Try Something Completely Different

Break away from your usual subject matter to get out of a creative rut

Twilight at Scripps Pier, La Jolla, California, 2010

Twilight at Scripps Pier, La Jolla, California, 2010

During a recent school break, my family and I enjoyed a vacation at the beach. We stayed in La Jolla, Calif., a place I’ve been visiting since I was a small kid. We spent one day at SeaWorld and another day at the beach. I’ve noticed Scripps Pier in the past and have enjoyed other photographers’ images of piers. Since I’d never photographed the subject before, my main photographic focus on this trip was the pier, which was near where we stayed. I usually avoid the “presence of humans” in my photographs, but I found this to be an exciting chance to try something different.

I photographed here at sunrise earlier this day and then again at sunset. My two favorites are shown here. The sunrise was my first time photographing the pier. I carefully worked into the best camera position for what I had in mind, which was to contrast the symmetry of the man-made pier to the flow of the surf. For this image, I used my Singh-Ray Vari-ND filter to extend the length of the exposure to 10 seconds. I waited for waves to wash up near my tripod and then watched for the reflection to develop as the surf pulled back. Click. Timing is so critical when photographing surf. As I photographed, I watched the light and timed the exposures until I felt as though I had exhausted the session’s potential.

During the day, I downloaded the new images on my laptop and reviewed them in Adobe Lightroom. I often find that such a review gives me new ideas or points out any technical errors I might have made. In this case, seeing the sunrise images showed me that this location had more potential to be found at sunset, so this motivated me to return.

When I first arrived just before sunset, I knew where I wanted to stand from my morning session. I was as precise as possible to create symmetry and equal spacing between the pillars. At first, the sunlight was too harsh and my only option was to block the sun with one of the piers. Still, the sky was so bright that capturing detail in highlights and shadows was a problem. After the sun went below the horizon, the conditions improved. I “worked” the situation, trying various timing of the wave action. In each exposure, the reflections were different.

There’s something about the ‘doorway’ effect at the end of the pier, the receding lines of pier posts seen against the soft, flowing effect of blurred surf. The structure of the pier leads the viewer ‘into’ the photograph and the rest is left to their imagination.

It was nearly dark when I made this image. I got to the point where my meter wouldn’t give me a reading at my desired aperture of ƒ/22 or ƒ/32, as the in-camera meter is limited to 30 seconds. I should have had a handheld meter for this situation, but didn’t. I could have exposed with a wider aperture, but would have lost good sharpness on the pier posts. I quickly extrapolated a good exposure based on readings at a wider aperture. I took out my iPhone to use its timer, started the exposure (with a cable release, of course) and then started the stopwatch. The camera was set on Long Exposure Noise Reduction. My focal length was 70mm, the ƒ-stop was ƒ/22 and the exposure was 76 seconds.

I’m excited about these new images. When I posted the new work on my blog and Facebook page, my feelings were reinforced with all of the positive response. There’s something about the “doorway” effect at the end of the pier, the receding lines of pier posts seen against the soft, flowing effect of blurred surf. The structure of the pier leads the viewer “into” the photograph and the rest is left to their imagination. I’m currently “polishing up” the master file for printing limited-edition prints of both images.

I don’t think that this is a new direction I’ll explore in depth, but I find it invigorating to step out of my visual “norm.” I won’t stop photographing the astounding beauty and purity I see in the natural landscape. On the other hand, nor will I stop exploring the creative options that photography offers, even if that includes the human landscape. What rut have you stepped out of lately?

To learn about William Neill’s one-on-one workshops in the Yosemite area and his e-books (Meditations in Monochrome, Impressions of Light and Landscapes of the Spirit), to visit his PhotoBlog and for information about his online courses with, visit Neill’s 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”.