Persistence is a key element of the creative process

It was 3 a.m., and I was wide awake. I would soon be driving up to nearby Yosemite Valley to work with a private student for the day, starting with sunrise. A few days earlier, the valley had closed for the day due to flooding. I knew it would be a day for excellent water photography, and my excitement resulted in me being awake before my alarm went off. Come to think of it, I always wake up early when I know I’ll soon be in Yosemite Valley again.

Spring was coming fast, but it was too early for dogwood blooms, so we spent a good deal of our time photographing rapids along the river and in the meadows where ponds full of reflections enticed us.

At one point in the late morning, we walked out into a meadow where we could see Half Dome, the famed rock formation. I wanted him to know specific locations for when he’d be photographing the Valley without me. The light was mundane on the cliffs, but the clouds were starting to look ominous. In the meadow, I found a pond with this captivating group of bent grass blades forming graphic triangles. I pointed them out to my student, and we spent the next hour working on variations. The clouds kept shifting, as did the breeze, which constantly changed the textures on the surface of the water. I demonstrated my process of composing as well as choices of ISO, shutter speed and aperture.

We talked about camera position, which significantly altered the graphics of the triangular reflections. Small movements to the left or right changed the way the grass lines related to each other. When previewing my captures on the back of my camera, I noticed those graphics were stronger when bright clouds were reflected in the water behind them. I was able to illustrate these various details on my LCD screen, so that my student could then work on his own compositions while keeping my ideas in mind. I checked out his images as he made them, giving feedback and suggesting refinements.

Later that cloudy morning, we spent another hour or so photographing rapids along the Merced River. We went through a similar process as with the grasses and ponds. Changing camera positions was limited, so much of our efforts focused on shutter speed and image design. I asked Scott to try a range of shutter speeds. It is vital to experiment in the field so that later, when editing, you can compare the nuances of various blurring and streaking of water patterns. In a past column, “Going With The Flow,” I discussed creative options for moving water imagery in detail. The gist is that one can’t predict which shutter speed will work the best without exposing many options.

Persistence is a key element of the creative process. One example occurred as we worked along the Merced. I set up Scott at my favorite spot, and while he photographed, I checked out a slightly upstream and higher vantage point. After I made a few images, I noticed that this angle was even better than where Scott was working. The higher position gave better separation between the two key standing waves of the composition. Scott came over so I could show him the difference, and even better images resulted.

I am hoping that these examples show how we can take our landscape photography to the next level. Our work at both locations provides some valuable lessons:

  1. Enjoy the journey, seize the day. Over-planning and high expectations of finding the perfect images can block the creative process. If you are not highly passionate about what you are seeing, move on and simply enjoy your explorations.
  2. Explore the details within the landscape. Many photographers try to tell the whole story of a place with one wide-view image. Think in terms of visual storytelling to convey the spirit of a place. Consider adding a variety of scale to your portfolio.
  3. My sense of wonder for the natural world drives my daily practice of seeing the beauty that surrounds us every day. First, that passion needs to be there, inside the photographer’s heart. The next steps require a highly selective process. Great light is required. In my examples here, the overall soft light in the meadow, combined with the dramatic roiling clouds, provided the excellent background to the grasses. Also, great graphics are required. Not just any blades of grass would work here, but the bent blade reflections draw the eye to the strong shapes.

Revealing the art of water was my goal with these images. The magic of reflections in a pond. The dynamic power of river rapids. Most importantly, my student Scott went home with a fine group of new Yosemite photographs. His portfolio now includes some classic views made in beautiful light, as well as some more personal compositions, discoveries made with the goal of looking past the standard clichés. Mission accomplished.

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”.