The Magic Element – Emotion

August 27, 2012 ·

William Neill

Mudcracks, Zion National Park, Utah  1983

Camera: Wista 45,  Lens: Rodenstock Sironar-N 210mm f/5.6

One important characteristic of an artist is the ability and willingness to express emotions in his or her work.  For example, paintings can show anger, or a sculpture can convey joy.  Of course, the viewer can only imagine the state of the artist’s mind but if the work is successful, one can often gain an insight into the artist’s experience or mood. A strong work of art can elicit emotions in the viewer both obvious and unexpected whether they are the same emotions the artist felt or not.

Apparent or not, the artist’s emotions will, and should, affect the work.  Most of my best images are a result of a passionate response to the subject.  Many years ago, I was exploring in Zion National Park.  One day, when returning from a solo hike up a narrow canyon, I slipped on some steep sandstone and slid (in shorts of course) down about 30 feet into a pothole full of water.  All my gear was in a pack on my back and the water was five feet deep.  It took me several minutes to get my pack off, throw it out of the pothole, and climb out.  Meanwhile, my gear, which included my 4×5 and 35mm cameras and lenses, got soaked.

I was scrapped up pretty good, and so I cleaned up the “rug burns” on my arms and legs, and then spent hours trying to dry out my equipment.  I remember using a hand dryer in a local campground restroom, and leaving lenses on my car’s dashboard, to dry them out!  At the end of the day, I called home only to hear some more bad news. 

Needless to say, I was seriously bummed out – half my camera gear wasn’t working plus some personal issues were not helping any.  Fortunately, my 4×5 dried out nicely, and the lenses and film were ok so the next day I went exploring again.  As I wandered though a stream bed, I found these incredible mud cracks.  They had formed in a depression so that somehow the cracks were small at the top of the slope and progressively got bigger lower down where the moisture had stayed longer.  The composition was made to show this transition.  Making the exposure was straightforward due to the even lighting in the shaded canyon.

I liked the image when I exposed it, and I liked it even more when I saw the processed film.  But I didn’t really stop to think about how my emotional state of mind might have affected it. It was only months later, when printing the image, did it strike me that the image reflected my mood that day.  My emotions had surfaced, and I don’t think it was a coincidence. Looking back, I am happy to have made something good out of a bad situation!

Thinking about my own work, the way emotions effect my image making varies from image to image.  Most often, it is the excitement of discovery, the passion for the subject, of finding a captivating subject in extraordinary light, that demands that I make the photograph.  On occasion, I have found that some images are also influenced by my overall frame of mind like myMud Crackimage shown here.  If one can accept that there is an artistic advantage to creating emotional work, perhaps those feelings will come through more often.  The best suggestion I can think of for doing this is give yourself permission to do so.  I don’t think there is an easy formula for doing this, nor do I believe it can be done every time out. It is more a matter of feeling and seeing, rather than deliberating and analyzing, the subject. Also, trusting one’s one own instincts about what or how to photograph is a vital link in the equation.

Waterfall and Sunbeam, Sierra Nevada Foothills, California 2011

Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III__EF70-200mm f/2.8L USM__1.5 sec at f / 27__ISO 200


Fortunately, most of us don’t have bad days too often.  I am glad I went out for those hike that day in spite of my mood.  I know that experiencing the beauty of nature was therapeutic.  So often nature’s beauty has restored my spirits and sometimes even resulted in a good photograph!  My waterfall image is another excellent example of this.  Just a few days after the passing of my father, I led a private student to this local falls for an early morning field session.  As the sun rose through the surrounding forest, the spray was lit with radiant sunbeams right in front of the waterfall!   As I wrote in myLight on the Landscape bloga few days later,

I am unsure of the right words to describe the emotions
I felt when standing before this scene,
but “powerfully uplifting” is what comes to mind.
It caught my breath
and soothed my soul at a moment when it was most needed.”

It is beneficial for our photographs to convey emotion – those of joy, curiosity, of quiet meditation, or even those bummer days.  Rather than make an ordinary photograph, I hope that you will let your emotions make their way into your images.  How else will we see your special way of seeing?

“Seeing, in the finest and broadest sense, means using your senses, your intellect, and your emotions.
It means encountering your subject matter with your whole being.
It means looking beyond the labels of things and discovering the remarkable world around you
-Freeman Patterson

July, 2012

We are pleased that Bill has now agreed to make his four e-Books available  through our on-line store.  See info and screen shots of each book below.

William Neill
, a resident of the Yosemite National Park area since 1977, is a landscape photographer concerned with conveying the deep, spiritual beauty he sees and feels in Nature. Neill’s award-winning photography has been widely published in books, magazines, calendars, 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, The Polaroid Collection and The Ansel Adams Gallery. Neill received a BA degree in Environmental Conservation at the University of Colorado. In 1995, Neill received the Sierra Club’s Ansel Adams Award for conservation photography.

He conducts Private Yosemite Workshopsin the national park and the nearby Sierra Nevada, andOne-on-One Studio Workshops at his studio in Oakhurst, CA, which is only a few miles from Yosemite.

Previous articles by William Neill on Luminous Landscpe

Landscapes of the Spirit

Thoughts on Ansel

Impressions of Light

Meditations in Monochrome

Thinking in Themes

Avatar photo

William Neill, an American photographer and resident of Yosemite National Park area since 1977, is a renowned nature and landscape photographer. Neill's award-winning photography has been widely published in books, magazines, calendars, 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 has received the Sierra Club's Ansel Adams Award for conservation photography and is an emeritus member of Canon USA’s elite Explorers of Light. Neill's assignment and 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. Also, he writes a regular column, On Landscape, for Outdoor Photographer magazine. Feature articles about his work have appeared in Life, Camera and Darkroom, Outdoor Photographer and Communication Arts, from whom he has also received five Awards of Excellence. His corporate clients have included Sony Japan, Bayer Corporation, Canon USA, Nike, Nikon, The Nature Company, Hewlett Packard, 3M, Freidrick Grohe, Neutrogena, Sony Music/Classical, University of Cincinnati, Mirabaud, Bear Sterns and UBS Global Asset Management. He is the photographic author of many books including The Sense of Wonder,The Tree, By Nature's Design, The Color of Nature and Traces of Time. A portfolio of his Yosemite photographs has been published Yosemite: The Promise of Wildness and a retrospective monograph of his landscape photography entitled Landscapes Of The Spirit.

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