By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.” ~ Benjamin Franklin
An often overlooked aspect of photography is the time and energy needed to focus on pre-production.
Pre-production is a term we use in commercial photography. It’s the time leading up to the actual day of the shoot that we spend in preparation to iron out all of the details, so that the shoot can run smoothly. It really is no different with travel and landscape/ nature photography… Perhaps just a little less involved and stressful.
So, for the initiated and uninitiated alike, I have several tips. The first and foremost is the importance of scouting.
From “boots on the ground” experience in years past, I knew this shot was possible, so this year I waited for the prime conditions and was rewarded.
Scouting involves time spent researching locations; utilizing the web, books, social media, and “boots on the ground.” So where to start? Well, let’s take an example location and walk through my process. How about the Everglades, since I’m currently looking at this amazing place outside my window!
Preparation, I have often said, is rightly two-thirds of any venture.” ~ Amelia Earhart
Knowing from research that this was an area in which I could get close access to american alligators from a low angle, I was placed in the right scenario to catch a dragonfly resting on this gators head.
When I first visited Everglades National Park as a naive college student back in 2000, I did almost no research. As a consequence, I had an amazing adventure, but came away with very few decent images (and really those few were only by chance). Any photographers worth their salt will tell you that scouting is one of the most important ways to improve consistency in outcome. Really, this principal applies to everything. Preparation is one of the most important keys to success in any endeavor.
Learning from research that dragonflies are plentiful in this part of south Florida, I envisioned this shot months before it materialized right in front of me.
There are several effective ways to scout. Some more effective than others. Here, I’ll run through my list of methods…
First, know how to read maps. More specifically, topographic maps. This seems to be a bit of a lost art these days. With GPS and Siri, many younger folks have lost the ability. Reading contours, elevation changes, and even directions are very important if you want to scout before you even reach the location. I always either purchase a physical map, or download the 7.5 min USGS topos for free to my phone via the Avenza Maps app before beginning the scouting process. Properly reading a top map will help you identify potential areas of interest before reaching a location. If you do not feel comfortable reading a map, I recommend this great video by REI.
I had an idea to show human/ wildlife relationships in the Everglades ecosystem. After chatting with a friend who had heard from a park ranger that this alligator was hanging around a popular lake for kayakers, I was given my opportunity.
Next, I scour the internet for images of the place to which I’m traveling. Google image search and social media (specifically Instagram) are excellent places to start. Search geo tags of your location to get ideas and to visualize what images you would like to capture on your trip. Now, be advised that this can take a little discernment on your part, as some people incorrectly tag images. However, it should give you a broad sense of what is possible, and it will help you to create your ever important shot list. You will likely find many stunning captures when researching, so make notes of the specific locations that catch your eye. This may take a bit of diving, as some images on the web are a bit more cryptic with the location info, and for good reason. Blogs tend to have a lot of good info, so that may be a likely place to start.
Before anything else, preparation is the key to success.” ~ Alexander Graham Bell
There are only a few places in the U.S. to see the endangered American Crocodile. Proper pre-production led me to this fruitful location to get close enough to nature the reptilian eye.
Many photographers though, myself included, have become a bit more tight lipped about specifics in recent years. This is because of the massive spike in travel, and more specifically, photo-tourism, causing locations that used to be quiet, clean, and cherished by professional photographers to become overrun, trashed, trampled, and disrespected by the masses seeking their “trophy shot.” Rest assured, if you point-blank ask a photographer where a particular image was taken, they will almost certainly ignore the inquiry. After a short stint of widely sharing location info broadly over the web, it appears as though we’re back to the age of investigation to find places. And I’ve come around to think that is a better way.
Checking out (at your local library), or buying books on your location is one of the old, time-tested ways of scouting as well. Purchasing is especially helpful if you want to take them with you and if you plan to visit these locations again and again. However, when I’m researching on the cheap, the public library is invaluable! There are several good guidebooks that are specifically oriented to photographers, like The Photographer’s Guide To The Everglades by M. Timothy O’Keefe, for example. There are several in this series, so unless you are planning to visit a very remote location, chances are you will find a suitable guide to give you some ideas.
Guidebooks and previous in person experience gave me the knowledge that purple gallinules can be observed closely on the anhinga trail. I wanted an overhead shot to show the incredible feet of this colorful bird.
The Photographer’s Ephemeris and Photopills are both excellent apps that will help you to figure out whether your specific shots will be best at sunrise or sunset. This is an important step in the research process, as it will insure the best use of your time once you arrive.
At this point, you should have enough specifics and general info to create an extensive shot list. I start with specifics, images that are in my head that I want to achieve first and foremost. Then I add more general shots that I’d like to achieve. Since I’m a pro, I’m also thinking through different ways to make money with my time, so I will often list stock shots, creative projects, video clips, etc. Here is an example of what that might look like to give you an idea. I recommend printing this out before leaving for your adventure, that way, if you think of other shots, you can easily manually add them with a pen or pencil. Also, there is still some scouting to be done once you arrive!
Now that your shot list is made, and you have arrived on location, scouting moves into the “boots on the ground” phase.
Success is where preparation and opportunity meet.” ~ Bobby Unser
Great blue herons can be surprisingly skittish. I knew I wanted a detail shot if the feathers which would require a closer shot even with a 400mm lens. I found the right location to make this shot through research.
Believe it or not, it’s a good idea to visit the gift shop (or tourist shops nearby) and scour the postcards/ posters/ prints for more inspiration and clues. This practice is often rewarding, if only for inspiration. But sometimes a location or image idea will present itself when you least expect it.
Now is the time to use your map reading skills and spend the midday hours exploring. Drive, kayak, walk, fly your drone (where legal) to get a first-hand look at these lovely places you’ve been researching from afar. Note the challenges they might pose so you can be prepared when you return for the good light. And don’t forget to take your camera along! I know it sounds dumb, but depending on where you are, some great photo opportunities may present themselves to you even in the midday hours.
I’ve shot this particular location several times, but always at sunrise. This year, I decided to hike in the midday hours around it to see what a sunset shot might yield. I was again rewarded for the scouting effort.
This article should give you a road map to prepare better for your photo excursions, whether you are a newer pro or a hobbyist. I can assure you that Implementing these strategies is guaranteed to increase your rate of success.
Just like with anything, success comes to the prepared!
Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.” ~ Abraham Lincoln