Do You Know?

"Hey Rick, do you know beforehand,
or do you just come up with the shot?"

That was the question posted to me recently when I shared the image of Chimney Rock above. The short answer to the question is "Yes." The full answer is a bit more complicated than that. While I don't always know what I will find at a spot, I do a lot of research on where I'm going to give myself the best chance to get at least one good photo when I go to a location. But sometimes, I do just "come up with a shot."

Once I decide on a place I want to photograph, whether it's local or across the country, I do some research. The shot of Chimney Rock is more a case of me finding a shot when I arrived. Kristen Wilkinson and I had spent the day driving across Nebraska and planned to stop at three national historic sites- Chimney Rock, Courthouse Rock and Jail Rock, and Scott's Bluff. We knew that we'd get lucky in our timing and arrive at these spots in that nice late afternoon light. And while I knew what the rock looked like, I had no idea that there was a windmill close by, and of course, I can't control the clouds. We got lucky with great light, and great clouds, but knowing how to take advantage of good conditions is key to coming up with a shot.

"Badlands" is another shot that involved a bit of serendipity. I had done some online research so I had a general idea of what I would find there, but having never been there before, I was mostly guessing at how I would photograph it. Sunrise and sunset are usually the best times of day to photograph, so when in doubt, pick one, or both, and get there before those two events start. Because of our travel schedule, sunrise was the only option for us, and it worked out perfectly. A storm moved past in the distance, creating a beautifully soft, dramatic light. Coupled with the otherworldly landscape below, it made for a stunning shot I could not have planned better.

With some photos, even if it's a place I haven't been, I have a pretty good idea what I'm going to get. I had never been to Pine Point in Scarborough, Maine, before last week, but knowing as many photographers as I do in Maine, I had seen many photos. I knew there was a harbor, and a fishing pier by the fishing co-op, and I also knew it faced the proper direction to capture a sunset. Looking at the Google satellite view, I also knew there was a small beach with some dinghies tied up. As I prepared to head out for sunset, I decided I wanted to focus on those dinghies for my shot. I wanted an image that felt more intimate than a shot with several lobster boats anchored in the harbor. Of course the sunset and clouds needed to cooperate, which thankfully they did. So while in this case I knew what I wanted, those clouds glowing across the sky, and the way the dinghy came to rest on the sandy bottom of the river as the tide went out, were lucky breaks that allowed me to come up with the shot I had previously envisioned.

Finally, there are the places I've been multiple times, I know what to expect, and it's just a matter of the conditions coming together and me doing what I know how to do. I've been to Pemaquid Point more times than I can count. I know exactly what's there. This past week, I planned to head there for some Milky Way photography at night, as I had a student who wanted to learn how to do it. I arrived early, planning to photograph at sunset. It was a good thing I did! There were beautiful clouds picking up gorgeous color. I headed to a spot I hadn't photographed in a few years. I jokingly call it "the most photographed puddle in New England." Down on the rocks below the lighthouse, groundwater seeps up and forms a puddle. It's always there. After a rain it is bigger. In dryer times, it's smaller, but it's always there. Photographers for years have been using it as a compositional element. I have several images I've made with this puddle, and they all come out a bit different. With the sunset setting up as it was, I decided it was a great time to revisit this spot and update my portfolio. The result is the image above, "Reflections of Sunset".

So hopefully that more fully answers the question of "Do you know what you're going to get or do you just come up with the shot?"  Usually, it's both.