Field Of Possibilities

Using technology like focus stacking, William Neill creates an otherworldly photo of a roadside subject
This Article Features Photo Zoom

Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III, TS-E 24mm ƒ/3.5L, 1⁄6 sec. at ƒ/19, ISO 400.

“To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour…”
—William Blake

One of the main dilemmas for nature photographers is how to frame an image. The choice of camera position and lens angle greatly affects the image design. Nature often provides us with chaotic lines, shapes and colors from which we must distill and extract the essence of our subject. What we include in the frame, as well as what we exclude, is a key factor in the success of our compositions.

I was in Yosemite National Park recently photographing one of my favorite subjects, corn lilies. Returning to a favorite patch, I was happy to see they were still fresh green in spite of recent hot weather. The leaves were covered with pollen and a light rainfall added some water drops. The wind was blowing, which meant the leaves rarely held still for my camera. On top of that, the best camera position was on the shoulder of the road, with tons of traffic moving the plants as it zoomed past a few feet away.

Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III, EF 50mm ƒ/2.5 Compact Macro, five frames at ƒ/11, ISO 200, focus stacking by Zerene Stacker.

From my past experiences, I was a little late for most of the corn lilies since they had grown tall, making it difficult to aim downward where the leaf patterns are most strongly visible. Also, other plants in amongst them made for a difficult composition to simplify. I usually prefer to zoom in tightly for a very graphic portrayal. In the wider composition shown here [below], I chose to embrace the chaos by using my 24mm tilt-shift lens. The tilt-shift function helped me retain focus from front to back of the subject area, just like I often did with my 4×5 camera while still using a fast enough shutter speed. I shuffled my location around, trying to find a pleasing and well-balanced pattern in the lush vegetation.

I tried dozens of framings, using a 24mm tilt-shift, 90mm tilt-shift and 50mm macro. The black-and-white photograph was made using my macro lens [left]. The depth of these leaves was too great to capture, so I tried a simple, but effective application called Zerene Stacker. I exposed five frames, focusing the nearest edge of the leaf, and incrementally turned my macro focus slightly until I had focused on the deepest area of corn lily. Then, I added those five files to the software, which created an image with good sharpness throughout the field of view. While processing the final image, I adjusted the contrast and density to make the spots of pollen and leaf lines stand out.

While creating the black-and-white corn lily image, I clearly remembered one of Paul Caponigro’s finest and most famous photographs. It’s a photograph of an apple that reminds most who see it of a galaxy of stars. I happily acknowledge that inspiration. You can read John Paul Caponigro’s blog post (Paul Caponigro’s son) at I highly recommend that you visit the link or Google to see the image!

While I photographed the corn lily, time vanished. Wind, rain showers and sunbeams came and went. I waited for still moments in the wind and for breaks in the traffic. I hid from the mosquitoes inside my parka hood and slapped away the ones that broke through my defenses. In spite of the challenges, I was “in the zone,” blissfully focused on the beauty I saw and felt, and on finding ways to convey it all photographically. Before I knew it, I had spent two-and-a-half hours photographing within a 10-foot section along the road and made over 200 images. That’s my job, and I felt blessed. As I drove home, I was greeted by the most amazing sunset, with golden light shining through pouring rain accented by red clouds. As the rain drenched me, I howled loudly simply for the joy of it all!

To learn about William Neill‘s one-on-one Yosemite workshops, ebooks and iPad app, see his latest images and learn about his online courses with, visit

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”.