Saturday, September 24, 2011

Prepare for a Shoot, pt. 1

"Put yourself into position for good things to happen, then take it from there."

We all know someone who bagged that stellar shot of the horse running in the snowy field below the double rainbow... just by being there and having their camera. But those are few and far between, and certainly fall short of the number of times they just showed up somewhere and couldn't nail a fine image. As my work grew more serious, so did my preparation. And while there are no guarantees, preparation has significantly increased the number of images that I'm pleased to come home with.

My preparation typically falls into 4 categories

1. Research your intended location
2. Plan your efforts
3. Get your gear ready
4. Arrive, adapt, execute

In part 1, we'll tackle the first 2, and address #3 and #4 in part 2. While there is no perfect formula, my efforts have been much more successful with even just a little forethought and preparation going into a shoot.

1. Research

You have a vision of what you want to shoot: the coastal rocks at sunrise, a waterfall, a cityscape. You've identified the place you want to be, maybe you've seen a similar image and you were inspired to visit this location. Now start your research. Anywhere from days to months in advance depending on the effort involved. If your location is close, and you're likely to visit it again, nothing serves better than a dry-run.

  • Visit the location during the day. Walk around, find the viewpoints that you like.
  • Learn where parking is in relation to where you want to be.
  • Find out how long it will take you to get there.
  • Determine the direction of the sun's light in relation to your subject or your scene.

Even if your target location is nearby, there's no reason to get up at 4.30 in the morning only to find that the gate to the park is closed and you have no way to get where you want to be.

For more adventurous locations that aren't nearby, it's even more important to arrive armed with useful information. For any location that's a significant drive (or flight) away, I'll reach out to the community.

  • Participate and post to online forums such as as They are filled with "locals" around the world who can (and will) give you the inside scoop on a location.
  • Search the web for online information, even visitor's bureau sites to uncover what you can.
  • Contact the artist. If you're basing your efforts on a location that you've been inspired to visit by another photographer, contact that photographer and talk shop.
  • Contact the location. I called the general information number for a state park and reached someone who didn't know much about where I might want to explore for photos. "But Dan might, let me put him on." Turns out Dan was an avid photographer like myself who knew the park inside and out. 45 minutes later, I was armed with everything I could absorb to make my first visit productive.

2. Plan

Unless you make your living by photographing beautiful places, you don't have the luxury of waiting somewhere for the conditions to be perfect to execute your vision. Whether you're staying local, or flying to a destination for a few days of photography, set yourself up to succeed. Map your route, make notes of any trails or paths you'll need to follow. Especially if you're traveling alone, leave the details of your itinerary with someone, including all the locations you intend to visit and at least a general timeline.

Next, watch the weather. What is that scene that you're visualizing? For a beautiful sunrise shot, an overcast day will be unremarkable, as will a clear day. For a truly dramatic image, look for mornings where a storm is coming in or going out - that's when you want your sunrise shot. If the weather calls for overcast and rain, ditch the sunrise on the coast and get to your nearest waterfall. Watch not only for the snowstorm, but the first morning that the clouds roll out after the storm. A warm glow of a morning sunrise on a fresh blanket of snow can't be arranged, but it can, to some degree, be predicted. You can also identify significant shifts in the temperature that will yield fog on the lake in the morning.

Some artists are excessive about the weather, and can pinpoint the perfect culmination of events for the images they want. I imagine there hit rates are pretty close to 100%, and they should be for the time they put into it. For the rest of us, a little information and thoughtful preparation can go a long way toward giving us a better chance at success.

Another important component in your planning is timing. The "magic hour" may only be intriguing for 20 minutes and magical for mere seconds. Give yourself plenty of padding around the sunrise time you look up. Remember, sunrise is the point where the sun rises over the horizon. Some of my favorite shots have been from the 20-30 minutes before that happens where the clouds are colored and brilliantly illuminated. Work backwards.
  • The sun rises at 6.30am
  • You'll want to be shooting by 6.00am
  • You want a good 15 minutes to set up your tripod, camera, lenses and filters
  • It's a 20 minute hike from the parking lot
  • It takes 35 minutes to drive there
  • 10 minutes to stop for coffee
  • 10 minutes to get out of the house (because your gear is already in the car, your clothes laid out)
  • In this case, about 20 minutes worth of padding your time
... set that alarm for 4.20 am, and promise to only hit snooze once!

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Manasquan Reservoir

Gallery | Map | Timeline | Equipment

To be fair, this was our 2nd attempt. Our first was a misguided effort at chasing a storm. "Chance of thunderstorms" is an open invitation to photographers looking for dramatic sunsets. "You're going to get walloped by a monsoon" would have been a more useful weather report. But even in adverse conditions, our time was well spent. "That's where we want to be next time."
5.00 AM, we realize the gates to the parking area were closed. Not unexpected, but surprised to find that there was nowhere on the side of the road (or side streets) to stash the car and hike in early. Driving the perimeter of the reservoir, we found a 5.05 AM traffic jam?!? A terrible accident? Nope. 15 or more cars, trucks, and trailers waiting for the opening to the boat launch. 15 vehicles lined up on the road on a random Saturday morning. Fishing must be great here, but even if they did open the boat launch gates early, I didn't want to sit in that line waiting to get in.
We continued around for a second pass, hoping we missed a side street near the entrance and were pleased to see the main gate open by about 5.10am. Don't know if this is an exception or the norm. So we assumed the ranger was a photographer like us, and gladly accepted the invitation. Still dark in the lot, we felt our way around some thick brush until we found a fairly manageable trail down to the beach that turned out to be just to the right of the main lot .
Dave's better eyes than mine confirmed in the dark that what seemed to be brush in the water was actually solid land. We were on the beach. At about 20 minutes before sunrise, the sky began to light with our storm clouds playing their part. The sky lit, the water reflected, and the tree-stumps played the role of silhouettes perfectly. The magic hour - just before, during, and after sunrise. The first few frames are some of our favorites from this effort.
A polarizing filter helped bring out the colors in the sky and the reflection in the water. A 3-stop graduated ND helped balance exposure between the sky and the water. A longer exposure was required for 2 reasons:
1) The water is darker than the bright sky. Properly exposed water was essential to the shot.
2) I wanted the silky, surreal look that a long exposure brings to even fairly calm waters. I knew there were subtle ripples in the water, and they would serve the image well over a long exposure.
34 minutes of shooting and getting set up before the sun actually entered the scene yielded some of the best images of the day, as is usually the case. Getting anything other than silhouettes from the tree stumps or even the beach would have required a dynamic range well beyond the capability of a digital sensor and filters, putting us into the realm of HDR, which I don't typically explore.
Before sunrise with a circular polarizer and a 3 stop graduated ND filter, I was looking at exposures of 10 - 20 seconds for apertures of f11 and f13 at ISO100 . About 25 minutes later, we were down to shutter speeds of 7/10 second at f16 because of the increased light.
As the sun emerged from the trees on the opposite end of the reservoir at 6.04, we scrambled to fire off the shot we had set up, and try to re-position along the beach for some additional perspectives. At about 6.20am, 16 minutes later, we were pretty well done with the "sunrise" portion of the shoot. On this morning, we were happy to have the clouds extend our shooting window as the sun danced through the cloud breaks.

Once the sun had risen, it was time to turn around, literally. While the sun was done serving as the focal point of our images, it still had plenty left to illuminate the landscape in it's warm, magic hour glow. In this instance, I wasn't thrilled with the effect on the landscape. A few intriguing shots emerged, but it quickly became clear that the green moss in contrast to the harsh tree stumps would be best served by a wet day to really draw out the greens. And so with several shots in bag, we did some recon for our next trip to this beautiful place. Somewhere between the warm light of sunrise and the zero visibility of a monsoon, we'll find our way back to capture the vivid green of the landscape.

Depart Main St. in Freehold.
4.10 awoke
4.30 out the door
4.38 on the road
5.05 traffic?!?
5.10 entered the main gate
5.18 on our way to the beach
5.29 first frame from the beach is a keeper
6.03 sun breaks the horizon

Circular polarizing filter
Graduated neutral density filter

As Seen in New Jersey

We’ve all heard it, even said it ourselves. New Jersey’s an over developed mess of strip malls, diners and traffic. Your initial reaction may have been like ours, there’s nothing much to photograph here.
We’ve set out to prove that instinct wrong.