Learning and understanding an area intimately is one the most important aspects of landscape photography to give the photographer the best chance of success. So many times, I hear bad luck stories about chasing that all illusive portfolio image where a photographer continually curses his luck.
There is always an element of luck when it comes to pitting your wits against mother nature as we continually do as landscape photographers but with a little work and planning you can significantly increase your chances and tip the scales in your favour.
By putting the effort in and focusing on key areas rather than a fixed single location for a single image you maximise your time more efficiently while out on location rather than growing roots and preying mother nature will smile down on you.
Here I will outline the simple process I use to maximise my chances of capturing the image I am after where you will be able to adapt it for yourself improving your photography and increase the chance of being in the right place at the right time.
I decided to write this article after a recent trip where weather reports were not looking great but after a busy but productive 2 weeks stuck in the office processing orders and website work I really needed to get out and do some photography. I grabbed my gear and decided to head to the mountains and take the opportunity to do a little scouting with the conditions not being too favourable.
It was certainly blowing a gale as I started my climb, wet and muddy underfoot with the odd hale shower thrown in for good measure boy it was a miserable day. The weather forecasts were spot on with thick dense cloud as far as the eye could see producing that dull flat lighting across the landscape lacking in contrast and colour as photographers, we all love to hate.
As I approached the shoulder before the final ascent to the summit, I could see a solitary figure arched over his tripod and camera not moving a muscle like a hunter stalking his prey. We photographers are a funny bunch sometimes approachable and others downright unsociable.
It’s always that cat and mouse game of who makes the first move when it comes to being sociable and although I love to chat to other photographers, I know that it can be difficult if you are in the middle of a shot changing settings and composition whilst chasing the light.
I got to within 5 meters when I gently shouted afternoon not to startle him as I don’t think he spotted me approaching from behind and the last thing I wanted to do was give him a heart attack. As he looked up from his camera he smiled and said hello in a friendly voice.
We stood chatting for a few minutes and he was telling me that he was relatively new to the world of landscape photography of 1-2 years and that he was desperately trying to capture this image he had framed. I said I don’t think you are going to get the best conditions today to which he replied, “Tell me about it, this is my 9th consecutive visit to this spot trying to capture this image”.
I think I gave away my initial thoughts by the quizzical look on my face as he continued with, “Well, you know what it’s like, we all know that you have to visit a location many times before you get that special image were always after.”
After a few minutes chatting I wished him luck and off I trundled up to summit. As I walked, I felt a little disturbed by what this guy had said as if wearing the number of visits to the same spot in search of the holy grail as a badge of honour.
Here was a person who told me he had travelled two hours to get to the area and then had a two-hour hike to reach this location. That is an 8 hour round trip let alone all the time stood perched on the side of a mountain, waiting and hoping for some magic to happen.
If you consider that like him most landscape photographers are amateurs, and this is not their main daily grind and only probably manage to fit in one trip a week due to other commitments. That would mean he had dedicated around 9 weeks in search of this image which he was very unlikely going to get today.
I then started to reflect on my own posts and what other photographers were saying in their own Vlogs and Blogs and suddenly thought are we giving out poor or incorrect advice?
It was the following day when I switched on the TV and had a nose around on a few of my favourite YouTube channels where I sat and watched a discussion about visiting a location many times over in order to get a fantastic image. The more I looked the more I found, none of which intentionally were meant to mislead the viewer but in my opinion were not giving out the right message and good advice.
See like the saying goes not all content is created equal neither are two viewers of content the same. A viewer’s demographic ranges anything from someone just starting to think about photography all the way to a seasoned pro with many years of experience under his belt. As a photographer you never stop learning and why some of these YouTube channels for instance are so popular as they appeal to the masses.
The notion of not expecting to get a killer image on the first visit to a location is exactly what they should be saying but, to just continue to blindly return over and over until you get the ultimate shot is wrong.
Yes, this might be necessary if you are a full-time photographer working an assignment and have the time to return to locations over and over again or the location you are trying to shoot is in your own back yard!
But in practice the majority of people watching and reading such advice are amateurs looking and searching for guidance and help.
Think about this poor guy who was on his 9th consecutive visit to a single location to get a shot for possibly over 9 weeks, how much has he learnt in that time and how much have his own skills developed? Through failed experiences we learn, that’s what humans do. We fail, we learn we improve and there aren’t many short cuts in between especially when it comes to photography.
To get that amazing image yes you may well have to visit several times, but other factors must be considered. Planning and thought, learning to read and understand weather reports and the effects this has on the environment in the area you are shooting will dramatically increase your chances of success.
I have many images that were years in the making but managed to get the shot on the 2nd or 3rd time of trying.
How do I manage to do this well quite simply by not putting things down to chance. I try and calculate the chances of getting the image I have in mind based on the forecasted weather conditions, time of year and understanding the environment in which I am trying to photograph.
Seascapes and mountain ranges are one of the hardest to predict as whether forecasts are often wrong but once you start looking at forecasts, predicted cloud cover, types of cloud cover, where the light will fall at certain times of the day and can visualise how the environment looks under certain conditions you begin to tip the balance more in your favour. No longer is it a random process of just turning up and hoping for the best.
My process to maximise the chance of getting portfolio photographs.
The key point to my simple process is to record and document every outing you take for photography. Sounds tedious and boring but honestly, it’s not as bad as it sounds.
Firstly, I treat pretty much every visit to a new location as a scouting mission and if I get a keeper in the process then it’s a bonus. I try and work the shot I envisage and analyse the surroundings to build the image in my mind of what I really want.
If the conditions are not to my liking and looks like it has no chance of changing but the scene has potential and there is definitely an image to be had I take out my phone find a couple of compositions I like and take a few photographs. The phone I carry in my pocket is the best photography tool I own and so important in my workflow to capture and document scenes and composition for future reference.
Every time I am out I track my route via my GPS where I can simply mark my current location so I have the exact co-ordinates. This might sound like total over kill to track your every move especially if you’re on well-marked paths where there is no danger or chance of getting lost, but I don’t only use it for this.
I like to document my routes, where once uploaded into Garmin basecamp I can see exactly how long it would take me to get to the spot again. I then also have the route for future use in case I need to get to the location in the dark but also with the marked position for the image I can assess whether there are any alternative routes to the same location.
Obviously not everyone has a GPS so a good Ordinance Survey Map is sufficient where you can keep a journal of key waypoints and routes for future use.
I truly believe that getting to understand an area by spending time there in all weather conditions and seasons is one of the greatest keys to capturing your vision and maximising the time available to you as a photographer.
My own process is to always have an open mind and to build a mental map of an area of images which I document at home. This creates a treasure map of locations for the images I want to capture along with the ideal weather and lighting conditions and best time of the year.
I advise anyone whenever possible to work an area as much as possible, buy a map for the area which could be an ordnance survey map and stick it on the wall in your office. Get some small coloured dots I use different colours for the scene I want to capture such as whether it’s a grand vista, woodland or nightscape and place it on the map in the location where you need to stand. I then simply use a unique number to identify it and link everything together.
I will then number any scouting images I have taken with the same number for later reference, and use the same number to record key information with location details. These details will include key information such as brief description of the image, best weather conditions suited for the image, the image type such as landscape, nightscape etc, the desired season, the time of day I feel the shot will work best and most importantly car parking information.
What we are doing here is building a database of potential images you want to take and if you have some spreadsheet software available to you such as excel I would strongly recommend using it to create the document. I know this might sound excessive or you think I really can’t be bothered with all this but I guarantee if you get organised and work in this way you will seriously begin to reap the rewards very quickly.
Yeah great I have put all the effort in and have a map full of dots and database full ideas but how do I use it?
Well this is the easy part when you plan your trip to an area you simply focus on the weather forecast for that day. I will look at cloud cover and conditions taking the time of year into account and straight away you will know what photograph locations will offer the best chance for success. The intimate knowledge you have of an area will give you the greatest chance of being in the right place at the right time tipping the scales in your favour for creating the photograph you are after.
I must stress this will not happen overnight and some images will take years for everything to align in your favour to get the image your after but this is the power of the database. You can simply filter by weather conditions forecast, locations, season and time of day and hey presto you will be left with the locations that have the greatest chance for success.
This is why I always like to document my routes because now I can really drill down and see how long it will take me to get there and plan my trip accordingly. It also allows me to look at multiple locations within an area where I might be able to get a couple of images in a single trip.
Finally you can simply review any images you have previously taken by pulling up the relevant numbered images because you maybe going back to an area you scouted years ago and these will refresh your memory and give you an idea of the composition and image you were after.
I know all this takes time but you have to put the effort in and you will seriously reap the rewards in the long run. Just think how much time you could have wasted by keep going back to the same location over and over?
You may decide to not bother with the wall map and just keep a database but I prefer to see everything laid out visually where I can get ideas of possible routes and key areas. It is basically my heat map of key potential photo opportunities.
One final key point in all of this and that is if the conditions are less than favourable, I would still encourage you to make a journey out with the camera. Explore somewhere new or visit the area but again have an open mind being prepared for the conditions. This is all about making the best of the time available to you as photographers which will both improve your skills and the quality of your images.
Let me know if you do anything similar or have a better process and don’t mind sharing.