I'm gearing up for a voyage down to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee (to make photos of course), and I got to thinking about the desperate opportunism of the “photography trip.” When you set out to make images of faraway places (we're looking at a 14-hour drive to get to the park), it's hard not to over-think and over-plan the trip in the hopes of maximizing photographic potential. I believe that is a mistake.
It's essential to plan for certain things, but the rest… Well, I leave it to chance. I'll tell you why.
While photographing in Yosemite National Park (a totally gorgeous place), I became acquainted with a man whom I will refer to only as “Bear Bell.” I'm not trying to be cryptic or colloquial; I really don't know his name and he had a bear bell on his knapsack. Anyway, Bear Bell was a man of great wisdom who left me with one timeless bit of advice, an idea that has echoed through the weeks and months that have passed since that trip, and that I think about frequently. He said:
You shoot you what you shoot.
You shoot… What you shoot. Think about that for a moment. It has implications far beyond its meager literal meaning. Surely everyone can agree that when you take a photograph of something, indeed you are taking a photograph of something, but much as “you are what you are” means so much more than simply being oneself, “you shoot what you shoot” represents a philosophy of photography that has truly become my mantra.
The fundamental message (as I see it) is similar to the themes of Zen Buddhism, the most relevant of which is summed up by this varyingly translated story:
One day while walking through the wilderness a man stumbled upon a vicious tiger. He ran but soon came to the edge of a high cliff. Desperate to save himself, he climbed down a vine and dangled over the fatal precipice. As he hung there, two mice appeared from a hole in the cliff and began gnawing on the vine. Suddenly, he noticed on the vine a plump wild strawberry. He plucked it and popped it in his mouth. It was incredibly delicious!
Such a story—and Zen Buddhism in general—is open to interpretation, but what I took from it was the idea that you must make the most of your circumstances. Life is unpredictable and often times uncontrollable, so the Zen Buddhist says “the universe is now” and takes what he or she can from the moment.
When I say “photography trip,” I don't mean an assignment. When you are on assignment, you have a duty to your client to plan and prepare everything ahead of time, draw up contingency plans, and so on, if only for the sake of due diligence. But when you are traveling to interesting places to make fine art, you don't have a client to report to and you have only your aesthetic sense to guide you. In those situations, I find that over-planning spoils the soup, so to speak. As necessity is the mother of invention, so too is spontaneity the mother of serendipity.
The Short List
Here is the very short list of things that I always plan for when going on fine art photography trips:
Sunrise and sunset times
Places of interest, at least in a general sense
The phase of the moon
It is very helpful to know at what time the sun will rise and set for the location you'll be in. Using my favorite weather site, The Weather Underground, you can easily find a chart of sunrise and sunset times for the current day in any U.S. zip code. When planning a trip, the US Naval Observatory Astronomical Applications Department provides a really nice tool for this, which is predictably called Complete Sun and Moon Data for One Day. Using that page, you can find sunrise, sunset, moonrise, moonset, and moon phase information for any single day anywhere in the world.
Once you get to where you're going, it's nice to have an idea of what local attractions you want to get to for potential photographic achievement. I usually just jot down a list and jam it into my photo backpack. For the most part, if you have a good map, planning local destinations ahead of time is nothing more than brain candy; something to think about. When I'm traveling with others, we tend to plan destinations a day ahead of time based on current weather and driving conditions and otherwise play it by ear. As far as maps go, National Geographic makes the best national park maps, hands down. They're rugged, waterproof, and very detailed. Look for them in their online store or at outfitters such as Eastern Mountain Sports or REI.
Last, but certainly not least, is moon phases. If possible, plan your trip around moon phases so you'll know, for example, that two nights on the trip will fall on a new moon and the stars will be amazing, or that it will be a waning crescent, and so forth. The sun and moon are very predictable, so it behooves you to know what they'll be doing while you're out there. You can use the aforementioned Complete Sun and Moon Data website to figure it out, or look at a moon phase calendar.org/nightsky/moon/ for the month during which you want to travel.
While driving nearly 800 miles up and down the “green mountain” state of Vermont this past week looking for shots of fall foliage, we found that autumnal color change is more elusive than the websites would have us believe. Not to be discouraged, though, we stopped in several places along the way to capture fine images of Vermont's rural beauty that would have gone unnoticed through the tunnel vision of an over-planner.
So remember, keep your eyes and your mind open to photographic possibilities that surround you. Even if you are hanging by a vine, there may still be a delicious strawberry right in front of you.
No matter what, you shoot what you shoot.