One of the biggest challenges in landscape (or any other) photography is not the equipment or knowledge of camera settings or even your compositional skills, it’s being at the right place at the right time. Photography locations are key to good landscape photography.
Putting time and location together has little to do with luck or serendipity. Finding good landscape photography locations and being there at the right time of day and year is a skill you can learn.
It’s not fun, but a lot of good photography is about research. I recently attended a lecture presented by a National Geographic photographer. During the course of her presentation, she mentioned the word “research” a half dozen times. Each time referring to the background work she put into planning her next shoot.
Most of this photographer’s time as a professional photo-journalist was not spent making images, but planning to make images. That’s an uncomfortable, but true, lesson every serious photographer should take to heart.
So let’s buckle down and consider how to optimize your chances of finding those landscape images you’ve always wanted to make.
Create a Shot List
When I’m planning a shoot of an unfamiliar landscape, I like to ponder the scenes I’d like to see. Usually this consists of some combination of my own interpretations of classic landscapes, and novel compositions I haven’t seen before.
Sometimes, when I know my time in the field will be brief, I’ll even sketch out compositions that I think will work. I’ll base these on known landscape features and I’ll note whether a long or short lens is appropriate, and note how I’d like to lay out an ideal foreground.
Then, when I get to the field, I bring that vision to mind, and can look quickly for a composition that satisfies me.
Very often, that imaginary shot is impossible. However, the point is not to create the perfect imaginary shot you HAVE to find in the field.
The point is to get the creative juices flowing. To think about your destination, and have some ideas for the variety of shots you want to create.
This will also help you settle on a specific time of year for your visit.
Finding What You Need
This is the digital age where the entirety of human knowledge is available in our pockets. It would seem that finding the best places for landscape photography and tracking down information about photography locations would be easy.
Sadly, there is just so much information out there, some not very good, that it is hard to know where to start. I’ll take you through my process in a hypothetical way. Let’s say you want to photograph in Alaska’s famous and photogenic Denali National Park.
Denali is a big place, over 6 million acres, and finding the images you want to make in that huge expanse is an enormous challenge for people unfamiliar with the landscape. Where do you start?
The first thing I do when planning a photo trip to a place I don’t know, is look at what’s already out there. Most of the world has been photographed, and seeing some of those images can help you discover some great locations.
In our hypothetical shoot of Denali National Park, I’d start by going to the experts: local photographers. While many photographers have made images in Denali, I’d prefer to have the in-depth expertise of a local.
So get online and run a quick Google search for Alaska landscape photographers.
You don’t necessarily have to reach out to these people in an email or phone call, but simply by browsing their websites, galleries, and stock sites, you can probably find some enticing landscape locations.
Caption information and keywords will be useful to finding out the precise location where the image was photographed.
Most photographers are open to an occasional email or social media comment from visiting photographers looking for advice. But don’t cold-call without checking in via email.
Now that we’ve used some expert local knowledge to select some promising photography locations in Denali National Park, we need to start delving deeper into our research. We need to know what time of year, and time of day will be best to maximize our chances of success.
Time of Year
What are your photography goals for your trip? Are you hoping for images of wildflower and green tundra? Snow-covered landscapes? Autumn colours?
In our hypothetical situation, let’s say we want to make images of the mountainous landscape of Denali during the peak of autumn colour. If you plan your trip based on your pre-conceived notions, you may go very, very wrong.
If you assume that autumn colours in Alaska will be the same as on the east coast of North America, you’ll visit Denali at least a month late. You’ll find the hotels and restaurants shut down and the landscape likely covered in snow.
Cue photographic disappointment.
A little online legwork will go a long way. After checking dates of images, and viewing information available on travel websites you find that peak colours occur from the last week of August through the first week of September.
Time to make some plane reservations.
Time of Day
The general rule about landscape photography is that low-angle, cross-light is ideal. Such lighting shows off the textures in the scene, and is warm and bright.
Perfect, in other words. You need only rise early and stay out late to capture that light, right?
Sure the light might be good during those early or late hours, but how it hits your desired composition might not work out.
The scene you want to photograph may only line up for an evening shoot, so if you appear on site at 5am, you got up for nothing or missed an opportunity elsewhere.
The more you can find out in advance, the better your chances.
Sure, you can spend some time with sunrise/sunset tables, and using a combination of maps and data try to figure out just where exactly the right light will hit, but there is an easier way.
There are some helpful photographic apps on the market, notably The Photographer’s Ephemeris 3D. This nifty program is a combination of mapping, 3D geography and lighting.
Below are two screen shots from the app showing how Mt. Denali, in Denali National Park will look in the morning and evening from Wonder Lake (a classic Denali viewpoint) on August 31, 2018.
Using The Photographer’s Ephemeris 3D you can see how the light will change during the course of any day of the year.
Using this tool, you can see exactly what time you’ll need to arrive to catch the sweet light, and find out if morning or evening light will work better for the shot and location you have in mind.
Talk about a time saver.
Planning for Weather
I was once on a photo trip in the remote northwestern part of Alaska. For the ten day trip, the weather was stellar, bluebird days, not a cloud in the sky. It was unheard of for that part of the world.
When I returned, I was chatting with another photographer, who had been working in the same region. “The weather was amazing! Barely a cloud in the sky,” I said. He replied, “Yeah, it could have been better.”
My friend wasn’t making a joke. From a photographer’s perspective, bluebird skies are lousy. We want drama, and perfect blue skies are not dramatic.
That doesn’t meant you want to be stormed out. In Denali National Park, weather data shows that August and September are among the months with higher than average precipitation, but even so, only an average of 8 days in August tend to have precipitation.
If your visit lasts 10 days to two weeks, the odds are in your favour that you’ll catch an interesting variety of weather conditions.
On a shorter trip, you’ll be rolling the dice on whether you encounter bad, or good photographic weather.
In the Field
Once we’ve arrived in the field, I like to spend some time exploring before I really put much effort into photography.
Sometimes, I’m surprised by a place no matter how much effort I’ve put into understanding it before my arrival. I recommend you take a day, maybe two, and simply wander.
Get a feel for the place, the way the light plays across the landscape, the daily weather patterns, and to have a look at the next few day’s forecast.
During this time you’ll undoubtedly find some unexpected, and great, compositions, and you’ll open your eyes and mind to the new landscapes.
You may also want to visit some of the spots from your shot list. A mid-day stop may not yield the photos you want, but you will be able to find exact compositions.
In Denali, you may hope to make the classic view of Mt. Denali from Reflection Pond. This spot, near the far end of the park’s only road, is accessible only by a long bus ride. You can camp nearby, or stay at one of the lodges at the west end of the park.
A visit outside of peak shooting hours, will help you determine the compositions you want to create. Is it better to shoot from above, or right down at waterline? How about nearby? Should you walk down to the overlook of Wonder Lake?
This kind of precise data is impossible to make without being right there. Arriving early for an evening shoot, or some other time, will mean you save time when the light is just right, and you can move quickly from one composition to another.
Putting It All Together
After our research on Denali National Park, we’ve determined a great time of year (the last week of August through the first week of September), and studied the work of other photographers to find some potential locations.
We’ve also used digital tools and apps to determine more precisely where and when to go, and had a good look at weather trends to determine how long we’ll need to plan or visit to optimize our chances.
Together, this combination is invaluable. Of course, nature has a way of laying waste to all our best-laid plans. So my final piece of advice is not to get caught up too much in these desires.
I led a photo workshop in the Alaska Range last year, not far from Denali, and we encountered all manner of conditions from pouring rain to bluebird skies. If you get caught up in wanting to create a specific image under specific conditions, you will inevitably be disappointed.
Be creative and prepared for anything. When things go awry, it may open unforeseen opportunities… if you’ve got the skills to look for them.