Posts tagged ‘pre-composition’
“You were lucky to catch that shot!”
I’ve heard that said more than a few times since I started making ‘serious’ photographs, mostly from – and here I’m continuing an entirely tongue-in-cheek gripe from my last blog item – non-photographers. More specifically, non-photographers who have cameras and don’t often ‘get lucky’ in the same way that they perceive that I do.
In recent months, I’ve adopted the approach of not arguing the point, preferring the “Yes, didn’t I” response to “Well, no, I did lots of preparation…..”. The trouble is that the type of preparation I’m talking about here is not the specific planning I discussed in my last article on using The Photographer’s Ephemeris and Google Earth ground level view to pre-visualise compositions. That’s a possible, and very useful, aspect of preparation, but not the whole of it, and it’s the part which is quick and easy to describe:
“TPE tells me where the Sun and Moon will be, and Google Earth shows me what the view is from any given point”;
done; simple; and it doesn’t usually engender a great long debate, unless the questioner is genuinely interested in the implicit how part of that statement. Conversely, trying to explain what I’m discussing here, the wider factors which go into being prepared to make a photograph, can end up in…… let’s say ‘a degree of contention‘.
I think the contention arises since what I’m essentially going to argue in this article is all about probability and statistics – not literally, this isn’t a mathematical treatise of any kind, but that’s what it amounts to. In summary:
if I prepare better for a photographic opportunity which may arise, the likelihood of my making a half decent image when that opportunity does arise goes up considerably. Put another way “you make your own luck”.
At its most reductive level, the old adage that ‘the best camera is the one you have with you all the time’ clearly comes into play: it’s much more likely that I’ll ‘get lucky’ if I always carry a camera. I don’t, and I know that reduces my opportunities, but pretty much everything in life is a compromise and I’m not yet ready to start carrying my backpack of kit at all times.
Understand your equipment as well as possible
That point does lead to the first and most obvious element of ‘being prepared’, however; the technical element. There’s little point in having a camera capable of capturing good images and failing to learn how to use it flexibly. More accurately, and returning to the probability idea: if you do learn as much as possible about how your equipment works, what it can and can’t do, when and how to use which filters, and all the other things which make up the technical side of photography, then the chances of getting all those technical details right, even in a rush, when the fabled opportunity arises are considerably raised. Often, that moment of stunningly fine light lasts just that, a moment, or a few seconds; fiddling around with camera controls for any longer than strictly necessary is likely to lead, as they say, to disappointment. Personally, I don’t find the whole ‘how to drive a camera’ thing terribly interesting. Important: very much so. Interesting: only in the way that any complex piece of kit is interesting – it’s not what making images is about (to me, that is – but each to their own!).
I’m not ranking aspects of preparedness; I think that all the elements I’m writing about in this item are important for improving the odds of ‘getting lucky’, but I do think that familiarity with the equipment – camera, lenses, filters, tripod, light meter; everything – is fundamental. To veer dangerously close to mathematics again: it’s a necessary but not a sufficient requirement, and it’ll increase the probability of success.
Maintain a list of compositions
Another – not the second, just another – element is having compositions in mind ready for when the light is either ‘good’ or ‘right’, depending on whether you’ve also worked out what the ‘right’ light will be for a given composition. This is a big topic. It covers a range of time, in terms of preparation, from seconds to months, or even seasons. At one end of the scale, I like to look around an area for compositions before leaping into getting the camera out; there’s little point in waiting for stunning light and then frantically hunting around for something to put in the frame. What that means in practice is that I will sometimes scout a location and not actually make any exposures. More probably I’ll take a few shots as reminders, even if the light is uninteresting. That’s where the longer term comes in: I’m gradually building up a set of notes on things that I think may be good compositions, given certain lighting conditions. The idea is that I can revisit those areas at the appropriate time of year, or when a particular weather pattern is predicted, and know exactly where to go. In theory, it means that I can hurry to a pre-planned composition and get set up as soon as the weather deigns to do what I’d like it to, and having several of these ideas ready means that there’s more chance of at least one of them fitting the weather on any given day. Again, it increases the probability of being lucky.
Naturally, that sort of preparation is easiest for local subjects. There’s a particular composition I have in mind in the Cairngorms, but I’m not about to drive hundreds of miles on the spur of the moment when the met office predicts a certain weather pattern which will suit it! That said, I’m currently working on – and when I say ‘working on’ here, what I mean is that I have decided to do this and will shortly get my act together and start – I’m currently working on making a list of possible compositions in the area of Scotland I shall be visiting in a few months. I’ll be using TPE and Google Earth for this, as well as my existing knowledge of the area and OS maps for access routes and timings. The intention is to arrive knowing where to go in response to a variety of weather conditions, both at different times of day and at those points when the rain slackens off and the midges aren’t too active.
To reiterate the main theme of this article, whatever level of compositional preparation I actually do, whether it’s on the obsessive end of the scale or the ‘here’s a list of a few ideas‘ end, it will increase the probability of coming back with worthwhile images from a trip. Clearly, in any distribution of probabilities, there is the potential of returning with ‘nothing’ – I would like to make that as unlikely as I can, in advance.
Revisit good compositions
On a related facet of preparedness: whilst visiting a place once, working out some compositions, and then pre-visualising the weather that would suit them is a good technique, it’s even better to simply revisit those places, if possible, and see how the weather affects the scene. I used to be very disappointed if I went out and failed to capture a ‘keeper’; now, whilst I wouldn’t go so far as to say that I don’t care, I’m much more relaxed about it. Considering the image above, for example: I’ve been to this site numerous times – it’s very local to me – but that’s the first time I’ve bothered to photograph it as it’s the first time the light was at all interesting for that particular composition. I’m fairly happy with this image, but I shall undoubtedly go there again, and I’m sure I’ll use a similar composition in the hope that the lighting will be sufficiently different for that to be worthwhile; ideally, it’ll be better in some way, of course. Again, having discovered and practised a composition which is pleasing, at least to me, I shall increase the likelihood of eventually using it to produce a great shot by photographing it in varying weather and at different times of year.
Stand around and do nothing for a while
Considering the probability of success in the time frame of minutes or hours, rather than days or seasons: if the weather is changeable, or it’s getting towards sunset, I’ve taken to working on a composition, getting everything as ‘right’ as I can in terms of framing and technical aspects, and then just waiting for the light to change. I enjoy just being outdoors and in a beautiful place, whether I’m already very familiar with that place or not, so I’ve never so far considered it to be a great hardship to simply stand or sit awaiting a change in the light. (As an aside, this particular behaviour is the one most likely to produce a certain degree of discontent on the part of anyone you’re with who’s not also attempting to make photographs, as I discussed in an earlier article!)
Of course, the whole ‘waiting around doing nothing’ thing can be more of a challenge in various forms of inclement weather, but it’s still worth it. The image below was taken at sunset, or ‘mid-afternoon’, as it might be called. It’s a good example of a few of the above approaches to upping the probability of success. This tree is close by and I’d photographed it a few times. On each occasion, I imagined that it could look very good in snow; so, when we actually received a little, I took myself up there with the hope of making this precise image. As may be obvious, it was rather chilly up on the scar that afternoon; minus 12C in fact. Had I not been familiar with my kit, my fingers would probably have become even colder, whilst setting up for the shot, than they did. Had I not pre-visualised and planned the composition, then I’d have spent time wandering around on what was extremely slippery limestone pavement – it’s not the easiest or safest surface to amble across when dry and warm, and it’s even less conducive to extensive exploration when covered in snow and ice! As it was, I was able to go to exactly the right place, having readied the camera with the appropriate lens and settings back at home and having not wrecked the snow by walking on it, looking for the right spot. Setting everything up took under a minute, followed by roughly an hour of standing still, becoming progressively colder as the light changed. I’m rather fond of this shot, and I sincerely doubt that I’d have made it without all the luck-inducing preparation.
Get out there, even when the weather looks vile
One final thing is worth mentioning, mainly since I’m very susceptible to this particular problem and am working on avoiding it. Planning in advance to go somewhere, knowing that there is a usable composition, particularly when the ‘somewhere’ in question is a long walk up a hill, helps to avoid crying off due to unappealing weather. The banner image at the very top of my blog is a good example of that. It was raining heavily when I set off and I had to really force myself to get up on the scar, knowing there was a tree up there and hoping for some kind of dramatic light to occur as the various storm fronts passed over. It did occur; I was ‘lucky’. That said, I was lacking in every other area of preparation for this shot. It was the very first image I took after I’d bought a ‘proper’ camera and set out to deliberately make photographs; so in many respects I really was lucky on that occasion.
I’d have been even ‘luckier‘, however, had I already learnt how to use the camera, bought a tripod, examined the area in advance, and not been shooting hand-held jpegs on full automatic…. There are better compositions of this tree and, if I’d prepared for luck, this would have been a better shot. Still, maybe the next time I’m fortunate enough to experience light like that, it will be!
I haven’t even mentioned here that this sort of preparation can help with inspiration, but this article is already quite long enough, so I’ll save that topic for another possible post. As always, I’d welcome your thoughts and recommendations for other things which can increase the ‘getting lucky’ factor in making landscape images.
Tim Smalley has a very nice piece on his blog covering some of the same ground as this. Definitely worth reading: Forget about the camera for a minute
I am now, or so I’m told by certain non-photographer friends, not only ‘fiddling with images’ in post-processing, but also ‘cheating’ by pre-visualising them with the aid of technology. Shocking! I refuted, or made a serious attempt to refute, the former charge in a previous post on the ethics of digital manipulation. I shall now refute the latter.
The charge goes something like the following:
“Using tools such as Google Earth and The Photographer’s Ephemeris (TPE) is cheating; you should just find places to photograph by wandering around.”
That is, of course, a paraphrase of what a non-photographer would say, but it’s what I’ve done for a couple of images, making it a reasonable one. In fact, I’ve been using TPE for well over a year now, it’s invaluable in working out where the Sun and Moon will be at a given point in time, at a specific location, and in determining both whether they will be visible and whether they’ll be lighting the landscape in the way that I would like them to. TPE, however, presupposes that I know where I’m going to be, whereas Google Earth, and in particular the relatively new ‘ground level view’ introduced in Google Earth 6, enables me to get a remarkably good idea of what things will look like when I’m standing at my chosen location. By combining the two it’s possible to go a long way to composing an image without even leaving the house. I don’t think that’s ‘cheating’, as such; I’d characterise it as taking advantage of technology to get a good result when it’s not practical to scout a location on foot and in a variety of lighting conditions
A real-world example using Google Earth ‘ground level view’
By way of example, I used both tools in creating the image below, which is of a valley in the centre of the Howgill Fells, in Cumbria, England, an area I’ve described in a post on its photographic potential. I’d noticed the interesting, interlocking spurs of hills on a previous walk in the area, but didn’t have a camera with me, and in any case the Sun was high in a clear, blue sky – less than ideal (and that’s why I didn’t have a camera…..). At the time, I just noted the location and then later, at home, investigated what could be done with it. It’s a non-trivial drive to the Howgills, followed by a walk-in of a few kilometres horizontally and about half a kilometre upwards, so I wasn’t keen on going up there at random and hoping it was worthwhile. To be honest, I probably would have done, but I felt much more confident that I was not about to waste my time, having planned it in some detail in advance.
The first thing I did was find the area in Google Earth, then I zoomed down to ground level, at which point the view shifts to the cunningly-named ‘ground level view’. This isn’t a tutorial on how to use the software, so suffice it to say that you can move around as if you’re walking and that the view you’d see is represented topographically. From my two ‘serious’ uses of this excellent facility, I can say that it’s sufficiently accurate to plan from – at least for the areas I’ve looked at. The following images are, on the left, a screen shot from the precise location I eventually stood to take the photo and, on the right, the image itself. The photo is zoomed a fair bit, so it’s of the top half of the Google Earth representation. No, they’re not identical, but they’re remarkably close if you look at the degree of overlap of the spurs and the shape of the river in the valley. Certainly, they’re close enough that relying on the software to aid visualisation saved me a good deal of hunting around on awkward terrain for a point to set up the tripod.
To show how close the representation is, I’ve deliberately done this backwards for the sake of this article, using the location data from the photograph to return to Google Earth and make the above screen shot. The on-line investigation I’d done in advance enabled me to mark a point which looked promising, and then drive / walk to it and be within fifty metres of where I ended up. More importantly, it let me play with compositions in advance. I was standing on what might be considered a steep slope which I had, of necessity, approached from above, and in inclement weather. Since I’d already determined, by ‘walking’ down the slope in Google Earth, the lowest level which improved the shot, I simply descended to that contour and then traversed the hillside until I found the composition I’d visualised on-screen as well as, more conventionally, in my head. Running up and down the hillside to see whether the composition would work better from lower down was something I was thoroughly happy to forego!
And what of TPE? Well, what I really wanted was sunlight on the right hand slopes, which means ‘sometime in the morning’ (the valley runs roughly north-south). More precisely, I wanted illumination, but not direct sunshine, so I’d used TPE to determine when the Sun would be low enough to not create harsh shadows anywhere – TPE showed me that this meant that I needed to be there within half an hour of sunrise. Unfortunately, the only place to park – the only sensible place to park anyway – is by an isolated house. Doing so at least an hour before dawn at any time of year might be considered anti-social; in late May, it really wasn’t an option. I settled for ‘any day with grey, high cloud’ instead. As it turned out the cloud was somewhat thicker than I wanted and it was decidedly dark in the valley, so the only thing which was still lacking precision was, as usual, the weather forecast! Oh, and it was raining and very windy too – a couple more things the weather forecast had assured me wouldn’t be the case…
TPE helped me work out what was best, I merely wasn’t able to follow its guidance on this occasion, though having now seen the way the various spurs in that valley lie, I’m sure the early option would be the best in terms of the end result – maybe I’ll return in winter.
That, then, is the combination of techniques, but I’ve not yet actually refuted the argument that using them is in some way ‘wrong’; all I’ve done is say that this sort of planning is very practical and effective, at least for ‘big vista’ type compositions where the overall shape of the land is important – Google has not as yet recorded sufficient detail to enable anyone to decide in advance which trees to include in an image – give it time though.
Would I feel in some way better about the image if I’d not worked out roughly where to stand before I got there? I think not. I might have lost some time in searching around, up and down the slope which, as I’ve mentioned, is verging on being very steep. I might even not have found the spot, or left insufficient time to find it and found the valley even darker than it was when I arrived. If either of those things were true, then I’d possibly have felt some aching of the legs afterwards too. More probably, not being confident of how good the composition would be in advance, I’d not even have left home at six in the evening, aiming for a vaguely-defined point two hours travel away, so I’d not actually have made the capture at all.
Yes, perhaps the process is marginally less Romantic than wandering the fells hopefully in search of surprise compositions, but I’d emphasise the ‘marginal’ aspect quite strongly. It was raining, cold, and windy up there, and getting dark; had I not been near-certain of a good composition, I suspect that I would have turned back. This refutation is perhaps a largely pragmatic one, but I think it’s also convincing. I’m certainly not advocating doing this for every image; that simply wouldn’t be possible. Using the technique for certain types of composition, however, at least as a means of getting an idea of whether it might ‘work’ and where to start, seems to me to be a very helpful addition to the set of methods for pre-visualising compositions.
I’d be interested in hearing your views, especially if you disapprove of using such technological techniques for pre-composition, or pre-visualisation.
Since I first published this article, Stephen Trainor, who wrote TPE, and Bruce Percy have jointly published an e-book in which Stephen describes all the facets of TPE and Bruce relates this to how he uses it in his work, in combination with Google Earth. i.e. exactly the same topic as this article, but with rather more ‘how to’ detail! I recommend it if you’re interested in taking this approach to planning images. ‘Understanding Light with The Photographer’s Ephemeris’