If you enjoy photography in the outdoors (landscape, travel, wildlife, etc.), you know that it is not just a matter of traveling to an area, having a leisurely breakfast at 9am, snapping some random pictures along the road between 10am and noon, and then following it up with a gourmet lunch and massage. If you really want to get the best photos with the most interesting light, you need to plan ahead and work hard. In this article, we will talk about methods for increasing your odds of good photography and being in the right place at the right time. In today’s world, there are a great number of tools you can use to help with this. There are of course good ones for finding lunch and a spa, but we will skip those. After all, who would really want to do that when you could be out making good photographs?! This article will focus on what you can do before you ever leave home. Part Two, which will come at a later date, will cover what you can and should do after you arrive in an area.
Why is this important? We already talked a bit about light, but it is worth repeating. Light can make or break a photo. The best composition in the world will not matter if the light is poor. It is important to know where and when to be somewhere to get the photo you want. In addition, photographers rarely have all the time they would like in a given area. Time and money often keep that from happening, so it is important to maximize your opportunities, while reducing the likelihood of a failed shoot.
When I am starting to plan a photo shoot, there are a set of things that I tend to think through each time. Here are a few examples encompassing different types of outdoor shooting situations:
- Sunrise and sunset times
- Sun and moon directions at sunrise and sunset
- Phases of the moon
- Weather, both historical and current forecasts
- Tides (in the case of photography near an ocean)
- What might be interesting to photograph and where do you need to be?
- Accessibility issues (how far do you need to walk or travel, can you get there?)
- For photography in cities, understanding any potential restrictions, including opening and closing times, use of tripods, etc.
- Local festivals and events
We live in a time blessed with many sources of information. Thirty years ago, information was sparse, incomplete and usually out of date. Today, the amount of information you can find is quite amazing if you know where to look. Let us talk about tools and sources, starting with some of the older methods.
Books and maps
No, these have not been killed off by technology yet, and they are still very handy. Popular locations are often well documented in guidebooks, some of which are specifically oriented to photographers. Using an internet search engine, just type in some of the terms related to what you are going and then include the phrase “photography guide”. You will likely get hits for printed books and e-books, many of which have remarkable detail. I do not tend to like to be told “stand here at this time of the day”, but you will certainly find that kind of information if you want it.
One series of books that I like for planning travel photography are the DK guides to cities and countries. Compared with other guidebooks, they are very well illustrated, with good quality photographs and detailed maps of an area. Often times they also include suggested walking tours of an area, and those can be great for photography. National Geographic also publishes a similar line of books, so peruse both and see what you prefer for an area.
Printed maps are helpful. While their information can also be found on-line, electronic devices are not always handy in a remote area and they are not necessarily the best way of evaluating a location. A detailed map of an area that shows the topography of a site helps you visualize where you have open views, where you are blocked and how that compares to sun and moon angles is valuable. The nice thing about printed maps is that you can mark them up and indicate potential shooting spots, lighting angles, etc. USGS and National Geographic topo maps are good within the US. In the UK, Ordnance Survey maps are great. Look for their equivalents in the region where you are traveling. A good city map is also handy for planning, although these are a bit more easily replaced with electronic formats today.
Internet searches and sites
Not surprisingly, this is one of the best sources of information today. Just putting a few terms into a search engine will usually start you on your way, but here a few specific places to check:
- Nikonians (of course!) Check areas like our Landscape or Travel forums in particular. Be bold about asking questions. Nikonians are usually really good about sharing favorite locations and ideas.
- Image sites (Google Images, Flickr, 500px) These are incredibly rich sources of information. Again, just search on a word or two pertaining to your location of interest, and you will be inundated with images taken by other photographers. You will get a sense of what is there to photograph, what types of light work well and even get a sense of what equipment you might take.
- Google Earth and Google Maps. These are indispensable for researching a location. You can look at an area in detail, model lighting conditions at different times of the day (Google Earth) and even simulate walking down a street halfway across the world (street view in Google Maps). Google Earth also includes photographs taken in popular locations. They are not usually great photographs, but they will give you a sense of what can be seen from a certain spot. Google Maps will also help you plan transportation times, whether you are driving, walking or taking public transit.
- Photography-oriented blogs. These are plentiful these days, and if you find a specific entry pertaining to your location, you will have a good source of material. Many photographers are happy to exchange e-mails with you regarding information about an area they photographed.
- Websites for photography workshops and tours. In addition to being good ways to experience an area, they will often give you a sense of what experienced photographers shoot there. While they rarely have detailed information, they will often include itineraries, shooting locations and sample photos. They can also give you a sense of how much time you should spend in an area. Even if you are an experienced photographer, going on a three-hour walking tour oriented to photographers can be a great initial exposure to an area. Even the non-photographic ones are worthwhile photographically. You will find these in most major cities around the world.
- Travel websites created by cities, governments, etc. Most cities of a reasonable size have a number of websites catering to tourists. They will give you a sense of what there is to see and do. Countries with national parks almost always have good quality websites with plenty of information.
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