First, thanks for taking a moment to read this. The views contained herein are not to be taken as law or fact. I encourage you to experiment and listen to your own creative voice, as that’s how I’ve gotten to this point myself. Along the way, I’ve made my fair share of mistakes and these essays are my attempt to help you to avoid a few of them as you develop as a photographer.
Landscape photography is about overcoming obstacles. Some of these you have a decent measure of control over, others are elusive. Here’s a short list of some of those factors: luck, inertia, technology, gear, and creativity.
“Sometimes I arrive just when God's ready to have someone click the shutter.” -Ansel Adams
Hate on it all you want. It is simply sometimes about being in the right place at the right time. Let it go. You can’t do anything about this one. However if you aren’t prepared, all the luck in the world will amount to nothing if you forgot to put a flash card in your camera. Also, don’t let other folk’s seemingly endless luck discourage you. Negativity kills creativity and serendipity happens. That should be a bumper sticker.
This is the easiest one to fix. You have to take pictures to become a better photographer. I’m not saying you have to travel to India. You don’t have to leave the house to click that shutter.
Here’s what nobody wants to hear. Your worst enemy is yourself. You must overcome the tendency to make excuses why you aren’t shooting. You’ll also find that as you shoot more, it builds momentum, and you get excited about your work. One of the best ways to fight inertia is to involve others: make some new photo buddy friends, join a photography club, or take a workshop. Let other people encourage you if you are having trouble. Later on, you can be the one to support someone else when they are struggling.
The second part of inertia’s evil is fear of showing your work. Let’s not sugar coat it: you will encounter people who want to break you down and give you a 20 point list on what you did wrong. That’s not criticism, that’s their own ego. Ignore them.
“But I’m never going to show my work in a gallery.” Maybe not, but who knows? I never thought I’d end up doing this for a living either, but your work will stagnate in a vacuum. Start with family or friends who will tell you it’s great and that you should be a professional. There’s nothing wrong with feeling good about yourself. Be proud of where you are and remember everyone started at that same point.
Create your own momentum.
Technology and gear are the meat of pre-visualization. Our goal here is to plan ahead to minimize the real world field condition’s impact on your creativity. Reducing your distractions will help you focus on composition and artistry. With sites like Flickr, 500px, or simply a Google image search, you can get a great idea of what a location will look like and challenges that are present at that location prior to leaving the house. In many cases, metadata is available as well to help with lens selection. Metadata is all the information your camera records associated with a specific image file. The more useful of which will be shutter speed and aperture settings that someone else used in this case. I’m not suggesting that you have to use any particular lens when you get there, but having an idea of what you want to do establishes the proper mindset and makes dealing with your gear less of an active enterprise. Think of it this way: have you ever been driving along and suddenly you snap back into awareness having traveled ten miles and not remembering it? You do some good thinking in that place. That’s the object of pre-visualization.
Apps for your tablet or mobile devices are excellent tools to help you prepare for sunrise, sunset, and coastal tidal conditions. I’ve included a few below that I recommend. The main considerations when selecting apps are their ability to pick up specific GPS coordinates and being able to access future calendar dates. You might have poor signal in the field so storing the information you will need for a predetermined location in advance is essential. I’ve never focused on the weather much, but checking it is useful to see if you might need a jacket or hat.
The Photographer’s Ephemeris - If you are buying just one app, buy this one.
Light Trac - Very similar to above. I’ve read good reviews but not personally used this app.
TideTrac - Lots like this one, pick your poison.
GPS units are a good idea if you are hiking in the backcountry or driving off a paved road. Don’t rely on your phone. I’ve been to some seriously remote locations in Arizona and the last thing you want to do is miss the sunset because you couldn’t find the right place. Plan ahead and print directions and input the coordinates before you leave. DeLorme, now owned by Garmin, makes 2-Way Satellite communicators now, called inReach, to keep you connected pretty much anywhere. I love their good old red road atlases too. Pick up one for the state you are planning to visit. I’ve had my eye on a Garmin Oregon 750t so I can have the maps ready at my fingertips in a small package I can throw into the backpack.
I’ve found the photographic community to fall into two basic camps. Those with big egos that think they are the gatekeepers to the magic promised land of photographic awesomeness (these cats, thankfully, represent only a handful of people), and people like myself who believe in sharing and community. The folks in the latter group will be more than happy to make suggestions and provide advice about specific locations if you ask them. This is an amazing tool so don’t let it go to waste and if they are in the former group, you’ll know really quickly and can ignore them as you move forward.
Technology is about becoming mentally prepared. Gear is about physical preparation.
The Camera Bag
Your camera bag can be both your best friend and your worst enemy. I recommend going smaller rather than larger. I made that go big or go home mistake myself. You end up carrying everything with you and it weighs you down. Do you really need the LensBaby along with that 500mm? The answer is no you don’t. If you’ve done the proper technology homework, you’ve just got to trust yourself. Less is more and after any decent hike you’ll be glad you did. If you are basically shooting from the car and it’s less than one hundred feet back to it, fine, bring the kitchen sink but always bring something to cover it up as a discouragement to thievery. I personally don’t like to leave anything in the car if it can be avoided.
I’m not going to tell you what bag to buy. Go into a local camera store and try some on. Different manufacturers fit different body styles better and comfort is king. Avoid leather shoulder straps as they can get uncomfortable on long hikes. If you have to order online, read lots of reviews. If you are planning on longer hikes, treat it like you would a camping backpack and make sure it has a decent waist belt connection that is comfortable to balance the weight out on your body.
Keep the layout of your gear the same every time whether you store it in pockets or in a bag. You loose valuable time and get distracted if you are hunting for things. Darkness amplifies this. Where did I put that flashlight again?
What goes in the bag? If you want to cover the lens gamut, bring along: a wide angle zoom (16-24mm), medium zoom (24-70mm), and a telephoto zoom (70-200mm.) That leaves one other slot in my bag for a specialty lens (fisheye, tilt-shift, etc.) On filters, first invest in a decent polarizer. You should spend some money on this one. If it's all you afford then it's all you can afford, but all those fancy anti-fringing and flare coatings on lenses amount to nothing if what you put in front of them is a cheapo. Also, think about investing in a step up holder initially. You can buy a larger threaded polarizer to begin with that way and if you upgrade lenses later on or even switch manufacturers you can still use it versus needing to buy yet another one. You also have the basis in most cases to hold the next filter you might need, a split neutral density (ND) filter primarily used for sunrise and sunset. More on specifics about choosing a split ND another time, as that’s a lengthy discussion itself.
Other bag item essentials include: a lens cloth, a washcloth, a plastic bag, cleaning brush (usually a pen type will do), the camera manual, a water bottle, a light snack, flashlight or headlamp, an extra camera battery, a cable release, and an extra memory card or two. The washcloth is useful in drizzling conditions to wipe off your equipment and keeps the lens cloth dry. Don’t pull double duty with the lens cloth. The plastic bag works as a rain shield or a dry/clean place to put your bag on the ground. Everyone occasionally needs to consult their manual and if you are on a workshop, it will help the instructor help you get back to shooting. I actually prefer flashlights to headlamps especially when working with a group. If you do a flashover moving your head when everyone is doing long exposures you won’t make any friends. I also carry the hardware to remove or adjust my ballhead plate. Some bags also have a rain shield stored away in its very own pocket. I thought this was strictly gimmicky at first but mine has come in handy on several occasions both to keep rain as well as dust off my stuff.
You need a tripod that allows you to stand comfortably and see the viewfinder or the viewscreen. I was having this discussion the other day with our Sunset Cliffs group about tripods. Mine was a gift and is too short for me. Sure, I use it but it’s less than ideal and I get back pain. Needs must but believe me, it’s the first thing now on my list to replace. As to whether the snap lock or twist lock variety is better, I think that is a personal preference thing. Carbon fiber costs more but is lighter. If you are planning on getting really low to the ground, you should look at models that have shorter or no central rod. Some even allow you to flip the central rod upside down. I like tripods with a hook on the end of the central rod as I typically hang my bag from it to help with stabilization in stronger winds.
I prefer ballheads that allow me to swivel to do panoramics that have a built in level. Really Right Stuff makes good sturdy gear. I’ve used them for years but if you change cameras you have to buy another plate to hold it. Again, it’s best to try a few out and see what you like and do lots of research. Some work very well for stills but become cumbersome if you are planning on shooting lots of video. Unless you are planning on buying telephoto lenses above 300mm, anything that will hold 15 pounds should be plenty.
Create a settings standard for yourself as a default so every time you pull your camera to your eye it is ready to go. For me, that is ISO 200 at F/11 in Aperture Priority mode. I don’t have to think about it. Before you put it away, reset those things. This will prevent you from seeing something great and missing the shot because you were out at night trying to capture the Milky Way the day before in Manual Mode at ISO 2200. Never happened to me, of course. ;)
The name of the game is comfort. Wear appropriate clothing and you will be happier and less distracted which leads to better images. I tend to carry a pair of gloves with a trigger finger cap I can remove and a beanie appropriate to the temperature. Carrying some sunscreen along is always a good idea, lotion and not the spray variety. It will get everywhere and isn’t fun to try to get off your equipment or somebody else’s for that matter. Consider where you are going, I throw in a snake bite kit sometimes if I’m in Southern California or the South. If I’m headed to Joshua Tree, I always carry a pair of pliers to remove cholla cactus needle as these suckers always end up in my shoes. Actually, always travel with a basic first aid kit in your car that includes Benadryl as you never know.
Including this might initially seem counter intuitive since we normally think of creativity on the post processing end of image creation. However, this is about finding inspiration.
One of the reasons that I enjoy shooting with other people is that they have their own unique creative eye. They can see things in a very different light and it’s always handy to have another perspective.
As photographer’s we constantly practice a type of mimicry. This isn’t a bad thing. Trying to replicate the shot someone else already got is just the first stage of opening up your own personal style. It’s the basis for so much of human learning. You’ve got to know how something is done before you can deviate from it. Part of that is exposure. I look at literally hundreds of images every day with a critical eye. This type of visual training helps me to understand what works within an image frame and sets up cues in my brain so that when I’m in the field I’m instantly condensing the landscape into pictures. It reduces that “Now, what do I do?” time dramatically and helps me take several steps forward to how I might want to process it: should this be black and white, a square crop might work well, I’ll take that surfer dude out in Photoshop. It helps create a long term vision and ultimately will aid in synthesizing and editing your work.
Looking at other people’s work and method will also increase the likelihood that you will be comfortable experimenting yourself during capture. Maybe you will move the camera with the shutter open or see a new way of blending images together. Again, this is all positive – just don’t stop there. We tend to think in terms of landscape photography or even photography in general within very narrow confines, yet it is still in its infancy as an artistic movement and history isn’t even close to defining it yet. Don’t limit yourself to what has been done, be a pioneer. Who knows where it will take you.
What do I do now?
Pre-visualization is about planning ahead so that you are comfortable, knowledgeable, and receptive. It takes practice. You don’t need to go out and buy a bunch of new stuff to help you get there either. I’ve been a professional photographer for eleven years now and feel like I’m better at giving advice than I’d say I am at following it myself which is to say give yourself some time. It’s another part of your workflow toolkit. It just happens to be one that is often overlooked.
My background is in the entertainment industry and there’s a saying you hear really often onstage, also known as the “P” Principle. “Proper planning prevents piss poor performance.” That’s exactly what we’re after here. Plan ahead and make yourself ready. Eliminate distractions and perform your best.
Until next time,