This is a famous quote by the Roman philosopher Seneca, and it’s been a guiding principal in my photography as well as life in general.  There is a misconception I hear a lot from people at art shows as well as online.  People will say things like “Wow, what an amazing photo!  You’re so lucky to have been in such a beautiful place and to see such a beautiful sunrise.”  I usually don’t correct them, but most would be astounded at the amount of work and preparation it took to put myself in the right place at the right time.  I believe, for the most part, we make our own luck.  I also believe, the more you can prepare yourself the better ready you’ll be if an opportunity arises.  In the case of landscape photography, I think there are several things you can do to prepare yourself to capitalize on opportunities.  I also think you can greatly increase the odds for opportunities to present themselves. In this article I’ll illustrate several examples of how this has worked for me.

Preparation.  For me, there are two main ways to prepare yourself to take advantage of photographic opportunities.

  1. Hone your craft.  This involves mastering the technical controls of your camera equipment and practicing the art of photography.  The goal is to learn how to make your camera equipment an extension of yourself.  This allows you to move quickly, adapt to changing light, and increases the odds of capturing something really special if the opportunity comes along.
    The photo below is a good example of this principal.  I was at a point in my photography where I was well practiced in the technical nature of my camera and the art of composition and light.  When I awoke on this morning and emerged from my tent in the Enchantments wilderness, the early twilight was already underlighting this incredible cloud formation and I knew I didn’t have much time before a truly incredible light show was going to happen.  I grabbed my camera bag and dashed across the rocky landscape.  I was trying to get to this vantagepoint I had scouted the night before, this is another thing I do to help prepare for this kind of opportunity.  I made it just in time for the peak of the sunrise display.  I had only a few moments to decide on a composition and dial in all the manual settings to capture this very dynamic scene.  This image is the result of 3 manually bracketed exposures captured in just a few seconds.  About 1 minute later, the clouds moved in front of the sun and the beautiful display of light was over.  If I had been a little slower, or not been as proficient with my equipment, or hadn’t scouted this scene the night before I would have missed this incredible opportunity. This is just one of many similar experiences that all share the same theme, “Luck is What Happens When Preparation Meets Opportunity”
  2. Do your research. The second way to prepare yourself to take advantage of photographic opportunities is to do your research.  This means research the area you are going to visit, look at topo maps to get an idea of the layout and possible areas of interest, watch the weather forecast, look up the seasonal foliage forecast during Autumn, tide charts if at the coast and the phase of the moon, etc.  These things all help increase your odds of encountering a rare opportunity.  One of the most useful things you can do to research an area is to scout the area yourself before you start shooting.  This is also one of my favorite ways to enjoy some of the spectacular areas I visit.  I love extensively exploring an area before I even take my camera out of the bag.  This is also the time when I start to pre-visualize how to compose interesting elements together.
    This image of the Milky way over Smith Rock is a great example of an image that is only possible through research.  The odds of just showing up to capture this image are essentially 0%.  So much research went into preparing for this shoot.  First, I had to find a day with no clouds in the forecast, when there would be no moon, and the Milky would line up behind Smith Rock.  I also had to scout the park extensively to find the best spot that would be visually interesting and line up with Milky Way.  Shout out to my buddy Rich Bacon who was the first person I know of to photograph this vantage point.  This process took several months.  The first day of the year where all of these variables lined up was in May.  With my plan in place I set out in the middle of the night.  I hiked for over an hour in the dark to reach.  I was able to capture the Milky Way with a stellar, clear sky.  I also waited around for a while to capture the first faint hint of morning twilight illuminating the landscape.  With these two exposures I was able to create the image I had pre-visualized months before.

A few tips to increase your odds of a unique opportunity.

1. Watch the forecast for interesting weather.  Clearing storms are one of my favorite things to look for in a weather forecast.  Many interesting opportunities come from photographing in and around storms.  Fresh snow, beauty clouds at sunset, frost and fog are examples of things I look for in a forecast to increase my odds of an interesting opportunity.

2. Keep your eye out for interesting light.  Obviously being in a location at sunrise and sunset tends to yield more interesting light, but also side light and backlight on a scene can be very interesting.

3. Pre-visualization.  There is definitely something to be said about being able to adapt on the fly to changing conditions and light, but sometimes having a well formed, pre-visualized idea for an image can help create an opportunity.

Here is an example of good preparation helping to create unique opportunities.  These images were captured during a trip to Colorado several years ago with my good friend Sean Bagshaw.  We spent a good amount of time in Crested Butte this trip, the Fall color was better than anywhere else in the state that year. Sean and I scouted all over the area around Crested Butte and this was one of our favorite spots.  We hiked up and explored the area for sunrise one morning and captured this first image.  Having never been there before and being without a good map of the area, we ended up bushwhacking up the side of this mountain to get to this vantage point.  The next day, while exploring the town, we walked into a lovely gallery in Crested Butte.  There we met a local photographer Raynor Czerwinski.  Raynor is super nice guy and he told us about a hidden trail next to the area we had been that would take us to the top of the ridge for a beautiful view.  Sean and I decided that if we saw any snow this trip, we wanted to come back to Crested Butte and photograph this spot.

Several days later while in the town of Telluride, we saw a short window of snow in the forecast coming up.  We headed back to Crested Butte just in time for the snow storm.  We hiked up the hidden trail in the dark, and were treated to a truly majestic morning.  It’s pretty rare to see fresh snow during the peak of Fall color and it’s a moment I’ll never forget. All of our preparation paid off and we were able to take advantage of a truly unique opportunity.

I have been very lucky over the years photographing, I’ve seen incredible sights and witnessed rare and spectacular moments in nature.  I’ve worked hard to prepare myself to take advantage of the opportunities that come my way and to increase the amount of those opportunities.  More than ever I do subscribe to the idea that “Luck is What Happens When Preparation Meets Opportunity”.

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