I admit that most of my photography has been done off-the-cuff. You know; choose a location, pick a time, and shoot what you can find. No real planning or preparation involved. Recently, though, I’ve been planning a more specific picture, and I’d like to share some of the tools and mental processes that I’ve been using to prepare to photograph it.
First, the general picture idea. Here on the northern edge of Lake Ontario a lot of cities have a harbour with a small lighthouse or two at the entrance to help guide boats in the dark. I want a picture of one of these lighthouses with waves crashing around it, either lit with golden hour light or with its beacon on in the dark.
Before we jump into some preparation tools, let’s talk about knowing your territory. This is key, because experience will give you knowledge that may be hard to get otherwise. In my case I know that the Great Lakes need high winds to work up (relatively) big waves. The time of year this is most likely to happen consistently is March, when spring starts to blow in. Armed with this knowledge I can try to plan my shooting around that time. If something doesn’t turn out right on one shoot, I know that I probably won’t have to wait weeks for another opportunity.
Storms and wind in March is common weather around here; and that’s another point. Try to get to know your local general weather patterns. Another pattern that I’ll keep in mind is the fact that most of our weather moves from west to east. That means most of the wind and waves will be rolling from west to east, which might affect which lighthouses get hit with waves because breakwaters may take the brunt for some. Knowing your region- and location-specific weather and light patterns like this will pay dividends.
Scouting a location is also very beneficial. If you can, go to a location and try to figure out your composition ahead of time. This will save you finding the best angles when time is of the essence because of lighting or other uncontrollable conditions. While there, try to have your eyes open and your mind turned on. Is the setting sun going to be blocked early by a ridge? Will you have to hike for miles in the dark to set up by sunrise? Is high tide going to take your vantage point? Try not to be caught high and dry because you weren’t thinking.
Now for a couple of tools.
The Photographer’s Ephemeris (TPE for short) is a fantastic program, and one of the first that I reach for when planning a photo shoot. The main thing that TPE gives you is the sunrise/set angles and time for any place in the world on any day of the year. If you’ve shot landscapes for any length of time you’ll know that this information is worth it’s weight in gold. TPE can also show you moonrise/set time and angle, twilight times, moon phase and more. What makes it even better is that the desktop version is free! (Mobile versions cost.) TPE made me consider the time of day that I can shoot. The golden hour may clash with my family schedule at certain times of year, so I’ll have to plan around that. TPE gives me the ability to see this well before I go shooting.
The second tool is one of man’s best friends: Google. The more you can research, the better you’ll be prepared; the more you’re prepared, the better things will go. Get information about your desired location or subject. Try to find pictures or videos of it (as always, be careful!). It will help if some of those picture or videos were taken under the conditions you’ll be photographing under. Looking at these will help you get mentally prepared for what to expect, know better how to prepare your gear, and give you ideas that you might not have thought of. And don’t forget Google Maps! Not only can you get directions to your location, you can also look for other locations, find alternate viewpoints, and do virtual scouting (streetview is awesome!).
Other helpful tools are weather websites and apps. I need high winds to whip up my water, but some sun would also be nice. It might be hard to get both, but watching the weather reports will help me be ready if an opportunity arises.
As a final tip, think through what gear you’ll need to accomplish your shot, and prepare it. You don’t want to be out in the field, an hour from home, and have your battery die or realise you need your polariser. I recently went out photographing without my memory card. Don’t do that! Know what you’ll need and make sure that you have it—and that it’s ready for use—before you leave your house.
Hope these tips and tools will help you as you plan your photo excursions!
God bless, Paul