Emotion – The Magic Element

 …this essay was recently added to my collection of essays at The Luminous Landscape website as posted recently here in my blog, but am now including the full essay here…  Enjoy, and please share any of your own stories about how emotion has “appeared” in your own images.


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 my Mud Crack image 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 my Light on the Landscape blog a 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

Published by William Neill

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, and The Polaroid Collection. 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. 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 monthly 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, UBS Global Asset Management. His work was chosen to illustrate two special edition books published by The Nature Company, Rachel Carson's The Sense of Wonder and John Fowles's The Tree. His photographs were also published in a three book series on the art and science of natural process in collaboration with the Exploratorium Museum of San Francisco: By Nature's Design (Exploratorium / Chronicle Books, 1993), The Color of Nature (Exploratorium / Chronicle Books, 1996) and Traces of Time (Chronicle Books / Exploratorium, Fall 2000). A portfolio of his Yosemite photographs has been published entitled Yosemite: The Promise of Wildness (Yosemite Association, 1994) which received The Director's Award from the National Park Service. A retrospective monograph of his landscape photography entitled Landscapes Of The Spirit (Bulfinch Press/Little, Brown, 1997) relates his beliefs in the healing power of nature. William has taught photography since 1980 for such prestigious organizations as The Ansel Adams Gallery, the Friends of Photography, Palm Beach Photographic Workshops, The Maine Workshops and Anderson Ranch Workshops. He specializes in landscape and nature photography and is concerned with conveying the beauty seen in Nature. Currently, he teaches online courses for BetterPhoto.com and One-on-One Workshops in his home studio near Yosemite National Park.

11 replies on “Emotion – The Magic Element”

  1. Y empezamos esta entrega de imágenes de Jesus para perfil
    con esta imagen en la que podemos ver a Jesús
    con la corona de espinas y el mensaje: Aquel que pierde dinero; pierde mucho; aquel que pierde un amigo, pierde
    más; aquel que pierde la Fe, lo pierde todo”.

  2. This is a great article and I share your beliefs that conveying in an image one’s emotional response to the subject, light & surroundings is the key to success in a photograph. Images that demonstrate an emotional response are likely to have longevity in the viewer’s memory and also to invite them to gaze longer at the image, and to truly ‘see’ some of what the photographer saw. Images that invite us to ‘step into the frame’; one’s where we can ‘feel’ the spray from a cascading waterfall, ‘smell’ the wildflowers, ‘touch’ the soft mosses on a woodland boulder, and so on.

    There are some very technically perfect images one comes across that sadly don’t hold ones wonder for long and on reflection it is always the lack of emotional content that lets them down in such cases. “The camera points both ways”, said Freeman Patterson and how right he was…

  3. I’ve observed that when truly engaged in the creative process, my mind is very quiet and clear. However, strong emotion — like those you describe in your essay — quite possibly influences what I engage with, and also how.

    I have an example! This was actually a pretty important moment for me, photographically speaking. After a long road trip that began at Mono Lake and concluded, via southern Utah, with a visit to Great Basin National Park, one in which I produced very few images that I was excited about, I happened across a quiet moment of beauty.

    This occurred purely by chance, but was profound for me personally, in as much as it helped define my motivation for photographing landscapes. I wrote a blog post about it entitled The Power of a Photograph — and the image of this most memorable moment (for me) can be viewed here.

    Thanks for sharing the essay in this format — I’d read the previously, actually, and it’s nice to be able to relate personal experiences to it.

  4. For me, it is the being still before photographing and then feeling into the view, of whatever it may be, whether a street scene, an object, some food, or a beautiful plant, that often results in that aha image. Often that comes very quickly, as I’ve been taking pix for many years, sometimes it doesn’t happen at all! Really exciting, truly visually appealing images of mine are a rarity, for me.

    I like this cracks photograph…a wonderful abstract with a number of different ways to ‘see’ it.

  5. Indeed. Photographing the thing is hardly the point. It is how the photographer sees the thing and how effectively his or her photograph communicates the photographers perspective on and relationship to it. Great photographs tell us more about the photographer than the subject.


Comments are closed.