How Much Planning Does Your Landscape Photo Need?

How Much Planning Does Your Landscape Photo Need?

Taking amazing photos is the wish of every landscape photographer. You can go out and photograph what you encounter, or you can plan everything in great detail. What do you prefer, planning the perfect photo or taking your chances? Or is there a way in between? Let’s find out.

I have loved photographing landscapes since the first time I got a camera. I went out to my local patch whenever I could to shoot everything I liked. I enjoyed the search for nice compositions and interesting details. One thing I never did was try to plan anything other than catching a sunrise or a sunset.

Back then, knowing the time of a sunset or sunrise was mostly based on experience or by consulting an almanac. Planning was nothing more than looking at what time the sun was setting in the days before. That way I knew when to be ready. Since I photographed mostly at my local patch, it was easy to be at the right spot at approximately the right time.

During holiday travels it became a bit more difficult, although it was easy to find the time for a sunset or sunrise. I just had to pay attention during the first days of the holiday. Finding a good spot to photograph that moment was much more challenging. I had to stumble upon a nice scenery. There was almost no way of planning ahead.

An enjoyable morning twilight. If you're familiar with the location, you know where you need to stand. If it's completely new for you, a bit of luck is involved.

Always a Surprise

Unless you went to a well-known location, photographing landscapes would always be a surprise. Not only for the weather conditions, but also for the things you would encounter in the landscape you visited. Back then there were no things like smartphones or apps. The internet didn't even exist, let alone Google Maps. Every trip was a journey of discovery, never knowing what would show up after the next tree.

I took this image while strolling through the landscape. Nothing was planned, I just looked around to find nice compositions.

This way of photographing the landscape can have a huge benefit. Because if you are not familiar with the location, you force yourself to look for new angles and new compositions every time again. You have to become aware of all the things that surround you and decide if you can use them in the frame for a nice-looking photo. It’s not handed to you on a silver plate like a well-known location often does.

Just a Little Bit of Foreknowledge

There is a new kind of almanac available. These are called websites and apps, and there are many of them available that are specialized for photography. Websites and apps show weather predictions, often up to great detail. You can see if there are clouds and how high these are up in the sky. The apps tell you how big the chances for precipitations are. There is even a prediction for ground mist.

Although these are just predictions of a possible weather situation, you can plan your photography with them. If there is a chance for ground mist, then there is a good reason to try your luck. If there is a clear sky predicted, why not try to photograph a rising moon? That’s not difficult, because a lot of weather apps tell you the exact time for that also.

I knew at what time the sun would rise, and I expected ground mist because of the weather predictions. I also were familiair with the location. It was enough planning to be able to take this photo.

If you go a step further, Google Maps and Google Earth allow you to find great spots to go to. Often these apps and websites allow you to look at photos of a particular spot that have been taken by others. Just look at those photos and you get a nice idea of what to expect when you arrive. This allows you to find interesting places for your holiday travels. Just make a note of those locations, look at the local weather predictions, and decide if you want to go out photographing. 

Making Plans in Great Detail

It doesn’t stop there. With apps like Photopills the planning can take another step. Perhaps another leap is a better word for it. The amount of planning that is possible is almost ridiculous. The app not only shows you a Google Map for finding locations, but it also shows at what time and in what direction the sunrise and sunset are. And the moon as well. And the Milky Way also. It can even show you in what direction the radiant of a meteor shower is.

A detailed plan for shooting the Moon next to the Saint Stevenschurch in Nijmegen, the Netherlands. Distance, depth of field, height, relative size, nothing is left to change.

The result of the panning in Photopills. I was lucky to have a clear night. That's the only thing that is impossible to predict.

An app like Photopills allows you to determine the exact location you need to go to for photographing the sun or moon going up between a particular tree or building. It doesn’t stop there either. If you want to, you can find the exact dates when the sun or moon will rise in a certain direction. If you are scouting at a location yourself, it is possible to use augmented reality to see the moon and sun trajectory projected over the landscape. Or you can check how the Milky Way will appear in the night sky, or how the stars will rotate if you like to capture star trails.

I found this place and noticed how the sun would set in this direction. Augmented reality in Photopills gave an idea how the sun would be positioned. 

I visited the location at sunset. The weather obscured the sunset, but the twilight colors were amazing. 

And again, the app continues to add possibilities. It allows you to visualize the angle of view, relative sizes, depth of field, and much more. This way it becomes possible to plan your photo in great detail. So much even, that you are able to drive or walk to the location you planned one year in advance, set up your equipment, take the shot, and go home again with exactly the composition you worked out so long ago. The only thing you can't plan ahead is the weather.

Where is the Fun in That?

Being able to plan a landscape photo like that is amazing. It’s almost unbelievable that it’s possible to that extent in the first place. But when you think of it, where is the fun in that? I always enjoyed my walks through landscapes, discovering new views and nice compositions. If brought surprises, every time again. Being out there in the landscape and searching for nice compositions was part of the fun. On top of that, it allowed you to discover new views and angles that you never would have thought of if you planned everything through websites and apps.

Moonrise. I didn't plan this composition. I was lucky to be at the right location at the right time. Somehow I find this more satisfying compared to a completely planned photo. 

Being able to take stunning photos by preparing yourself, and by making detailed plans, is not wrong. But if you’re just planning for a photo without enjoying the landscape, I wonder where’s the fun in that? I love it when a photo brings back memories of that one time in the field. In that case, it’s not just a picture of a landscape, it becomes a story. That’s what it’s all about, I think.

That said, everyone should photograph in their own way. Do you plan ahead, and if you do, how detailed are your plans? Or do you let yourself be surprised by the things you encounter? What is your preferred way? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Nando Harmsen's picture

Nando Harmsen is a Dutch photographer that is specialized in wedding and landscape photography. With his roots in the analog photo age he gained an extensive knowledge about photography techniques and equipment, and shares this through his personal blog and many workshops.

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I agree, generally I don't go for "real" planning, and simply prefer to explore. Picking a location and getting there for sunrise (or whatever time) is usually the most pre-work I put into it.

Then again, having shot primarily locally for the last three years, sometimes I see a composition that I'd love to shoot....if it had just snowed, or if it were a different season, or.... So in those cases I'd say my adventures lead to some eventual planning. But that sense of discovery is still there (even if I still haven't taken some of those photos!).

Both can be used, indeed. I think that's the best way.

I moved house last year and had to find new photo locations nearby, so I used Google maps and info from locals to find some new spots, also during daytime I went out to explore , walking, cycling and by car for more remote locations. I use TPE to see where the sun rises and sets on the new found locations and the tide is also an important factor in my case. But all the planning is just a tool and being there is the most important , being there at the right time helps though. It’s also important to be flexible and not te be fixated with a certain image you have “planned”. Thomas Heaton had a nice video about that this week.

Mos tof the times that's also how I use Photopills. Just to check directions to have an idea. But it can help getting a special shot.