How I plan a landscape shoot / by Neil Alexander

Lake District - View from Newlands Hause down over Keskadale with Knott Rigg to the left

 Today I thought I'd write a little post around what I put into planning a day of landscape shooting.

The first thing I'll do before a trip like my recent trip to the Lake District is to check the weather, re-check it, and then check it again. The weather in the UK is so varied and fickle, and can easily lead to a completely wasted day if not careful. I've always taken quite a keen interest in weather and meteorology and I find that this helps hugely. I have several apps on my phone, and make frequent visits to the Met Office website. I check the radar patterns and projected precipitation and cloud cover levels and often try and make my own interpretations of the expected outcome.

For most people these days, including myself, time is at a premium so it is important not to get these initial stages of preparation wrong. As far as weather is concerned for landscape photography, pretty much any conditions are acceptable except blanket grey skies (which will not make for good images) or torrential rain (which just makes life hard work).

Once I've managed to assure myself that the forecast is acceptable, I'll then start to look at sunrise and sunset times, and their associated azimuths. This then gives me a basic outline of the general directions in which I want to be shooting at those key times.

The next step is to decide the overall area to where I want head to, and then use my saved locations as an initial guide. This has been an area of some issue for me for a while - I'ved used a bunch of different apps and GPS listings software, but not really with any great degree of success. I've now started using a combination of Google Maps and Evernote. Google now allow you to save a map, give it a name and then drop pins on it and save it all. You can even add some text description or notes to each dropped pin. For example, I have Lake District and Peak District maps with pins for locations I have previously scouted with some basic notes - these are locations that I know I can go back to and there is a photograph of some description there to be made. I'll then look at the particular locations in more detail using the sun times and anticipated weather information, to decide whether this is the right time of year to make a photograph at the location and give myself a more detailed location by location plan. If I can't find anything that suits because it's the wrong time of year, or I'm not going to have the time required to hike for an hour befoore sunrise up a hillside for example then I'll revert to a whole series of resources that I've built up over time to find alternate locations; endlesss list of websites, books, and magazine articles containing detailled walks, points of interest, landmarks, and vantage points. I also know several keen fell walkers and I'll ask them for input too as well as having a large selection of 1:25000 scale Ordnance Survey maps on my iPad. The Outdoors GB iPad app is an absolute godsend.

View over Buttermere, Lake District

When I'm planning a sunrise / sunset shoot, there are two things that I'm hoping for. One is colour in the clouds. Generally this is of a red / pinky / orange nature and occurs shortly before sunrise or shortly after sunset.... generally.... And then there is first or last light when the sun's rays are just breaking the horizon and kissing the landscape with it's softest and most golden light of the day. It's nice to be able to make photographs at the same location with both the coloured sky and sun's early rays, but often the colour will appear in the opposite side of the sky to where the sun is rising or setting and without pre-planning or some seriously quick thinking you've little or no chance of getting both, and if you're not careful, you'll get neither.

For this particular trip these are the steps I followed. I knew where exactly I wanted to be for sunrise itself. Once the sun had been up for an hour, I planned to head up to a nearby waterfall. Then in the less attractive midday light I was to drive up to a pebble beach I had discovered on the Solway Firth for some macro work and then back down to Wast Water for sunset. All points GPS tacked and saved to my Sat Nav and everything looked tickety boo.

12 hours before I was set to depart the forecast was still looking good. Dry with minimal cloud at dawn, with the cloud set to build slowly all day up to nearly 100% by sunset, but dry all day. So I surfaced at half 4, checked the weather again, filled my flask, grabbed my sandwiches and a bag full of gear and started out on the 2 1/2 hour drive up to Buttermere.

Alas as I left the motorway and nautical twilight arrived, I could tell that the forecast was off. And it got progressively worse. By midday the sky was flat grey, and it was raining. Hard. And it didn't get any better. By sunset at Wast Water, the mist had arrived too. It wasn't a total right off as I did manage to add some fresh locations to my scouting list but it most definitely wasn't a day for making award winning photographs. And more frustratingly, with my current schedule, it's going to be at least another couple of weeks before I can get back up there again....

Sour Milk Gill pouring down into Buttermere, Lake District

The moral of the story: there's no point getting disheartened when the weather fails to perform. You've just got to think on your feet and adapt or sack it off and go home.