My Vacation

Take a break from "serious photography" and you might get a serious photograph

On Landscape: My Vacation

From inside our tent, the incessant flapping of the tent fly told me that the spring winds were coming up today. It was still dark outside, and I was glad that we were going home and would miss out on the pending sandstorm. My family still slept and dawn was about to come. For the past three mornings, I arose to photograph the Death Valley sunrise. The trip had been fun for the family, plus I was very pleased with some new work I had made.

This morning, I decided to just get up and watch rather than blast off in my vehicle for a serious photo session. Sometimes I like to put the camera aside and just soak in nature’s beauty with all my senses. Besides, I wasn’t jaunting off to one of Death Valley’s prime sunrise locations like Zabriskie Point or Badwater, so I had no expectations photographically.

But then, as I sat outside our tent and in spite of my “morning off” plan, some clouds above me began to turn pink. Ah, yes, just soak it all in. Time to relax…I lasted about five minutes! The clouds were forming a beautiful pattern and the colors became brighter, so out came my camera. As I photographed the clouds, some ravens performed some antics in the sky above me with the dramatic clouds behind. Now I was awake and energized, and in full “seeing” mode. The ravens and clouds combined wonderfully in my frame.

Then I wandered away from camp to where I could see the sun come over the mountains. Shafts of light streaked into the sky as the sun reached the horizon. After rising, the sun went behind some clouds above the peaks. Besides their dynamic formations, the clouds were showing luminous rainbow colors in their ice crystals. I was having fun now, and when opportunity knocks…! As I photographed, my daughter ventured out of our tent and enjoyed the moment with me.


The photograph shown here, taken that morning, was taken with my Canon EOS-1Ds Mark II. I stood in a clearing at Furnace Creek, aiming above some buildings and palm trees. This wasn’t exactly a wilderness experience, but my 70-200mm zoom allowed me to isolate a simple composition of mountains and clouds. The exposure was tough, given the contrast range. I was able to hold information in the highlights, but the underexposure of the low values caused some noise problems.

Looking back, I wish I had bracketed my compositions. Had I made one exposure for the shadows and one for the highlights, I could have blended two images. Had I been using a tripod, I could have used Photoshop’s HDR feature, which could have solved the shadow noise problem (see Lewis Kemper’s Increasing The Dynamic Range training DVD at Given that I didn’t anticipate this problem, another solution would have been to process the file in its RAW form twice, once to optimize the shadows and the other to control the highlights. Then the file is blended to provide the advantages of both. The solution I’ve settled on is using the Highlight/Shadow tool in Photoshop. I used the feature on a separate background layer since it isn’t available as an adjustment layer, otherwise it’s irreversible.

Several life lessons occur to me regarding that magic morning in Death Valley. First and foremost is that every day is a gift (yes, I happily confess that I’ve been reading Dewitt’s columns for a couple of decades now). Such gifts will always come your way, so be ready to accept them. Be grateful for the opportunity to experience and share beauty with others.

Balancing different parts of one‚’s life is another important lesson to learn. It’s a high priority for me to balance photography with my family life. Given that I’m not traveling far and wide to photograph these days, these breaks have afforded me time to photograph and spend quality time with the family. I’ve managed this balance on trips in Big Sur, Lake Tahoe, Yosemite’s high country, Death Valley and to the East Coast in autumn. Although not highly focused photo sessions, I still have been very pleased with the results.

A major benefit of my family/photo vacations is that my kids are learning at an early age to appreciate nature, and also hopefully, their father’s artistic and environmental passions. By letting our children know a sense of wonder for nature, the future has a chance of being brighter.

“If a child is to keep alive his inborn sense of wonder, he needs the companionship of at least one adult who can share it, rediscovering with him the joy, excitement and mystery of the world we live in.”—Rachel Carson



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”.