“Luck is what happens when Preparation meets Opportunity”…Seneca
When it comes to landscape photography, preparation can be as important as technical know-how. Although preparation may increase your chances for being at the right place at the right time, there is no guaranteed success while you also have to remain flexible, adapting to differing conditions and continue to have an open mind for the unexpected opportunities that fall in front of you. Preparation can also simply mean familiarity with a particular location.
The other day that came into play when I was able to photograph the scene above. It was well after dinner with a mild thunderstorm rolling through when I saw some sunlight hitting a neighbor’s house. Well, that usually means there’s a rainbow somewhere out there and sure enough, when I went out to look, it was just forming with a very faint second one as well! I grabbed my gear and ran out the door knowing my chances of capturing something were slim since only twenty minutes remained until sunset, and even then, only if the rainbow remained visible since it would certainly disappear when the light was gone. But being familiar with nearby Jordan Lake, I knew I could get to a bridge with good views both east and west in about 12 minutes to have the best chance at success. When I arrived, there were plenty of folks parked along the bridge as it must have been a beautiful sight. I took a handheld quick burst of bracketed exposures but I was a bit too late, the rainbow in the east barely visible as seen below.
Note— The image above was processed in HDR (High Dynamic Range) software and a few minor adjustments in Lightroom. However, I do realize that there is some haloing above the trees, but it was not corrected to illustrate that not all processing ends up clean, unless you work on it to make it so. But that was not done here because of the poor quality of the image itself.
As I got the tripod out and set up my split neutral density filter in hopes of a good sunset, I noticed part of the rainbow reappearing and a few low clouds were beginning to catch the very last rays of light! I knew this wouldn’t last long because the sun was already on the horizon, so I quickly set up just to grab a few more bracketed shots, not even caring much about the proper composition. I just wanted to get it on the memory card (film) and worry about compositional aesthetics later. As it turned out, the upper right corner had two power lines going diagonally across, but they were eliminated easily in Photoshop after running the brackets through some HDR software. Some tweaking in Lightroom (I actually reduced the saturation of the sky!), and it was done.
Back over to the west side of the bridge showed why the sunset was so red. I’m pretty sure I recall reading in Galen Rowell’s book Mountain Light, that during every sunset or sunrise, the earth’s atmosphere elIminates most of the longer blue wavelengths of the light spectrum, allowing mostly the shorter red wavelengths getting through. This is intensified when there is only a thin opening in the cloudcover along the horizon.
Sometimes, all the research and preparation possible plays an important role in success. But very often, it’s the familiarity of going to a location more than once that influences your success, because rarely do you capture the best shot on the first attempt. In a post a few months ago, I described the almost exact same scenario played out when I did capture a double rainbow at the same location. And having had that experience certainly helped in getting this one. Click Here to go to that post. But the double rainbow that day did not have the dramatic clouds as it did this day.
When preparing for a one-time shoot or a photographic trip, preparations can begin weeks, or even months in advance. Since my photographic day usually begins with a sunrise, research begins by determining when the sun will rise. Using the app LunaSolCal gives me all the info I need for any future or past date at almost any location on earth including the compass heading of where on the horizon it will occur. It also provides information on daily moonrise/moonset times, compass headings as well as the moon phase. If shooting along the coast, TideDataFree is helpful in knowing the ocean’s high or low tides, and in some locations this may be vitally important for your safety. Both TideData and the LunaSolCal and a compass app are all on my phone for easy access out in the field. Incidentally, sunrise/set is not the same time everywhere; there is almost 1/2-hour difference from North Carolina’s Outer Banks in the east to the western mountains along the Blue Ridge Parkway, even though they’re in the same time zone. A visit to The Photographer’s Ephemeris on the web lets you see how the direction of the sunrise/set and moonrise/set will play out on a map in relation to your chosen destination or subject (lake, mountain, building, statue, etc). Then on to Google to search for “photographs of…” for a bit of pre-visualization and recognizability. Sometimes, these photos will contain links to local professional photographer web sites that provide clues to locations and about where the sun is during a particular time of year. And Google maps can give you directions and driving times to get you there in plenty of time. If there are any hikes involved to get to a particular location, that needs to be researched as well. Trails.com is a good resource and I’m sure there are many others depending on location.
After you’ve determined where and when you need to be, it’s always a good idea to get to your destination well before you want to begin shooting. This helps to slow down a bit (instead of a last minute rush) and spend some time to find interesting foreground elements or other features you might incorporate into your images, so when the light begins and is changing fast, you know immediately what’s available and where to set up next after your initial composition. Ideally, scouting a sunrise location the day before is a great idea if you have the time. Prior to arrival, I’m already thinking about what lens is needed on the camera, the need for a polarizer or the addition of a split neutral density filter. Once at the location for sunrise, in the pre-dawn light I find a spot, set up and wait. But I utilize any time before the “show” begins continually walking around to see if there is a spot that’s a bit better. Is the surf moving in a better direction over here? is there a better rock formation there? if I move a bit right or left, is there some kind of S-curve in the features leading off into the distance I can use? Where will I put the horizon? If the sky is the star of the show, meaning there are clouds with the potential to catch some color, then the horizon will probably be low. But, if there are no clouds, it’s probably going to be high in the frame or eliminated completely if possible.
But generally speaking, beginning with first light and continuing until the sun rises and the brilliant colors begin to fade, it’s all about the broad landscape. After the light changes from those beautiful first colors to a warm light, I search for some smaller, more intimate scenes. Maybe an area where the light rakes across an interesting element, or where there’s a combination of warm light and cool blue shadows. Maybe a spot completely in shade for more even light such as a waterfall or cascading stream. As the sun rises a bit more, broad scenes may be in play again as the light gets into more of the recesses that were previously in shade giving a more three-dimensional look to the scene while side-lighting at that time can help immensely. Backlighting can work as well, especially if looking down upon receding ridge lines or using some backlit leaves against an opposite valley wall that’s in shade in this instance, creating a wide range of light from bright to almost black. For backlit leaves, reducing your exposure at least one-stop from the meter reading helps keep the background dark. Trying the opposite of a foreground in shade and the opposite valley in sunlight can work as well.
If you’re on a photo trip, the middle part of the day can be spent doing additional research, scouting more locations for sunset or tomorrow’s sunrise, or visiting historical sites or places of architectural interest. Resting can be a good thing as well. Getting a short nap can recharge the batteries for the coming end of the day sunset shoot and possible Milky Way or nighttime cityscapes afterward. But somewhere during your day, the inconvenience of setting aside time for eating and sleeping does become necessary.
Or maybe not!