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Right Place, Wrong Time

April 5, 2013

The fateful words “You should have been here yesterday”, is a catch phrase that has dogged me for most of my professional career. You generally hear it after arriving at a location for a long planned photographic shoot. No matter how good your research, you can’t beat mother nature. With the luxury of unlimited time, you can wait around for conditions to improve. I was never afforded that luxury, because I was generally up against an advertising or publishing deadline. Books, magazines and television wait for no man and certainly not the weather.

The result of a roadside stop while searching for a pine grove

The result of a roadside stop while searching for a pine grove

However meticulous your planning, some condition or other will always challenge you and force you to modify your plans. Coping with these problems is all in your approach. You must remain flexible and embrace surprise. The reward is that your work will improve and your pictures will contain unplanned, spontaneous elements that can be much better than those you originally envisioned.

That said, proper planning is still essential. You must try and eliminate as many variables as possible. As a pilot of many years, I realised that this strategy is ingrained from your flying training and can be applied equally well to photography.

When flying, you do your plan, check the weather and make sure your equipment is fully functional before you set off. However, once you get airborne, you check your progress and modify your plans to suit the actual conditions, which are invariably different to those that you planned. Flexibility is the key. Your objective in flying is to arrive safely, in photography it is to get the shot. While it may end up being a different shot than the one you planned, it may also be far better.

Returning to our location where the weather or time of day weren’t what we expected, how do we cope? Firstly, leave your camera in its case,  get out and walk around the area. “Why”, I hear you ask, “I’m here to take pictures, so I must have my camera.”

The answer is that a camera imposes a constricted vision of the location on you. You need to really see the location, study it and absorb the atmosphere; that is you need to understand ‘the big picture’ not just the details.Rock in a Hard Place

Look at and see what’s actually there, not what your plan said should be there. Where’s the light coming from? What are the shadows like? Is there lots of colour, or none? Is the sky interesting? If it’s not, exclude it. If the foreground is dull, include more sky. Should the image be broad, or tight? This affects the lens you need; wide angle or telephoto. Once you have walked around, absorbed the atmosphere and decided what you want to shoot, stop and look behind you. Is the view you’re looking at now, better than the one you just decided to photograph? Many times I have found this to be exactly the situation. Again really seeing and remaining flexible is the key.

This shot resulted from looking around while the camera was on the tripod

This shot resulted from looking around while the camera was on the tripod

On an early light aircraft trip to Ayer’s Rock, I went out to the famous sand hill and with everyone else, stood marveling at the changing light on the rock, red sky and intense colours. I really enjoyed the spectacle and atmosphere, but I didn’t lift my camera. I could have bought the same picture and better, at the souvenir shop. Next day I drove around the base of the rock to a private area, parked and walked straight towards it through the scrub. It was midday. Absolutely the wrong time to be out there. Harsh shadows and heat.

The amorphous, shimmering red lump started developing form. It got bigger, more commanding and started revealing astonishing detail which was enhanced by the harsh light. Caves, holes, rock slides, trees struggling to survive, plants dried out by the sun shading the tiny plants and grasses that thrived in the red dirt.

The number of photographic opportunities that presented themselves were almost overwhelming. I spent hours shooting everything from rocks, to plants, to insects.
I was amazed at the scale of the rock in relation to its surroundings and wondered what it was like from above. Next day I flew round the rock, close in and got a number of frames out of the window of the Cessna 210. I needed a full frame fish-eye to get it all in. It isn’t the shape you expect. It is striated and angled and rises out of nowhere. On one circuit, my shot included the Olgas. Once I got home and processed the results, there were numerous shots that I loved and those photographs were sold to many publishers. The success of the pictures was a direct result of me taking the time to absorb the area and then find the unexpected.

So now back to your planned location. Get out your camera and take a few test shots. Check them carefully. A Hoodman Loupe, or iPad is a very handy aid to enlarge the image and see it as an actual photograph, not just a little facsimile that can hide flaws.

Beer Garden Fence (1 of 1)

I saw this on the way back from photographing the forest and unpacked the camera.

One last piece of advice. While your camera is safely on the tripod, take another careful look around, particularly behind you, you will be surprised at what you missed.

In summary, plan carefully, research your location using every source possible, but when you arrive, be flexible enough to adapt to the unexpected conditions. Follow this advice and you will always be in the right place at the right time, because in creative photography, there is no wrong time.

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