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Intimate Detail

The process of making an image of magic and mystery

This Article Features Photo Zoom

Rocks and surf at sunrise, Carmel, California, 2010
Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III, EF 70-200mm ƒ/2.8L USM, 10 sec. at ƒ/32, ISO 100

I was at a party recently and was talking to someone who asked me what kind of photographs I take. I paused for a moment, but then answered that I specialize in photographing the intimate details of nature. One advantage to getting older, for me, is that I’ve gained a sense of myself as a photographer, a certain clarity about what inspires me to photograph and what I wish to communicate. Although I enjoy trying my hand at many types of photography, I’ve focused on the intimate landscape. Rather than simply describing the wide view before me, I try to imbue my images with some magic and mystery by isolating special details I discover.

The photograph shown here was made on a recent trip to Carmel, Calif. To find this location and learn about when to be there, I took advantage of my iPhone apps, especially The Photographer’s Ephemeris ( Both the app and website provide excellent tools for planning your photo sessions, like sunrise and sunset times, which helped me make it to the beach just in time for the best light. The clouds were amazing, so I started making images with my wide-angle zoom, trying to capture the whole scene, even though scenic views aren’t in my comfort zone. The colors were electric, both in the sky and reflected in the surf. I scrambled around trying various camera angles, looking for a poetic combination of foreground, ocean and sky. I had a problem finding clean, wide views due to distracting elements in the background.

Fortunately, the light stayed colorful and dramatic for an unusually long time, so I switched to my favorite lens, a 70-200mm zoom. I wasn’t aware of the clock while photographing, but later, when I checked the exposure time data in Lightroom for this session, I had colorful light for 40 minutes!

Now I was in my element, focused on a small part of the overall scene—just a few rocks with waves washing over them. Positioning my camera and tripod so the sunlight would reflect on the sand and water, I timed my exposures for when the waves came in over the rocks. I used my favorite filter, the Singh-Ray Vari-ND ( this image. The filter allowed me to use a 10-second exposure, even while shooting into bright light. I worked on catching the best timing with the waves for the misty, blurred effect, plus catching the light reflecting off of the wet sand. Only one frame worked.

The RAW capture was well exposed, which can be tough when the light values change during the exposure. In terms of contrast and color, the file was very flat and looked nothing like what I had experienced. In my postprocessing, I worked to bring out both the textures and the colorful light. In Lightroom, I added global Contrast, Black and Clarity. From Lightroom, I took the image to Photoshop CS5 to apply the final touches. Two adjustment Curve layers were added. One focused on bringing out separation of tones in the dark areas of the image, especially the textures in the rocks. The second and final Curve was added to make the highlights brighter and more textured. Without my attention to these details in postprocessing, the magic of that morning wouldn’t have come through.

The final image reflects both my photographic style and the powerful beauty of nature I experienced on that beach. As I wrote in my first article for Outdoor Photographer in 1986, I’d rather make an image that asks a question rather than answers one. I continue following that path, focusing on intimate details. Consider what style or subjects drive your passion to photograph, and follow that path even if it’s “the long road” to success!

To learn about William Neill’s his one-on-one work-shops, ebooks (William Neill’s Yosemite, Meditations in Monochrome, Impressions of Light and Landscapes of the Spirit) and online courses with, and to visit his PhotoBlog, go to

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”.