Just last month I spent parts of 11 days at Zion and Bryce Canyon National Parks in Utah and Valley of Fire State Park in Nevada. I’d been to Zion and Bryce before, but only once and photography wasn’t the primary consideration. I’d never been to Valley of Fire until this recent trip. With that as background, the timing of the following statement may seem a bit odd…but here we go: your best photography is highly likely to emanate from places with which you’re intimately familiar. There will almost certainly be some exceptions, but on balance you’re more likely to produce your best work at places you’ve visited before—and visited multiple times before, at that.
Before anyone raises an objection, this is not a paean to never venturing beyond your own figurative backyard. There are, I believe, benefits—both tangible and intangible—to expanding your photographic/geographic horizons. That said, however, when it comes to photography, familiarity breeds opportunity, not contempt. I had a terrific time photographing in the American Southwest in May, but it did serve to remind me how much of a hit-or-miss proposition it can be to shoot in an unfamiliar locale.
The biggest problem with visiting a new location for photography is that the experience is usually accompanied by an innate tendency to settle—something I explicitly railed against in an earlier Thursday Tips entry. There simply is no substitute for experience; having visited a spot even once can provide a huge benefit when it comes to optimal conditions and timing to return to obtain better photographs. (This is one reason why, when I’m visiting a remote location, I always try to build in enough available time to provide the opportunity to return to a particular spot, sometimes on multiple occasions.)
But there’s a limit to what can be done with remote locations. For instance, at Zion, I found a number of spots that I thought would make phenomenal locations during the fall, when the cottonwoods and aspens would turn yellow and the broadleaf maples would turn red. That’s great, but since I was there in May, and Zion is at least 1500 miles away from my home, returning during the peak of fall color is a difficult proposition.
Flip this same calculation to a spot that’s 30 minutes or less from home. If I see something that I think would make a good shot in a different season, I’m almost certainly going to be able to go back and check it out. I may even be able to go back several times during that season. If I return to a specific location multiple times, my chances of obtaining ideal conditions—a certain quality of light, for instance, or foliage at the peak of its color, or a certain pattern of clouds in the sky or—dare I say it—all three of those things, are greatly increased. When I’m at a remote location, with perhaps just one or two chances, I simply have to get incredibly lucky to get ideal conditions.
Homework Naturally Completed
The benefits of photographing in familiar spots don’t end with sheer quantity of opportunity. Familiarity with a spot means that you can often predict in advance when something special might happen (a great sunset, perfect weather conditions, etc.) that will allow for a unique or ideal photo opportunity. And already knowing the lay of the land also means you can hit the ground running when those conditions appear. It’s not a matter of thinking that somewhere in a general area a great shot is waiting to be discovered. If you’re already familiar with a place, you know exactly where that great shot is located. It’s already been discovered; it’s merely awaiting the perfect opportunity, and when the right set of conditions occurs you can make a beeline for the specific spot.
The more often you visit a specific location, the better you know it and the better you know it, the better able you are to maximize your time there, photographically. You’ll have a feel for the weather patterns and when and exactly where to best take advantage of them. You’ll have a feel for the angle of light at different times of the day and year. You’ll have a sense of which spots have the best foregrounds and /or backgrounds. All of this information leads to better image making.
In sum, there’s a qualitative component to familiarity with a location as well as a quantitative factor, and together they lead to better image making opportunities.
All of the photos accompanying this piece are examples of what I’m talking about. They all represent locations that I’d photographed at least a dozen distinct times before the specific shot you see was made. When opportunity came knocking, I was in a position to open the door. And you can be too if you carefully listen to the songs that your local photo locales are playing.
Thursday Tips is written by Kerry Mark Leibowitz, a guest blogger on 1001 Scribbles, and appears every other Thursday. To read more of his thoughts on photography, please visit his blog: Lightscapes Nature Photography.