Getting the Right Timing for Great Outdoor Photographs by Planning Ahead

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There is more to taking great outdoor photographs than a pleasing composition and the correct exposure. There is another important aspect. One that is too often overlooked when trying to capture a beautiful scenic subject or vista. The right timing is required to get great photographs.

Often on social media sites, images are posted that show ideal composition and exposure. But they are not photographed at the best time of day to capture the most attractive and interesting image. Some say that taking the most eye-catching photos is only about luck; being in the right place at the right time. But with the proper preparation, the odds of creating an exceptional photo can be increased. Certainly, without any pre-planning, you may be able to create “okay” images on a regular basis, but let’s examine the role timing takes in capturing more stunning images.

Here shooting toward the east in the evening produced some nice light on this image.

Shooting toward the east in the evening produced some detail-revealing light on this image.

Research

Much preparation for an outdoor photo shoot can be done from your computer, before even leaving the house. Listed here are three very effective tools that can help you find great shots. They can show you where you want to be, and when you want to be there:

  • Google Earth: The Google Earth software provides street views of any location on earth. This is very useful, as you can literally see and plan a shot from your computer before leaving to shoot. Google Earth gives you the ability to determine the best location, and its ideal angle to capture before even arriving!
  • GPS: Use GPS devices to help navigate to the exact location where you plan to shoot.
  • The Photographer’s Ephemeris: TPE is a very useful on-line tool to help plan outdoor photography. Its maps show how natural light falls on the earth both day and night for any location on earth, and for any time or day in the future!

    Screen capture from TPE showing the direction of the sun at the time the image of the statue and church was captured.

    A screen capture from TPE shows the direction of the sun when the above image of the statue and church was captured.

Time of day

Photographing at the right time of day is a big factor to getting the right light for a special image. It is a well-known fact among serious art-driven photographers, that some of the best light for making great outdoor images, happens early in the morning and late in the afternoon. These are called the “golden hours”.

But in addition to shooting during those times, notice should be taken as to where the sun is casting its light. Shooting into the light will mean that your subject will be in the shadows, or even silhouetted. Yes, the exposure can be compensated in this situation, but watch what happens to the sky in the image. It will be blown out and colorless. There are times when this shot may work, but the point here is to always be aware of the direction of light.

 

Same location as above, but this time it was shot in the morning. Notice how the sky is completely blown out when getting the exposure on the statue. Even tho this is nearly the same image as above, it doesn't have near the impact.

Same location as above, but taken facing into the morning sun. Notice how the sky is completely blown out when the exposure is set for the statue. Even though this is almost the same image as above, it doesn’t make near the same visual impact.

Don’t leave this factor to luck. When planning a trip, try to schedule the day around good light. Shoot westward in the morning, and toward the east in the late afternoon and early evening. Midday light in most cases is very harsh, and produces very contrasty images and deep shadows. Again, producing arresting images in this light is possible, but is also definitely more challenging.

So what does one with a camera do in the middle of the day? Rest or travel! The bottom line is, that if you are on vacation, with an open agenda, and are looking to take great photos of the sights, plan around the light to get the best results.

Using TPE I was able to determine the exact day that the sunrise would aline with the bridge to capture a one of a kind image.

Using TPE I was able to determine the exact day that the sunrise would aline with the bridge to capture a one of a kind image.

Season

Considering the season of the year can make a great difference in your photos. The angle of the sun changes from season to season. For instance, photographing a deep canyon in the winter will produce a much different image than one taken in the summer. Because of the lower angle of winter sun, light won’t reach the canyon floor as it would in summer.

Besides the change in light, there is the obvious a variation of foliage colors (or the absence thereof) from one season to the next, that can completely change the image captured at a given location. Sometimes it is fun to capture a four-season image of the same subject and location.

Weather

Weather conditions are a great factor when it comes to capturing the perfect scene. They should always be considered, even though they can’t be planned.

Overcast days, while not great for sky images, often produce very nice even lighting. This is ideal for shooting things like waterfalls. Bright sunlight can make it almost impossible to capture the scene without blowing out the water, and making it necessary to use a Neutral Density filter. Don’t look at dreary weather as always being a negative; rather, turn those negative conditions into a positive result. For instance, a foggy morning may mess with a pre-visualized image in one location, but an alternative location nearby may be perfect for foggy conditions.

This waterfalls was captured while the sun was shining. Notice the hot spots created by the sun on the water.

These waterfalls were captured while the sun was shining. Notice the hot spots created by the sun on the water.

Same waterfalls as above by this time captured in cloudy conditions allowed for a long exposure with out the hot spots or a ND filter.

Cloudy, overcast conditions allowed for a long exposure of the same waterfalls, removing the hot spots or need for an ND filter.

Rainy conditions may also produce pleasing effects on the subjects being photographed, darkening bright rocks and saturating foliage. However, it may be necessary to use a polarizing filter to reduce glare.  Also, when faced with unexpected weather conditions, be patient! Some rather fantastic shooting conditions occur following storms. Watching and waiting for just the right weather-related effects can provide an opportunity to capture a unique image, of even the most commonly photographed locations.

Special Occurrences

You could be out all night. Your tripod and camera all set up to watch the skies to photograph a meteor shower, and not see a single streak of light!  But with a little research you can ascertain when the next large meteor shower will occur. Thus the chance to capture the desired photos will be increased. To take the meteor shower experience one step farther, look for a night without a moon. This will help the stars to appear more vividly in the photographs. Use The Photographer’s Ephemeris to find special occurrences of the moon or sun, or look for times when the sun or moon rise or set may be in line with a special location. This a fun and creative way to produce a fascinating image, instead of an ordinary one.

Using TPE to reseach is image I knew the exact time an location of the full moon rising. What really made this image was the sunset at my back that was casting some fantastic light on the city. Knowing this facts allowed me to create a one of a kind image of Marietta Ohio. One that I have sold many times.

Knowing when and where the moon would rise allowed me to plan and be ready to capture a unique image of Marietta, Ohio. Using TPE to research this image, I knew the exact time and location of the full moon rising. The sunset light behind me cast fantastic light on the city, that absolutely defined the shot, prints of which I have successfully marketed.

Day of the week

Every photo event timing factor considered so far has had something to do with light and lighting. But timing also includes the aspect of planning a less stressful, more convenient, and possibly more productive photo shoot. The day of the week is one such factor.

Time off from day-to-day activities often happen for many individuals and families on the weekends. Many are out visiting popular locales en force on those days. High traffic photo sites are best visited mid-week. There will be a better chance of having more room to work, free of other photographers attempting to get the same shot.

Conclusion

To wrap up this article on timing and preparation, remember the five P’s of capturing that great image:

Proper Planning Prevents Poor Photographs

Whether just taking a day trip or a long vacation, planning your photographs around the best available light will increase your chances of capturing a memorable image.

Do you have any tips for planning for the best light? Please leave them in the comments below.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Bruce Wunderlich is a photographer from Marietta, Ohio. He became interested in photography as a teenager in the 1970s, and has been a passionate student of the art ever since. Bruce recently won Photographer’s Choice award at the 2014 Shoot the Hills Photography Competition in the Hocking Hills near Logan, Ohio. He has also instructed local classes in basic digital photography. Check out Bruce’s photos at Flickr

  • Von Will

    Thanks for the article great tips. I had planned on this photo since last summer and was able to get what I wanted. Just down load a app called Sun Surveyor it includes the TPE as well as a live view mode for sun and moon location. https://www.flickr.com/photos/phyguy/

  • The Google Earth software provides street views of any location on earth.

    I think you meant to write “many” not “any”. It’s not your fault. Many of us tend to see the world through our limited experience and ignorance. The world isn’t the USA and Europe. There are many places on earth that have never seen a car much less a google street view car.

    Have you tired looking for a street view of Mexico City in google maps or google earth? I was in Vermont this summer. I dear you to use Google Maps Street View to plan an outdoor shoot where I was.

    Nice article but no need to overstate the usefulness of a tool.

  • I agree with everything! When I planned out the photo shoot at certain locations – those turned out to be my best ones! I will have to check out The Photographer’s Ephemeris. thanks for sharing!

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  • A great read, very well explained. The best thing I got to learn about today was ‘The Photographer’s Ephemeris’. Would be exploring it today.

  • Elmer Jensen

    I have used the TPE for several years. It’s a really good program!
    https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/7e41d180563a9318eb397983e11d352affa62d5f770065952aa49cdf18b5f9b9.jpg

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