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

Martin Bailey Photography Podcast

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

Posted on behalf of Martin by Michael Rammell, a Wedding Photographer based in Berkshire, England. Michael also has a long-standing passion for Nature & Landscape photography. To catch up with Michael, visit his Web site, and follow him on the following social networking services.

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