Posted by: kerryl29 | January 8, 2012

Luck and Landscape Photography

In response to my last post, Cindy of photosfromtheloonybin asked:  “aren’t many people’s photos partly a product of chance and luck?”  It’s an excellent (if loaded :)) question.  The answer, of course, is “yes.”  For some photographers–and for most of those engaged in certain types of photography–the answer is a resounding yes.

But what about landscape photography in particular?  In this case–and based on how I practice it–the reply is “not so much.”  This is not to say that luck doesn’t enter into the equation at all.  In fact, it’s a factor in virtually every photograph I take.  Occasionally, it’s an overwhelming variable in the equation of success, as I have documented in the past.  But this is the exception to the rule.  A clear majority of the time luck plays an important but comparatively modest role.

Planning is a major factor in landscape photography–90% of the deal in the estimation of quietsolopursuits, who also weighed in on the previous entry.  So is familiarity with the location in question.  Efficient photography, regardless of the genre, is about the photographer giving himself the best chance of success, but some forms are more responsive to pre-shoot preparation than others.  Street photography, for instance:  the photographer can put himself in an area with a lot of potentially interesting action, but ultimately it will materialize or it won’t.  With landscape photography, there are times when I am 100% positive about what I’m going to get; it’s a photographic classification that is in a highly cooperative relationship with planning.

When I’m shooting away from my home bases, I always try to build in enough time to allow for multiple visits to all of the spots on my “must see” list, and a significant amount of my time is spent scouting locations, frequently without camera gear in tow.  In a nut shell, the goal is to determine what conditions make a spot shootable; what is the best specific location (or locations, plural) to place myself when those conditions are present; what gear is needed to produce the ideal shot.  The idea, in other words, is to remove as much luck from the formula as possible.

When I’m shooting closer to home, I’m familiar enough with many spots to know from experience where to go when the “right” conditions materialize.

All of the images accompanying this entry are examples of what I’m talking about.  Admittedly luck was a factor, at some level, in all of them, but not the overwhelming factor in any of them.

Spring Has Sprung, Big Walnut Preserve, Indiana

1.  On a windy, sunny afternoon–quite unsuitable for photographing the subject matter I was experiencing–a couple of springs ago, I paid a visit to Big Walnut Preserve, less than two hours from my base in Indianapolis.  I didn’t take my gear with me; this was a scouting expedition, plain and simple.  I spent a couple of hours walking the trails and observed that the redbud and dogwood were just starting to burst out, as was the new spring growth on the trees and shrubs.  I carefully noted what appeared to be the best locations for the optimal conditions.  One good rain would really make the place sing, I reasoned.  A few days later, overnight rain was forecast.  I resolved to be on site first thing in the morning, when the soft light and calm conditions would predominate.  It meant a very early morning, but it paid off.  When I arrived the following morning, civil twilight was just setting in.  I quickly hiked the mile-and-a-half or so to the spot, creekside, that I had taken note of a few days earlier.  I wasn’t disappointed.  Luck involved?  None, other than waiting for that overnight rain.

McConnell's Mill, McConnell's Mill State Park, Pennsylvania

2. Fall, 2010…I had parts of only two days to photograph McConnell’s Mill State Park.  I arrived late morning and spent roughly five hours scouting the place.  I discovered a particular vantage point to photograph the mill itself, at some point mid-afternoon.  The light was awful–and wasn’t going to be ideal at any point during the duration of the day; there was also a number of people wandering around–but I could see that first thing in the morning, before the sun hit the trees, it would be ideal.  Also, with the extremely cool evenings, I reasoned that Slippery Rock Creek would be emitting copious mist before dawn (given the disparity of air and water temperature).  And wind would be minimal, crucial for freezing the delicate lacy leaves still clinging to the overhanging foreground branches.  A slow shutter speed would be required to render the water in the manner I desired so calm conditions were a must.  I resolved to return 30 minutes before sunrise the following morning; there would be no one else around.  Bingo.  Luck involved?  Playing the percentages had to pay off.  I got the light mist, I got the unpopulated scene and I got dead calm.

Olympic Sunrise, Obstruction Point Road, Olympic National Park, Washington

3.  My first day in the Hurricane Ridge area I spent late morning, after the good light was gone, scouting the area along Obstruction Point Road, in the Olympic high country, based on the recommendation of a photographer I know who was highly familiar with the area.  I took my time wandering around on foot, and stumbled across a meadow of lupine and buttercups, overlooking a marvelous view of the distant Olympic Mountains.  The vista was east-facing, so I knew that it was a sunrise shot.  I marked the spot on my GPS and resolved to return…which I did, two mornings later.  It was a 3 AM wakeup, and it was still dark when I arrived at the designated place.  As the darkness began to fade I found my foreground and set up, waiting for the best light.  I was completely prepared when that happened.

Coneflower Morning, Nachusa Grasslands Preserve, Illinois

4.  The Nachusa Grasslands are about two hours from my base in the Chicago area.  I’ve shot there a number of times and have noted where the very best locations are each year for purple coneflowers.  The best time to shoot in Nachusa is in the summer, when the prairie wildflowers are in bloom.  When I arrived at an absurdly early hour of the morning very near the summer solstice, I saw the outline of a single bank of clouds drifting toward the eastern horizon.  I knew where there was a nice stand of coneflowers that would afford an eastern vantage point and, with a flashlight, made my way towards them.  I’d never have found them if I didn’t already know where they were located–it was too dark.  Luck?  The clouds on the eastern skyline…that was luck.  My ability to know right where to go if there were clouds in the east–that was preparation/experience.

Pacific Sunset, Port Orford Head State Park, Oregon

5.  After being foiled by the (expletive deleted) marine layer in my attempts to photograph a Pacific sunset for two solid weeks in Washington and Oregon, on my last night–at Bandon, Oregon–I resolved to find somewhere that would afford a true sunset.  I wanted to shoot from Bandon Beach, but I had dealt with the marine layer there two nights in a row and had been told by a local that I might have better luck further south.  During the poor light of late morning and early afternoon, I scouted more than a dozen potential sunset locations further south.  I figured if the marine layer rolled into Bandon in the early evening I’d drive south until I saw it dissipate.  Like clockwork, the marine layer blew into Bandon at around 6 PM and I immediately bailed out.  By the time I reached Port Orford, the marine layer was only visible as a tiny band on the horizon.  Earlier in the day I had found a spot in Port Orford Head State Park that I thought would make a fine vantage point for sunset.  I raced out to the clifftop point and simply waited for the light.

Sunset, Wooly Back Overlook, Blue Ridge Parkway, North Carolina

6.  On a trip to Great Smoky Mountains National Park in 2004, I scouted numerous overlooks on the Blue Ridge Parkway that would afford good sunset views.  I settled upon Wooly Back as the best, and set up there one evening only to see the sunset fizzle completely behind a heavy band of clouds.  I didn’t have another chance to try my luck during that trip, but I took note of the spot–remembered the name of the overlook–and resolved to return on my next journey to the area.  When I came back–four years later–I found the exact mile marker of the spot via an Internet search.  I was lucky enough to get a decent sunset, but I was prepared enough to be in the right spot when it happened.

I hope it doesn’t sound as though I’m patting myself on the back here, because it’s not my intent to do so.  I did absolutely nothing, with regard to any of the above examples, that anyone else couldn’t do…and many, many other photographers routinely do this much and far more in their quest for images.  The point is that preparation pays off.  Effort is required, yes…but it is rewarded, many times over.  There will always be luck involved, but you’ll be amazed at how much more fortunate you are when you’ve laid the necessary groundwork to take advantage of it.


  1. Your pictures are really amazing! I just love their colors, composition, details, pretty much everything. 🙂 They are pleasant to look at. Thanks for sharing!

    • Thanks very much; I greatly appreciate it.

  2. Incredible photos, Kerry, stunningly so…and great narrative of your preparations for each, as well. “Lucky” you. 🙂

    • Thanks, Scott. Lucky indeed. 🙂

  3. All I can say is wow! What spectacular photos! Thanks for the shout out, it means a lot coming from some one as talented as you.

  4. Good post, Kerry. I know the original question was rhetorical, but I will bet it strike a nervve in many a serious photographer. And while I couldn’t agree more about the need to be prepared and informed about your subject/location, there is so much more. I see the possibility of a series, here.

    Understanding light, and when to shoot (or maybe more accurately, when NOT to), Perspective, composition, knowing your equipment and how it captures the image before you; all are part of the equation for a good photographic image and none have anything to do with luck. When all the prerequisites are in place, and THEN you have some luck because of a good element or condition that is not within your control, then sometimes magic happens!

    • Thanks, Andy…agreed! A series, of sorts, is a very real possibility.

  5. I love number 2 and number 5 – the colour is just heavenly. I rather envy you being able to scout out locations. It must make each shot seem all the more enjoyable.
    (As a beginner, nearly every one of my good shots is luck – right place at the right time kinda luck).

    • Thanks. I think you’ll see that, with growing experience, luck will play less and less of a role in your imagery.

  6. Love your photos – beautifu:) Thanks for sharing!

  7. Thanks for posting this. I don’t plan nearly as well as I should, and you’ve given me a thing or two to think about…

    • Terrific! Thanks very much.

  8. these pics are stunningly amazing. my faves are Spring Has Sprung & Coneflower Morning

  9. Well said Kerry, and the photos are absolutely fantastic!! It is obvious that I can learn a great deal from your experience and skills which you are so kind to share with us. Thank you for this post. By the way, you should pat yourself on the back. You do wonderful work!

    • Thanks very much, Cindy…that’s very kind of you to say.

  10. Hi, Kerry, Well said, indeed. There is no getting around the value of conscientious preparation when a particular subject is the plan. Yet it’s amazing how often the Fates step in and slip us an unforeseen chance curve-ball. Sometimes they mess us up in varying degrees, but at others the unexpected can raise the results to new heights. Love the Woolly Back shot and so glad you included the smaller white & yellow flowers in the foreground, in front of the cone flowers!

    • Re the Fates…absolutely! As important as it is to be prepared, being flexible is a very useful attribute. Thanks for dropping in!

  11. Among them all the #5 Pacific sunset was the best for me. It reminds me of beach vacation in Caribbean island and that was a great trip for me. I would love to visit that place again and I’m looking forward to it.

    • Thanks for stopping by and commenting.

  12. Excellent article Kerry and the photos are magnificent, proof of your premise that preparation pays off. Luck may play a role in photography, but I believe receptivity and a willingness to adapt to the moment has a greater role.


    • Thanks, John. I couldn’t have said it better myself.

  13. Wow wow wow – fabulous shots! And an excellent article.

    • Thanks very much!

  14. Wow Amazing Photographs you have here my friend good work 🙂

    • Thanks, Jake.

  15. Yes… being there is a major part as well a planing… totally agree.

  16. Totally gorgeous and sublime photography! I thoroughly relish your work. Amazing talent you have — continue clicking!! cheers

  17. More great photos! I really like the insight into how you came up with each shot. I see there seems to be a common theme of wandering around, getting to know the area and finding potential shots. You just needed to have nature cooperate with you, which it did 🙂

    • Yup, that’s basically it. You always need nature to cooperate; the key is putting yourself in the best position to exploit that cooperation when it happens. 🙂

      Thanks for the comment.

  18. The colors are really superb, they are different. I’ve been here and never seen a sunset…next time I won’t miss out.

    • Thanks very much!

  19. I think everyone agrees that you have gorgeous pictures in this “episode” of your blog. Well done.

    When it comes to luck, I have mixed feelings. It’s been said that “Fortune favors the prepared,” and while preparation is a good thing, not at all to be discouraged, I still often enough find reason to be grateful for the ‘luck’ component of fortune. For example, round this time of year in 2010 I set out to photograph a possumhaw tree that I knew the location of and expected would be covered with its little red fruits. That proved to be true, but I had no idea that a flock of cedar waxwings would be sweeping in and out to devour those fruits. I’d never seen that phenomenon before, but suddenly and totally unexpectedly the birds became the primary subject of my pictures, with the tree playing a supporting role.

    I could probably give plenty of other examples, but that’s a striking one.

    Steve Schwartzman

    • Hi Steve. Agreed–being prepared (doing your homework, if you will) doesn’t (or at any rate shouldn’t) mean being so locked into what you might anticipate that you blind yourself to alternatives. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that part of “being prepared” is being open-minded enough to recognize a great opportunity that you weren’t expecting and take what you’re given. I’ve written a few entries in the past that tap into this mindset; here are two of them:

      It’s in situations like this, I think, where “good fortune” truly does favor the well-prepared individual.

      • Thanks for providing those good examples. The second one, titled “Serendipity,” is serendipitous, given that one of my e-mail addresses begins serendipity@….

        • If you have another e-mail address that begins irony@… Well, then I’m really going to get worried. 🙂

  20. Fantastic post… fantastic blog… you gained a a new follower 🙂

    • Thanks very much for the comments and for jumping aboard. Welcome.

      BTW, I responded to your question re spot metering over on the relevant thread at 1001 scribbles.

  21. Thanks for the post! It was very interesting reading how you professionals do! I never plan anything. Now you made me think about it 🙂

    • Thanks…I’m not a full-time professional photographer (I’d describe myself as “semi-professional,” meaning that while I do sell prints, for instance, photography has never been my primary source of income.

  22. I loved the Olympic Sunrise. What a fantastic place. Peaceful and cheerful 🙂

    • Thanks, Nandini!

  23. Some stunning photography you’ve got here Kerry, think my favourite has to be the Pacific sunset shot, it’s beautiful!

    • Thanks, Kieran!

  24. […] Photography Blog had two great posts recently about wildlife photography as a happy accident and how much planning he does as a landscape photographer. My reaction to his posts was “yes, but that is classic […]

  25. Kerry…
    Your tips are great…..thanks for those. Reminds me of the Scout’s motto: Always Be Prepared! Good advice. Your photos never cease to blow me away. They are all awesome. Thanks so much for sharing them with us.

    • Thanks, Judy. My pleasure.

  26. can’t add anything that hasn’t already been said, except “WOW!” — thank you for visiting my site. yours is not only beautiful, but very informative

    • Much appreciated, thanks!

  27. You are right about preparation. I am always thinking about things I want to photograph and what I need to do to capture the image I want to capture. I have to say that luck does fall into place for me sometimes. I will know what I want to photograph, but sometimes you get there and there might be something a little extra, like the sun is out, but the there are very moody clouds in the sky that make the backdrop look great. I love it when that happens.
    Thanks for directing me to this.

    • Thanks very much Leanne–and agreed!

  28. […] The sun was still rising and it has made this shot possible.  If the sun had been up a little more then the box offices would have been in shadow and you wouldn’t see the detail in the them.  It is always a good idea to think about your subject and which lighting will provide you with the best image.  Which way does it face, should you use early morning light, or late afternoon light.  What type of image are you going for.  Planning is very important.  If you want to see more about it check out this post […]

  29. […] Whaleshead Beach (where I’d photographed on the morning of Day 5).  I have often extolled the benefits of scouting on this blog, but there are some limits inherent to the process.  For instance, it may be […]

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