Photographs For The Spirit

Problem-solving is an integral part of the process of nature photography

Lilies: Canon EOS-1DS Mark III, TS-E 90mm ƒ/2.8 lens

For this column, I want to share some new images. Over my career, which began in 1980, creative inspiration has come from various sources. One major source can be summed up with one word: Work. Whether for an exhibit, or a new book project, or a commercial client, the process derived from fulfilling the needs of a project often has gotten me out of whatever rut I might be in at the time. The process also generates both technical and aesthetic ideas to solve image-making problems.

With these most recent images, my client was an art consultant who needed large images for a health-care project. I love it when my images are used in medical clinics, hospitals or assisted-care facilities where people can be comforted by the great beauty in this world. Hopefully, my art even has had some healing or restorative value.

Nautilus: Canon EOS-1DS Mark III, TS-E 90mm ƒ/2.8 lens with 25mm extension tube

I was asked to select nature images that would have high impact, but also a calming effect for some large spaces such as a hospital hallway or waiting room. The photographs needed to show universal aspects of nature, such as flowers, leaves, colorful stones, water details or shells.

The client had seen a past installation photo of mine, a nautilus shell image printed to approximately 8×12 feet for a newly built university building. However, this new usage might require even greater enlargement. In order to improve the resolution above that of one frame, I rephotographed the same shell (which I’ve had for 20 years!) using three frames stitched together in Photoshop CS6. To do this, I used one of my favorite lenses, the Canon TS-E 90mm tilt-shift lens combined with the Canon Extension Tube EF 25. Extension tubes, whatever the brand, are a great close-up tool for macro, as well as allow for closer focusing with telephoto lenses. I used the shift function, which moves the lens without requiring adjustment of the tripod head to maintain the same perspective. The lens was aimed straight down at the shell, so I simply turned the shift knob from one side of the shell to the other. The overlap was about 25%, a good rule with any panorama stitch, to help Photoshop make a clean connection between frames.

My client had also seen some past water lily photographs of mine and asked if they would enlarge well for a mural-sized enlargement. Although it’s a single frame, I find sharply exposed images from my camera can print very large. This image would have to be cropped for the client’s space needs, which would compromise the output resolution. So I decided to try some new panorama versions to make sure I had enough resolution, and luckily my lilies happened to be in bloom.

From day to day, I watched to see where the flowers popped up and how they were arranged with the pads. I would see a slightly different composition daily, which is a great advantage to growing your own photographic subjects! It’s also a fun way to practice a key skill for nature photographers—observing nature daily—and being selective in choices of timing and light.

When I finally saw strong potential in my pond, I again used my 90mm tilt-shift lens. Just after the blooms opened in the morning light, I set my camera. Soon the light became too harsh, so I shaded my subjects with an umbrella to soften the contrast. The pond’s waterfall had washed the leaves and flowers with water, which adds to the fresh quality of the image. Turning off the waterfall gave me the stillness I needed for sharpness. I don’t know if my client will select these images, but I do know that the project has been creatively invigorating.

The natural world has given me so much positive energy in my life that my work has been an effort to return the favor. I suppose that many folks don’t consider making photographs to be work, but I use the word in the most positive sense. My work involves the pursuit of connection with nature, seeing the magic of light and communicating deeply what I’ve seen and felt. In whatever venue people see my photographs, whether online, or in homes or office buildings or hospitals, to brighten their lives is a great honor.

To learn about William Neill‘s Yosemite workshops, iTunes app, ebooks (William Neill’s Yosemite, Meditations in Monochrome, Impressions of Light and Landscapes of the Spirit) and online courses with or 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”.