Great photographs don’t usually happen by accident. Being in the right place at the right time is an essential element of successful photography. When you’re traveling to a new location, advance research, preparation and scouting can make all the difference between grabbing a few snapshots and making great images. Depending on the location you’re visiting, how much time you have and in what type of photography you’re interested, there are a variety of techniques you can use to make the most of your destination.
1 Study The Work Of Other Photographers. One of the first and simplest steps to take before you travel to a new location is to look at the work of other photographers who have already been there. Whether it’s coffee-table books or online photo galleries, there are plenty of example images for almost any photogenic location.
|Umin Thonze Pagoda, Sagaing, near Mandalay, Burma (Myanmar)|
One exciting new tool is the geotagged photo overlays available through Google Earth and Flickr, where you can browse to a particular area and click on image galleries that have been captured there. Your goal should be to learn about where the images were taken, what the light conditions were and imagine variations you might want to try to create.
2 Study Seasonal Weather And Other Photo Conditions. Think about the seasons, the weather, sunrise and sunset, moonrise and moonset, and tides. For example, snow can greatly enhance an image if you plan your trip carefully. One of my favorite times to catch snow is in the early morning after a fresh snowfall. By knowing where the sun will rise and having scouted locations the day before, I can get footprint-free, cleanly lit shots just after sunrise in places like Yosemite Valley.
|Grizzly Bear, Lake Clark Park, Alaska|
Weather is often misunderstood when it comes to landscape photography. Rain, clouds and lightning often go hand in hand and provide some of the most exciting landscape photographs. For example, I love traveling to Botswana in November because the rains are just starting and there’s lots of lightning. Bear in mind that rain can also dramatically change the quality of light. Prior to a rain, the sky may be diffused or even hazy, providing a soft light for dramatic shots, while afterward the same scene may be lit with a harsh contrasty light.
3 Weather Tools. The good news is that weather information is both more plentiful and more accurate today. Most weather and astronomical planning information is readily available online.
You normally can find out the average highs, lows and rainfall for a location before you arrive and get good five- and 10-day forecasts from sites like AccuWeather.com. Yahoo Weather (http://weather.yahoo.com) provides sunrise and sunset times, and the U.S. Naval Observatory (http://aa.usno.navy.mil/data/docs/RS_OneDay.php) provides complete sun and moon data.
|Yosemite Valley, Yosemite National Park, California|
A handheld GPS or astronomy software also can give you the direction of the sunrise and moonrise, so if you have a particular tree or mountain you want to frame with the sun or moon, you can pinpoint precisely when to be there before you even visit the location. Computer software like Starry Night (www.starrynightstore.com) can show you where the sun and moon will be, and help you plan for moonless nights to photograph star trails. A rule of thumb for including the moon in a shot is that the full moon always rises at sunset. Each day after that, it rises about 55 minutes later. So capturing a beautiful moon while you still have a little light from the sun is mostly a matter of picking one of the days near a full moon.
Knowing where the sun will rise can be equally important. I wanted a shot of a baobab tree in Botswana with the sun just peeking through its trunk. I was able to use my GPS to predict where the sun would rise and be there on the perfect day just as the light hit.
|Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona|
If you’re photographing ocean landscapes or shorebirds, track tide and storms. Outgoing and low tides give you the best chance to capture shorebirds feeding, while just after a storm is often the best time to get large waves crashing against shore. Tides follow the moon, so they get later by an average of about an hour a day. Programs like cTide for the PocketPC (http://airtaxi.net/ctide) and Tide Tool for Palm (www.toolworks.com/bilofsky/tidetool) allow you to follow the tides.
|Sossusvlei, Namib Desert, Namibia, Africa|
4 Keep Notes. I keep notes for each site I plan to visit, either in a notebook or on my laptop. With Google Earth, I can get an image of a specific location, export it to Photoshop and print it out at low opacity, making it easy to mark up with notes about viewing angles, sunrise, sunset and subjects.
5 Be Familiar With The Openings/Closings Of Tourist Spots. Once you have a sense of where you want to be and when to be there, make sure you can get access. There’s nothing more frustrating than waiting at the gate of a park as the sun rises. Sometimes you’ll need to swap sunrise and sunset. Angkor Wat in Cambodia, for example, opens at 5 a.m., so it’s possible to get great sunrise shots with few tourists around.
6 Learn About Native Wildlife. If you’re photographing wildlife, know the species for the locations you’re visiting. And if they migrate or move around looking for food, make sure you know what time of year you can find them. Grizzly bears follow a predictable pattern of crowding around salmon streams when the fish are running, but spread out and graze for grass and berries for the rest of their waking months.
7 Scout Your Location. Once you’ve arrived at a location, you can do specific scouting each day for the next day In particular, when the light has become harsh in the late morning, rather than head in for lunch and a nap, grab a sandwich and scout locations for sunset and sunrise the next day.
|Palo Alto Baylands, California|
On my first visit to Burma, I was charmed by the famous teak U Bein Bridge, but our guide had taken us there in the late morning when the light was harsh and the bridge was crowded with tourists. A quick check of my GPS showed that the sun would set through the bridge, and I knew that the monks would return to their monastery. I made sure we changed our travel plans for the day to race back for the setting sun. Then all I had to do was wait until I got the image I wanted with a solitary monk crossing the bridge, and my day was a success.
8 Become A Local. Once you’ve arrived, ask the locals about upcoming events. The local paper is a good source of information on festivals, fairs and unusual concentrations of animals or other natural phenomena. Some of our most enjoyable photo sessions have been weddings or birthday parties in remote villages. In most cases, the hosts were happy to have us as guests, especially if we donated something to the party.
Professional nature photographer David Cardinal leads photo safaris through Cardinal Photo, www.cardinalphoto.com. He publishes www.nikondigital.org and co-authored The D1 Generation with Moose Peterson.