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The Quest To Be Better

Build depth around a theme to create a broad body of work
This Article Features Photo Zoom

Elderberry Leaves #5, Ahwahnee, California, 2012. This image was created from two frames that were stitched together with Photomerge in Photoshop.
Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III, TS-E 90mm ƒ/2.8, 1.5 sec. at ƒ/22, ISO 100

As a teacher, I’m often asked by students how they can improve. One obvious answer for us all is to improve our technique, such as composition and use of light. Another method for improvement that’s not often mentioned is to develop greater depth to our work. While I’m fundamentally a “less is more” kind of guy, having a lot of really good photographs is a great thing! When it comes to portfolios, a large, high-quality set of images gives you more options for presentation and marketing.

For example, if you were to print up some of your portfolio images as a small set of note cards, four or five photographs are enough. What if a gallery director sees your note cards and asks you to hang an exhibit? Will you have 20 to 30 equally strong images? What if a book publisher sees your show and wants to publish a book using 100 of your photographs? For most photographers, it takes many years to reach that point. Building depth is an ongoing process, and no matter where you are in that development, setting long-term goals and following your dreams are excellent motivations to create new photographs.

We all have stories to tell with our photographs. Sometimes, the stories are about where we live or where we’ve traveled. Sometimes, stories reveal the photographer’s emotional experience unseen in the image, that when heard, give the photograph more impact. Your stories—about your life, about a place with which you connect deeply—are likely the best source for themes because they often reveal what’s most important to you. If you like to write, try composing short essays or poems to go with your portfolio.

With stories and images combined, their collective narrative can powerfully convey a message, be it simply about your vacation adventures or why you think a bit of wild nature near you should be preserved. If you’re serious about marketing your images, it doesn’t hurt to develop your writing or lecturing skills in order to better convey your point of view. Your most deeply felt and seen images will reach people’s hearts!

Home/Work is one of my ongoing thematic portfolios, images made in and around my home in the Sierra Nevada foothills. In this series, I include still-life details of natural objects I’ve collected, then photographed using natural light in my home, as well as nature studies by photographing the landscape around my home. My portfolio’s story is, as an artist, that I endeavor to observe the beauty around me every day. I’ve built my theme based on this practice, and even though I haven’t published a completed Home/Work selection, the ongoing process is very rewarding.

Seasonal changes are especially exciting to me. In front of my house, a small elderberry tree grows under a large, spreading oak. In early autumn, the elderberry leaves dry out and fall to my lawn. Over many years, I’ve observed this process, but last autumn, I noticed especially wonderful colors and patterns on these leaves, so I gathered them into a box. Placed in a corner in my dining room in between two windows, I watched and waited for special lighting, experimenting with exposures at different times of day. The great advantage of this portfolio concept is that I don’t have to go on an expedition to make images, but I’m able to keep my creative juices flowing.

After 14 years of living and photographing around my home, the portfolio’s depth is now strongly established. The images are diverse, but united visually by the theme of nature and pattern and locale. The portfolio title plays off the fact that I work at home and that my work blends with, and blurs into, my family life on a daily basis.

Now, I have an assignment for you. Think of a theme you might develop, perhaps a local bit of landscape that you can study every day, or at least every week. If you have an established local theme already, consider how you might improve it. Ask yourself what other subjects or approaches might add depth to your theme. Do you need to add more variety of seasons? A new camera angle? Wider views for context, or ones with a tighter scale for an intimate perspective? More variety of light and weather conditions? In other words, what’s missing?

Photograph specifically for your theme, with its concept and needs of the portfolio in mind. Plan your photo sessions for this assignment in terms of location, subject, time of day, etc., in order to maximize your efforts. Add new images to the existing group that blend harmoniously and complement your established portfolio. Be open to new ideas and opportunities that present themselves while photographing, even if they aren’t on your checklist. When you spend a few years or even a few months on a portfolio, with passion and focus on improving it, you become a better photographer!

And, remember, our “seeing” needs daily practice. Beauty is all around us every day!

To learn about William Neill‘s one-on-one Yosemite workshops, ebooks and iPad app, see his latest images and learn about his online courses with, visit his website at

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”.