Patience & Persistence

Getting a photo “right” takes time

Patience and persistence are words that are coming to my mind lately. These words are the answers to many questions I’ve heard recently. How did you make that image? How did you build your career? It is no surprise that these words are key traits needed to make great photographs or have a successful business. However, I know that many of us get caught up in the rush of life and the striving for making our next favorite image, that maybe we don’t slow down enough to get it right.

Dogwood Blossoms, Yosemite National Park, California, 2019.

As I write this, I am just finishing another spring season photographing in Yosemite. As you might expect, my new photographs are mostly of dogwoods and waterfalls. Having lived in or nearby Yosemite Valley for 40 years, it would be all too easy to become jaded or bored photographing the area for so long. However, whenever I go, I always find something amazing and wonderous to see and sometimes photograph. When sharing this beauty with my students, I can reengage with, and refresh, my long love affair with this sanctuary, this paradise. Although I’ve photographed these trees many times before, I am always trying to outdo myself, or at least equal my best work.

Many of my favorite dogwood trees grow along the banks of the Merced River. The combination of graceful blossoms and branches hanging over the swift waters of the Merced is irresistible for me. With a slow shutter speed, the river becomes smooth and simplified while the dogwoods stand out sharply in contrast. The quandary for the photographer is how to pick a shutter speed that is slow enough for the river to blur and still capture the blossoms in focus. To find the right balance requires some experimenting with your aperture, shutter speed and ISO settings. I time my visits for when the light is soft and without harsh highlights on the water.

Most importantly, getting it right takes time. Often, the branches are moving in the breeze, so I watch and wait, sometimes for an hour or more. I set up my camera to take three or five frames each time I release the shutter, to increase my odds. Out of several hundred dogwood images taken this spring, only a few were sharp enough—a low batting average of success, but well worth the effort and frustrations. Patience and persistence.

I also photographed the booming waterfalls this season, with my favorites being Horsetail, Upper Yosemite and Bridalveil Fall. This season I had several excellent sessions with Horsetail. My timing was chosen for backlighting, and, luckily, we arrived on windy days. Again, I made several hundred images of the fall over three different days. Again, my camera made five frames for each release. Each time the wind and light were different. Many of my captures were very good, but persistence was needed to catch the ultimate moment as the conditions kept changing. I would wait and observe as gusts of wind would swirl the spray around the cliffs. The action was too dynamic to guess which split second would convey my excitement for what I was seeing. Once back home on my computer, I sorted and compared to find the very best one. I selected the image shown here for the pattern of mist blowing upward and sideways. I chose to convert this image to black-and-white to emphasize the graphic qualities of the lighting, the rocks and the bright spray being set off by a dark sky background.

Horsetail Fall, Yosemite National Park, California, 2019.

There is a delicate balance of knowing when to dig in and keep working a scene or move on to find a better angle or another subject altogether. When I see a situation as I did for these two photographs, I might stay an hour or more in that spot, or I might return over many days to catch the right conditions or pursue an image idea over many years. When you find those exciting subjects, slow down and have the patience and concentration to wait for the right moments, like dogwood blossoms holding still or the wind blowing a waterfall in wild directions. When it seems like you’ve “got it,” persist further to work that composition to find multiple “optimum moments.” Your editing sessions might be more difficult, requiring you to pare down from many quality options, but in the end, you will be happy when you pick the best image that shows those small nuances that make a strong photo more exceptional. Patience and persistence.

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”.