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Impressions Of Autumn

Try something new this fall to stretch your creative vision
“Dogwood and Forest,” Yosemite National Park, California, 2013. Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III, Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS USM. Exposure: 0.3 sec., ƒ/8, ISO 100.

“Dogwood and Forest,” Yosemite National Park, California, 2013. Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III, Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS USM. Exposure: 0.3 sec., ƒ/8, ISO 100.

Autumn has arrived, and as with most nature photographers, I am always looking for new ways to express my passion for the wondrous colors and intricate details of fall foliage. Perhaps my thoughts below will help get your creative juices going.

The creative life of an artist has its cycles like seasons, its own ebbs and flows in the sea of experience and ideas. I’ve learned to embrace this process, riding high when new images come easily and being patient when my vision seems stale and repetitive. If inspiration isn’t appearing, I won’t force the issue. My goal is to see the beauty around me as a daily practice, and if I stay connected to that purpose, I know the images will come.

A recent project got me thinking about the major themes in my photography, the most creative departure in landscape photography is my “Impressions of Light” series. I had spent 20 years creating images with, and building a career using, a 4×5 view camera to represent the magic of nature with great sharpness and exquisite detail.

Then a decade ago, I began to see students of mine experimenting successfully with intentional camera motion using a single exposure and slow shutter speed with great effect. Soon I was fully immersed in the technique, experimenting and developing a portfolio of impressionistic photographs. As a teenager, I was very intrigued by the paintings of Monet and other artists in the Impressionist movement, so my leap into making blurred images has been a natural extension of that early inspiration.

After a few years of developing depth to this body of work, I started showing the series to my galleries and other clients. What would be the response to this fairly radical departure in my style? Fortunately, the response was solid from several galleries with exhibits held and web galleries installed, and the sales began!

“Aspen Impressions #2,” June Lake Loop, Inyo National Forest, California, 2008. Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III, Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L USM. Exposure: 2 sec., ƒ/13, ISO 100.

“Aspen Impressions #2,” June Lake Loop, Inyo National Forest, California, 2008. Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III, Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L USM. Exposure: 2 sec., ƒ/13, ISO 100.

For me, it became a new language for expressing nature’s beauty, which is the foundation of my photography. The process of capturing my impressionistic images is much more free-flowing than my normal, tripod-bound landscape images. I fire the shutter in rapid bursts while moving the camera, with each exposure being very different, much like a quick sketch. There is a certain freedom to such experimentation, with failure as an integral part of the process and with exploration being vital for finding the essence of the subject. With trees, I pan up and down in line with the trunks. For landscapes with horizons such as a beach or desert scene, I’ll move the camera horizontally. I play with many variations, both shutter speed and speed of my panning.

Even though there is a liberating, sketching aspect to the process, I also maintain attention to the same details I focus on with still landscapes. I pay close attention to the lines and spacing of key objects. For example, with my aspen image shown here, the spacing of tree trunks greatly affects the rhythm of lines, the key graphics in the frame. I searched for a grove where large aspen trunks were clearly in view, and of course it helped that the leaves were at their peak color. Once I found a good camera position, the fun began, panning in the same line of the trunks.

I start each series by choosing a shutter speed ranging from a few seconds up to 1/15 of a second, then continually check the LCD previews to see what is working, what is not, and make adjustments to improve the captures. My panning motion is often very short. In this aspen image, panning down too far would include the ground, panning up too much would include a bright, streaky sky or other distractions. Checking your exposures closely will help you control and “crop” the composition to avoid such distractions. Simple and clean is almost always better. For this exposure, I used 2 seconds, moving the camera both up and down to create a watercolor “wash” effect.

My photograph of autumn dogwood leaves is another example of impressionistic autumn imagery. This time, I used a faster shutter speed of 0.3 seconds. These trees were next to a road, just below the frame, which I wanted to avoid, so I “set” the bottom edge just above the road, then moved the camera upward only. I wanted detail to show in the trunks and to preserve some of the shape of the colorful dogwood leaves. The dark, taller conifer trees convey a sense of a deep forest, contrasting against the more delicate understory of bright dogwood leaves.

New approaches to making images require a balance of experimentation and persistence and a spirit of always wanting to learn more, to communicate clearly and with fresh eyes. Try something new this fall, whether creating swipes and blurs, or putting on a long telephoto or ultra-wide lens to push yourself to see in new ways. Stretching your creative vision is a great way take your work to a new level.

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”.