Behind the Camera: Preparing for the Shot

· Reading Time: 10 minutes

Welcome back to Behind the Camera, which I hope will be a monthly feature here in my blog.  The goal with this piece is to talk a little about the behind the scenes action of the pictures that you see here.  A couple of months ago, I posed the question on Facebook, “What would you be interested in hearing about in relation to my photography?”  I got some terrific responses, and dealt with three of them last month.  For this month, I am going to address one of the questions asked by Ralph Black.  There are several different layers to the question that he asked, and they go a little something like this:

  • “What goes into preparing for a shoot? Aside from the technical, what time of day do you prefer?  Does it depend on the subject?  How do you decide where to shoot?  Do you go to places people will know, or do you prefer what inspires you?”
I skirt most of these questions with the entries of the blog, but I was intrigued with how the questions unfolded and developed into something greater than the individual questions.  Thanks for this Ralph!
Lets go ahead and start off with what I do to prepare for a shoot.  I’m always preparing for a shoot.  It starts while I am driving around, either to and from work, going to other locations to shoot, or just going to the store.  I am always looking for potential subjects and thinking about possible locations to visit.  The same things happens online while I am thumbing through social media.  I am making mental notes of places that I would like to go.  With each of these locations and subjects, I will start what is called previsualization where I think about what weather conditions will best suit the subject.  That means what kind of lighting will I want, and how do I want the sky to appear.  Of course, you know what they say about planning based on weather.  Yeah, it hardly ever works as planned.
What a Rush
I have been to the Styers Mill Falls many times over the years and have found that the best time to photograph is was under thin clouds which allowed some of the rich colors to pop.  I also need a good bit of rain to make the water of the South Deep Creek swell just a little bit.  I had been watching the weather patterns for about a week before I shot this, and saw my opportunity when the rains stopped.  There were still residual clouds in the sky the next morning which gave me the lighting that I needed.  In addition to the entire waterfall, I also knew that there were several sections of this waterfall that stood on their own as compositions.  Most of the photographs that I shot that day, were ones that I had been thinking about for quite some time, and the conditions all worked out perfectly for my concepts.
Nose Gear
Here we see a subject that I don’t normally shoot.  However, it was just the right amount of cool to catch my eye.  This shot was about a year or so in the making.  This plane comes in for maintenance on the off season (it is a tribute aircraft) just down the road from my house.  There is a lot of clutter around it like power lines, roads, buildings, etc.  I knew that to minimize that background clutter, I was going to need to shoot ultra wide and in close.  Knowing that the sky would be a big part of the equation, I waited until that perfect day to go out and shoot the plane.  The clouds were perfect, and provided tons of visual interest while not being so thick that I lost the much needed blue sky.  The plane was gone in the next couple of days, so without the luck that had, I would have been waiting for another year for this series of photographs.
So what time of day do I like to shoot?  For the most part, I much prefer the morning hours.  No, I’m not a morning person….not by a long shot.  However, I’ve found over the years that mornings offer less wind, warmer colors, and less people.  Yes, it is the lack of people that is the biggest draw.  There is nothing quite like being alone at a beautiful vista to allow you to become one with the environment that you are photographing.  The downfall to this is I’m leaving in the dark, so there is a certain amount of faith involved that the sky will turn out like I am expecting.
Overlooking the Gorge
Here we have a shot from an early morning at the Linville Gorge.  With the very simple hike to get to this view, the overlooks are often full from what I have heard.  Even getting out there before sun up, I ended up having to share the area with two other hikers.  Still much better than fighting for position at sunset.  The quiet of the morning was very rejuvenating for my spirit, and that showed in the photographs that I was moved to capture.  Now this is not to say that mornings are always the best times to go out though.

There are times when you just need the sun to be in a certain place in the sky, and that will depend not only on the time of day, but also the season.  Everyone knows that the sun tracks East to West during the day, but there is also a North South difference depending on the season.  For this shot, I needed the warm, low sun to illuminate the car, so I was going to need to wait until the end of the day. To add a bit of difficulty, I needed the sun to hit the car, and not just the tree that is seen as shadow on the building.  This particular day fit that bill and allowed the sun to light the car, while the building was put into the shadows from the tree.  There might have only been a period of a week or so that this lighting was present before the shadows changed.

As far as mid day goes, I try not to do much at that time since the sun is really too high in the sky to be all that flattering to the landscape.  However, on cloudy days, the position of the sun doesn’t matter as much.  This is one of the reasons that I really like going out on those cloudy days.  I can trip the shutter from dawn to dusk if I am so inclined because the light will stay very good throughout the day.  Clouds are also imperative to my waterfall photography.

Silent Echo

That pretty much covers the “when,” but what about the “where?”  That is the age old question for a photographer.  Sure, I like going where everyone else goes for the simple reason…there is a reason that everyone likes to go there…It is usually a particularly beautiful place.  The other side of that is, as with the case of the Mabry Mill, you can find literally hundreds of thousands of images of the same thing.  The task for the photographer is to create an image that stands out from the crowd, and that is almost impossible.  Does that make it less worthwhile to photograph?  Yes and no.  I know when I compose an image like this that I probably won’t achieve much notoriety with it.  It is more for me and my personal collection.  However, when I am working a location like this, I will work really hard to find images that might not be a typical view, which I hope will be a standout.

Mill Wheel

This intimate shot of the wheel on the Mabry Mill is no longer a picture of the most photographed place on the Blue Ridge Parkway.  It is an abstract study in lines, shadows, and textures.  This is not a picture that you will find on 27 different post cards, three book covers, and every calendar issued since 1950.  This is the arena that I choose to play in.  I like to find the shot that nobody else has discovered whether it is at a well known place or something far off the beaten path.  The exploration is part of the joy of photography for me.

Kick Back

What I really enjoy is driving around, getting lost and seeing things that, at least in my mind, nobody else has seen.  Rural America is a wonderful place, at least when you aren’t getting shot at.  I kid, nobody has shot at me and I hope that trend continues.  But, I have had several guns about to be pointed at me.

My personal style of photography has always been trying to capture those moments that anyone can relate to.  I want to spark memories and emotions in my viewers.  The best way for me to do that is to go wandering around until one of my memories or emotions are sparked.  Then I photograph what caused that revelation.  The flip side of this method is when nothing sparks my creative side and I just burn through a tank of gas with nothing to show for it.

My other technique is when I am at that often photographed location, I will look around for something that isn’t as well known or photographed.  All too often, photographers get tunnel vision with their subjects and forget to look around.  They stay focused on the subject and when the moment is done, they pack up and move on.  They are usually missing out on something fantastic that few have seen since everyone is looking in a different direction.
Into the Gorge
In this example, I had hiked to the upper section of the Upper Creek Falls.  I knew that there was a nice little waterfall there which was a lot of fun to photograph.  That is what most photographers are drawn to, but the really impressive view is 180 degrees away from the waterfall.  I think it was a book by Mark Lucock that keyed me into always looking around for another picture at a particular location.  That advice has payed off in big ways many times over.
I am also limited in the where, due to simple geography.  I live in Winston Salem, NC which is smack in the middle of the Piedmont.  There are some nice rural areas within about an hour’s drive, but to get to the mountains requires at least twice that long of a drive to get to most places.  I’ve been known to drive over four hours one way to get to a location for a day trip.  That is a huge demand on my time and resources.  The costs for trips like that start to get prohibitive for me.  However, I’ve found my little areas reasonably close to home that I can go for pictures that work out well.  The Blue Ridge Parkway is my go to for landscapes, but I also frequent Hanging Rock, and Stone Mountain for their waterfalls.
When the day comes to an end, the resulting pictures represent what inspired me that day.  If I am not moved by a scene on some level, I won’t bother to photograph it.  I’ve even looked at scenes before and thought that they were really beautiful, but I wasn’t connecting with it.  In those situations, I just enjoy the scene and leave it in my mind.
Thanks again to Ralph for this topic.  If there is anything that any of you would like to ask about my photography, feel free.  I would like for this feature to continue with different angles on what makes me tick as a photographer.
Until next time….keep enjoying the beauty that surrounds each of us!