Q&A #4 – How Do I Plan My Shoots? (Podcast 78)

Q&A #4 – How Do I Plan My Shoots? (Podcast 78)

Today, I’m going to answer a question from a listener named Peter Vogel that I received some time ago. Sorry for the delay in replying to this Peter, but here we go with my answer to your question on how I plan my shoots.

Thanks for the great message, and question, and once again, I’m really sorry for the delay in answering this question Peter. Before I go on I’d like to say that this is a very subjective topic. I’m going to outline some of the things I do in planning my shoots, but I’m sure there’s a wealth of other information and tricks that people use in your own planning, so by all means let’s start a thread on this in the Forum at martinbaileyphotography.com, and hear what everyone else has to say.

Anyway, one trick I use if I’m stuck for somewhere to go is to refer to my own photographs from the same time in previous years. Until now I’ve often used iView Media Pro’s date finder to get a quick list of shots from the same period for multiple years. I can now do something very similar with Lightroom too, and I don’t quite know as of now which I’ll settle with, but the point is I look at the same period from previous years. Say I’m trying to figure out where to go at the beginning of April. I’ll go to the date finder and select April, or maybe go down to the single days and select the last week in Marc and the first week in April, to allow for some amount of variance in when say a certain type of flower or blossom is blooming, and then just repeat that while holding down the CTRL button in Windows for multiple selections, and go back through adding the same period for previous years. In Lightroom I guess I could hit the B button to add to a quick collection too, or maybe create permanent collections for each month of the year.

Note too that I keep a catalogue of all my images to date, but I also keep one that I call simply “Best Shots”. The Best Shots catalogue allows me to list just the ones that I chose to upload to my Web site. This might not be totally comprehensive as I have many other good shots that didn’t make it, but at least one from a batch should have made it in. On the other hand, many of them could probably be removed now that my own artistic vision and style, and my ability to capture the subject as I want has moved on from years ago, but for this exercise, to find ideas for future shoots, I find using the Best Shots list to be enough. I can then simply scroll through the list to see where I was at over the last 6 years or so since I’ve been shooting digital, and what flowers were in bloom, what the trees and scenery looked like, and most importantly, where I was shooting. With this data, I can make a decision as to whether or not I want to go back, to try and improve on a certain type of photograph that I shot there in the past, or hopefully, come up with something more original of the same or a similar subject.

Now the problem with this method is, it only works for those who already have a lot of locations in the catalogue, and even then, of course, if we only use this method, we’ll just end up shooting the same things year in year out, and that won’t help us a whole lot to expand our portfolio. So the next thing I do is something that I’ve touched on before, and that’s buying magazines. Magazines are an incredible good source of information on where to shoot. As they are only sold in Japan, or at least, as they are written in Japanese, I’m not going to go into detail of the titles of my favourite publications, that I find most useful for getting tips on places to shoot here in Japan, but I will put a link to their Web sites in the show notes. The first one, and my favourite Japanese magazine, is a bi-monthly called Fuukeishashin, which basically means Landscapes Photographs, but the English subtitle of the magazine is “Landscape & Nature Photographic Magazine”.

What they do is use images from previous years to show examples of what to shoot at that time of the year. For example, right now, the March/April issue is out, and so the main theme for Japan right now is cherry blossom. From mid-march until the end of April, and even later in some parts of the north and Hokkaido, the cherry blossom starts to bloom, working its way up the country from the South. Now macro shots of cherry blossom can be shot just about anywhere, so rather than a pretty tree, they’re really introducing places where cherry blossom trees play a large part in the landscape, that comes alive at this time of the year. What I do each time I come home with one of these magazines, is sit down for an hour or so, and dog-ear the pages of places that I feel I’d like to visit. The other great thing about this book is that they include the time the shots they show were made. It’s important to say that I don’t simply turn up at these places at the same time to try and copy the photos in the magazines, and would advise you not to either if you can find magazines or books covering your area. Its fine to try to copy a picture to hone your technical and I guess composition skills, but simply coming out with exactly the same picture but from your own camera is not going to be original and really only for studying the art. Please don’t get me wrong though, I’m all for looking at other peoples images for ideas and inspiration. It’s just doing a copy of the same thing that I feel we should steer away from. Anyway, the data given in this kind of publication will allow you to make decisions on what time of day you should try to get to the location, even if you are looking for something totally different, as well as the time of year.

The time of year though does fluctuate, and for something like tree blossom or colourful autumn leaves, that can often have a window of opportunity just a few days wide, the time can change by 10 days or more either way, depending on how warm or cold it has been, and this is where the greatest aid to researching locations to shoot comes in. Not only has the digital age made it so much easier to us to shoot photographs and process them ourselves, but it has also brought us the Internet. Again, I don’t know about other countries, but Japan has multiple sites that are updated daily during the time that the cherry blossom and autumn leaves are at their best, and they tell you exactly what stage the blossom or leave colour is at. This means that I usually end up with a list of places that I’d like to visit and roughly when, but then the final decision on exactly where to go is often made the evening before I set out, having checked these sites for the condition of the areas I’m thinking of heading out to.

You have to be a little bit careful, as some of the information seems to be given by some authority in a certain town for example, that would prefer to attract tourists for the financial gains, rather than the benefit of the tourist, so they can tend to string out the best periods to unrealistic extents. I’ve been to one area that advertised full colour of the autumn leaves, and got there to find all the leaves fallen, apart from like one tree beside the train station. This might have made a nice photograph if that’s what you’re into, and we can often make the most of the situation in some way, but as I suspect none of us have all that much time to dedicate to our photography, we need to spend it wisely. It can often help to spot this sort of thing by looking at sites of similar altitudes close by. Altitude does of course play a large part in this, as the higher you get, the colder it gets, so autumn leaves fall sooner, and cherry blossom, to continue with the same examples, blooms later.

The other type of magazine is a quarterly Mook. I don’t know if this is a word concatenation that the Japanese like so much, or a word that is also used in English speaking countries, but a Mook, is a cross between a Magazine and a Book. It’s basically a book in magazine form. There are a few that I buy pretty much every season, even if I have the same season from the previous year. These either concentrate on an entire season like Spring or Autumn, or a type of photography such as Landscapes or Waterfalls etc. Again, they provide the date and time of all the shots to help in planning, some with more detail on location than others, and usually there’s a map too, which of course really helps to actually get there.

The other source of information I tend to gain hints from is television. I don’t watch a lot of television, but when I do, I usually watch nature documentaries, either on wildlife or scenic areas. These too can be great for getting ideas, and I tend to just jot down the names of places that look nice, and the season if it’s obvious, so that I can plan a trip. An example of this would be the Oirase Gorge that I visited in July 2006. I’d seen this a few times on the TV and thought it would make a nice place to shoot and also to take the missus for a few days for a break.

Other sources might be other photographers in your area. I don’t do this myself, but say if you are in or can join a local photography club, I’m sure there’ll be loads of people willing to tell you where the best places to go at certain times of year are. They may also schedule club shoots there that you could join. That’s just about all I can think of on this for now, but one other thing I wanted to touch on before I move on is that not only is it important to check the location and the time to visit, but if you intend to shoot sunrises or sunsets, you’ll need to check the exact time and the direction from which the sun will rise or fall. Likewise for the moon – investigating the phases of the moon and the time and length of the nautical twilight and civil twilight etc can be very helpful. An explanation of the various types of twilight is pretty much a podcast in itself, so I’m not going to go into detail here. In fact, the Radiant Vista Podcast did a great episode on Twilight, so you might want to check that out if you’re interested, and I’ll also put a link into the show-notes to a thread on the MBP Forum that will point you to some useful software tools for looking up all this information. I usually pretty much know what time the sun is going to come up or go down if I’m near to home but it various as you travel, so it’s worth keeping in mind. I find that in Japan most hotels have a plaque in the lobby with the sun rise and sun set times, if that’s all your interested in.

I think I mentioned this in another Podcast as well, but the utility I find most useful since buying a Smart Phone running on Windows Mobile operating system, is a great piece of freeware for the Pocket PC from Jonathan Sachs called Ephemeris. This has four screens giving lots of information about the phases of the moon on all the days of the month you choose, and position that the sun and moon will be in the sky at all the times of day in fifteen minute intervals. The main screen has a summary, with just rise and set for both the sun and the moon, and a large representation of what phase the moon is today, or any day you choose. It also has the location of the sun and moon rise and set in degrees. Anyway, without going into much more detail, since getting my hands on the ability to get this information easily I find I really on it much more than before, and it does help to plan where to be and when. One last thing actually on this note is that it helps to carry a compass to locate where the sun or moon will rise in relation to where you are actually planning to take your shots. If you are set on getting the sun or moon or their effects in your photographs, get to your location early enough to fine tune your position before the action starts, and you can avoid some last minute panic as they appear in a totally different part of the sky to that which you expected.

Another part of Peter’s question was how I investigate equipment restrictions as well. For me, I rarely travel to places that might have restrictions, but if my target location is a little suspect, I will look on the Internet for this too. I was caught out by my somewhat laxed take on this subject with my trip to the Taj Mahal in December 2006 though, as not only were tripods not allowed, an absolutely plethora of stuff was not allowed, which I had no idea about until the morning I arrived. Worse still, I found out that you can apply for permission in Delhi, but unfortunately that was a five hour drive away! I guess a good practice if you are going to be going inside any controlled space, such as a park or grounds of a historical building or stadium etc. would be to check online before setting out. I guess another subject closely related to this would be how do I decide what to take on a shoot from an equipment perspective, but I think I’ll save this for another full episode at some time in the hopefully near future.

So, that’s about all I can think of right now that I use in my own location planning. Please do come over to the MBP Forum to add your own tips to a thread that either I or someone will start when this episode is released. In summary, I get fresh ideas from books and magazines. I check out my previous years images from roughly the same time. I use the internet to fine tune the times I visit, and use a Pocket PC application to fine tune my plans if I’m planning on working with either the sun rise or sun set, or the moon. I hope that helps some Peter, and thanks again for a great question. I’m sure as soon as I’ve released this I’ll start to think of other things, and I know everyone will have their own ideas, so I may well do a follow up at some time in the future to update or add to what I’ve just said.

Actually, before we finish, I guess there is one other thing I should add on this subject. Way back in November 2005 I released Episode 11 of the MBP Podcast, which was called “Good Planning… Good Luck!”. In this I touched on a few things I’ve reiterated today, but went a step further to propose that good planning is key for getting you to the right place at the right time, but that luck had a part to play in the ultimate success of the shoot. I am in no way playing down the necessity to plan, and without doubt, without getting up at unearthly hours on occasion, or driving for miles, or making other many other kinds of personal sacrifices or investments, there you will give yourself no change for luck to smile on you, but at the end of the day, there are things we can’t control, such as the weather, or the wildlife that can make or break our pictures. I was reminded of this last December when I was hoping to shoot the Red-Crowned Cranes in the mist on the river in which they roost. I was up at 5AM every morning during the shoot to get to the point where the mist might appear, but it wasn’t quite cold enough while I was there. Just two days before I got there, on Christmas Day, it had been cold enough, and one of the guys that was still at the hotel I was staying in showed me his amazing shots from the day. Had I been “lucky”, I might have been presented with similar conditions, but it didn’t happen for me this time. The only thing to do is to go back, and be persistent, until my chance comes along.

So that’s it for today. I hope this has been of some help. Remember that the Simplicity Assignment is now open for entries. Listen to Episode 77 for details or check out the Assignment Forum at martinbaileyphotography.com. Apart from that all that remains to be said is, have a great week, whether you’re out shooting, or whatever you do. Bye bye.

Show Notes
Music from Music Alley: www.musicalley.com/

Here’s a link to the homepage of my favourite magazine for getting hints on where to shoot in Japan. But be warned, it’s all in Japanese!
Landscape Photography (bi-monthly): http://fukei-shashin.co.jp/

Also, Ephemeris, the moon phases calculator for Pocket PC can be found here amongst some other great utilities: http://home.comcast.net/~jonsachs/


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Michael Rammell

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Good Planning… Good Luck! (Podcast 11)

Good Planning… Good Luck! (Podcast 11)

Last week I took a holiday and hired a car, and have been off to the Touhoku district, which is the north-eastern area of Japan. This year the beautifully coloured Autumn leaves are about two weeks late, and are currently moving slowly south across Japan, and so many areas of north-eastern Japan are in full colour right now. Due to my main job responsibilities I would have found it very difficult to get any time off before now, so the lateness of leaves changing colour this year has helped me out a lot. Also, being busy in my day job stopped me from being able to plan my trip as much as I would have liked, but at the end of the day, I believe that successful photography trips are the result of good planning, but also good luck. So today I want to talk about these two things. I have not had time to post process all the photos I took at this point time, so I’m not going to talk about all of my experiences on the trip, but I want to briefly talk about both the planning and the luck aspects. If I think of anything else that I want to talk about on any particular shot during the remaining post processing I’ll follow up in a future episode. I will put a link to my site into the show notes though to enable you to view all shots from this outing, including the ones I’ve not yet uploaded.

Firstly, I decided that I would take out around five days to cover a pretty wide area, so I had to plan where I would be on which day, and ensure that I could get there in a reasonable time and have a good chance to get the shots I want.

The first thing I did was to look at my magazines. Japan has a lot of photography magazines, a number of which are like seasonal guides, that help you to plan where to go and when. These magazines are all written in Japanese, so I won’t go into details of the names etc. If anybody is interested drop me a line or post something in the forum and I’ll provide the details. Basically though, the seasonal guides provide information on areas that provide good photographic opportunities at a particular time of year, and also how to get there. They cover the whole of Japan too, so it’s easy to reference the areas you want to cover. There may well be similar magazines in your own countries too, so if you haven’t already, you might want to take a trip to the book store.

One problem with following this kind of publication is that you can end up making similar images to everyone else. I try to avoid getting the same shots as everyone else by ensuring that I continue to view scenes in my own individual way, and not trying to mimic the photos in the magazine. In fact, I often end up going to the same area, but visiting spots not mentioned in the magazine as they can sometimes be equally as beautiful or interesting. This is not really possible though if the main point of the trip is to visit something like a famous waterall. There’d be no point in visiting a famous place and only photographing the flowers at the edge of the car park. Of course though, these could be additional bonus shots from the trip if you have time. Anyway, it’s up to us as photographers to make the artistic decisions to not just replicate the shots that others have already made, as much as possible anyway.

Once I’ve figured out some places that I would like to visit, I use the Internet to check what the weather is likely to be like, and also in this case, I check the condition of autumn leaves in that area. This kind of backfired on me to a certain extent, as the leaves in the area I planned to visit the first day were although excellent in some areas, were pretty much already fallen in the area around the Chuuzenji Lake and the Kegon Falls in Nikko, which is in the Tochigi Prefecture a couple or three hours north of Tokyo by car. I had some luck here though, which I’ll get into in a moment.

Once I believe that I have a good chance of being in the right place at the right time, I start booking hotels. Again this is done via the Web.

Planning in this way can help to hedge your bets, and give you a better chance of getting some pleasing shots. Note that I’m using words such as hedging bets and chance. All types of photography which rely on natural elements such as the weather, seasonal changes, or people or even yourself, being in the right place at the right time, carry a certain amount of risk. For now, I’d got a different hotel booked for each of the four nights I’d be on the road, and booked a rental car to get me there. The rest was going to be down to me getting up early enough to catch the early morning light, and to luck.

As I said earlier, the leaves had already fallen in the higher altitude parts of the Nikko area when I got there, particularly around the Chuuzenji Lake, but there was something else that I wanted to shoot in this area, and that is the Kegon Waterfall. Something to note here is that in my planning I found it difficult just from looking at a map to find exactly which time of day the falls would be in shade, and so had decided to stay in a hotel near to the falls so that I could easily get to the falls on both the day I arrived, and early the following morning, doubling my chances of getting the falls in sunlight. On the afternoon I arrived having taken a steady drive from Tokyo during that morning, I visited the waterfall. It’s not easy to see the falls from the road without going along the Irohazaka road that takes you back down the mountain. This is a one way road, and get’s very crowded at this time of year, so I didn’t want to do that. What I did was the best way to view the falls, although the same as the hordes of people that visit each day, which is to pay $5 for a ticket to get ride on the elevator that takes you 100 metres down the mountain to a man-made platform in front of the falls.

As I walked out onto the platform on the first day, I found the falls in shade. I took a number of shots, but none were going to be that interesting, just another shot of the Kegon Waterfall on a dull day. I managed to get a number of shots with a blue sky, but the contrast between the falls in the shade and the bright sky meant that the sky would be blown out and just white. To get the sky well exposed, the waterfall would be so dark it would have been unrecognizable. The trees around the fall had also pretty much all lost their leaves, except for one on the cliff nearby that had some yellow leaves left. Including this tree though meant that the waterfall would have been too small in the frame, and again, another uninteresting shot. I did what I could and left, hoping to find something else of interest to shoot.

Anyway, the following morning I got up at 6AM having asked at the front desk at the hotel what time the sun would be coming up, and went for a walk down by the Chuuzenji Lake and took a few shots, but again nothing wonderful came out of this. The sunrise was pretty, but uneventful, so I couldn’t wait to finish breakfast and head back to the Kegon Waterfall. Hedging my bets by staying in the area definitely paid off, as when I returned to the waterfall shortly before 9AM and walked out onto the platform the view I was confronted with resulted in the first two shots that I want to show you today. The waterfall was in full sunlight and the mist rising from the pool at the foot of the falls was producing a beautiful little rainbow.

Kegonnotaki Rainbow

Kegonnotaki Rainbow

Kegonnotaki Rainbow

Kegonnotaki Rainbow


The two shots of the falls included in this Podcast are numbers 731 and 732, which as usual can be viewed on my Web site, martinbaileyphotography.com, buy entering the numbers one at a time into the field on the top page or my Podcast page which is linked to the toolbar and under the Podcasts section on the top page. You can also scroll down to find the episode in the list on the Podcasts page and click on the thumbnails to view the photos.

So back to the luck element I wanted to talk about here. Of course, a rainbow under these conditions is not that surprising, although I’d not really thought of it. Still I felt incredibly lucky. This feeling was confirmed over the next five minutes or so, as the rainbow was moving across the front of the falls as the sun moved across the sky, and was only visible for a very short time in the position you see in the photograph. It moved quickly to the right and then disappeared behind the rocks.

I’d given myself a chance to get this shot, by being able to visit the falls on both the first day of my trip and the following morning. But it was by shear luck that I was at the falls to capture the scene with the rainbow that lasted for what was probably no more than 10 to 20 minutes in total.

I’d also like to note here, that this week I received some advice from a listener about including the aperture, shutter speed and ISO settings etc. when talking about photos. I will do this when it makes sense to, and will do so today, but if ever you are interested, all of the shots on my Web site taken over the last few years have the shooting data displayed below the image when viewing the larger image having clicked a thumbnail. If the information is not shown, click the Information button above the image to display it. This is the black button with an “i” for information on it.

The first shot, 731, was made with a shutter speed of 1/10 of a second. The second shot, 732 was shot with a slightly faster shutter speed of 1/13 or a second. I used an aperture of F22 and ISO 50 for both shots, as I wanted to get a slow enough shutter speed to give an impression of the water flowing. I thought about dropping on a neutral density filter to allow myself to get an even slower shutter speed, but I didn’t think I was going to have enough time to mess around with the neutral density filter as the rainbow was moving across the front of the falls relatively quickly and I wanted to get enough shots to ensure I got a winner. What I did do though was to drop a circular polarizing filter from my pocket onto the lens. A PL filter usually costs you around 2 stops of light so the shutter speed dropped from 1/50 of a second to 1/10, which was enough to give a flowing effect in the water without going over the top. Something to note here though is that I had to ensure the PL filter was positioned so that it did not reduce the colours in the rainbow. A rainbow is basically just light reflecting off water, which is exactly what a polarizer will cut out, so as I turned the filter to check the effect, at some points the rainbow completely disappeared, and I obviously didn’t want that. Having checked the shots with and without the PL filter, the end results had no difference in colour, just the slower shutter speed has increased the flow of the water, as anticipated, so it was probably not a bad move.

I should also mention here that in episode 5 of the Martin Bailey Photography Podcast, in which I did a review of the Canon EOS 5D digital SLR camera, I mentioned that I found the Landscape Picture Style setting too gaudy, and would probably not be using it. I need to take this back to a certain extent. Although I do find the Landscape Picture Style too loud for brightly coloured objects like flowers, often making the colour look very digital, I found that the Landscape Picture Style brought the images of the Autumn leaves to life quite nicely. I will continue to shoot RAW with the Picture Style set to Standard mode, as this gives a great base to start from, but I do now think that there is a place for the Landscape Picture Style, when there is not already a lot of bright colour in the shot. I’m actually really pleased about this, as for a while there I really couldn’t figure out what Canon were thinking on this one.

So, pleased with the fact that I’d got a few nice shots of the waterfall, I decided to move on to my next location. I’m not going to talk about the other locations during my trip in this episode, but the thing I was looking forward to about moving on to today, was that it was going to take me down the Irohazaka road, which I was hoping was going to allow me to see some beautifully coloured Autumn trees. That is, if the Web site I’d checked the conditions of the leaves on was not wrong about this area too. I had traveled up the other side of this mountain the previous day and was not all that impressed, but the only area I had not yet seen was the descending road, and if the leaves had fallen on this road too, I really didn’t know where the site had gotten their information from.

Irohazaka Autumn Splendour

Irohazaka Autumn Splendour

Anyway, although some of the trees had lost their leaves the drive down the Irohazaka Road was still pretty spectacular. The third shot of this episode was a scene I closed in on with my 100 – 400mm L lens about half way down the mountain. This is number 733. I had to stop at the side of the road, and it is quite busy so you need to be careful in these situations, but as long as you ensure you are off the road, you are usually going to be OK. This shot was made at F11 for 1/13 of a second, using a tripod. The next and last shot for today, number 738, was at the bottom of the mountain as the road levels out, and was shot handheld at F8 with a shutter speed of 1/25 of a second. Both shots were at ISO 100.

Irohazaka Autumn Splendour

Irohazaka Autumn Splendour

I spent the next three and a half days traveling around the Touhoku area of Japan, and the Web site that I’d used to check if the autumn leaves were in full colour and not yet fallen turned out to pretty accurate for all the other locations. I should also say that I tend to plan trips in which I’ll do a lot of traveling so that I’m in certain areas during the times when the light is best a few hours after dawn and a few hours before dusk. I’ll often stop off somewhere along the way too, but I find that traveling either after dark or during the hours in the middle of the day when the light can be quite harsh allows me to cover a lot of ground without feeling too bad about wasting daylight.

Also note that when planning, although weather forecasts are not always accurate at the best of times, mountainous areas usually create their own weather, so be prepared to have your hopes dashed if you wanted good weather. I do feel though, that good weather will not always enable you to get the best results. One place I had visited called the Naruko Gorge, in the Miyagi Prefecture was much more spectacular in the rain and mist on the first day than in full sunshine the following morning. It is always good to carry some kind of protection from the rain, such as some waterproof over-wear to keep yourself dry, and a plastic cover for you camera or an umbrella to keep your gear dry. I took both, but only needed the umbrella when shooting the Naruko Gorge as it was not far from the car. The problem with an umbrella though is it is awkward to hold at the same time as shooting. So you either need a willing helper, or suffer trapping the handle of the umbrella with the side of your face like a telephone. Anyway without going too far off track, if you are interested, please keep your eyes open on my Web site at martinbaileyphotography.com for shots from this location.

I guess to summarize; I think planning, using available information such as magazines and the internet, is definitely necessary. If I had more time, I always feel as though I could do a much better job of my planning for trips. An important thing that I try to do though is to make sure I can visit the same site a number of times, and I travel when the light is harsh. Having gotten to your location, getting up early or going the extra mile to visit a few times will always increase your chances of getting the shot. Then, it really is down to luck. Like me with the rainbow that I was lucky to encounter at the Kegon waterfall, I wish you all good luck in your shooting too.

If you have any planning tips or tricks that you’d like to share, please post them in the forum at martinbaileyphotography.com. Same goes for any questions or other feedback. If you would rather just contact me directly about anything, there’s a contact form on the Podcast page. I look forward to hearing from you.

Speak to you next week.

Show Notes

The Music in the first 28 Podcasts is copyright of William Cushman © 2005, used with kind permission.


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