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    October 2011
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Don’t Be Late!

Sunrise, Otter Beach, Acadia NP, Bar Harbor, ME copyright 2009 Andy Richards

I set out early one morning recently to shoot a scene I have passed by daily on my way to work lately. I had observed the time schedules and knew what time to be there. But as I was driving to the location, sunrise broke and for about 8 minutes, produced the most beautiful, orange hue, lighting the surroundings with warm, low-angled light that photographers wait for. 8 minutes!

My shot would not have been lit, by this beautiful light, as it was a downtown building scene that would have been blocked until about 20 minutes later. I arrived at my scene on time and captured the best light I was going to get for the scene. But oh, to have been bathed in that wonderful, warm, soft orange light!

You must be on site and ready, before the light happens!

The point is this. If my scene had been subject to that wonderful lighting, I would not have been there!I would have been racing to get there—and I would simply have missed it (instead, I lamented that I didn’t have a scene nearby for that light). Even if I had made it to the scene before the light changed, I would have been fumbling around with gear–not the way we want to remember and capture that scene.

Dawn, Horseshoe Lake, Huron NF, MI copyright Andy Richards

There is an old, cliche that photographers like to cleverly repeat: “F8 and be there.” But there is a key to “being there.” You must be there before the image happens. For landscape images, that usually means before the light happens. While it may not always be possible, in the best of all worlds, you will have done your homework and thoroughly planned your shoot. If possible, that means you will already have been to the scene (especially if it is a scene you have not been to before). There is only one thing more frustrating than fumbling around, trying to find a spot to park, or the trail to the shooting location, often in the twilight or even dark, while knowing that you are losing time. That one more frustrating thing is knowing all of the above, and that you are not going to be there on time! Study maps, but then, make a trial run to the scene.

In mid-October, my buddy, Rich and I have a planned trip to Babcock State Park in West Virginia to photograph the iconic Grist Mill that is the central feature of the park. While we have been assured that the “right light” for this image is early morning, we will arrive in the park on the afternoon before our planned shoot. While we will try to find some subject to shoot that afternoon, if necessary, we will gladly forego the afternoon/evening shot in order to plan how to arrive and where our best “setup” perspective will be. We also want to know where to park and how far we need to walk to get to that setup position. This is not something we will want to be doing in the dark for the first time the following morning.

You must meticulously plan your shot in advance.

Another part of the homework is knowing what lens we want to shoot with, and where the light will be coming from. These are all things that we can – and will – plan in advance of the shoot. By arriving the afternoon before, we can explore perspectives and composition, even though we are not there in the best light. One of the great advantages of digital capture is that we can shoot specimen images for review later that evening. We should be able to go into the park the following morning knowing what lens or different lens combinations we will need and the best perspectives for the shot.

This doesn’t mean we won’t deviate from those things, or try different combinations when on site. But if we have a very short window of “good light” we need to have made those fundamental decisions prior to arriving.

Sunrise Over Pond, Barton, VT copyright Andy Richards 2010

What about light angles? If you have never been to a scene before, you may have to make your best calculated guess, knowing where the sun rises at that time of year, and what time to expect that. There are some great tools out there on the internet. Sunrise/sunset calculators are easily found. A friend and participant on the SOV forums, professional photographer, Brandt Bolding, pointed out “The Photographer’s Ephemeris” (TPE), which is a free website designed for photographers. The site allows you to save “favorite places” and gives gps coordinates. It interfaces with what looks like Google Maps, including the hybrid mapping functions, and shows sunrise, sunset times, as well as the angle of the sun at different times of the day and the angle of the moon, also at different times of the day. TPE is an incredible tool that really is worth paying $$ for. Thank you, TPE author, for your generosity! Take a look at it and try it! I have used it to great advantage.

These are all controllable issues. What you cannot control is weather, and changes in conditions. In 2005, armed with the pamphlet prepared by 90 + year old pro photographer (and, I am proud to call friend), Arnold Jon Kaplan, I excitedly traveled to numerous destinations in Vermont, only to find that a number of them had incurred significant tree growth in the ensuing years, obscuring the views that Kaplan had making his iconic images. This is another reason why pre-scouting is so important!

Sunrise, Hateras National Seashore, Hateras, NC copyright Andy Richards

In the final analysis, though, those heart-stopping images you often seen in magazines, calendars, and occasionally on line, usually derive their pzazz from being there in the right light! The only way that can happen – especially in the morning (and in my view, that is when the most dramatic light usually happens), is to get out of bed early and be there before twilight and before the light happens!

3 Responses

  1. Andy, you are exactly right except that the cliche I’ve always heard is: “Don’t be late for work.”

    Your 8 minutes reminds me that I have been waiting patiently for the right light and when it arrives, I go into a panic trying to get the shot I want before the light goes away.

    On my most recent trip to Utah, I was waiting to photograph the full moon as it set on the plateau above the canyon shortly after sunrise. As I was observing the light on the canyon walls, the full moon was settling on the plateau. I was almost paralyzed. Do I shoot the moon or the gorgeous light on the canyon. I was astute enough to know that the the moon wouldn’t get better but the sun would light up the canyon for a while so I shot the moon. Dah! Still I was in panic mode.

    The good news about the shot at Babcock State Park is that the parking lot is right there…no long hikes. Get out of the car and shoot. You will be tempted to shoot from the rocks on the parking lot side of the stream, and that is a good location, but my favorite spot is on the other side of the stream, right above the dam. While the best light might be in the morning, it has always be cloudy when I’ve been there. Diffused light, with brilliant colored leaves makes for a nice photo too.


  2. […] East of the Teton Range, so early morning shooting opportunities abound. My admonishment, “Don’t Be Late,” was never more applicable than in this shooting location. Fortunately, the 2 hour time […]

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