Improve Your Photos by Doing More Work Beforehand

Improve Your Photos by Doing More Work Beforehand

How often do you just go out and shoot, whether it is a hike in the woods with your camera or a portrait session? While there is something to be said for being in the moment and letting things happen organically, let us talk about why pre-planning your shoots can improve your images. 

I have always been a big fan of improvisation. I became a composer instead of a performer because I always ended up changing whatever I was playing so I could improvise something in the moment. I was always afraid I would miss out on whatever new thought came to me in the moment, and besides, it was more fun. 

I carried the same spirit and somewhat flawed logic into my work as a photographer. I felt like going in with a plan would lead to tunnel vision and missing out on the best shots because I was so hyperfocused on getting what I came for. That was shortsighted, and a fair amount of the time, it led to at least one moment of panic during the shoot when imagination left me and I had no backup plan to fall back on.

Eventually, I learned that, of course, I could strike a balance between the two extremes. I could plan shoots in advance, giving myself a list of shots that would guarantee I would fill out whatever I needed, while still staying open to spontaneous ideas. In fact, I got shots I would have never dreamed of once I started researching potential photos.

Early Attempts 

Sometimes, I happened on good shots (and I mistakenly believed these to be the happy accidents I would miss out on if I planned ahead). Let's talk about some of the ok shots and how they would have been better had I planned ahead. 

Cleveland sits on the shore of Lake Erie and very close to the mouth of the Cuyahoga River, which means large shipping vessels are constantly passing through during the warmer months. I was flying over the lake during the early evening a few years ago, looking for random shots. I saw the ship leaving the river and heading out to the open lake and knew I wanted to get a shot of it with the skyline in the background. These ships can move deceptively quickly, and I only had about 30 seconds to frame the shot and dial in my settings. The final result is ok. I think it is a pretty decent composition. 

While the composition is ok, what is it that I would change about the photo? The sky, the thing that landscape photographers have to carefully plan around, because they have no control over it, and it can make or break a photo. In this shot, it just doesn't work. It is too drab to balance the middle and bottom thirds of the frame, which are far more interesting. Because landscape photographers have no control over the weather, they spend quite a bit of time carefully watching the weather forecast and using mapping tools to understand how the light will fall on a given day. Had I thought through my location a bit, I would have quickly realized that the ships with the skyline were a great opportunity. Given that the river shipping schedule is freely available and the city sees several big freighters pass through every day, it is not like I could not afford to take time to sit down and actually plan this shot so I was not frantically chasing down a ship on a day when the sky was not even that great. 

I would have preferred a shot like this.
At this time of year, the sun rises about in the position shown above (thanks for the quick sky swap, Luminar 4). All I would have had to do was watch the weather forecast for a morning with a partly cloudy forecast — a pretty common occurrence in Cleveland — along with the shipping schedules to know when to show up. I think this would have given a much more balanced result. On top of that, there is a real satisfaction in doing your research, formulating a plan, and watching it all come together, something you can't get when just hunting for shots.  

Planning Pays Off

Here is a shot where I planned ahead and things paid off. Ohio normally has great falls, in which we get fantastic, vibrant colors across a two-to-four week period. However, in 2018, the weather was terrible for shooting the leaves, and we ended up only getting two or three days of decent color. As such, I spent most of October and early November carefully watching the progress of the leaves. Next was watching the weather carefully. I knew I wanted cloudy weather for flat, even light, as I didn't want any shadows distracting from the interplay of colors. Lastly, I knew I wanted an interplay between roads and nature. So, I spent a lot of time on Google Maps looking for interesting intersections and stumbled upon this intersection, which I particularly liked because it provided interesting diagonals across the frame. The river was an added bonus. I knew I would only have a day or two of the best colors, and unfortunately, all the days were very sunny. Finally, on the third day I had planned, there were some drifting clouds, so I waited it out for about an hour, and eventually, one covered the sun the way I had hoped, and I was ready. 

And of course, this doesn't just apply to landscape photography. Wedding photographers have shot lists and visit locations before the big day. Astrophotographers plan on the positions of celestial objects and watch the weather carefully. Portrait photographers plan outfits, setting, lighting, poses, etc. The list goes on and on.


It is easy, especially when you are new to photography, to simply wander with your camera. And there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. Nonetheless, the ability to comprehensively plan a shoot is a crucial skill to learn early on, and as you start to take on clients, it will be all the more crucial that you know how to plan so you can produce consistent results every time. 

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Steven Weston's picture

You're certainly good at writing thought provoking articles, Alex. This one reminds me that it's the brain and the eyes of the photographer so close behind the camera that makes the photograph and not the tools we hold in our hands.

BTW, I was raised in Toledo along the banks of the Maumee River. Lakeport cities have a feel to them not found in seaports like Long Beach or Galveston. While I enjoy the pictures of Iceland and Norway, our current photo loves, I'd like to see more photos of locations and people around our Great Lakes.

Jeremy Lucas's picture

I thought this was a great article as well, I now have a new perspective on how to approach my personal growth in my photography. Ironically while I now live on the banks of the Mississippi, I grew up as well on the banks of the Maumee. The summer is spectacular there I do not however miss the brutality that is called winter. Luckily Paco's will ship hot dog sauce here, cheers!