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  • Writer's pictureGary Holpin

10 ingredients of great landscape photos part 5 - plan ahead

Updated: Jul 27, 2023

Welcome to the third installment of my new series where I introduce you to my guide to 'The ten ingredients of great landscape photos'. I hope that over this series I will be able to bring you some insight on how you can learn from my experiences and take some practical steps to improve your landscape photography.

Did you miss the previous editions of this series? If so, you can find them here:

The chart below summarises what I believe to be the ten main ingredients that go into making a great landscape photo. In this edition, we look at how to plan ahead in order to increase your chances of capturing a great landscape photo.

A model for taking great landscape photos, by Devon photographer Gary Holpin Photography
Ten ingredients of great landscape photos

Great landscape photos rarely happen by chance

If you’re the type of photographer that just wants to take your camera on a countryside walk, and possibly capture some photos along the way, that’s absolutely fine (it’s how I started, and eventually became obsessed with landscape photography). However, although there is a chance of catching a perfect moment whilst on your walk, the vast majority of great landscape photos didn’t come about that way, and almost certainly included an element of planning.

Although I don’t expect beginners to go to quite the lengths of planning that I do as a professional photographer, I would strongly recommend that you have a think about whether any of the ideas below can be added to your situation and your stage of photography. Quite simply, building in a little planning to your photography WILL help you to improve the chances of capturing better landscape photos.

Develop a location shoot plan

A key part of my planning is to maintain an up-to-date location shoot plan; this is essentially a list of potential shoot locations, along with details of the likely best conditions to shoot that location (considering season, weather, type of light, tide etc).

The reason to have this list is rather than waking up one morning, looking out of the window and seeing that it’s foggy, then not being able to think of where to go, or simply going where you always go, your shoot plan is an easy way of quickly deciding which locations might be suitable to go to. This is especially important for potentially photogenic weather, such as snow and fog, which might not hang around for very long, and dithering might mean you’ve missed a great opportunity. A sample of my current location shoot plan, which is simply a basic Microsoft Word document, is shown below.

A section of a photo shoot list

Ideas on how to develop your own location shoot plan, including a few apps that can help, is explained below.

Find location inspiration

Social media is a fantastic resource for helping you to start developing a shoot location list. Whenever I see a photo of a new location that I haven’t been to (especially if it’s a great photo), I will immediately do a screenshot of it and add it to my ‘inspiration’ folder. Note that the photographer owns the copyright to their photo, so I would never use it for anything else without permission, other than keeping a copy locally on my phone for personal use to inspire my photography. As a photographer myself I would have no problem with this, and would consider it a compliment if I inspired others.

Research when each location might work best

Once you have added a new potential shoot location to your list, you now need to populate the table with details of the various factors which dictate when that location might be best to photograph. The most important factors, and how you can find the relevant information are covered below.

1. Plan around the tide

For coastal locations, the state of the tide might be a key factor. For example, I know from speaking to other photographers that the best time to photography Blackchurch Rock on the North Devon coast is around an hour after high tide. Similarly, shooting Porlock Marsh is best when the skeletal trees are covered with water, and this only happens on the very highest spring tides. If tide information is key for a location, I will add this to my location shot list.

In terms of knowing what the tide times are for a location on a day to day basis, there are many apps available but I use a free Android App called ‘Tide Times’ which gives the high / low tide times (and height of those tides) for a specified location.

Screenshot of a tide times app

2 Plan around the seasons

There are a number of reasons why a particular location might work best in a particular season; for example, it could be better when the trees are full of autumn colour. However, the usual reason that I will specify a particular season will be based on the direction or sunrise or sunset. As an example, my nearest coastline is the East Devon coast, which is oriented roughly East / West. This means that in the winter months, the sun will rise and set out to sea, and sunrise / sunset shots can be achieved with the sun in the frame. However, in the summer months, the sun rises and sets inland, meaning that the beach is in deep shade during the golden hours, which is far from idea for photos. Some locations have even more specific requirements; for example, there are only a few days of the year when the sun rise can be seen through the rock arch at Durdle Door.

There are many apps available which show the direction of sunrise and sunset for a specific location, but I use a free Android app called ‘Ephemeris’ which shows the direction or sunrise and sunset (the yellow lines on the screenshot below) and moonrise and moonset (the purple lines) on a map, for any specified date.

A sunrise and sunset direction prediction app

3 Time and weather

Some of the information, such as time of day or suitable weather types seen in my location shoot plan is much more subjective and based upon experience. For example, I know that a lake location that has beautiful reflections works best when the weather is calm (no ripples!) and I also know that these types of shot often work best with some cloud in the sky, so I add these details to my location shoot list for future reference. For a location that could potentially be shot in various types of weather, or time of day, I might leave it open and put ‘any’.

Now you’ve got a location shoot plan, how do you use it?

If you’ve got as far as creating a shoot plan, then the next question is how to use it. Below are some examples of how I use mine to plan what and where I shoot:

1 Shoot the seasons

At particular times of year, there are things going on in nature that really should shape your photography. For example, it has recently been bluebell season, and so some weeks ago I went through my shoot plan and pulled out all of the locations that had bluebells. Then, when I can an opportunity to go out for sunrise, or the weather forecast said there might be fog, I could look at my list and think about which locations might work in the weather conditions that were forecast, and the time of day I was going, and decide on one or two options to visit.

2 Which locations suit the forecast weather or the time of day you're going out?

If I decide based on the weather forecast that there might be a decent sunrise, or sunset, then my location plan is extremely useful in flagging which locations might work in those conditions. Although, there are obviously other factors such as in the summer, sunrise is so early that I am unlikely to decide to travel too far!

3. Which locations suit the tide?

If I spot that spring tides are happening over the next few days, then obviously the work I had previously put into flagging which locations work best during high tides, now makes it easy to decide on a short list of suitable locations.

A bit of planning is better than none at all

Clearly developing a location shoot plan is something that you can make as complicated as you like, and for many of you this might all seem a little overwhelming. However, even just scribbling a few thoughts of local bluebell locations on the back of an envelope, and starting to give a bit more thought to the types of conditions when it might be best to visit those locations, will start to improve your chances of capturing better photos.

Want a learn more about my ten ingredients?

I now use this model of landscape photography to shape my photography training, and my training courses consistently get fabulous reviews on Google. So if you're a beginner photographer who is local to East Devon and looking for training in photography, check out my range of 1-2-1 training courses. Alternatively why not make a weekend break of it and attend one of my weekend photography courses - either my beginners landscape photography workshops for those starting out in photography, or my intermediate photography workshops for those who already understand the basics and want more practical help progressing their landscape photography.

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