How to Plan a Landscape Shoot and Nail the Shot

how to plan a landscape shoot

There was a time, many moons ago, when I didn’t pay too much attention to landscape photography, so absorbed was I with taking pictures of wildlife. But over the years my outlook on landscape photography has changed dramatically. When once I just took snapshots of pleasant scenes I visited or records of wildlife habitats, now I plan my landscape shoots in as much detail as I do for wildlife. This transformation in my attitude towards landscape photography was the result of seriously trying to capture a meaningful scenic picture, as opposed to just pointing the camera at something that caught my eye. It was really only once I started to understand and appreciate the complexities of what makes a good landscape photograph that I was able to apply myself properly in an attempt to raise my own standards beyond the mediocre.

how to plan a landscape shoot
21mm @ 15 sec, f/16, ISO 100. Cuillin mountains from Elgol beach, Isle of Skye, Scotland.

Not always, but more often than not, successful landscape images are the result of good preparation. In the same way that I wouldn’t expect to simply wander around the countryside and expect to take amazing wildlife images, I don’t roam aimlessly hoping to come home with top notch landscapes. Planning a landscape shoot varies considerably between targeting a specific shot from a predetermined viewpoint, to a wider ranging remit of trying to capture the essence of a place through a variety of images over a much longer timescale. But, essentially, the goal remains the same: to try to put myself in the right place at the right time to secure the shot in optimal conditions.

Ice-sculpted rocks at dawn, Northern Corries, Grampian Mountains. Cairngorms National Park, Scotland.
Ice-sculpted rocks at dawn, Northern Corries, Grampian Mountains. Cairngorms National Park, Scotland.

In truth the absolute ideal conditions, when everything comes together perfectly, are rare but this is what I’m always striving for. It’s not uncommon that I’ll have to settle for the next best thing or try to make the most of the conditions that I’m faced with. On other occasions I may well leave empty handed. After all, there is little to be gained from taking a sub-standard photograph that really doesn’t cut the mustard. Perhaps just an iPhone shot as a reminder for the next time I visit. And this is an important point to make. Landscape photography is as much about patience and dogged persistence than it is about the fundamentals of photography. Anyone can learn how to take a competent photograph, but not everyone is prepared to return time and time again to a particular location in order to capture the elusive optimal shot.

I know that putting myself in the right place often enough will yield results eventually. But there is a little more to it than simply turning up at a location. You have to be there at the ‘right’ time. Now this may be very different from one location to another – sometimes dawn may offer the best possibilities, sometimes late evening. Some locations may be best photographed in high summer, others in winter, depending on where the sun rises and sets. All of these things, along with many others, have to be considered in detail before throwing my camera bag over my shoulder and heading off into the hills.

how to plan a landscape shoot
Old Man of Storr with Isle of Raasay and Cuillin mountains beyond. Isle of Skye, Scotland. June.

As with much of what I photograph, I find that knowledge is king. Accumulating as much knowledge as possible about a location and its photographic potential should ensure that I can maximise my time spent there and hopefully short-circuit some of the leg work. These days the internet is awash with stunning landscape imagery and there are few places on the planet that haven’t been photographed, so this is a good starting point when it comes to identifying likely locations that offer good potential. Not only is this a great way to get a handle on a location before I visit, but it also provides plenty of inspiration for what might be possible. Originality is a rare commodity these days in any genre of photography and whilst I am not purporting to produce an original masterpiece every time I press the shutter, I don’t want to simply replicate what others have done before me. So, I use this research to identify key locations with the hope that I can find a new angle or be fortunate to get great light that is going to make my images a little different.

Further Reading: “5 Ways to Find New Places to Photograph

Once I’m in an area that I’ve not visited before, local shops selling postcards and books provide another great resource and further help in locating prime spots. Even in locations that have already been very well photographed there are new angles to be found that offer new opportunities. This is especially true for roadside honey pot landscape locations, where it’s all too easy to take the ‘classic’ view just a few metres from your car. Sure you may get a great picture, but it’s unlikely to be very original. But wander off the beaten track or climb a hill and you’ll probably have the place to yourself with plenty of new angles on a familiar landscape.

how to find somewhere to take photos
Pine Forest reflected in Loch Mallachie, Abernethy, Cairngorms National Park, Scotland. February 2007.

To find these hidden gems does take time of course, so there is always going to be some leg work involved in scouting out locations. But with limited windows of opportunity for landscape photography due to the vagaries of the weather, there is always plenty of time to do some reconnaissance work. Recognising what’s going to make a great shot when I visit somewhere in less than ideal conditions takes a bit of practice, but I always find it a useful exercise. This, coupled with a knowledge of where the sun is going to rise and set, helps me evaluate the benefits of making a return visit. It may be that I discover that the location has to be shot at a different time of year, in which case I’ll make a note – usually on an OS map – with a marker indicating the viewpoint and an appropriate time of year.

Loch Pityoulish on misty morning, Cairngorms National Park, Scotland, September 2006.
Loch Pityoulish on misty morning, Cairngorms National Park, Scotland, September 2006.

Detailed maps along with a reliable weather forecast are the two fundamentals of my landscape photograph planning. I’ll pour over maps for hours trying to evaluate the best way to photograph a particular scene. This is especially important when I’m photographing in the hills, as if I don’t get this right and end up in the wrong place it can be a long walk to rectify my mistake. Studying the contours of the hills is very useful as this provides a good clue as to which viewpoint is going to afford the best vantage point, as well as eliminating the possibility that my foreground is cast in shadow from a higher hill behind me. A map will only tell you so much though, and it’s not until I’m physically in situ that the overall impression of the landscape is revealed.

Of course the most crucial aspect of any landscape photograph is having the right light to do it justice. Regrettably it’s still difficult to predict this with any certainty. But weather forecasting has improved enormously and nowadays provides a pretty reliable 24 hour forecast, but if the timing of a weather front is out by a couple of hours or a bank of cloud rolls in off the sea just as the light’s getting good, then even the best laid plans are all but useless. Once again, all you can do is put yourself in the right place at the right time and hope the weather gods are on your side. One thing is for sure, if you’re not there when there is potential for great light then you’re never going to get the optimal shot!

how to find landscape locations
Brooding clouds and sun rays over Strathspey. Cairngorms National Park, Scotland. March 2007.

Being on location for the golden hours of dawn and dusk is relatively easy to do, provided you’re comfortable with the unsociable hours and irregular sleeping times. Being there when there is dramatic light is another thing altogether. This requires a higher level of commitment because more often than not you’re going to get soaked or weather-beaten by the wind for no reward. The very nature of changeable weather conditions, which leads to dramatic light, means that to get these kinds of shots you have to take a chance. One ‘soft’ option is to drive somewhere that offers good potential and then dash out and set up your gear when there is a shooting opportunity. This is a perfectly sensible option, but if you want to capture out of the way locations in dramatic light then you have to be prepared to take a bigger gamble. This requires greater mental strength, but having planned the shot and done the reconnoitring, why would you deny yourself the opportunity to bag that unique photograph. Planning is one thing. Execution is the bit that really counts!


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