Craig Roberts explains the do’s and don’ts of planning your own successful location shoot
The key to a successful shoot is the planning. The event, especially where landscapes are concerned, is not all about taking the picture, but rather the work that goes into arriving at the location at the correct time, in the right conditions, fully prepared. Some planning and a little homework — days, weeks or even months in advance — go a long way in helping to prepare for a successful shoot.
Getting to know the location as much as possible before you even arrive not only allows you to get a sense of the place, but can also save a lot of wasted time when you finally get there. So, let’s look at the preparations you should make before each trip, so you are rewarded with successful images every time.
The first thing you have to decide л/ is where you are going to take your pictures. If you already have a location in mind or have seen a photograph in a magazine, that’s perfect, otherwise you need to do some research to find your ideal photographic location.
Scanning through magazines and books is a good starting point, and photography magazines, such as AP, are full of fantastic locations that other photographers have visited. Use the internet and type in the location on a photo library search page to see the potential of a chosen area. Then, print off thumbnail versions of the images for reference so you can track down the exact location when you get there. However, if you are using other people’s work as your reference, do only use the images as a guide and try to find your own unique take on the location. Even the most-photographed locations have new and undiscovered views, so make sure you put your own stamp on the place.
Another way of checking out a location is by studying a map. Even if you are unfamiliar with an area, by studying a map and checking out the contours, river lines and symbols, you can build up a mental picture of the lie of the land and visualise its potential. Ordnance Survey maps are great, and the 1:25,000 Explorer maps are a good starting point, as these have the ideal mix of detail and coverage. You can then go back online later and check your findings on Google Earth, where you can actually see pictures of the location. I find Google Earth invaluable for planning a shoot, be it a photograph of a building or a landscape. I also use Google Earth to determine the best time of day to photograph my location, such as whether to take morning or afternoon shots.
Planning your route to the location can be done either the old-fashioned way, using a map, or by using a sat nav device. Depending on your chosen day of shooting, you may have to take into account traffic levels and whether the morning or evening rush hour will affect you arriving in time for sunrise or sunset. Having some parking spots in mind will also avoid wasted time when you get to the location, and you should have a rough idea of how long it will take you to get from your car to the place where you plan to set up your tripod. This is particularly important if you plan to arrive at your venue in the dark. Booking bed & breakfast or campsite accommodation overnight, or checking the opening times of a particular garden you want to visit, are also necessities that need forward planning.
Time of day, week, year
Once you have decided on your location, you need to work out the best time to photograph it. You may well arrive at exactly the right moment, when the light is perfect, but if you don’t do some homework beforehand you might have to make a return trip.
The first thing to decide is the best time of day. Where should the sun be positioned to light the scene perfectly? Should it be a morning shot or does it look best in the late afternoon? How will you capture the view? Will sidelight work best or are you going to attempt an into-the-light view at sunrise?
To calculate these factors, you need to know the direction your chosen scene or subject faces — and a good compass can prove invaluable. By using a compass you will know exactly what time of the day you need to be in your chosen spot to get it at its best. However, you can also do this from home using Google Maps.
The day of the week can play an important part in the planning of a shoot, particularly how other people can affect your plans. For example, I find that urban shots are best taken on a Sunday morning, while most people are still in bed, whereas landscape images are best timed for a weekday shoot when those same people are busy at work rather than wandering around the countryside on a weekend stroll. Also, as already mentioned, don’t forget that traffic can have a big effect on the time it takes you to get to your chosen location.
Finally, consider the time of year when you are planning to shoot your location. If a location is worth photographing, then it’s worth photographing at the ideal time — and that may mean coming back in four months in a different season. Alternatively, the sun may not rise exactly to the left of the mountain you have chosen to photograph until mid-December, so a July shoot wil not produce perfect results. However, if you have planned your shoot properly you wil already be aware of this.
While Google Maps is very useful, it won’t tell you when and where the sun will rise or set. To find out the position of the sun, or the moon, at any time of day and at any venue, use The Photographer’s Ephemeris. This map-centric sun and moon calculator will help you plan your outdoor photography shoots in natural light. So, for example, you can find out when and where the sun will rise in relation to a mountain, or even when it will light the street around a new skyscraper in an urban location. As well as being available as a PC or Mac program, it is available to download as an app for your smartphone.
As light is one of the key aspects to a successful landscape image, keep an eye on the weather forecast so you can head off to your chosen location at just the right time.
Watch the forecast for a period of good weather, although it should be noted that a ridge of high pressure is not always the best time to shoot a location. This may provide spells of sunny weather, but a stunning landscape under a clear-blue sky is not always the best combination. Changeable conditions will offer more dramatic weather, and although it will increase the chance of rain, it can also offer the chance of brief spells of stunning light against a dark, broody sky, or even the odd rainbow.
Weather approaching from the north is a good sign for photographers, as it can offer the chance of some good light. A high-pressure weather system does have one distinct advantage, though, as, depending on the time of year, it can produce mist in valleys or over water.
You will need to know the tide times if you are shooting on the coast. For example, if you are shooting a sunrise on the east coast, you will probably want to time your shot to coincide with a low or receding tide to make use of the rippled sand or underlying rocks in the foreground of your picture. Therefore, you need to know when low tide coincides with sunrise at that location, at that time of the year. There are several ways you can find this information, with the internet being the obvious one, where you’ll find numerous websites offering tide timetables for a given location for the week ahead. For more forward planning, you can buy tide tables that cover two years in advance and these are well worth purchasing if you regularly shoot along the coast.
set a schedule
Once you have amassed all this information, you can then set yourself a loose schedule to make the most of the day. Choose two morning locations and two afternoon locations, and make sure that you don’t have to travel too far between each. If things go well, you may be able to return to one venue for a sunset shot or even go on to shoot a night view if the location suits.
As part of your schedule, always be prepared for the worst and have some reserve locations in mind if rain or cloud stop play. Waterfalls are a good choice, and it’s often best to shoot these on an overcast day when there is less contrast and you can benefit from the low light levels to obtain long shutter speeds. A wood or forest may also provide shooting opportunities and, again, they work best on overcast days. In town, you may be able to find places where you can shoot inside a building so you can add to your range of shots of a particular town.