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Local Knowledge

Knowing a location well can get you into the right place at the right time

This Article Features Photo Zoom

on landscape
Oaks near Yosemite Valley, California.

I’ve said it before, and I’m here to say it again. Get to know a landscape! Get to know your landscape, a favorite location where you can return often in all kinds of light and weather and season. Hopefully, this will be a place nearby where, by looking out the window and checking the weather, you can best anticipate the chances of good conditions. If you want to become a better landscape photographer, study a favorite location.

Sure, traveling to new or popular places is great fun. It’s energizing to explore the deserts of the Southwest after a long winter on the East Coast or wander in the glorious, autumn forests of New England, but there’s no substitution for immersing oneself in one, or even a few, special landscapes.

As I’ve written here and in my photoblog, I’ve been creating a body of images that were taken around my home here in the Sierra. Of course, I’m so lucky to live here, and so close to Yosemite itself. When at home, I often can find good opportunities.

The tree photo shown here provides a good example. Last spring, I watched the valley oaks in my front yard as the leaves began to open. I watched the lighting and waited until the leaves and their glorious spring green showed clearly. I just happened to have a new lens from Canon, the 16-35mm L series lens, which would allow me to capture the full breadth of the oak’s spreading branches.

Since I can see this tree from my office window, I selected a day with blue sky to contrast against the green leaves. I set up my camera when the sun was high in the sky, but behind the tree for a strong backlit effect. Compositionally, I was already familiar with the image design I wanted since I’ve photographed from the same position before, especially for winter sunsets.

This Article Features Photo Zoom

on landscape
Bridalveil Fall, Yosemite Valley, California.

Another good example of making use of location knowledge can be seen in my Bridalveil Fall, Yosemite Valley photograph. When the conditions are right, with spring runoff and on a bright sunny day in the early afternoon, the light glances across the graceful and often thunderous spray of the waterfall. The granite wall stays in shadow briefly, setting off the waterfall patterns. If the wind is right, the gusts will move the spray into endless patterns of glowing light! The day I made this photograph was a good one for that effect. When the wind was still, the water fell straight down (naturally). When the wind kicked in, I made a burst of exposures as the spray moved across my frame.

Using Lightroom 2, I easily was able to compare frames for sharpness and design for both of these images in order to find the “select” images. From Lightroom, I took them into Photoshop for the final touches to optimize the master file.

So keep an eye out the window, and take advantage of your local knowledge. Study your nearby landscapes, expand your portfolio, and the lessons learned you’ll carry with you to all your photography, including those exciting road trips. Good luck, and good light!

To learn about William Neill’s new e-books, Impressions of Light and Landscapes of the Spirit, visit his photoblog, sign up for newsletter updates and learn about his courses with, 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”.