Spring Forward

Simple, elegant photographs express the beauty of spring’s renewal

Dogwood Blossoms and Sky, Merced River, Yosemite National Park, California, 2015.

Spring has its own momentum, a word that can put a bounce in one’s stride. Emotions of renewal, of hope, of freshness, arise at the sight of spring’s first flower or green blade of grass appearing in a drab winter landscape. I often look for ways to create simple, clean compositions that can best capture the ephemeral moments of early spring. While there are many potential subjects, few of them inspire me like dogwood’s first blooms. I am fortunate to live near Yosemite where, after four decades, I have yet to tire of their photographic challenge.

To bring the blossoms to the center of my viewer’s attention, I look for ways to isolate them against simple backgrounds. Two of my favorite options for backdrops are clear blue sky and the blurred rapids of the Merced. In my “Dogwood Blossoms and Sky” photograph above, I searched for a set of branches with fresh blossoms and strong graphic lines. Since the sky was clear, I feel this background works better than if whites of a cloudy sky competed with the white blooms. I found a camera angle so that no background trees or other distractions appeared behind this section of the dogwood tree. Along with the clean image design, these branches were partly shaded by a nearby pine, giving a beautiful spotlight effect on some of the blossoms.

For my “Dogwood Blossoms” image below, I returned to photograph my favorite dogwood tree along the river. Although this branch was not dense with blossoms, I found its graceful curve appealing. With a considerable effort, I maneuvered my tripod into a position where there were no distracting elements in front of or behind the branch. I felt that a small aperture of f/22 was needed to ensure all the leaves and blossoms were sharp. Since both aperture and shutter speed have a significant impact on the final result, I will vary the f-stop to see which combo works the best.

Dogwood Blossoms, Merced River, Yosemite National Park, California, 2014.

Much patience was required while waiting for the branch to hold still for a one-second exposure. I worked on many versions of this composition, making 50 exposures over 30 minutes to ensure I had a few sharp ones. These extra variations also gave very different streaking patterns of the blurred river background. The water’s texture adds a sense of dynamic motion yet is still soft enough not to distract from the blossoms.

Lessons for the day:

  • Simplify, especially by watching out for distractions in the background of your main subject.
  • Be highly selective regarding the graphic qualities of the subject, such as the branching patterns or graceful curve seen in these dogwood trees.
  • Be persistent and patient. In the case of dogwood and river rapids, a long exposure created a simple but intriguing background. You simply have to wait until the wind stops to pull off this type of image.

My favorite spring song, by the Beatles, comes to mind:

“…It seems like years since it’s been clear
Here comes the sun,
Here comes the sun, and I say,
It’s all right.” —George Harrison

Happy spring!

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”.