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Mar 05, 2018
I think one of the biggest challenges for nature photographers today is to show something that people haven't seen before. In the age of Facebook & Instagram, there are very few secret places left in the world. The quality of digital cameras is so strong that almost any camera can create a quality image in most situations, assuming the operator has a basic level of ability. So what is the aspiring nature photographer, or today's professional for that matter, to do to set themselves apart? There are certain skills and techniques that help, but I think now more than ever before it takes even more dedication and focus to make it happen. One of my focus points this year is to follow the ideas that I'm about to share here, in an effort to really set apart the quality of the work that I'm doing. I've always been more of a quality over quantity person when it comes to my shooting style, but I'm focusing on that even more now, as well as following a few guidelines I'll share here.
1. Figure out when a scene will be at its best, and be there then.
This applies to anywhere you go to take pictures, whether traveling far away or visiting your favorite places close to home. Happy accidents do happen, but more often than not your best images will be ones that you planned for to show a scene at its best. This takes planning, reading photography guides for an area you're traveling to or using your favorite smartphone apps to plan around a certain alignment of the sun, the moon, or the Milky Way. This puts you one step ahead of the random snapshooter, but also understand you won't be the only one doing this. Certain spots are iconic for their sunrise or sunset view, or their natural displays at certain times of year. You may find yourself jockeying for tripod space with a large group of other photographers who did the same research you did, especially at one of those iconic spots. So what are you to do next to capture a unique image?
2. Be there at a time when everyone else isn't.
How you accomplish this is really dependent on the location, but however you do it it's a great idea. Get up early and get there before everybody else does, or stay late until everyone else leaves. In some locations you'll be limited by operating hours, some parks are only open sunrise to sunset or maybe even less. Work within these constraints the best you can, never violate these rules. Not only will you get yourself in trouble, but you will be a bad example to others. If a location seems overshot at sunrise or sunset, maybe it's a great opportunity to do night shots there for a different look, assuming the location is accessible at night. This can also apply to the seasons. If a location is closed to vehicles in the winter, but you are allowed to hike in, do it. Not many people will have seen it this way, and your images will have a certain wow factor to those who have only visited there during the height of the summer. There's also a great peacefulness in these situations, the hustle and bustle of the summer crowds are gone and you can really just take in the beauty of what's around you undisturbed. This leads me into the next tip.
3. Don't be afraid of the weather. Unless it's truly not safe, go out anyway.
If you've read through a number of my blog posts before, you'll know this is something I say a lot. This requires a degree of risk assessment on your own, not everyone will evaluate the same conditions the same way. When you feel comfortable going out, and have the appropriate gear for the conditions, get out there when everyone else is staying home. Those times when stormy weather is breaking are often the times of the most dramatic conditions for photography. Even in the midst of the storm, sometimes really special images can be made. If you're not sure if the weather will cooperate, but the time for that shot you've planned is here, get out there anyway. Just showing up in these situations when others are staying home is so valuable, but again please make the right decisions for yourself about the level of risk you're able to deal with. Don't put yourself or others in a truly unsafe situation.
So these are all great ideas you're saying, but how do I really put them into practice? Do you have a trip that you're planning for? Do the research to figure out what the best spots are, and what the best times to be there will be. I'm sure you know a lot of really great local locations too. Really work these locations to find them in their best light and conditions. For the photo above, I visited Eldorado Canyon State Park near Boulder on the morning after a fresh snowfall. Not only did I expect the few inches of fresh snow to add beauty, but I arrived to the park shortly before sunrise, before anyone else was there. This allowed me to capture the golden light of the first rays of the sun high on the canyon walls, adding another beautiful element to the scene. This is a popular spot, and by the time I left a couple of hours later after my hike the parking lots were already filling up. But I had beat everyone there and saw something that morning that no one else did. In the photo I'm sharing at the end of this post, I planned out a shot to capture the arc of the Milky Way stretching over the Pawnee Buttes in the Pawnee National Grassland in northeastern Colorado. This is a popular spot in the summer time, but on a cold February night only one other van was in the parking lot besides the group of photographers that joined me on this expedition. We slept in our cars overnight until 2 AM, then got out and hiked down to a spot I though would give us the composition I had in mind. It's a shot I'd been looking forward to for months, and although some light on the horizon from local energy production was not quite ideal, I'm still happy with what I was able to do with it. It's also a unique image of a well known place here in Colorado that I hadn't seen anyone do before. If you have a thought you'd like to add, or any questions you want to ask, drop them in the comments section below! I'll be happy to respond.
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