Matt Presents: Five Lessons From a Recent Landscape Shoot
I recently co-taught a Landscape/Adventure Sports workshop out in Moab, Utah with famous adventure photographer Tom Bol (and just all around nice guy). The class was great, the weather was great and we had a blast. But on the way back I started thinking about some lessons I’ve learned along these trips so I figured I’d share them with you today.
NOTE: Click on the photos to see them larger
Lesson 1 – Get up earlier than you think
The formula is simple. Get there 1 hour before sunrise. Plain and simple. You never know what snags you’ll hit (road blocks, detours, equipment). What happens if you’re on your way and you realize you forgot a lens or your tripod. If you have to turn around you’re screwed – you’ve missed sunrise because you left no extra time. But there’s another big reason to leave earlier than you think. If you happen to be going to a popular shooting location you’d better bet everyone else will have left early. Imagine walking up to a great sunrise shoot and seeing this.
Getting there early could be the difference between getting this shot of Mesa Arch (in Canyonlands National Park)
…or this shot
When I took the first photo, we were there about an hour before sunrise – the first ones at the spot. The second one was taken on another trip and several of the good spots were already gone. It’s not horrible but certainly not the shot we go there for. This next photo was taken at another sunrise shoot. What you can’t see are the 10 people standing on the ledge next to me and the guy’s foot (from a ledge above) I had to clone out on the far left side. Had we got there any later, there wouldn’t have been any places left to shoot from.
The moral of the story is that if you’re going to get up early, then do it right and get up really early. There’s no way around it. You’re gonna be tired whether you get up at 4am or 5am right?
Lesson 2 – Get ready the night before
I can’t stress this one enough. When you wake up at 4am you’re going to be in no condition to start gathering things. Trust me, I’m a morning person and I still don’t have the mental capacity to think that early. So get your stuff ready the night before. Pack your bag, pack your car if possible (as long as the car is in a safe place) and make it so all you have to do is roll out of bed, grab your coffee (or Coke Zero) and head to the shoot. Heck, I even sleep in my clothes, hiking boots, and photography vest so I’m totally ready when I get up. Just remember to take any lens filters out of your pockets so you don’t crush them while you sleep (I’m kidding – those filters are stronger than you think ) ;)
Lesson 3 – Shoot & Move
I’ve been on a lot of sunrise shoots and I’ve seen this happen plenty of times. A photographer sets up their tripod and shoots the sunrise. But they stay in the same exact spot and shoot that sunrise to death. 756 frames later they’ve only got one actual photo to show for it. Instead, when you arrive early (see #1 above), scout a few other locations near your ideal sunrise spot. Shoot the “official” sunrise for 3-4 minutes and move on while the light is still good. Hit another location and shoot there for 2-3 minutes and move on again. You’ll be amazed at how many great “sweet light” shots you can get within the first 10 minutes of the sun coming up or going down. Here’s a photo taken just a 60 second walk from where I set up to shoot sunrise one morning (pssst the official “sunrise” photo I took first that morning never made it to my portfolio but this one did). If I hadn’t moved when I did, I would have never captured this with such nice light on it.
Lesson 4 – Try Photographing People
Photographers taking photos in a dramatic location can be great subjects. You can make a lot of these photos while you’re waiting for the light to get good (or after it gets bad).
There’s also lots of opportunities to take photos of people in cool landscape locations. For example, in my Moab workshop the other week we shot some mountain bikers. Moab is basically home to mountain biking. What better place to shoot awesome riders in some killer locations.
As I mentioned earlier, I co-taught this workshop with Tom Bol. He brought along his Elinchrom Ranger Quadra battery packs and heads so we were able to do some really fun off-camera flash stuff during the day. Combine the edgy lighting with some post-processing effects it made for some great shots.
Lesson 5 – It’s all about luck
This is perhaps the most important lesson of all. A good friend of mine, Bill Fortney (one of the greatest landscape photographers I know) has a very cool story to demonstrate this lesson. He was once asked “Bill, how do I get photos like yours?” He told the person that they probably weren’t going to like the answer but it was very simple in nature. He said the way to get photos like his was to go to every one of those landscape monuments and national parks 25 times over the course of their life. At some point, the weather, conditions, clouds, sun, light, etc will all fall into alignment for you to get that great shot. Simply put, great landscape photos involve a lot of luck. And I mean A LOT! If you’re out on a portrait or studio shoot and things aren’t going right, you have a bunch of factors you can change. You can change location, wardrobe, and even lighting if you’re comfortable enough to use flash. But with landscapes, there’s not a darn thing you can do if you get out there and the fog is thicker than pea soup. If you’ve traveled to that location from a far distance it’s even more disappointing. Here’s an example of a photo taken on our Friday night sunset shoot during that same Moab/Arches workshop I’ve been talking about. The light was kinda bla for sunset and the sun died out behind a cloud before creating any of that really nice color.
As Bill alludes to above, persistence is the key. On my way out of town the following evening I was all set to make the 4-hour drive to Salt Lake City. I saw the makings of a good sunset though so I stopped at the same place we were at the night before. Things turned out much better this time around.
I love landscape photography. There’s something about bringing back a magnificent scene and showing it to those that just aren’t able to get out there and see it for themselves. Landscapes don’t talk back, they don’t ask for more money or flake out and pull a no-show on you and when they’re “on”, all you have to do is set up your camera and capture the beauty. Thanks for reading everyone. Have a great Tuesday!