Good Luck Happens

Six of my top reasons for photographic success

This Article Features Photo Zoom

Over Memorial Day weekend, I was visiting Carmel for a family gathering. I brought my camera along, of course, although I wasn’t planning extended photo sessions. I went out for a few sunrise and sunset photo sessions, visiting some favorite locations in nearby Big Sur, and trying out a new one, Carmel Beach. I’m so pleased with the results; I got to thinking about why I had good luck on this trip. Here are my top six reasons for successful photographs. These reasons assume that the obvious technical concerns such as sharpness, exposure and composition are in good order.

Number One: Passion For The Subject. I’ve been making images in the Big Sur area for three decades now, and I’m passionate about the extraordinary energy and beauty of that landscape. I often encourage my online students to work on subjects about which they’re passionate. Once the list of qualified themes is narrowed down to only a few topics and effort is concentrated there, I’ve seen wonderful improvement in the photographer’s portfolio.

Number Two: Familiarity. When you get to know a place by returning there often, you gain invaluable knowledge about the light and the weather patterns. You learn what landscapes are best in different lighting conditions. You try out different compositions or return to favorite compositions in hopes of the “perfect storm,” where light and clouds and image design come together. You add depth to your portfolio from that location. In the Monterey-Big Sur area, I have many such locations. I have a mental file about what landscapes are good when the fog is thick, or those that will have more potential if the sky is clear, for example.

Number Three: Willingness To Play.
Have you ever returned to a location so often that you realized that you’ve been taking “the same” composition over and over? I think we all have. When I’m drawn back to the same location often and don’t want to repeat myself, I’m more willing to experiment. If I’ve already recorded a reasonably successful image there, then there’s no risk, no failure possible! If I make a fresh image—fine—but there’s no pressure to succeed and no great loss if a successful image isn’t made.

Number Four: Visual Literacy. Being aware of other photographs that have the same themes as yours is important so that you have a mental memory bank of what has been done already. Improve your photographic “visual literacy” in your field, and you’re less likely to create cliché work. This assumes that you’re trying to create fresh imagery vs. re-creating what others have done!

on landscape on landscape

This Article Features Photo Zoom

on landscape

Number Five: Basic Planning. When I know I’m going out to photograph, I plan meals and other activities around the best light. On this trip, I was out looking for images by 6 a.m. I came back by 8 or 9 a.m., ready for a big breakfast and a full day with my family. For good sunset photography, I often try to have an early dinner, especially during the summer, and then go out in the evening until dark. We were staying right near the beach in Carmel, so it was a short walk with no driving involved. My point is that it’s possible to strike a balance with some basic planning. I’m not one to get carried away with precise planning such as using a compass or GPS so I can photograph at some preconceived “correct” location. I just need to get out there and see what happens.

on landscape

Number Six: Patience. My assistant John reminds me that patience is important. Often when we arrive at a new location, we’re so excited that we work too fast and our focus is too scattered. The energy of a new discovery can be advantageous, but also distracting. If you’re at a new location, slow down and take a deep breath (or many, if needed!) in order to see the landscape more clearly. A calm, meditative approach for connecting with your environment is a valuable tool, especially in new locations! When you’re already familiar with a location, the urgency is less, and, most often, less stress means better images. So don’t fret if you’ve “been there before”; just focus on digging deeper. Digging deeper will only strengthen your vision!

on landscape

When you focus on improving your photography, always keep working to develop your technical skills in terms of handling exposure, image design, depth of field and postprocessing technique. However, photographic success also requires dedication, such as adjusting your dinner schedule and long-term effort by returning often to favorite locations! I hope that these ideas help you make better photographs.

Writing this essay has encouraged me to develop a “best of” Big Sur portfolio for my website. Also, all of these images have been discussed in more detail in my photoblog. Come on by for a visit!

All of the images above were captured in the Carmel-Big Sur area in northern California. Traveling over Memorial Day, 2008, Neill found that there were six key reasons for his high success rate on the trip.

Visit William Neill’s website at to learn about his new ebook, Landscapes of the Spirit, Digital Edition, check out his photoblog or sign up for newsletter updates on his courses with

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”.