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Immersive Experiences

Be present to make more creative photographs

Seastacks at Sunset, Rialto Beach, Olympic National Park, Washington State, 2014. Canon EOS 5D Mark III, EF 24-105mm ƒ/4L IS USM, 3 sec. at ƒ/22, ISO 100

Last summer, my family and I took a road trip to the Pacific Northwest. We visited family and friends along the way, with many activities planned. As with many family vacations, we juggled and compromised so that everyone had at least a few highlights to look forward to. Whenever we plan a family trip, I have to squeeze in a photo session or two for myself.

Olympic National Park was the highlight of the trip for me. It had been 18 years since I had photographed there. With the severe drought and hot summer here in California, I was ready to see the lush greens of the Olympic forests, to feel the cool sea winds and invigoration of a photo session on a wild beach.

Ferns, Hoh Rain Forest, Olympic National Park, Washington State, 2014

The sunset photograph here was made during a solo evening trek on the beach. The family stayed behind while I headed toward some seastacks down the beach. The tide was high, which required me to do a lot of wave dodging and climbing around, over and under massive driftwood logs to avoid the waves. It had been clear all day, but as I hiked, the marine layer brought in great clouds as the sun went down. I picked up my pace to catch the best light.

I only had 30 minutes to photograph before I had to head back since I was up against a 9-plus-foot high tide coming in and darkness on my return to the car. I shuffled around at the edge of the surf, looking for the best alignment of rock, surf and sand. The best angle was blocked by a huge log, but I managed to shoot past it for a good composition. The light and clouds were improving, with great texture and color, and I continued to work the scene thoroughly. I never get tired of that rush when it all comes together! I could have continued until dark, but the family was waiting and I had a tricky haul back. The waves won several of my dodging efforts, but my hike ended safely. The universe gently reminded me that I’m not getting any younger.

Early the next morning, before most tourists were up and about, I visited the Hoh Rain Forest. I walked two of the NPS nature trails, relishing the quiet peace of the lush forest, finding a few photographs along the way. A summertime marine layer of low clouds gave me the soft light I enjoy for forest scenes. I photographed overall forest views, as well as details of the forest floor, like the images of ferns shown in this column. When editing, I was mentally referencing past 4×5 photographs of these rain forests. None of the new images rose above those past efforts, in my opinion, but the fern details feel like a fresh addition to my portfolio. The color works for me, but I tried a black-and-white variation in Adobe Lightroom, which I like even better.

The two variations convey a different mood and message: The color version’s impact is about the lushness of the location, while the black-and-white shows us powerful graphics of the fern shapes. To give me your input and see other images from my trip, please visit my blog at

As I’ve done for the past 40 years, I found sanctuary in Nature during my photo sessions, even if for a brief couple of hours. My photographs come from the deep love I have for those moments, for the exhilarating sense of wonder of the experience itself. If I’m able to translate what I’ve seen and felt with my images, so much the better! Immersing myself in the experience has always led me to more creative photographs.

To learn about his one-on-one Yosemite workshops, ebooks and iPad app, and to see his latest images, visit William Neill‘s website and photo blog at

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”.