Sunset Over Azhagappapuram

Evening clouds turn to fire over the mountains north of Azhagappapuram, Tamil Nadu, India.

I took this photo on the final day of a fantastic trip to India last year. I was in the state of Tamil Nadu, at the southern tip of India staying with my friend Frans. The village in which he grew up is just on the far side of this small lake, so I only had to travel a few minutes from where I was staying to get this shot.

I had been eyeing the sky for a few days, hoping for some clouds at sunset that would catch the last rays of the day. Luck was with me for my last evening in town, as the clouds started to build in the afternoon.

Unfortunately, I did not get the still water that I was hoping for, in order to create a reflection of the southern most expanse of the Western Ghats. In typical southern Tamil Nadu style, wind was whipping across the water at great speed, creating small white caps (definitely NOT what I was hoping for!) In fact, this area is known for its expanse of wind farms, which should have given me a clue that waiting for a calm day was likely an exercise in futility.

Evening clouds turn to fire over the mountains north of Azhagappapuram, Tamil Nadu, India.
Evening clouds turn to fire over the mountains north of Azhagappapuram, Tamil Nadu, India.

However, I had previously scouted a small area of lotus plants close to the shore, which helped the photo in two ways. First, the lotuses broke up the waves that the wind was creating. And second, they added some level of interest to the foreground. This was the next best option given there was no chance for a reflection.

As a side note, these plants would have been much more beautiful had any blossoms been on the plants. But alas, they were picked clean. As I was wondering about why this was, I saw a man in a canoe further along the shore, slowly making his way through the lotuses and plucking any fresh blossoms. Oh well, maybe time for a little photoshop? Just kidding of course….

Apparently, this area doesn’t see many photographers or foreigners. As I was standing by the shoreline with my tripod, many people stopped on the nearby road to watch what I was doing. That was okay – the resulting photo was well worth the extra attention.

Every day I was there, I discovered more of the natural beauty of the area’s land and animals. I will certainly return to cover this amazing landscape more in depth.

How To Scout A Location For Landscape Photography

Hang around a group of landscape photographers long enough, and you’ll undoubtedly hear them talking about location scouting. As the old saying goes, understanding your subject better will improve your photographs of the subject. This is true for all kinds of photography (wildlife, architectural, portrait), and landscapes are no exception. Location scouting is the process of getting to know a particular landscape better, and is an important aspect of improving your landscape photography.

Before we talk about the nuts and bolts of how to conduct a proper location scout, let’s talk about various types of scouting and how each might bring a new perspective on an imperfect landscape.

Seasonal scouting

Location scouting can be done long before the final photo is taken, sometimes even years. Anytime I visit an area for landscape photography, I not only try to create the best photograph I can at the time, but I also imagine what the scene might look like during different times of the year. Would that alpine meadow make the perfect foreground if only it were covered in wild flowers? Would those high mountain slopes pop if the aspen groves were in peak fall colors? Or if the tree line was blanketed with fresh snow?

Sometimes certain areas don’t look very good when I first visit, but in a different season, it would shine. In those cases, I make a mental note to come back in the season I think will show the area at its best, and do research to find out optimal timing for those seasonal elements. But while I’m there, I can spend the time finding some of the shots that I will eventually take, even if it ends up being years later.

Ponytail Falls shoots outward from a cleft in a rock cliff, and cascades over large stones below, Columbia River Gorge, Oregon
Ponytail Falls shoots outward from a cleft in a rock cliff, and cascades over large stones below, Columbia River Gorge, Oregon

In this example, I first visited Ponytail Falls in Oregon’s Columbia Gorge in late fall. The trees were bare and the moss on the river’s rocks was brown. It was still a pretty scene, but I knew that by visiting the same area in the spring, I would green up the scene, and catch the falls at peak water flow. I returned in spring a couple years later to capture the photo above. Having already scouted the area and set up my shot made the return trip easy, as I had already formulated my target compositions in my mind.

Scouting for a different time of day

Scouting an area for a future season is an extreme example of the practice. More often, we’re scouting in anticipation of different light on the scene. Examples include visiting an area in the evening in anticipation of sunrise light, visiting midday while waiting for a beautiful sunset, or even waiting for a passing squall to reveal the full glory of its post-storm light show.

The tetons rise behind a stand of fall aspen, Grand Teton National Park
The tetons rise behind a stand of fall aspen, Grand Teton National Park

The photo above was taken on a trip to Grand Teton National Park with some friends. We scouted out a beautiful aspen grove in full fall foliage with the Tetons rising behind. However, the sunset we were hoping for failed to materialize with heavy cloud cover all the way to the western horizon. One of my friends suggested that although we had been targeting this location for a sunset, it might actually look spectacular at sunrise, as both the Tetons and the aspen grove would be front lit, slightly from the left. This would give definition to both the mountain and trees, and hopefully the sunrise would reveal some of that nice fall color throughout the grove. With another visit in mind, I spent some time composing the shot above, in anticipation of sunrise light.

The sun just lights the top of the Tetons as it rises behind a grove of aspen in their fall colors, Grand Teton National Park
The sun just lights the top of the Tetons as it rises behind a grove of aspen in their fall colors, Grand Teton National Park

A couple of days later, I was rewarded by the preparation. We arrived just before dawn, and because of my earlier visit, I knew exactly what my composition would look like. I quickly reset the shot based on GPS coordinates I took the previous visit. Using the exact spot I had set up in previously, as well as my reference shot from two days earlier, I took all the guesswork and stress of finding a shot that morning. Now it was just a matter of waiting for that beautiful light to brush through the aspen grove and make those yellows and oranges glow.

The on-site scout

The last type of scouting (and often the most frantic) that I do is what I call the “on-site”. This stems from me showing up unprepared, but still needing to quickly assess the area and find those great compositions that convey the essence of the area to the viewer. This is much easier done when showing up for a sunset shoot, because you typically have a few hours of daylight in which to scout and set up your shot for the magic hour. On-sight scouting for a sunrise shoot is much more difficult, because even if you show up early, you have to wait until pre-dawn light before you can see the scene well enough. It is very hard to create compositions in the pitch black of night!

Sunlight moves down the mountains to the west of Salt Creek, now a dried salt flat, Death Valley National Park
Sunlight moves down the mountains to the west of Salt Creek, now a dried salt flat, Death Valley National Park

The photo above was the result of one of those rare pre-sunrise on-sight scouts. This shot was taken on my first trip to Death Valley National Park in the salt pan near Salt Creek. As I walked out onto the dried salt bed, I was surrounded by a thick salt crust. While this could make for an interesting foreground, it felt a little too overbearing to balance out the distant mountains. However, I had never been here before, and I didn’t quite know where to go. As I saw the sunlight start creeping down the mountain face, a composition suddenly came to me. I wanted to contrast the bright red of the sunlit mountains with the blues of the still-shaded salt. However, this thick crust of salt wasn’t working for me – I needed a much more delicate salt ridge pattern that gave more emphasis to the structure of the salt in between the ridges.

I quickly scanned the ground to the north and south, looking for a ground pattern that would help fulfill that vision. In the distance to the south I saw something that might work, but I had only a few minutes to get there and set up before the light would flood the salt pan itself, ruining the color contrast effect. I heaved my tripod (camera still attached) over one of my shoulders and ran as fast as I could across the pan. As I got close, I could see that this foreground would work out perfectly. Down went my tripod, already set up to the right height with the right, wide angle lens attached. Less than a minute later, the sun was just touching the lower slopes of the mountains, creating the beautiful color separation I was hoping for.

Scouting techniques

Now that we’ve gone over the various types of location scouting, how does one actually go about doing this? You’ve arrived to a spot with several hours to spare, but now what? For landscapes, there are three major elements I’m thinking about combining to create my composition – background, mid-ground and foreground. The goal of scouting is to essentially find each of these elements that you want to add together to create a potential composition. If the lighting is great while you’re there, wonderful. You may luck out and get your ideal photo of that location. But more often than not, it helps to think about other times or seasons in which to capture the scene.

1. Find your background:

The sun rises over Thousand Island Lake and Banner Peak, Ansel Adams Wilderness
The sun rises over Thousand Island Lake and Banner Peak, Ansel Adams Wilderness

Backgrounds are easy. These are the huge dominant aspects of a landscape that typically draws you to the area in the first place. In my typical compositions, this is usually a mountain, ocean, or waterfall. In the photo above, I was backpacking at Thousand Island Lake in the Ansel Adams Wilderness of the Sierra Nevada. Banner Peak is a dominant feature of that area and hard to ignore. I knew well before my trip that I wanted to capture this massif at sunrise. One element down.

2. Find your middle ground:

The sun rises over Thousand Island Lake and Banner Peak, Ansel Adams Wilderness
The sun rises over Thousand Island Lake and Banner Peak, Ansel Adams Wilderness

A middle ground typically ties your foreground and background together. Every landscape doesn’t need a middle ground, but I’m always assessing the area around me to find some element that will compliment, or draw the viewers’ eyes toward the background. In this case, Thousand Island Lake itself was a no-brainer. It was a calm morning and Banner Peak cast a strong reflection, doubling the impact of the mountain. Now just to find a proper foreground to lead the viewers eye into the frame, and balance the strength of the mountain.

3. Construct your composition with proper foreground elements:

Banner Peak is reflected in Thousand Island Lake at dawn, Ansel Adams Wilderness
Banner Peak is reflected in Thousand Island Lake at dawn, Ansel Adams Wilderness

The perfect foreground usually takes some searching to find. If you see a photographer wandering around looking at their feet, this is likely what they are doing. If the angle of the lens is very wide, these foreground elements can sometimes be very small. You can often find several good options for foregrounds using the same middle and background elements. If so, shoot them all! In this case, walking along the shoreline of the lake led me to a line of rocks breaking the reflection of the deep blue sky. Perfect elements to draw the viewers eye toward the reflection and up to the peak itself. With my shot in the bag, I headed back to camp for my morning coffee.

A final word – virtual scouting

Today’s information age brings us many advantages in learning about far away places. Although I think nothing beats learning about a location like visiting it yourself, I often utilize digital exploration techniques before I go somewhere to photograph it. This helps me get my bearings and start to think about what kinds of photographs I’m going to attempt. While I won’t go into detail here, tools such as the Photographers Ephemeris, Google Maps 3D and Google Maps photo overlay help in seeing what others have captured in the area, as well as planning your own trip.

Sun lights the tip of Mt. Davis at dawn, Ansel Adams Wilderness
Sun lights the tip of Mt. Davis at dawn, Ansel Adams Wilderness

I often shoot remote mountain locations while backpacking. Every time I pull into a new campsite, I drop my pack and start scouting the surrounding area, thinking about sunset that night, and also sunrise the next morning. As I had never been to Davis Lakes in the Sierra Nevada before, I spent a good deal of time researching the area using the tools above. Based on the time of year and angle of the sunrise, I knew that sunrise light on the peak of Mt. Davis reflected in the lake would look fantastic. When I arrived at my predetermined campsite, I set about finding a composition that would lead the viewer’s eye right up to that beacon of light in the frame. In order to do this, I had to pre-visualize what it might look like the following morning. The next morning, I emerged from my tent and set up in the exact spot I had scouted the previous evening. Now I just had to wait for the light until it was perfect.

Next time you think of a new area you’d like to photograph, spend time beforehand learning about that location. Give yourself plenty of time to explore the area on foot, setting up several potential shots that might work well in the right lighting conditions. Above all, if mother nature does not cooperate with your photo endeavor, don’t despair! Just chalk it up to a valuable scouting trip!

The Etosha Pan

A camel-thorn acacia grows next to the Etosha Pan, Etosha National Park, Namibia.

The Etosha Pan is a large dry lake bed in Namibia, which due to heavy mineral deposits forms a dry salt pan. The name “Etosha” comes from an Ndonga word meaning “great white place”. While the pan rarely sees water, it is surrounded by savanna and sparse forest, teeming with wildlife. The pan is 75 miles long and just shy of 3,000 square miles. Here you can see the white expanse of the pan stretching into infinity.

A blue wildebeest wanders out alone onto the Etosha Pan, Etosha National Park, Namibia.

Occasionally the wildlife that lives at the edges of the lake bed wander out onto it to gather surface minerals, making up a portion of their diet. A blue wildebeest is dwarfed by the vastness of the pan.

The lake was fed by a large river about 16,000 years ago when glacial melt caused the formation of many such rivers. At some point tectonic plate movement changed the course of the river, and the pan dried up to its current state. The only time it sees a few centimeters of water is due to heavy rains, but this is a seldom occurrence.

Herds of plains zebra and springbok visit a waterhole for a morning drink, Etosha National Park, Namibia.

The area surrounding the pan is dotted with waterholes which support a wide variety of wildlife. This area is protected within the boundaries of Etosha National Park, which completely surrounds the pan. Although I only spent one full day here, that glimpse of wildlife photographic possibilities will surely draw me back.

Okaukuejo Waterhole: Wildlife Diversity

My last blog post detailed my experience with five endangered black rhino at the Okaukuejo Waterhole in Ethosa National Park, Namibia. But that’s certainly not all I saw during those long quiet hours in the dead of night.

The sun sets over the Okaukuejo Waterhole, Etosha National Park, Namibia

I arrived at the waterhole just as the sun was setting behind the horizon. Night is the best time to see wildlife here, and to facilitate wildlife viewing, this camp has set up a flood light by which to see the nocturnal visitors. Quite a few people gathered at the waterhole to watch the sunset, but soon they were off to dinner and bed. Over the next hour, the crowds thinned out and only the die-hards remained for a long night’s wait.

Zebra come at night to drink from the Okaukuejo Waterhole. Night is a good time for prey animals to visit waterholes as they have a better chance of escaping predators.
Zebra come at night to drink from the Okaukuejo Waterhole. Night is a good time for prey animals to visit waterholes as they have a better chance of escaping predators.

One of the more common visitors were the zebra. One night a small herd came at dusk, but it was those few that crept up to the waterhole in the middle of the night that were more fun to watch. The absolute silence was only disrupted by the soft crunching of rocks under their feet, as they lined the edge of the water to drink. The stillness of the water cast a perfect reflection. However there was no chance to relax, as any little sound had the zebra darting their gaze to the darkness, trying to see beyond the wall of black.

A giraffe stands next to a tree at the Okaukuejo Waterhole. Its body is reflected in the still waters, Etosha National Park, Namibia.
A giraffe stands next to the Okaukuejo Waterhole. Its body is reflected in the still waters, Etosha National Park, Namibia.

Zebra gave way to giraffe, which traveling in ones and twos. In order to capture photos of these animals at night, I had my 400mm lens locked down on the tripod, my mirror locked up, and my shutter speed just slow enough to gather the required light. Keep the shutter too slow, and the animal was more likely to move during the exposure. It was a careful balance of predicting animal behavior, and making sure all my camera functions were set correctly.

Giraffe visit the Okaukuejo Waterhole at night, drinking from its still water, Etosha National Park, Namibia.

One of my favorite sights was the comical way in which giraffe drank water. They had to contort their bodies and spread their front legs in order to bring their heads low enough to the ground to drink.

A springbok visits the Okaukuejo Waterhole at night, its form reflected in the still water, Etosha National Park, Namibia.

In addition to the larger mammals, I saw a couple of antelope species. The ever present springbok made an appearance.

A species endemic to Namibia, several black-faced impala visit the Okaukuejo Waterhole at night, Etosha National Park, Namibia.

As did the endemic black-faced impala.

I did see an elephant in the early hours of morning. However luck was not on my side, and none of my photos turned out. There was too much movement from this giant beast to capture under low lights.

I would certainly recommend this type of experience to wildlife lovers. It was incredibly intimate to watch these animals interacting under the cover of darkness, with nobody else around. It was a wildlife cathedral I was lucky enough to attend!