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Interpretation Vs. Description

Always be working toward your long-term artistic goals

Backlit ponderosa pine trees, Yosemite Valley, Yosemite National Park, California, 2014. Canon EOS 5D Mark III, EF 70-200mm ƒ/2.8L

The creation of my images is guided by my efforts to interpret the landscape distinctively, an approach suggested to me many years ago by Ansel Adams—create for one’s soul, apply with the mind. Adams said he never exposed an image for conservation purposes, yet fervently used his art toward that cause. His approach was to make the most expressive photographs possible, and he believed that his passion to do so gave him the greatest chance for creative success and also elevated his photographs’ value to inspire for environmental purposes. Merely descriptive images wouldn’t do for Ansel! His advice has guided me throughout my career.

It’s a relatively simple matter to describe the scene before us with a photograph. Capture the exposure correctly using a well-balanced image design, and you’ll have a technically successful image. We’ve all seen beautiful photographs that are nice, but don’t move us emotionally. They look similar to many others like it. My goal, since early in my career, has been to make images that show my subject in a magical and mysterious way, one that makes viewers feel like they’re seeing a familiar set of elements (like rivers, mountains, clouds) in a fresh, new way.

In spite of my best efforts, I’ve made many images derivative of other photographs. Especially living next to Yosemite National Park for 38 years, it’s all too easy to make images that look like all the rest. Still, I’m happy to enjoy the amazing views at Tunnel View and photograph this classic scene, especially when distinctive weather conditions occur. As long as one’s goal is not to copy or remake another’s work, it then becomes an editing decision how or whether to make use of derivative photographs. I work with guidelines that relate to the possible usage.

For example, if I make an image of Half Dome at sunset, I’ll make a mental note that it qualifies for certain usages that aren’t in the context of my very best creative work. A stock use for a calendar would be such an example. The very same image would never be printed for a portfolio or gallery exhibit featuring my finest art, however. This approach, although not ideal from an artistic perspective, has been helpful in providing a wider market for my images. My marketing strategy for the past 30 years has been to focus my energies largely on my most creative work rather than on what’s popular, which is counterintuitive to maximizing income, but perfect for my disposition and long-term goals as an artist.

The two images included here represent my interpretation of Yosemite. The winter image was taken in 1989 with my 4×5 camera and film, and the image of backlit pines was taken in 2014. Both reflect my creative style.

Many photographers, especially beginners, focus on creating photos that will sell or win competitions, regardless of their interests. Passion for your subject is an essential ingredient for building a career and a body of work that reflects a deep connection to the subject from a unique viewpoint. Making commercial compromises is fine, in my opinion, as long as the overriding goal is, and effort is made, to create highly personal and interpretive imagery. I hope these ideas will help guide your photographic endeavors. Good luck!

Winter sunset reflections in the Merced River, Gates of the Valley, Yosemite National Park, California,1989. Wista 4×5 field camera

To learn about William Neill‘s one-on-one Yosemite workshops, ebooks and iPad app, and to see his latest images, visit his 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”.