Tips from the Field #1: How I Plan for Better Shots

Hint: It’s All About the Light

This article is for anyone who enjoys taking pictures or shooting videos outdoors. Your camera does not matter. Whether you typically take pictures with your phone, tablet, or a professional interchangeable-lens camera, this tip about situational awareness will help you take command of your environment to get the results you expect.

Get great pictures and videos like you see in magazines and on TV by planning for the best light
For background, on most days I’m a wildlife and nature photographer. A good day for me is any day that I’m outdoors with a camera. My first Tip From the Field (TFF #1) addresses an issue that has been my nemesis for many years – a nemesis in the sense that my primary light source, while working outside, is quite often a difficult partner to work with. If only I had chosen to shoot indoor portraits! To adjust the light indoors, I would have the option to move a light box or a reflector and life would be good.

Being an outdoor photographer, I had to think of a way to ‘move the sun’ in a way to get the best possible light on my subject. What I do now is plan in advance, by creating a ‘shot list’ with GPS coordinates for each subject location, planned camera location, camera angle to the subject, and best time-of-day to have the sun properly illuminating the subject. Most times I can do all of this from my computer using free tools. Then, once I have visited the actual site, I use actual experience to update my shot list archive for future planning.

Recently, I wondered if other people might benefit from all of this research I have done, to get amazing light on their favorite subjects. So this inspired me to work on a series of tip sheets based on my personal favorite places. Each tip sheet will feature a specific subject, camera location, angle to the subject, and best time-of-day to get perfect light on an iconic outdoor scene, such as Mount Rushmore.

How Can I Find a Tip Sheet for My Favorite Places?

It will take some time for me to create custom tips sheets for every iconic place in the USA, let alone the world. So, for a limited time I’m giving away for free the process I use to create them. Along with each location-specific tip sheet, I will include a second sheet with detailed instructions about how I derive all the information I need from free resources like Google Maps. You can easily create your own tip sheets for better lighting on your favorite outdoor scenes. I get consistently better pictures and videos using this technique.

To receive a free download of the M0unt Rushmore tip sheet, plus the free instruction sheet entitled ‘Landscape Photography: It’s all about the Light,’ click this link.

What about Cloudy Skies?

On cloudy days, use my tips sheets for light planning as a general guide, just know that cloudy skies are sometimes a blessing and other times a curse. Whenever a scene will include the sky, I consider it a blessing to have up to 40 percent clouds against a blue sky. A total overcast sky usually falls into the ‘curse’ category… I might have to return another day.

On the other hand, many of my outdoor shots need not include the sky. I often shoot in canyons of the southwest United States. Overcast skies often soften shadows, and many cameras these days produce more true color reproduction on overcast days.

My experience over many years in the field has been that I almost always go to the planned location anyway, unless the forecast is for truly inclement weather that would endanger me or the equipment. Sometimes I get lucky, and the sky improves (it’s so much better to be lucky, than good).

Does this System Work for Wildlife?

While the light planning approach presented in this post always applies to still subjects, anyone who has spent time photographing wildlife knows that animals are completely unpredictable. With that said, I have found some wildlife to be creatures of habit. In Yellowstone, for example, year after year I have found a small herd of bighorn sheep in the same exact meadow along the northern boundary road, and the same blonde Grizzy in the vicinity of Fishing Bridge.

If you are planning a first-time trip to a new location, you won’t have prior experience with local wildlife, so the technique described here should only be used as a reference in the field – whenever you can, get the sun behind you for better light on your subject. But, always take the shot when it’s there! It may be gone by the time you move, and a great wildlife shot in so-so light is way better than no shot at all.

Where Can I Get the Tip Sheets, and How Much Do They Cost?

To receive a free download of the M0unt Rushmore tip sheet, plus the free instruction sheet entitled ‘Landscape Photography: It’s all about the Light,’ which will show you how to create your own light planning sheets, click here. Follow the instructions on the form to get the free printable pdf download.


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Photo Trip Journals by Larry Rogers