Whispers And Shouts

Your subject selection and processing style can and should be affected by what you want to say

What do you want to say? Standing behind your camera, looking through the viewfinder, what inside there inspires you? Once you stop to answer these questions, you must next consider how you want to say it, making choices such as what light or weather will help you create an emotive image. Is what you see now the best option, or do you need to come back in different light or another season? Dramatic lighting during a clearing storm? Soft, subtle light on a cloudy day? During sunrise or sunset?

Yellow Pines in snow, Yosemite Valley, Yosemite National Park, California, 1990. From the series “Whispers of Light.”

I have written often in this space that I love making high-key images. My intent is that they reflect the quiet, slow-paced meditative experience of the moment of exposure. Simplicity. Subtlety. These are words I value highly in my landscape photography. I love making peaceful and serene images. I strive to distill those aspects of nature that whisper rather than shout.

In my last column, “Write Your Story,” I talked about the use of writing to enhance your photography. I mentioned that creative titles for your portfolios could entice viewers and encapsulate the emotion behind them. I recently came up with a theme title for my high-key imagery: “Whispers of Light.” I feel that the words express my emotions and intentions. My Yellow Pines image shown here, with the use of high-key processing, is part of my newly named portfolio. A heavy snowfall and a rare hush blanketed Yosemite Valley. If you can sense the silence, my photograph has succeeded.

But nature is not always subtle. Sometimes nature makes me want to shout. And howl with joy. I was recently browsing through my Lightroom catalog and remembered an epic scene in Antarctica. The late evening glow combined beautifully with swirling clouds layered across the mountainscapes. I started playing around with processing ideas. What did I want to convey? The light, the massive sense of scale I felt as we sailed past mountains and glaciers for hours? Subtlety was not in order; a shout, not a whisper, was required. I converted the color capture to black-and-white and worked on the file to pull out all of the magic. I am hoping my rendition of the scene translated the power and awe I felt at the time.

Mountain and Iceberg at Twilight, Antarctic Peninsula, Antarctica, 2014.

Although having a consistent style for your photography is a good thing, one shouldn’t be a slave to that style at the sacrifice of expressing the moment. Most of us gravitate toward seeking out and sharing the most epic lighting or weather or locations. Even though subtle images are less popular online, or perhaps because of it, I continue to pursue the quieter, more intimate landscape images. My two photographs shown here are meant to illustrate that your subject selection or processing style can and should be affected by what you want to say.

How you organize and present your photographs will have a significant impact on how viewers respond to your work. Once you find a theme and style direction, such as my high-key “Whispers of Light” series, you can focus your shooting and processing efforts on that body of work to build depth. This type of portfolio building can take months or years, but the extra focus can make it a more efficient way to create multiple themes in parallel. The stronger your theme’s concept, the stronger the communication to your viewer will be. When you decide what you want to say, you are more likely to be heard—whether you wish to whisper or shout!

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”.