Variations On A Theme

Sometimes, your first inclination isn’t the only possibility

William Neill made this photograph, “Agave Attenuata, Island of Maui, Hawaii,” in 1994. It’s a 4×5 film image. Since that time, it has been scanned to a digital file, and Neill has experimented with variations. Technology makes it easy to match images to your evolving creative vision.

The art of photography is about interpretation. What’s right and what’s wrong? You, the artist, get to decide. Listening to Ansel Adams’ lectures in my youth, and seeing the creative renditions he made from his negatives to the final prints, I learned that I need not adhere to a literal expression of my subjects.

From this lesson, I try not to be dogmatic about how I compose and process my images. I listen to my inner voice about whether my photographs reflect what I saw and felt. I steer clear of rules and norms as much as possible. I may end up creating an image that has a standard tonal range or compositional balance, but I’m not locked into that.

My photograph shown here was made in Hawaii with a 4×5 view camera and film in 1994. Years later, I scanned the transparency and, on my computer screen, “played” with the file first starting with a color version. My goal was to convey the subtle variations of the green in the leaves, but also to bring out the bright edges to heighten their graphic lines.

My next step was to convert the photograph to black-and-white given the classic graphic nature of the subject. Strongly influenced by one of Adams’ former assistants Don Worth (, I took the tonalities in two different directions. Usually, when I explore such divergent interpretations, one of them jumps out as the best option. In this case, I love all three directions.

In both black-and-white photographs, I’ve created high-key and low-key versions by pushing the tones up or down. The low-key one shows the curve on the left side of the image’s histogram emphasizing the dark grays, while the high-key image’s tonal range is on the right side of the histogram.

Will you come up with three variations for most of your images? No. Will most landscape and nature photographs work best with a full range of tones? Yes. My advice is simply not to limit yourself creatively.

To learn about William Neill‘s one-on-one Yosemite workshops, ebooks and iPad app, and to see his latest images, visit his website and photo-blog 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”.