Landscape Photography Planning vs Improvisation

Detailed and thorough landscape photography planning is a fundamental requirement of any successful photographic project. This is true for all photographic disciplines to differing degrees. For example, studio, advertising, fashion, commercial and architectural photography, more often than not, enjoy the benefits of controlled surroundings.

It is in disciplines such as photojournalism and social photography where an elevated chance of the unexpected exists.  Where even the best-laid plans can often go awry. As this is also true for landscape photography, it is both interesting and important to discuss how this should concern us as landscape photographers. We must consider the pros and cons of planning vs improvisation.

Pelahustán Dic - Landscape Photography by Jose Luis Durante Molina

Some of the world’s most renowned landscape photographers advocate methodical planning for all photographic ventures. Among these, we can quote:

Their collective works transcend landscape photography. The necessity of planning is an underlying principle present in all of their educational literature. But is it really necessary to follow this advice to the extreme? Is it not acceptable, in some cases, to give way to improvisation? When undertaking a photographic project, things are rarely black or white. More often than not they are varying shades of murky grey.

Costa de Torrevieja - Landscape Photography by Jose Luis Durante Molina

Prior Landscape Photography Planning

Our collective experiences will, I’m sure, confirm the importance of solid planning whilst remaining flexible. With that said, if we want to ensure the maximum level of certainty in any given situation, we must plan. Certainly, if we truly wish to succeed and achieve our intended end result.

It is essential that this includes the study of place:

  • location
  • proximity
  • accessibility
  • geography
  • safety conditions

We must determine the environment:

  • its features
  • climate
  • daylight hours
  • influences
  • seasonal changes

All these details will help us to form a vision of how we wish to portray the given location as an image. But if circumstance dictates, could some if not all of this planning be done ‘in situ’? Indeed, is all this information actually necessary for us to form the “dream” of the image we wish to create? Or is it possible that imagination supersedes knowledge? In any case, after this first phase, we will know how we intend to represent the location in question. The next step in the planning process is to determine the most suitable moment to capture the imagined image. This leads us into the most prosaic element of the photographic profession:

  • ascertaining whether or not permission is required to shoot in the desired location
  • acquiring that permission if necessary
  • arranging transport
  • accommodation
  • overall management of the shoot

Once all this has been accounted for, we can return to a purely photographic/creative path. Deciding on the necessary equipment, procedures and techniques required to produce the envisioned image.

Coast - Landscape Photography by Jose Luis Durante Molina

Finally, Landscape Photography!

With the planning process complete, we can finally begin to realise our original vision. With all that has been put in place, one may be forgiven for feeling that nothing has been left to chance. If we adhere to all aspects of the plan our intended image should be achieved perfectly!

However, as already discussed, very rarely do things go according to plan. The first variable likely to play a dirty trick on us is the weather. This can prove to have a fundamental impact. Both rainfall and changing light conditions can cause changes in the physical appearance of the landscape. This can necessitate an improvisation and an amendment to the planned image.

If the intended location is not far from home we can forgo improvisation in favour of returning on another occasion. However, if this is not easily achievable, it would be prudent not to scrap the investment of time and money. I consider the ability to adapt to changes in circumstance to be a fundamental quality of any photographer. Just as I do the ability to manipulate that change to one’s advantage and the for the benefit of the image.

The following image was taken during a trip to the coast of Cadiz, in the south of Spain. One of the principal aims of the trip was to produce a series of color landscapes. The weather conditions quickly put an end to the original idea, making it necessary to improvise. Shooting in monochrome conveyed a completely different idea and vision to the original concept whilst more suited to the changed conditions.

El Palmar - Landscape Photography by Jose Luis Durante Molina

Indispensable Improvisation

Another situation where improvisation can prove indispensable is on vacation. Often, in this situation, the itinerary or schedule is not dictated by the goal of capturing imagery, but by other, non-photographic concerns. As a result of this, we cannot guarantee to be in the ideal place at the ideal time to create the images we would hope for. We cannot always plan for the light and weather as well as we might wish to and often arrive at a location with no prior research. Or even be there at the most favourable time of year.

It is in these situations that we must decide whether the conditions are suitable in which to shoot or not, given that our overall aim is to produce high-quality imagery. We must try to envision a possible image. We must decide if the environmental conditions, available equipment and technical capacity will allow us to create this image and act accordingly. Definitely an example of improvisation at play over planning, for the most part. Although it could be argued that the intention to capture imagery was always present, therefore representing a plan of sorts.

Cala de Torrevieja 2 - Landscape Photography by Jose Luis Durante Molina

Landscape Photography Planning Vs Spontaneity

At the opposite end of the spectrum to “total” planning is spontaneity. Occasions on which we have not even considered the possibility of shooting, but find the perfect opportunity before us and by habit, or fortune, have a photographic device to hand, (whether it be a camera or even a smartphone as is the case for most of us in this day of age). It may be that we have simply gone for a walk or are returning from a planned shoot and happen upon a unique space and moment. It is our instinct to capture it. Or at least try to. We must envision the image that we can create with what our eyes see before us and utilise the equipment that we have to hand. And we must trust that our technical knowledge and experience will lead to success.

We can find still one more case in which improvisation can help us capture “found” images over planned ones. It is these situations that in my experience prove to deliver the most satisfying and high-quality images. This normally occurs during a highly planned and well-executed shoot, when inexplicably, there is a dramatic change in conditions. Whether or not we have the ideal equipment or perfect set up, we must react with urgency and instinct in order to capture the fresh and unique scene materializing before us. This image will prove to be the fruit of pure improvisation. It appears and we photograph it.

Barco al sol - Landscape Photography by Jose Luis Durante Molina

Unexpected Opportunity

The above image is the result of one of these situations. During a meticulously planned landscape shoot in the south of Torrevieja, Province of Alicante, Spain, an unexpected opportunity suddenly arose. The setting sunlight broke through the cloud which had previously been obstructing the evening sky. By chance, the light fell upon and illuminated a ship as it was waiting to enter the port of Torrevieja. At that moment I had a 16mm-35mm f/4 lens fitted with a 50mm f/1.4 lens in my camera bag.

Despite the ephemeral lighting, the focal length of neither lens was appropriate due to my distance from the ship. I was forced to quickly adapt to the situation and adopt a composition more suited to my focal length limitations. I opted for my 50mm lens. The scene lasted only two minutes. Once the pleasantly unexpected magic of the light on the ship had concluded, I continued with my shoot as planned, producing the two images that appear below.

Cala de Torrevieja - Landscape Photography by Jose Luis Durante Molina

Final Thoughts

As borne out by the experiences described above, a balance between planning and improvisation is essential in photography. The task of planning allows us…

“…to be close to the topic of our photo from multiple viewpoints, in such a way that, when we have to leave the right path, we will already know the environment, which will facilitate the improvisation or research of new solutions,” Verónica Tovar.

"I am a state school teacher in Vocational Training in Family Communication, Image and Sound, specializing in the subjects of Photographic Imaging and Digital Image Processing. I also work as a professional photographer, whilst writing photo essays, and developing my personal work, both in the field of landscape and portrait photography."

Jose Luis Durante Molina -

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