Recently, I was asked by someone to teach a workshop about how to take better photographs. The question got me thinking deeply and thoughtfully about the answer to that question. It is such a general question as there are so many components to taking better photos. I realized I needed to go back to that person and ask her more SPECIFIC questions about her question – does that make sense? I’m sure it will to my fellow pro photographers out there, but, perhaps, not to my fellow hobbyists. Did she mean how to take better photos – technically? Or aesthetically? or ??? Yes…lots to think about with that question. But, here’s some of the very best GENERAL advice I could give anyone shooting anything, and a great example to explain my point; 1) Plan Ahead, 2) Be Prepared, 3) Think Outside the Box!
A couple of months ago, I was on a photo shoot in a beautiful part of Northern California called Woodland. I was there for a specific reason – to shoot the stunning sunflowers which peak around the end of June. Woodland is home to many farms, and some of them grow sunflowers…rows and rows and rows and rows of sunflowers..as far as the eye can see! It is truly a magnificent spectacle to stand amongst the crops and crops of sunflowers and take in their beauty! I highly recommend to all of you to try it sometime! This type of shoot (or any type of outdoor landscape shoot) requires careful and thoughtful planning, first and foremost.
While it’s true that I still do spontaneous landscape shoots from time to time, I know it is far better to plan these shoots well in advance. The Woodland sunflowers is a great example of needing to plan in advance. What do I mean by planning in advance? Well, it is important to find out the very best time of year to visit your location – in this case, it is the end of June, as the flowers are at their peak in terms of growth and bloom and are the most beautiful. No one wants to photograph dying or dead flowers unless you are trying to make a point of dying or dead flowers. Second, it is important to decide what time of day to shoot and that depends on the look you are trying to achieve, as well as the location and the subject. With the Woodland sunflowers, sunset is the very best time of day to shoot, as the colors are very complimentary to the subject – sunflowers. Also, the backlit effect of the sun setting is marvelous against the flowers themselves and it gives the entire landscape a ‘sleepy’ feel, which adds to the beauty of the scene. Finally, sunsets provide extra drama that no other time of day can match.
Another important aspect in the planning stage is knowing the best specific spot(s) for the location. That is SO helpful because it saves you time and energy. Knowing the exact, or one of the exact spots, to set up your gear is a huge time-saver, especially when you are racing against the clock to capture the light at sunset or sunrise. Time is of the essence at the crucial times of day to shoot and when you are armed with the knowledge of the best place to shoot from, you are way ahead of the game. This can be tricky, but here’s a secret – ask! The best way to know the idyllic spots to shoot from is to ask another photographer who has already shot the scene and knows where the best spots are located. This may sound like an easy task, and, hopefully, it will be for you, but some photographers can be secretive about their “special spots” – or they will charge you a fee to share the information because that is how they earn their livelihood. Hopefully, you will ask a photographer who is generous and shares their special knowledge and there are many out there! If you don’t know who to ask, join Instagram! Instagram has thousands of photographers who share their landscape photos daily. All you need to do is search for the place you are interested in shooting, view the photos and reach out to the photographer whose photo you find the most beautiful. When shooting the sunflowers at Woodland, knowing the best spot to shoot from is crucial. There are miles and miles of sunflowers in this part of California and it can be very frustrating looking for “the” spot providing the most beautiful background for your look. If you have only one or two nights out of an entire year to capture your moment, knowing where to stand is a lifesaver! I learned this one the hard way. It took me several years to finally find that special spot!
The second excellent piece of advice is also crucial – be prepared! For a photographer, that could mean different things to different people. It all depends on your specific style of shooting and what, exactly, you are trying to achieve, and finally, your location. Being prepared works in conjunction with the first piece of advice – planning ahead. If you plan your trip ahead of time, which includes your location, specific place, and time of year/day, then you know what you need to bring with you to achieve the look you want. Being prepared means knowing everything from weather to time amount you’ll be on location to your environment and to your gear. When I was assessing my trip to Woodland in June to shoot crops of sunflowers, I knew I would be there towards the evening, so I needed to bring the proper clothes including a jacket. I also considered the insects that may be present (bees, ticks, mosquitos, etc), so I made sure to bring my hat, wear jeans, hiking boots, and even bring netting, just in case. As it turned out, I didn’t need the netting and had a very little issue with bees or other insects. Regarding my gear, I brought with me my usual landscape work equipment; my Sony A7Riii camera, several lenses including my wide angle (16-35mm), my 24-70mm, and a zoom (100-400mm), my drone, a tripod, my Lee filter system, extra batteries for my Sony camera, and memory cards. Some of you may wish to bring your laptops or other computer devices with you if you are wanting to upload your images immediately. I have never done this, as I prefer to upload my images in my studio.
As mentioned a few sentences ago, I knew I would be shooting towards evening, as I was interested in capturing a sunset. Knowing WHEN to shoot is crucial. I cannot tell you how many times I have been either too late or too early for that special shot and missed the fabulous sky colors altogether. Those moments are always disheartening and, nowadays, unnecessary. Unnecessary because there are these wonderful apps for your smartphone which tell you exactly what time to be where you want to capture those fabulous sunset/sunrise colors. There’s “Golden Hour”, “Blue and Golden Hour”, and my personal favorite; “Magic Hour“ which I use on my iPhone. These apps tell you exactly what time the golden hour/blue hour starts and what time it ends for the location you are interested in shooting. All three of those apps are free, which is great! Definitely check them out and use them – you will thank me later!
Finally, the last bit of advice I can offer to you in taking better photos is one that many of us never consider…THINK OUTSIDE THE BOX! Think outside the box means to be creative and think about things that COULD happen…unexpected things and then try to come up with solutions for those unexpected problems before they occur. Sometimes the things that come up are completely out of our control, and therefore, not something we should beat ourselves up for, such as weather or disasters or, God forbid, accidents! But, other things are things that we CAN control if we had just researched our subject matter more closely. Case in point; the sunflower shoot in Woodland. Prior to my arrival, I visited some of my favorite photographers on Instagram to see if they had already visited the sunflowers and shared their images – and, more importantly, their STORIES. I got lucky! I found one such photographer who took a beautiful photograph of the sunflowers, but then, in the small print of his post, he mentioned the sunflowers were the tallest he had ever seen them and that photographers should be warned – bring a ladder if you want to shoot them! A ladder?? Is he kidding?? How on earth??? But, then I read that the sunflowers had grown to be at least 8 feet tall! Good grief! Unfortunately, my tripod, as fabulous as it is, does NOT extend that high! Granted, there are some tripods that do and I highly recommend investing in a tripod that can reach such heights (I’ve heard good things about Gitzo – 9 feet tall!). But, if you are not that fortunate, then you must THINK OUTSIDE THE BOX! I brought my step-stool. And guess what? Once I reached the point where I wanted to shoot among the very tall sunflowers and stepped up to the top step on my step-stool, I barely made it over the top! To be fair, I’m only 5’2″. Also, I did not bring my monopod, so I couldn’t feasibly use my tripod on a very small and narrow step-stool step. I, ultimately, wound up hand-holding my camera during sunset, no less, to get every shot. Fortunately, for me, I have a steady hand and was able to capture sharp images.
My big lesson on this shoot was to think outside the box. Had I not brought my step stool, a two-hour drive would have been a complete waste of my time, gas, and hopes. Lesson learned! Be Prepared – always!! I forgot to tell you about how much fun it was to walk through rows and rows and rows and rows, as far as the eye could see, of 8 ft sunflowers in the heat of June! Am I being facetious? Partly. It really was fun for me because I was looking forward to finally capturing those coveted sunflowers at their absolute peak. I cannot say the same for my sherpa. He was not thrilled having to walk through the insect-ridden, muddy crops. I laugh about it today. During that challenging journey through the sunflower jungle, I dropped my Lee filter bag! So, one more little lesson; while walking through any type of jungle where visibility is slim, hang on to your gear! It’s one thing to have to trudge through the crops, it’s quite another to have to dig around in the dirt for your gear – ugg! My sherpa actually filmed my accident while walking through…I’ll spare you the video and it’s expletives – ha! I will, however, share with you drone footage I filmed while visiting the glorious sunflowers!
I wound up capturing many sunflower images that fateful day in June. Four of which, I have printed and have on exhibition, currently. Planning ahead, being prepared, and thinking outside of the box were all checked off for me before I ventured to Woodland to photograph those fabulous sunflowers, which only peak about a week or so in the month of June. Those three pieces of advice paid off. One of those images will hang in the office of the farmer, whose land I was graciously allowed to photograph. I sent the farmer the image as my “thanks” for his generous offering and he was delighted! In the words of my favorite poet, Shakespeare, “All’s well that ends well!”.