In Conversation… William Neill

A fascinating interview with William Neill, one of USA’s leading professional landscape and outdoor photographers, writers and a resident of the Yosemite National Park area since 1977. He is the author of several books and countless magazine articles.

You have been a resident of the Yosemite National Park area since 1977. Can you describe your feelings about living near the park and to what extent this has influenced your photography?

Having been here so long, I can be selective about when and where I photograph. When you get to know a landscape, you can read the weather and know better where to be and when. I have learned how to avoid clichés, and to see the place with my own vision. Learning this lesson in Yosemite has helped me tremendously when photographing other locations, and to believe in myself as an artist.

You were using a 5x4 large format camera for some time, but I see that you have moved to digital these days. How did you find the transition and do you still use your large format gear?

I feel that using my view camera was a tremendous experience for 20 years, teaching me to slow down, to compose precisely, and to create the sharpest image both technically and conceptually. I only used three focal lengths, which helped me to practise very controlled compositions, using my feet rather than depending too much on a zoom. For example, creating good spacing between objects is largely affected by camera position, not focal length. The transition to digital was not difficult, in part because of the discipline learned with large format. The biggest issue was exposure, but I learned to understand how to use the camera’s histogram, which is a great leap in technique. I find the LCD previews are an amazing tool for creative feedback during photographic sessions.

You have written a series of books and ebooks already. Are you working currently on a new book?

I am working on an ebook collection of my essays called “Light on the Landscape”, based largely on my writing for Outdoor Photographer’s “On Landscape” column over the past fifteen years. I have others in mind also, which include images of collected objects, mostly photographed in a “still life” manner. Another theme is called “Morning Light”, which is a collection of early morning photographs made in my area of the Sierra Nevada foothills near Yosemite.

Can you describe your current gear and why you chose it?

I have been using the Canon 1DS Mk III since it was introduced, and it is a tremendous tool. Now I am ready to move up to the higher resolution in the new cameras, especially since many clients are asking for mural-sized enlargements. My primary lens is the Canon 70-200mm f/2.8, and the next most used lens is Canon’s 90mm Tilt Shift lens. I love to isolate sections of the landscape, so I gravitate to longer focal lengths. I use the 90mm TS-E for many nature detail subjects.

One of your portfolios is called “Landscape of the Spirit”. Can you describe the philosophy behind this title?

This title relates to how I feel when I photograph the natural landscape, how it nurtures my spirit and my soul. The collection represents my efforts to see and to feel deeply, then communicate this inspiration in the landscapes I have explored. The experiences and the photographs, the whole process, are my ballast against the negative in the world, and remind me of the beauty around us every day.

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Like most photographers, you must have a favourite image. Please explain a little bit about it; all the details and especially the why.

My favourite image is “Dawn, Lake Louise,” made in Banff National Park in the Canadian Rockies. Rising very early on this morning, I envisioned a dramatic and brilliant sunrise on the lake and the glaciers above. It was still dark when I set up my camera. I waited patiently for sunrise, but my preconceived vision failed to appear, since persistent clouds shrouded the surrounding mountains and glaciers. Determined to salvage the morning, I made two long exposures, but expected little. When later I viewed the film, I was elated with the result.

Having worked at The Ansel Adams Gallery, you must have spent a good amount of time with the master himself. What is the most important thing you learned from him?

Ansel influenced me in many ways. He taught his students to pursue excellence in their craft, but, more importantly, to strive constantly for a personal vision, not to copy others. I have worked hard to follow his teachings. His words, and those of others around him, helped me believe that Yosemite and other iconic landscapes could be photographed in fresh ways, in spite of the immense numbers of artists photographing them.

Almost everyone can name photographers who are an influence and inspiration. Besides Ansel Adams, can you name other photographers who have inspired and influenced you and keep you going after all these years?

Photographers who have influenced me include Edward and Bret Weston, Paul Caponigro, Minor White, to name black and white photographers; Ernst Haas, Philip Hyde and Elliot Porter are color photographers who have inspired me. All of these photographers were exceptional at capturing the essence of a place or subject; at going beyond the surface description of things.

Have you gone through any formal training in photography or are you a self-taught photographer?

No, I have no formal training. I took B and W courses in college, and I learned a great deal when working at The Ansel Adams Gallery during Ansel’s workshops in the early 1980s.

Besides photography, are there any other hobbies/passions in your life?

The main passion in my life is my family. I do not photograph all that often, because my children are still in school and I spend every day involved in their activities.

When on the lookout for an image in the field, you must have a certain method or process you follow in order to find the subject. Can you share this with us?

My method is to be in the moment, observe closely and feel deeply. I go out with a sense of exploration and wonder but few expectations. But I get so excited about my discoveries that I must photograph when the light and compositions come together, which is rare. I spend a great deal of energy with each image’s graphic design in every part of the frame, such as watching the edges and the spacing between objects.

How do you come up with ideas, and what do you use as inspiration for your images?

I come up with ideas through daily observation of nature, from looking at other photographer’s images, and seeing a scene or subject with an open mind. The stunning beauty of nature inspires me, whether around my home, or in a National Park like Yosemite. Many of my images do not reflect the iconic landscapes, but rather the universal aspects of nature that anyone could find anywhere.

I know that you run some workshops. Can you explain a little about them?

First, I teach online courses for Also, I conduct private one-on-one sessions in my studio. The emphases of these sessions are critiques of the student’s work, editing, post-processing and fine art printmaking.
I run private workshop sessions in Yosemite National Park, sharing my 35 years of experience photographing there. We work on Composition, Quality of Light, Emotional Content, Theme Development, Post-processing, and Impressionistic Photography Techniques:

Often, other people ask me if I have a favourite location. Do you have a favourite location and why? Will you share it with us?

Yosemite, Death Valley and Big Sur are my favourite locations. All three places offer excellent opportunities for landscape photography with many diverse options at each location. In Death Valley, for example, one can photograph dramatic sand dunes, massive mountain ranges, salt flats and intimate canyons with fascinating rock formations.

If you could turn back the clock, what advice would you give about photography to a young William?

Interesting question. I made so many good decisions early in my career that I do not look back and say “what if” I had done this or that. I worked hard to promote my best and most personal images while being open to, and finding, commercial outlets for my photographs that has allowed me to remain self-employed successfully for 38 years. I should tell a young William the same thing I told myself some many years ago: follow your bliss. This adage is from Joseph Campbell, “Follow your bliss and the universe will open doors where there were only walls”. -Joseph Campbell

Besides landscape/nature photography, what other genre can you see yourself being attracted to?

I have photographed a great deal in India and the Himalayan Range over the past 25 years. I enjoy photographing people and religious, cultural and architectural aspects in that area of the world. Much of that work is on, yet unscanned, 35mm film.

You have been writing a very popular column for Outdoor Photographer for a long time now. Are we going to see your articles appearing in LPM from time to time?

I started writing my “On Landscape” column in 1997, for a total of 103 essays, and also posted a column to “The Luminous Landscape”. Landscape Photography Magazine is excellent, and I’d like to contribute essays and images to LPM too.

How do you see your photographic future? What comes next? Do you have any specific projects?

Simply, I wish to continue to create evocative photographs, and to share my knowledge through publishing more ebooks and essays. My next ebook is to be a collection of my best essays and the images featured with the writings. It will not be a “how to” book, but highly instructional in terms of the techniques and inspiration behind my photographs.

What advice would you give to our readers and to all those who visit Yosemite National Park?

First, plan to spend several days at least. Also plan to visit when you have the best chance of exciting weather and light. In the spring, the waterfalls are booming and for a few weeks, usually in May, the dogwoods are in bloom. Or you can try to arrive when the autumn color peaks in late October. My favourite season is winter, but it can be difficult to time your visit for when a snowstorm blankets the granite cliffs and trees. My second piece of advice is to sign up for a Yosemite private session with me:

Finally, if there is one piece of advice you would give to someone just entering the wonderful world of landscape photography, what would this be?

Photograph what inspires you the most, not what might sell the best. Work on well-focused themes about which you are the most passionate. Exploring a place in depth, for many years in many seasons, is the most likely way you will rise above the derivative bulk of landscape photography.

Read this article, and many more, in High Definition, inside Issue 21 of Landscape Photography Magazine.

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