I am based in the US, just outside of Boston, Massachusetts. It’s my ambition to see as many of the great US landscapes as I can in my lifetime. Travel can be expensive, so whenever I travel I try to maximize my shooting opportunities. This article describes the factors I consider in choosing a location to shoot and how I try to get the best photographic opportunities out of a visit to a location.
I search photo hosting web sites, books, magazines for appealing photographic destinations. National Geographic has an excellent guide to the US National Parks. Countryman Press publishes an excellent series title “The photographers guide to…” For anyone interest in photographing the southwest of the US, the Laurent Martrès has an excellent three volume series. All these books provide detailed advice on locations, seasons and time of day. Once I have a location picked out, I look to find potential viewpoints, distances between viewpoints and what type of access the viewpoints have. For instance, is it a roadside viewpoint or is hiking involved. I find google maps is very useful in calculating driving times. The US national parks and many state parks provide trail maps on the web showing both distance and degree of difficulty. For myself, I won’t take on any trail marked as “strenuous” or one with steep drop offs (no head for heights here!)
Having multiple locations nearby can be important. On my last visit to the Grand Canyon I found it was very windy (40 mph winds) at my first choice location of Lippan Point. I drove to a nearby location at Moran Point and was able to find a more sheltered spot. I returned to Lippan point the next day when it was less windy. The image below was taken from my backup location at Moran Point.
I try to avoid summer, the chances of a holiday maker wandering into the frame of your landscape masterpiece is much higher. Many of the national parks in the south and west of the country can get uncomfortably hot in the summer. In general, the other seasons provide more variability in the weather and light. Spring will see the waterfalls at their maximum flow, fall can provide changing colors of foliage, mists and frost with the changes in temperatures. Winter can provide snow, but its important to check the roads you want to use are open year round. I tend to focus my shoots at the beginning or end of the day. I use the middle of the day for scouting out new locations, major travel between locations, other travel logistics such as checking in at hotels. I prefer sunrise to sunset, there are usually less people around. For shooting a sunrise or sunset, make sure you have a flashlight and can make your way into and out of the shooting location in the poor light. The shots below show an example pre-dawn light at Zabriskie Point, Death Valley.
The colors of sunrise and sunset are similar, but in opposite order. For a sunrise I try to arrive at least 30 minutes before the sunrise. The pre-dawn time will give softer light that starts with blues and purples and turns over to red, orange and yellow as the sun approaches and crosses the horizon. Don’t forget to check the sky behind you, the backlight to a sunrise or sunset will often provide some beautiful shades of violet. Once the sun has crossed the horizon, you are starting what is sometimes referred to as the “golden hour”. During this time you will receive direct and warm light from the sun. Depending on the quality of light at the location, I often wrap up the shoot around an hour after the sunrise and head back to the hotel for breakfast.
Some other environmental factors:
Travel times, routes
For sunrise/sunset time www.sunrisesunset.com can produce a monthly calendar of sun and moon rise and set times. For sun orientation by location, date and time I use the iPad app LightTrac. For tide times, I use the Mac Tide widget