my perspective to include trees, mountains and clouds.

As I photographed, following the ebb and flow of the rapidly shifting light, I watched my histogram carefully. The backlit clouds were clearly too bright to capture in one exposure, so I bracketed my exposures using 1⁄2-stop increments. Also, the wind was blowing hard, and the aspen leaves and clouds were moving fast, so I bumped my ISO to 400. I watched for moments of calm to ensure I recorded sharp leaves. I recorded a number of seven-exposure brackets with 1⁄2-stop increments.

Back in my studio, I edited carefully to find the sequence with the best clouds, lighting on the aspen and sharpest leaves. I tried various HDR renditions, but they didn’t have the impact that conveyed the emotion of the scene. So my next option was to find the best exposure for the shadows and the best exposure for the highlights in the clouds. These two frames were combined in Photoshop CS5.

The finished photograph meets two key criteria for me. Most importantly, it delivers the emotional impact of what I felt at the scene—awe at the beauty, plus the high energy of ominous storm clouds and brilliant autumn light. Secondly, the high-contrast lighting was handled by recording good detail in the highlights and shadows, rendering both in post with clear separation and smooth transition of tones. We can see the important textures of the dark areas of the foreground aspen and grasses. In the strongly backlit edges of the clouds, we see their brilliance, but still have fine gradations of light grays, and it’s this shading that defines the shapes of the clouds.

There’s one other ingredient that helped me make this image: experience. I made some images in similar light 20 years ago with my 4×5 camera, but the high wind and contrast made for average results, lacking the resonance of what I saw and felt. By returning to a favorite location over many years, I created a photograph that reconnects me with the wondrous experience of being there. Perseverance and improved postprocessing software and skills helped me, too.

To learn about William Neill‘s one-on-one workshops, iTunes app, ebooks and online courses, and to visit his photo-blog, go to

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”.