Let us be honest for a moment: all photography that takes place in the natural world has its foundations firmly planted in luck. Without divine intervention, it is all but impossible for anyone to anticipate the precise weather conditions present in the high mountains or predict the movements of a lone wandering leopard. It is wholly impossible for someone to know without doubt that “today I am going to get a good photo”. In fact, it is likely that having spent a whole day waiting for the perfect scene to develop, the moment you turn your back and walk away, it occurs and, as luck would have it, someone else will probably be there to capture the moment. In some sense, the only thing that separates a good photographer from a great one is luck and this raises the question, How does one get ‘lucky’ as it were?
The answer, of course, lies in statistics and statisticians will have us believe that given enough time, every event that can possibly occur, will. Take enough photos and, statistically speaking, one of them must end up on the front cover of National Geographic Magazine. The trouble is that without some way of increasing the probability of that event manifesting, it may take more photos than you have seconds remaining in your life to land the gig. The reality is that everything you ever learn about the discipline of photography translates into little more than incremental improvements in the probability of success. Given how difficult it can be to attain even the smallest increment, it is crucial to make the most of the so called “low hanging fruit” and in photography, as with many other pursuits, the lowest fruit can be found hanging from the branch called ‘preparation’.
Like all good research, preparation for photography starts with a detailed analysis of the existing body of work. This means poring over every photo that you can find for a given location and analysing the images in terms of what you might do differently or, indeed, ‘the same’ when faced with the scene. Just by writing that sentence I can hear cries of “plagiarism!” but, frankly, we are all “standing on the shoulders of giants”. No one can claim to be completely original. Every one of us, regardless of competence, has been influenced by the work of others and those influences surface in our own efforts.
Furthermore, when one is just starting out, there is no faster way to learn than through trying to reproduce someone else’s work. I will concede that this cover-band approach to learning probably has a negative bearing on the purest forms of creativity, but if you think of creativity as a process and not merely as moments of artistic brilliance, then, to me, learning to think like those who have mastered the discipline seems like a perfectly legitimate route to success.
The natural starting point when searching for reference photos is with Google Images. It is unquestionably the most accessible platform and will provide the most relevant and broadest range of images for a given search term. The thing to remember is that Google does not cater to artists specifically; its search algorithms are designed to return the most relevant images and not necessarily the best ones. Additionally, Google is not particularly adept at interpreting the actual pixels that comprise an image. Instead, it largely uses that text found around an image on a web page to infer the content within a given picture. This means that there is at least a chance that Google might fail to deliver the photo which offers the best insights into photographing a chosen location.
To accommodate the limitation, it is important that when using Google to search for photos, you start with very specific search terms and then broaden the search to include relevant general phrases. A good example of this might be when searching for photographs from Deadvlei, Namibia. A search for “deadvlei” returns hundreds of photos that are all principally identical while a search for the wider term “namib desert” returns images from Deadvlei as well as a host of alternatives, many of which are from the greater Deadvlei area.
Once you have exhausted Google, it is time to look at photographer centric websites such as 500px, Flicker and even – to a lesser degree – Instagram. These websites have less content than Google; however, as the people who populate them fancy themselves as photographers, you are likely to find higher quality photos.
500px is my preferred destination as it includes a map feature – https://500px.com/map – of which I am particularly fond. The feature allows you to scroll around a map of the world populated with thumbnails of 500px images. It is arguably the most intuitive way for a landscape photographer to search for photos because, when zoomed out, the map literally displays images from a target location alongside images from nearby areas. If you want to gain an appreciation for what a potential photography destination offers as a whole, I can think of no better way to do it than with 500px.
With a well-refined sense of what a given location could look like and the photos that one might produce there, the second aspect of preparation involves the conditions. There are two major factors in this domain, the weather and light. Weather is a relatively self-explanatory concept except to say that it is often not good weather that makes great photos. Sure, there are many exemplary images captured on bright, sunny days and I am in no position to be critical of those works. Nevertheless, I often find that sunny-day photos have a certain postcard quality to them and lack the drama that I personally seek in a compelling image. For me, the best conditions exist when the weather is changeable and the resulting shafts of light create a visual connection between the sky and the ground.
Predicting when these changeable conditions will occur can be tricky but to help with the task, there are a host of online weather forecasting resources available. I find that those with detailed synoptic charts are the most useful, and probably the best example of this is windguru.cz which is comprehensive and easily navigated. I use the site as a reference, consulting it in parallel with other services like windy.com which, on its own, is a useful and reasonably reliable tool too. It is also handy to keep an eye on other semantic forecasts such as snow reports and the weather warnings issued by the weather service.
The second aspect of the conditions has to do with light, namely the light generated by celestial bodies. This may sound obvious, but knowing what time the sun rises and sets is vitally important in the quest for a portfolio-grade image. Not only does the crossing of the sun and the horizon mark a moment that must itself be photographed, but it also signals the beginning and end of the golden hours. These photographically productive periods take place in the hours immediately following sunrise and preceding sunset, and represent a time when your probability of getting a noteworthy landscape photo increases for no additional effort.
To make sure that I have all the information I require about where the sun, moon and Milky Way will be at various times during the day and night, I use two tools. When I am behind my computer, my preferred choice is the Photographer’s Ephemeris – http://app.photoephemeris.com/ – a free, no-frills web app that provides all the information necessary to prepare for a shoot. When in the field, a paid smartphone application, Sun Surveyor, gives me the same data and, in addition, an augmented reality simulation that shows the precise trajectory of all the astronomical elements. The app eliminates a lot of the pressure that can be associated with sunrise and sunset photography as its predictive capability removes the need to recompose scenes during the sun’s transition.
Speaking from personal experience, it is often easy to look at those photographers who inspire you and to think that you lack the talent to produce work to their standards, and the reality is that those may well be valid concerns. However, preparation doesn’t require talent and it was by increasing my own focus on preparation that I took my biggest-ever step towards capturing the images I dream of. To repurpose a phrase made famous by a few golfers who were quite good at their game, “the more I prepare, the luckier I get”.