Welcome back for another installment of my monthly Behind the Camera series. Each month I tackle a question or thought that has come up during the previous month that I feel deserves more than just a quick mention or comment. This month’s entry actually was suggested back in December, but since I already had an entry planned for January 1st, I decided to wait until now to dive into the question that was posed. This question was just too good for me to try to answer it anywhere but here, and I really appreciate the idea for the entry. Today, I am going to be talking about preparing for the shoot. There are a couple of different aspects of this, there is the planning stage which depends heavily on apps and websites as I start to plan the where and when of the shoot. Then I have the phase when I am actually out in the field and get to react to the conditions as they present themselves. There is a lot that goes into these shoots, and sometimes I completely mess it up, but I’ve learned over the years to increase my chances of success based on my preparation.
The Planning Phase…
This is the part that is usually the hardest because I am looking several days out and I have no idea what I will be in the mood to shoot that far in advance. All I am usually working with is my knowledge of what kinds of weather conditions I like to deal with. I will start off by looking at the extended forecast in the Weather Channel app or website. That will generally give me an idea of what patterns are developing. I will dismiss sunny days just on their face and not look at those at all. Partly cloudy days I will loosely consider, but what I am really looking for is cloudy days, and even a rainy day because those will generally not be complete washouts. Since I love working with cloudy days, those are the ones that I focus on.
Why do I like cloudy days so much? I like the simplicity of them. The light is much softer and I can shoot through the entire day as opposed to just on the edges of the day during the golden hours when the light is low and soft. Clouds will act like a soft box keeping the directional nature of the light a little less intense. You will still have directional light, but the clouds will add a lot of fill light so that shadows are much less intense. All of this allows me the ability to shoot in multiple directions, with subjects that are in the open as well as under cover. I have a large deal of flexibility with this kind of light. That doesn’t mean that I won’t shoot on a sunny day, but I save those when I have a scene that needs the shadows and the directional light. That is when I will come back with a specific set of conditions in mind, but in general, my process starts off with finding cloudy days to work with.
As I get closer to the day that I have in mind, I will start to use a different app to see the true nature of the clouds. I’ve found over the years that most weather apps will call a day cloudy if there is full coverage of very thin high clouds, or a totally overcast and deep clouded day. The quality of light is much different between the two and will dictate what types of subjects will be best to capture. Looking at a regular weather app, I will generally not get that type of information. That is where one of my favorite apps comes into play. I have been using Clear Outside for a couple of years now and it is probably my most used weather app for determining the exact conditions. It is available for Android and iPhone applications and is very simple to use, as well as being free. It is European based which means that you will be looking at metric measurements for temperature but that isn’t why you are going to be using this app.
With this app, you can have it programmed to default to your home location by selecting that in setup. The next tab will be for your current location if you are out in the field. That is useful for when I am at a destination and needing to figure out the weather patterns in real time. The last tab is what I am usually using for my planning. I have a bunch of different parts of the state saved in this app and I can toggle through them all to look and see where the clouds are going to be and what types of clouds are expected. This has proven to be a very reliable app for the most part even though all weather forecasts are really a best guess based on patterns developing.
The app was designed for astro photographers and is geared to that end, but it all comes down to what is in the sky. You can see sun data that shows when it rises and falls along with golden and blue hours on either end. You can see moon data which includes what phase the moon is in as well as when it rises and falls. There are two colored bands that show the presence of the sun and moon in the sky for your location based on the times. There is a band in that range that represents where the highest point of travel will be in the sky (ie: high noon). The next bank is most important for me, and that is the cloud information. The first line is the total cloud cover which is what you would see from the ground looking up. Complete coverage means you will not see any blue at all, while no coverage is total blue skies. That is the best that you might get from a normal weather app. This one goes into the telling you the coverage at each level of the clouds which I really enjoy. Low clouds are generally when you get the darker clouds with the textures to them, and they can also be at ground level in the mountains creating some great atmosphere for photographs. The mid level clouds are great because they are usually dense enough to create a great soft box effect for lighting while the high clouds are generally much less effective, and have very little texture with full coverage.
The percentages represented here are the most important thing for me to keep in mind. On a day with winds, if I have about 40-60% cloud cover in the middle and lower levels with clear in the upper levels, this is a great time for long exposure shots because I will be able to get motion in the clouds as the different altitudes will be going at different speeds adding to the texture. If the lower and middle levels are adding up to complete coverage, I will have nice soft light for that duration and can shoot a variety of subjects. With complete 100% coverage, I can shoot waterfalls very easy as light levels will generally be much lower.
For those astrophotographers out there, there is a line of information that will tell when the International space station will be visible, along with the visibility at ground level. Ten miles is the maximum and indicates that you will be able to see unencumbered from the ground level. You will see the presence of fog as well just below that line. This is very helpful for me when planning woodland shoots, I just don’t get a lot of foggy days around here. You will get the standard rain chances and expected amounts here. I’ve found that this part is not all that accurate, but it will give me an idea of whether or not I will be getting wet on a shoot. The wind speed and direction is very helpful for me as it can indicate the direction that the clouds might be moving, but it will also let me know if I will have to deal with extra bracing on the tripod to get a sharp image.
The remainder of the app deals with temperature more than anything and will be represented in Celsius so it always looks much colder than it is. I don’t concentrate much on that, and really only pay much attention to this part of the app when I am at the beach and will be going out in the morning for sunrise photography. The dew point and humidity will tell me just how bad the lens fogging will be coming out of an air conditioned room. Beyond that I am not all that worried about this part of the app.
Now that I have an idea of what kinds of clouds I will be dealing with, I can start to fine tune where and what I am going to be shooting. There are always variables that are introduced that will ultimately dictate what I shoot because I might just be in the mood to shoot something in particular that day. But in general, clear days would dictate golden hour times or night photography. Partly cloudy skies are great for grand landscapes, or my rural road trips as I will get a lot of variation in the sky during the day while keeping the directional light at a minimum allowing me to shoot in various directions with no problem. For those completely cloudy and overcast days I will generally go into waterfall mode where I don’t want any harsh light at all, nor do I want highlights caused by the sun. This is also a good time for shooting the decay subjects as getting shadow detail is very important for those. With total overcast, I can get that shadow detail without it looking like an HDR image.
On those days that I am wanting to shoot a sunrise, I am looking for cloud cover in the higher elevations with few or no clouds in the middle and lower areas. When I see that potential develop, I will go to www.sunsetwx.com to check and see what the sunrise forecast will be. Of course this also works with the sunset as well. You will go to your area, either the US or global and select sunrise or sunset forecasts. You will then get a map that shows the entire area that looks something like this. The warmer the colors, the more chance you will see wonderful colors in the sky. You will need to make sure that you select the right time for your sunrise or sunset as the website will show the conditions through the entire 24 hour period. This is the map for the morning that I am putting this entry together. You will see in the state of NC that there will be spotty color at best over 2/3 of the state with the coast getting an expected decent sunrise. With most of the area that I like to shoot under the blue colors there really wasn’t much in the way of sunrise potential this morning, however, if I was at the coast, it would have been very much worth getting up to capture the colors over the Atlantic. You will see the color spectrum on the right side that will show the range of ratings. I have found this to be pretty accurate for the most part, but some of the best color happens because the sky is completely overcast and the sun finds a small hole to shine through at the horizon. That is very hard to forecast, and this site usually misses that one because it is so fleeting and unexpected. However, generally, when I based getting up early from this forecast I have been happy that I have done so. It is worth keeping in you back pocket as a tool. It is a little cumbersome to use and you can’t really use it more than 12 hours in advance. So this is kind of the last phase of my planning before going to sleep at night, just so I can see how early I need to get up in the morning. It will also help me decide if it is worth staying at a location through sunset.
In case you aren’t sure of when sunrise or sunset is that particular day I use the free app Golden Hour also. This is a good scheduling app to let you know when the different light will be hitting. You can go to the calendar view and pick a day in the future or look at the current day. It will give you the basics of sunrise and sunset times as well at the peak sun at the middle of the day. You can then go down and it will break the day up into all of the different light quality blocks. For my purposes, I like to look at Blue Hour and Golden Hours the most as that is when I will get the magic light when doing landscapes. This is a limited use app for me, but does come in handy enough to keep it on my phone. One of the best attributes of it though is the map that shows the direction of the sun at sunrise and sunset as well as the current position it’s at.
Here is the map view and it can be very useful for tracking how the sun behaves based on the time of year. It is a common misconception that the sun rises in the East and sets in the West. That is only true for a very short part of the year. The rest of the time the sun will migrate North and South a good bit depending on the season. This will help you determine just how that will affect the light direction on the landscape. The red line represents sunrise while the blue line represents sunset. The orange line is where the sun is currently in its path. When I made this screen capture it was before sunrise so the sun hadn’t started to fall between the two points. By using the slider at the bottom of the app, you can move the directional line through the day to see how the sun will track at a given time of day. it doesn’t show altitude, so you don’t get the indication of low sun vs high sun. This is very rudimentary for this type of app, and the Photographer’s Ephemeris is much more precise and gives better map views. However, that app is not free, and I haven’t really had the need to get into that kind of detail yet with planning for the sun. For my needs Golden Hour works just fine.
What Happens Once I’m in the Field?
With the planning phase done, we are now on the morning of the planned shoot. I will typically wake up and check Clear Outside once again to double check that the clouds are still expected to behave the same way as I was hoping. If I was going out for a sunrise shot, I will then double check the Sunrise forecast to make sure I am still going to the right area. Once that is in place, I will go about my routine of getting ready to roll out the door and then I am off to the location. There are a whole different set of apps that I will use once I get to the location. The first and most valuable one that I have is one that comes with just about every phone made today…the camera. Yeah, that is one that is very useful for a photographer. No, I don’t capture my images with the phone camera, but I use it to find compositions and get an idea of how I can shoot something when I’m not exactly sure how it will look in two dimensions. The native camera angles match pretty well to my 24-70mm lens and I can see how the different focal lengths will work and find a good position to start with before I ever get the camera out.
I happened to actually capture the image with my phone on a recent trek out to Western NC. Normally, I will just use it for framing and I won’t take the image. I had found this barn off on the side of the road and was working my way in to find the best shooting position for it. I was using my phone to figure that out and to save time setting my camera up and having to change out lenses or something. I decided that I wanted to capture a dramatic point of view for this barn and that meant going wide. I knew that the wide end of my phone camera was around what the 24-70mm lens would cover. When I got to this point, I liked the perspective, but wanted a bit more breathing room around the barn and just a little more perspective so I knew I would need to go with the wider 16-35mm lens for this shot. That did the trick.
As you can see, the final image turned out very similar to the phone image in composition. This was because I knew where to position the camera thanks to the dry run with the phone. It really takes the guess work out of the equation when I am met with a subject that I am not sure of how I want to capture. It is so much easier to move a little phone around while looking through a very large screen to see the details. I can see what the perspectives look like from ground level all the way up to above my head. There is no tripod adjustment needed, and I don’t have to look through a tiny viewfinder or a 3in screen on the back. It really does help me out quite a bit, and this is an app that is present on your phone right now. Don’t discount it on your photo excursions.
There is also another use for your phone camera as well. I routinely use it when I am hiking new trails to capture the map at the trail head. It is something that I don’t always have on paper, and I’ve found that very rarely are maps given out at the trails as they once were. There is usually a board with the trail system laid out for you to refer to. By taking a picture of the map, you will be able to refer back to it as well as zoom in on the details. For those with old eyes that don’t see details as well as they used to, this makes your map a large print version for your ease and comfort. Also for dealing with quick and easy reference, you can take pictures of pages out of your manuals if you feel like you might need to refer back to something in there and don’t want to lug your entire manual with you in your bag. This is handy for exposure charts, and depth of field charts that you might want to use as well.
Something else I like to do with my camera is to document difficult scenes that I photograph in order to remember some of the issues and hurdles that I had to deal with when creating the composition. It makes for a great training opportunity at times as well when I talk about simplifying a scene. This is a recent trek of mine where I found this great Ford Maverick I wanted to photograph. This simple phone capture shows some of the issues I had to deal with around the car. If I were doing snapshot images all of this clutter would have been included in the image, but for my purposes, I wanted the image to be very direct and simple for a better appeal. I had captured this after I was happy with the image that I had gotten with the big camera just to show the difficulties that I had gone through in order to get the image.
In the final image you can really tell how the scene was simplified and the focus was restored on the Maverick. This use of the phone camera isn’t really part of the creative process, but it is a nice use of something that you already have. It will remind you what you had to deal with in order to get the shot. That alone will help you progress as a photographer and it will be a constant reminder of how you can overcome compositional hurdles. You will get better and better at this over time so why not keep some memories of those times when you got it right and what you did. Photography is all about learning, at least from the photographer’s perspective.
Since I do a lot of shooting on cloudy days with the chance of rain, it is nice to be able to look ahead and see what the rain potential will be doing as well as how the clouds will be progressing. If I want a very localized forecast for where I’m at, I will go with another free app that is available for Android and iPhone called Dark Sky. This one is not overly detailed, but it will list out an hourly forecast for the exact area that you are in. It will let me know very accurately when the rain will be coming in, or leaving. I used it to good effect back in the Fall when I was in the area of Banner Elk. I had found a location that I really liked and wanted to capture. The rain was just a little too heavy for me at the time, so I relied on Dark Sky to let me know when the rain would be letting up enough to be able to go out and shoot. Between the hourly forecast and the map included in the app, I could tell that the rain would lighten up in around 30-45 minutes so it was worth me waiting it out. It was accurate and I was able to get out with an umbrella at the time that I was expecting based on the app.
You can see that the road was still very wet and there was actually a slight mist still falling, but the heavy and driving rain that had been an issue was past at the time I was expecting. Something this localized is not really suited for a generic forecast for an area, and without having a pin dropped on a map, you won’t know exactly where you are on the map to see where the rain bands were traveling. This app doesn’t get a lot of use by me, but it is definitely one that when I need it, I NEED it. I’m happy to have this one on my phone for those times. Of course, with all apps that will use data, you have to be in a location where you can get a signal. That is a problem a lot of time with the places that I like to shoot. At this location for instance, I had shaky connection with the internet and the app worked very slow, but I was able to get the information that I needed. Other times, I can’t use the app and I’m left with a best guess from what I had seen from the earlier hourly forecasts during the planning stages of the trip. Obviously, having an app like Dark Sky is more beneficial than relying on memory from hours before.
Another app that I get limited use out of, but is very useful in those times that I need it is the app by Lee Filters called their ProGlass app. This is a neutral density calculator for using ND filters to slow your exposure. As long as exposure times are kept to 30 seconds or less, you will be able to use your histogram or light meter to determine your exposure. However, if you are going into exposures longer than 30 seconds you will have to do math to determine how many stops of light has been lost and therefore what you exposure time will be. That is just too much for my simple brain to comprehend so I rely on this app to do the math for me. I routinely use a 5, 10, and 15 stop ND filter in my long exposure photography. The 5-stop is pretty simple and rarely will give me an exposure time of more than 30 seconds so I am comfortable using the light meter and histogram in the camera for that. However, when I get into the 10 and 15 stop versions, I am typically shooting in minutes, not seconds. That is where this app comes into play.
It works in two different ways. You can set it up for the two different ways of identifying the filter strengths as well (ie: 0.9 or 3-stop). The first step is to get a base exposure without the filter on the lens which is the easiest way of using this app. Say if you are getting an exposure of f/11 at 1/8 of a second. You would then go to the app and select your filter strength, in this case a 10-stop filter. Rotate the white wheel until you are seeing 1/8 of a second. The red wheel will correspond with that shutter speed and convert it based on the filter to two minutes. It is just that easy. The other way would be to rotate the red wheel to the exposure time that you are wanting and then playing with the aperture and ISO without the filter to get the needed base exposure before adding the filter to get the desired length of time. Either way that you do it, once you get the exposure dialed in, you can press the timer button on the app which will take you to a count down. Once you start the exposure, you can have the app count it down for you. This is really great for those with older cameras like mine that don’t have a built in timer for your timed exposures. Mine will only count the seconds on the top display which may or may not be easily visible during the exposure. The app takes the guess work out of it, when the beeper goes off, you end the exposure.
This 2.5 minute exposure was estimated through the app since it only gave me the option for a 4 or 6 stop filter (which are the Lee variants). Since I was using a 5-stop filter to show the motion in the sky, I had to estimate between those two shutter speeds to get an approximation. In the end, I really ended up just playing it by ear since the light levels were increasing at a very quick rate with the sun rising. I undershot the 4-stop slightly and ended up with this very saturated image with lots of motion which was just what I was after. During stable light conditions, the app is very precise and yields great results repeatedly.
There are other apps that I have used over the years, but they have not really stood the test of time. They have been ones that will help with depth of field calculations, but I have really seen no real benefit to having those apps handy. I have had very good success at focusing based on my instincts with a scene and have found that trying to get measurements with an app is difficult at best for me and really slows down the process too much. I have had a few exposure calculator apps that I installed to help with the ND filters that did other things, but again I had no real use for them since I rely on my histogram to give me the right exposure based on the exact scene in front of the camera. I have tried many different weather apps and sun locators over the years and I like aspects of each of them, but I have found that the basic Weather.com website and app work for advanced planning while the Clear Outside app allows me to really fine tune my approach to a shoot in the final hours leading up to the outing.
I would love to be able to say that if you use these apps your photography will automatically get better, and to a point that might be the case as you will be better able to pick your conditions. It will still always come down to adapting to what conditions you have at the scene. These apps are just designed to help get you in the right place at the right time. Once you are there, the weather will be ever changing and you will have to learn to adapt to the light that is there. This is where getting out and getting practice will help more than anything. You will learn what light you like to work in, and how to best harness the different variations of light that goes along with that base condition. As your skills increase, you will be better able to read the light and capture the best pictures that go along with it. This is where my mantra comes in of “finding the right subject to put under the sky.” I will go out on days where the conditions are right and then I will find the right subjects to put under the sky. That allows me a much greater flexibility in my photography since I am not always waiting on the perfect conditions for a certain subject. I do have a collection of notes for those special subjects though where I am waiting on specific conditions, but that can be a process that takes days, months, or even years to see though. If I have good conditions, I can usually find a plethora of subjects that will fit those conditions and come back with quite a few images that are worth keeping.
Thank you for joining me for this latest installment of Behind the Camera. I do hope that you enjoyed the featured topic and maybe learned something from it. All of the apps that I use are free and available for Android and iPhone, but they are just the beginning of what is out there. You will need to look at your own needs and find out what apps work for how you shoot and the information that you are wanting to have on hand. This is just what happens to work for me at the current time.
Join me again next month for another topic which I am still looking for so if you have a suggestion, feel free to give me the hint. Until then, enjoy your February and I hope to see you at my Introduction to Photography class that is happening on the 8th. If you are wanting to learn more about photography be sure and check out the workshop schedule for 2020 which has been sorted out for the most part through the entire year. These workshops are at a variety of locations and cover a wide range of landscape topics to cover just about anything that you would want to learn.