Most landscape photographers argue that scouting locations ahead of time creates the best final product. I beg to differ.
Scouting a location — often done by researching online or exploring in the middle of the day — gives the photographer an idea of how a future scene might play out, the best place to position oneself, essential lenses to bring, and more. A landscape photographer might be able to efficiently capture the best photograph possible by understanding the location ahead of time. I disagree.
It was my first time in Grand Teton National Park. My friends and I wanted to see a sunrise over the snow-capped mountains, so I googled "beautiful vistas Tetons." After scrolling through countless search results, I found a lake that was close to our campsite. A little over a mile of walking in the woods would bring us to a pond with a beautiful view of the mountains. After little sleep (due to pure excitement), we stumbled out of our sleeping bags and made our way to the pond.
We ran into a fellow landscape photographer on the approach. Apparently he sold thousands of dollars worth of prints, just on the weekends, to high-end home and office owners. He had thoroughly scouted this location ahead of time through online research and by visiting the location during the day. He claimed to have never really seen sunrise images from this location before. This landscape photographer wanted to make the location popular for photographers.
I was completely blown away when we arrived at the pond. The Tetons towered above the water as bird calls I've never heard before echoed across the lake. The sky was overcast but with much perseverance, the sun briefly illuminated the mountains in a soft glow. I couldn't help but stand in awe while clicking the shutter on my camera.
The other photographer, however, was truly disappointed. That morning didn't meet his expectations; the sun rise wasn't good enough for him. It almost seemed like waking up early was a waste of time because he wouldn't be going home with an image worthy of thousands of dollars. The experience of simply witnessing a beautiful sunrise didn't seem to phase him.
A few months later I was standing on Glacier Point while watching the sun rise over Yosemite Valley. It was my very first time seeing the view. My mind was blown as I watched a golden orb crest over Half Dome, spilling a pool of soft, golden light into the Valley. A similar situation occurred: I stood in awe of the beauty in front of me while a fellow landscape photographer by my side was severely disappointed. He said he scouted the location the day before in order to find the best composition possible. But for him, the morning light didn't line up with the composition he had in mind.
If I had thought the same as this other photographer and walked away from a beautiful vista because the pre-planned "composition didn't work out," I wouldn't have gotten this shot. I know it's not the world's best image, but it's one that I'm personally proud of and happy with. Rather than give up on the location, I explored the area a bit further and found a new composition I could work with. I think if I had scouted the location ahead of time, I might've walked right by.
In my opinion, one of the most beautiful aspects of photographing landscapes is being fortunate enough to capture serendipity. I don't photograph in a studio for this very reason. I enjoy stumbling upon magical moments and locations that would have been impossible to plan for. There's a certain magic that comes with personally discovering a place for the first time. Mountains seem larger and light almost appears brighter.
I think "imperfections" in expectations can add to a landscape's beauty, if you choose to see it that way. Clouds, "imperfect" weather, and high-contrasting scenes could make a final image moodier than a classic postcard-perfect photograph. But it's rare to come by a "perfect" scene. Foregrounds could see more light, compositions could be better, the sky could be clear, the list goes on and on.
That morning in the Tetons my friends and I hiked to the pond because it offered the closest vista of the mountains from our campsite. That morning in the Tetons, the other photographer hiked to the pond with an idea in his head he hoped to make reality. Visualization is important, but it shouldn't ruin the beauty and unpredictability of the natural world.
I find that images I create from locations visited with virgin eyes are more true to my emotions than if I had created expectations through scouting. I think it's fun to feel under pressure; quickly searching for the "perfect" composition while trying to outrun the "perfect" light. The race to quickly line up every element in a landscape adds a bit of excitement to a style of photography that's often slower than say, sports. There's a certain magic in viewing a place for the first time — a magic that can translate into inspiring images.