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Grand & Intimate Landscapes

Be open to the full range of photographic possibilities nature has to offer

When I start thinking of ideas to write about for this column, I often look to my latest favorite images to see what it is about those images that generate excitement for me and might offer a lesson for others.

Image of a redbud tree.

Redbud and Merced River. Sony a7R IV, Sony FE 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 GM OSS at 114mm. Exposure: 0.6 sec., ƒ/20, ISO 100.

Usually, a themed title for an essay will generate ideas that get me started. In the spring of 2021, I made many new portfolio-grade photographs in my “intimate landscape” style. The image “Redbud and Merced River” tops that list. But I also made a few “grand landscape” images that portray dramatic weather conditions I experienced. So, I came up with the working title “The Grand and Intimate Yosemite” in an attempt to encapsulate the range of photographs I made this spring.

To pull my ideas together for organizing my photographs, I use Collections in Lightroom. I put potential photos into the Survey mode, hide all the Lightroom panels and sit back to see how the group looks together. This method allows me to judge if the selected images fit into my concept and whether their quality is consistent. I can readily add or subtract images to see what adjustments improve the whole.

Over three weeks that spring, I spent seven days in Yosemite Valley. I love following the progress of spring coming to life, especially the dogwood and waterfalls. While exploring the Valley on my first spring visit, I noticed a redbud tree growing along the river that I had never photographed before. It was barely in bloom, so I didn’t photograph it but made a note to check it out on my next visit a few days later.

Upon my return, the blossoms were more open and colorful; however, now it wasn’t the right time of day. I returned yet again when the sun was low and not shining on the redbud. The cliff across the Valley was brightly lit with warm light and reflecting beautifully in the river. Now the time was right. I photographed it intently with one obvious composition and thought I had recorded a keeper. As I picked up my camera and tripod, I spotted a new composition. I was engrossed in capturing a more intriguing but more complicated image design. I am thrilled with the results.

Yosemite is best known for its soaring granite cliffs, thundering waterfalls and the dramatic lighting and weather that are so often featured in photographs. Although I favor intimate landscapes, I still love the thrill of seeing and trying to record epic conditions when they occur. When I teach private sessions in Yosemite, we start at Inspiration Point to see the first light over the Sierra crest and an overview of the great granite Valley. This location is especially awe-inspiring for my students who are first-time visitors.

Image of Inspiration Point, Yosemite.

Inspiration Point. Sony a7R IV, Sony FE 24-105mm f/4 G OSS at 37mm. Exposure: 1/6400 sec., ƒ/16, ISO 100.

With one student that spring, we had the great fortune of starting our sunrise session as a storm was clearing. We spent nearly two hours at this classic viewpoint as the clouds swirled and the light shifted. I encouraged him to try many different compositions, both expansive wide-angle views and tighter telephoto framings as conditions continually changed. First, El Capitan shone with beams of orange light and mist around it, then the spotlight moved to light up the fog and trees on the Valley floor, and then it moved over to Bridalveil Fall. It was like covering a sporting event with no break in the action. My 24-105mm lens worked for covering most framings, but I also put on my 100-400mm to extract more detailed views from this iconic overlook. My student captured many successful images, most of which were isolated sections of the wider scene.

The early-morning scene at Inspiration Point was extremely contrasty. My default approach for such lighting conditions is to bracket my exposures widely: three to five frames at 1 to 2 stops apart. Even though our modern sensors can record a great latitude of highlights and shadows, I want “insurance,” especially when it is so easy to auto bracket exposures. With lighting conditions and compositions changing so much, bracketing frees me up from technical considerations, and I more easily maintain my creative flow.

A few days later, I posted an iPhone snap to social media of all the photographers lined up at the tunnel viewpoint, and some negative comments were made about the herd mentality of making photographs there. Since several photographers I know were there, I’ve seen the wide variety of compositions made, even though most of us photographed from one position for at least an hour. Sure, some very similar images were made too, but I’ve been surprised and pleased by the unique variety of photographs posted online. Some photographers stay away from Inspiration Point because “it has all been done before.” What if Ansel Adams has avoided that location because others made great photographs there before his time? To each their own. You be you.

My student wasn’t really into being at the tunnel for sunrise. He intended to focus only on intimate and more personal compositions on his trip to Yosemite. He told me later that the morning was a revelation for him, that the takeaway from the epic morning for him was to be always open to the full range of possibilities nature has to offer. Our photographs should reflect our experiences and passions, for the joy of the experience as much as for the images.

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”.