It's All About Planning

When it comes down to it, a lot of luck is involved in getting a good landscape photo. The weather needs to cooperate, you need to be there are the proper time, and in the right spot. But how do you know when that is? It comes down to research and planning. In this day and age, there are many resources available to us to try and ensure the conditions are as perfect as possible to get a great shot. I'll show a few shots below and explain what went into planning them.

Autumn at Glade Creek

The image above, Autumn at Glade Creek, required a lot of luck. When you travel almost 900 miles to photograph a subject, no amount of planning will ensure success. Autumn itself is a challenge because the foliage can change quickly and the window for peak color is really only a few days. To plan for this, my travel and shooting partner Kristen of Kristen Wilkinson Photography reviewed foliage maps and dates for previous years to get an idea of when the area usually gets peak color. Then we reviewed the current map to see where the peak foliage was currently and when the area around this site was expected to hit peak.

The map to the right is 2018's peak foliage map for October 16. Judging by the area in West Virginia, which was still yellow and orange (meaning some color to nearing peak) we figured that the following week would be a good time to start. Then we looked at the current foliage map for 2019 and found the color was delayed a bit, and we adjusted accordingly. When we arrived on October 27th, we were greeted with near peak color. It was raining, so we waited out the rain and managed to get some shots. Sure enough, the next day, high winds came through and knocked many of the leaves down, which would have made it a wasted trip.

Through my involvement on several Facebook groups, I found out about this old one-room schoolhouse in Harrison, Maine. Another photographer had captured it the year before and gotten a similar image, with the setting sun shining through both the rear window and the side window. I wanted to capture something similar and put my own spin on it, so I did some research to figure out what time of year I could capture this alignment. I used an app on my phone called The Photographer's Ephemeris to find out when the sun would be in the right position. There's a window of about two to three weeks in the late spring. The screen shot to the left is from The Photographer's Ephemeris satellite view of the location of the schoolhouse. The orange line is the position of the sun as it sets. The red pin is the schoolhouse. Having that information, I knew I could get the shot I envisioned and I knew where I needed to be. The app also tells me what time sunset is, so I arrived a little while before to be able to set up my shot and also scout the area in case there were other angles I wanted to photograph.

Of course, knowing where to be and when to be there are only part of it. The weather has to be cooperative as well. I use several weather apps, including The Weather Channel, to check what the conditions will be. Generally, I want partly cloudy skies, at least 50% clouds is ideal, but no more than 75%. While the Weather Channel app will tell me partly cloudy or mostly sunny or whatever, I use an app called Clear Outside to tell me what the cloud cover will be. 

To the right is a partial screenshot from Clear Outside. You can see how it breaks down the cloud cover for each hour of the day, in addition to showing me the sunrise and sunset times. This chart shows this coming Thursday. At sunrise, there will be 38% total clouds, but it will be building to 73% by 6am, so it could make for a promising sunrise. That's a good thing because I have a photo shoot with a model planned and those clouds mean there's a chance of having a nice colorful sky for the shot. It's not guaranteed, as I've had plenty of sunrises and sunsets with the right amount of clouds, but they just don't show any color. But as long as there's a chance, it's well worth the effort for sure.

Capturing the Milky Way on camera is always a challenge. It requires a clear sky, minimal light pollution, and of course, you need to know when the Milky Way will be in the sky. In the northern hemisphere, the Milky Way is generally visible in the night sky from late February through mid-October. However, in the spring, it doesn't rise until after midnight, meaning if you want to see it, you have to be out in the middle of the night!

When I did the sunset image of the schoolhouse, I wondered how it would be for the Milky Way- whether the angle was right, and when I needed to be there to catch it. As the seasons progress, the position of the Milky Way changes, so it won't necessarily be where you need it on any given date.

Using the app Sun Surveyor, I was able to determine that in late May, the Milky Way could be seen over the schoolhouse if I stood to the side of it. Then in late May, we suddenly had a window of nights where the sky was completely clear. Sun Surveyor told me when the Milky Way would be above the schoolhouse, at about 1:30am (ouch!) so I made my way there and came away with the image above- Schoolhouse Under The Stars. Even got blessed with a little low mist just above the ground to make it feel really mysterious. As you can see, the planning paid off, and luck was on my side as the weather was absolutely perfect!

Living on the coast of Maine, when I'm shooting coastal scenes, another factor I have to concern myself with is the tide. A scene can change dramatically depending on whether the tide is in or out. So I often consult a tide chart or an app like Multi Tide to find out where the tide is when I'm planning to photograph. For instance, at Cape Neddick and the Nubble Lighthouse, at high tide, there's a good chance the waves will be pounding the rocks, creating really dramatic splashes. At low tide, it can be very peaceful and there is often no water at all between the island and the mainland, making the scene decidedly less dramatic.

At the left you can see the tide chart for Cape Neddick for today. Seeing that at sunrise, the tide will be well on its way out, and at sunset, the tide will have just begun to come back in, I probably would not choose to photograph there today. The same is true for many other locations where I'm looking to have water in the shot. Many of the local harbors are fine at either tide, and of course you can find things to photograph no matter the tide, but there are times when I have a particular look in mind, and at those times it's helpful to know what the tide will be.

It would be great if I could just show up somewhere and have perfect conditions every time, and there are times when that happens. If I'm traveling, I don't have the option of waiting for perfect conditions. I've made the journey and I'll make the best of what I get. When I'm home, I get more picky, since I have access to local spots whenever I'm here. I'll check all the weather apps, the tide, etc, to be sure I have good conditions. But even then, it doesn't always work out. But when it does, it's magical. But all the planning can mean that hours sometimes go into getting an image, between the pre-shoot planning, the travel and shooting time, and then the editing time. But it's all so worth it.