I’ve been thinking about how I make my decisions on where to go and what to photograph while on the road. I’m returning now from the Palouse, a spread-out region in southeastern Washington state that is quite popular with landscape photographers. I did as much planning as I ever do before any trip; that is, not very much. I identified a few spots that I wanted to visit, both there and in the channeled scablands to the west of the Palouse. Then I drove out there, knowing that most of my time would be spent winging it. This is the way I prefer to do things, but I’m getting a little more structured as time goes on.
There are obvious benefits to each approach, and also obvious drawbacks. An itinerary, complete with expected driving time between the spots and a planned amount of time for each location, is completely beyond me, at least to this point. But some sort of plan, with a general routing lined out, is a good way to cover an area. Adherence to some sort of time schedule can help avoid what I sometimes deal with: a mad scramble to get somewhere photogenic while the light is quickly approaching its peak quality. Having an itinerary and planned place to be for golden hour (the time preceding sunset) allows you to drop a stop or two as you go, in order to make it to your sunset spot in plenty of time.
But too strict an itinerary and you end up in what I consider to be the wrong frame of mind to capture images that are not over-photographed, images that surprise you. And it’s more free and fun. The amount of time you spend just wandering where your impulses take you is rarely a waste of time, so long as you don’t allow yourself to be caught down in some hole when the light turns golden. At this point, you will wish you had skipped that side-road and instead been already set up to take advantage of that great light.
Having a bit more wanderlust and less adherence to an itinerary makes more sense when you are visiting an area for the first time. Even on a second visit, there are bound to be whole areas that need some exploring. On this trip to the Palouse, for example, I was fully in scouting mode. Although I had been there once before, it was only for a day and night. It is a large area, with near-countless roads looping through the rolling countryside.
So this is the approach I take on any first real visit to a place for landscape and/or nature photography:
- I look at tourist-related websites devoted to the area. I also check out sites that are devoted to special interest topics. In the case of the Palouse/Channeled Scablands, there are several websites devoted to the region’s interesting geologic origin. The Missoula floods moved through here during the latter part of the Ice Age, greatly shaping what you see. These topical websites will often give you ideas for places that are both interesting and beautiful to photograph.
- What I don’t do a lot of is check other photographers’ websites & images, or images on stock photo websites. I do just enough to figure out where the “go-to” photo spots are, and decide whether or not it’s worth visiting (or avoiding) them. This can also be easily accomplished once you arrive at towns in the area, by looking over the postcard racks. I find this to be a more interesting way to do it, in fact. You can ask people in the shop about places pictured in the postcards and often get very valuable local information that way.
- If it is a very unfamiliar place, or overseas, I might get in touch with tour agencies and guides by email. Even if you, like me, prefer to choose a guide once you are on the ground, it is worth getting an idea what is offered and at what price before you travel.
- If I am going it alone, either the whole time or for the most part, I will purchase maps of the area. It’s good to have a regional (driving) map and also an atlas that will show much more detail. These maps can be electronic of course, but I prefer ones I can hold in my hand and read in bright sunshine. In the case of the Palouse, I have a good Washington-state highway map, along with the Gazetteer. Published by Delorme and others, these are oversize booklets with dozens of large-scale maps. They show all the roads, down to dirt tracks, for any state in the U.S. They show parks, wildlife preserves, and even a general topographic overlay. For other countries, do some research and find a good map resource.
- I take my Gazetteer and mark those few primary photo destinations I have planned. Then on the computer I look at the Photographer’s Ephemeris (which I highly recommend downloading) to see the directions and times of sunset & sunrise for the approximate date of my visit. If the moon could be a target for photos (say at full or as a sliver crescent), I also note the moonrise and/or moonset direction and time. For each of my marked locations, I sketch in pencil these directions as lines, writing along each line the time of sunrise/sunset. Even if I end up not going to a precise location, I know both the times and directions are going to be very similar for any nearby location. I don’t overdo this; a few locations per map sheet are enough.
ON THE ROAD
- I check the weather forecasts just before heading out and then I take off, often traveling late to avoid traffic. I can always stop along the way anyplace that has internet and get weather updates. But I’ve found that photographers often mistakenly believe that they benefit by having constant weather updates. Weather is anything but predictable of course, but more than that, I believe your attitude should be such that you will work with what you have at the time. You can photograph in nearly any conditions and get good images.
- More on weather: as I go along, I like to keep an eye on the sky. If I crest a rise, I’ll stop and get out to observe the weather. Maybe it’s just me, but I believe the more you do this, the better at weather prediction you will become, at least short-term weather prediction. Of course I have some background knowledge on meteorology, but in general I find it much more useful to have my eyes on the sky than on some small screen.
- While I do try to hit popular spots to photograph, I also never ever expect (or even hope) to get my best images there. I think this is a bit different from the average novice landscape photographer’s approach. I don’t know what the pros do, but I believe there are just too many variables at work to expect any great photo from anywhere.
- More on popular spots: taking the Palouse as an example, there is a rather prominent hill called Steptoe Butte in the heart of the region. Standing well above the countryside and having a 360-degree view, it is popular as both a sunrise and sunset spot, drawing loads of tripod-toters. I knew I would go there, but my Gazetteer also showed me other high points in the area. One of these is Kamiak Butte, which I will discuss in another post. But there are others that are not as high as Steptoe. The top of Steptoe is almost too high for the best landscape images in the Palouse, and there is a lack of good foreground elements. That’s just my opinion of course.
But I didn’t ignore the place. I went up there for star shots toward 3 a.m. one sleep-deprived night. The Milky Way was amazing! After an hour’s sleep, I joined several other photogs. at sunrise. The light was average at best. But instead of going back up there when the light was much better the next day, I chose a different place. Guess the upshot is that I don’t really want images that are too similar to those of other photographers as much as I want my own compositions.
- I will take most impulse-driven tangents, indulging my natural desire to explore. This is easy and natural during mid-day when the light is normally not good. If there are a lot of clouds, I try to find interesting subjects to shoot that don’t require much sky to be included. I also will indulge in macro photography, so seek out meadows and wetlands during mid-day.
- But come late-day, I try to get somewhere that is either somewhat elevated or has a very interesting, photogenic subject (ideally both). I try to arrive by at least 45 minutes prior to sunset. For sunrise, I try to camp very near to the spot where I think sunrise will be good. Often the sunset spot is the same or very near to the following morning’s sunrise spot.
- I like to do night photography from time to time, so I seek open skies with interesting subjects in the foreground (old buildings, rock formations, etc.).
- So between sunset, sunrise, the stars and scouting/exploring, when do I sleep? If it is winter, I sleep as normal, getting up at sunrise and staying up. During spring and summer’s longer days, I will often sleep in two shifts. I get roughly half my sleep between a late dinner and sunrise, then the other half immediately following the sunrise shoot. This is easy to do when camping in remote spots. When traveling overseas, on travel days it’s tough. It’s a good reason to plan more than one night in each place.
- Weather dictates all of course. Clouds are good, unless they completely block the sun from doing its magic. Never allow rain to dampen your enthusiasm. They bring rainbows for one thing!
- The quality of light can often be quite good well into morning hours, or alternatively well before sunset. You learn to look at the sky, for example in the morning, and be able to predict whether it’s worth sticking with it for a couple hours. Mid-day shooting is rarely any good, at least for landscapes and nature subjects.
- So when do I get a chance to process photos, get online, post these things? I try to find somewhere with internet access every couple or three days. I think it’s actually more important to journal on a daily basis than to do what I’m doing now. I try to write down my great finds, the little things I learned about the place and how to photograph it, even the disappointments. On my map I also trace my route and mark the nice finds (such as interesting barns in the Palouse).
Speaking of that last point, right now I’m at a Starbucks and it’s 5 p.m. There is the push to finish this post, but the light is calling. Thus I will post fewer pictures this time, and encourage you to stay tuned for more on the Palouse and other areas of southeastern Washington. Thanks for reading!