Get Past The Snapshot

Don't settle for your first perspective. Keep looking and you’ll keep finding photographs

This Article Features Photo Zoom

on landscape
Reflections, Yosemite Creek, California

Down, but not forgotten. Fallen, but still beautiful and at peace. Fallen leaves have an intriguing beauty and symbolism, and they have been an ongoing theme of mine, especially in the fall. There’s something magical about the transition of the seasons in general. The sight of a few last leaves clinging to a tree or a forest floor covered with colorful leaves is certainly compelling. To me, the transition of autumn to winter can often be more special than the peak of autumn color.

I usually find ideas to write about in this column by browsing my image files. In doing so the other day, I noticed that I have many images looking down at the ground, including many of fallen leaves. This thought reminded me of a lesson I teach my online classes—when you find a situation that’s exciting, be sure to explore your options thoroughly. I’ve noticed that some folks see one or two options in a given location, but don’t push themselves further. I often ask to see what other versions a student has photographed at that time, to see what else he or she tried, no matter the image quality. I do this, in part, to see how thoroughly the student experimented during that session. So today’s lesson is to look up, look down and look all around!

To “work” a scene thoroughly, try using different lens focal lengths and camera positions. Explore the forest floor, the small shells on the beach or the patterns in the grasses of a meadow. When your back starts to hurt from looking down, look up over your head until your neck hurts! Look for clearly separated shapes in the branches of the trees. Or watch for dynamic patterns in the clouds above. Then turn around and look some more. Move around. Judge the lighting conditions. Maybe backlighting or sidelighting will give you a different effect. Search for strong graphic patterns in any direction. Remember, the value and the joy of Nature is in the journey, the process of exploring, that of appreciation.

The photograph shown here was made a few years ago in nearby Yosemite Valley. My daughter’s class had a field trip there, and I just had to tag along. At the end of the day, we walked through the valley, enjoying the autumn colors overhead. As we crossed the bridge over Yosemite Creek, we looked down to discover all these wonderful leaves floating in the still stream. The vivid blue sky reflected magically, contrasting with the yellow leaves. I took many photographs of this downward view, playing with different focal lengths. It seemed to me that something more was needed, so I asked my daughter to toss a pebble into the water. We played together, experimenting with “ripple placement.” At the same time, I focused on catching a subtle ripple pattern and, voilà, the ripples added the special touch needed.

The next time you find yourself photographing a landscape with potential, challenge yourself to take dozens of images just to see what different compositions you can record. Keep pushing yourself creatively to find different perspectives. Be sure to immerse yourself deeply in the exploration process. No play, no gain! Have fun! I find that if I tend to stop overthinking, I’m more likely to avoid paralysis by analysis. Only then can I photograph from the heart.

To learn about William Neill’s new e-books, Impressions of Light and Landscapes of the Spirit, Digital Edition, visit his PhotoBlog, or sign up for newsletter updates on his courses with 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”.