Morning Light

When you have your camera with you, good luck tends to happen

This Article Features Photo Zoom

Sunbeams and Forest, Sierra Nevada Foothills, California
Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III, Canon EF 70-200mm ƒ/2.8L USM

Isn’t it funny how ideas get started? When my kids started back to school last August, I gave myself the assignment to develop a new portfolio theme. My daughter’s new school is 20 minutes away from my house, and I have the morning run to take her there. I’ll be making the drive nearly every weekday during the school year. Since I’ll be driving through beautiful Sierra Nevada foothills, and I’m always looking for great light and new photographs, I might as well use my time wisely. I plan on calling the portfolio “Morning Light.”

For the first month or so, I found no good light. Indian summer conditions gave us clear blue skies and few interesting clouds. Finally, when our first winter rain arrived, I found great conditions for my “Morning Light” series! One Sunday night, we had a rip-roaring thunderstorm in our area. When I drove my daughter to school on Monday morning, there was a thick fog in the area. On my way home, I spotted these beautiful oaks across from the school. I spent the next 45 minutes reveling in the fog, photographing every variation I could think of, changing camera positions and lenses. I tried a few vertical panoramas and shuffled along the fence line of this field as I worked on various spacing between the trees. The fog simplified the background, isolating the graphic shapes of these Valley oaks. My favorite, “Oaks and Fog,” is shown here.

Oaks and Fog, Sierra Nevada Foothills, California
Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III, Canon EF 50mm ƒ/2.5 Compact Macro

A few days later, while driving homeward from my morning school run, I came around a corner to see these pine trees on the ridge above. The sun was projecting these amazing shadows of the trees onto the fog. I grabbed my camera, making the first frames without my tripod. Soon I realized that I needed my tripod, so I raced back to my car to get it. The sun hadn’t appeared above the ridgeline, but I frantically set up with a tripod and cable release. I made 147 frames, including some seven stop brackets, as the contrast became harsher. Looking back at the time stamps on my files, I had photographed for only 12 minutes before the effect disappeared. That I arrived at the right location at the right time was pure luck!

Composing the “Sunbeams and Forest” image was an interesting challenge, especially given the quickly changing conditions. I wanted the sunbeams to be the central focus, of course, but placing them in the center of the frame was too static. The beams were stronger on the right side, so I aimed to the right to give them enough room to stand out against the dark background. This framing also gave the image a more diagonal rhythm of tree silhouettes along the ridgeline. As always, my most used lens was on my camera, a Canon 70-200mm ƒ/2.8. The focal length was set at 165mm, which allowed me to reach past any distractions and isolate the key elements.

This experience reminds me of the early 1980s; for five years, I drove into Yosemite Valley to work and back down the Merced River Canyon again at the end of the day. How fortunate I am to have had that experience and to still live in an area of such beauty. Counting my blessings… Do you have your camera ready for your next magic moment?

To learn about William Neill’s one-on-one workshops, 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”.