As an amateur landscape photographer, opportunities to visit epic locations such as Lofoten, Iceland, or the Scottish highlands are limited. When an opportunity for travel arises, an overly ambitious plan is often drafted in an effort to squeeze every last drop of potential from the trip.
While it’s tempting to shoot as many locations as time allows, this approach yields less in terms of both image-making and enjoyment. It results in end-of-day exhaustion that builds over the period of the trip. Creativity and exhaustion are not easy bedfellows.
My first tip is to make a list of desired locations, prioritize based on preference, and cut the list in half removing the lower priorities. It seems extreme but it takes the pressure off and besides you may be able to add locations to the plan when you’re there — psychologically that’s a boost!
I’ve had plans fall apart through no fault of my own but have also pushed on with a plan when exceptional light and lesser subjects could have delivered superior images. So, my second tip is to be prepared to break your plan — but only where exceptional circumstances arise.
A further consideration is the time required to familiarize yourself with a photographic location. You’ve seen the images online and may think you can rock up and get that shot. But there are no signposts indicating where to erect your tripod — if only.
Consider the time and practicalities of getting there, finding the viewpoint, waiting for the right light, and how it plays with the topography, ensuring your camera gear/clothing/food intake/energy levels, etc. are adequate. Quite often, when presented with such a location for the first time, a childlike giddiness, awe, and excitement can cause a complete shutdown of the creative functions of the brain which tends to result in panic — never a good space to be in particularly when you’re tiptoeing on the edge of a cliff.
Having found the photographic hotspot area, you’re automatically thinking about those “epic” images you’ve seen online. Like it or not, you’ll have an urge to copy these compositions before moving on to serve your creative self with something new. It’s very hard to resist these urges and I’m not quite so sure you should. After all, it’s the epic images that have brought you here.
Just Google “lofoten landscape photography” – 7 of the first 14 images returned are essentially the same image of “Eliassen Rorbuer”. The image has been taken by the good, bad, and indifferent of landscape photographers. My reaction when I see this image posted is “oh no, not another one.” But could I have imagined leaving Lofoten without that image? No way.
So how do you best maximize your return from visiting an epic location? Firstly, try to shoot a single location at both sunset and sunrise. Arrive in the afternoon, take the pressure off, walk around without the camera, live the place a little. Take your sunset shot and consider your sunrise shot. Remove any thoughts (the itch) to move on.
Two average shots of two locations will find dust on your hard drive but a well-worked single location might just turn out to be that portfolio shot you yearn. So that’s tip number three: involve yourself fully at each location, get the epic shot, but give yourself more time to explore and find something a little different.
Next up: who to travel with? Whether to go solo, go with friends, or go on a paid trip led by a professional where you don’t have to consider transport, hotels, locations (and there’s the option of the guided compositions). Light is the only unknown on these trips but location knowledge will punt on the best light to location options.
I have not gone on such a trip so I can’t comment. I’m aware that I’m missing out on the knowledge I could glean from professionals and other photographers. But when I do arrive at a location and see a gathering of tripods with a leader, I’m always glad I’m by myself. This is just a personal choice. I just get a kick out of finding myself alone in a magnificent location, camera or not. So my tip number four — and it’s a personal one — is travel alone and do your own thing.
How to travel? This is simple because there are one means of travel for landscape photography that takes some beating, and that’s by campervan. This is simply because of the freedom it offers. For example, staying in a B&B in Glencoe, Scotland, I remember doing a sunrise hike up Chrulaiste to photograph Buchaille Etive More. Breakfast stopped serving at 10:30 am and this silly thought nagged me for the whole morning. How ridiculous — I traveled so far to see this place and there I was letting a couple of rashers and sausages dictate how soon I needed to be off the mountain.
On three occasions I’ve rented a camper van in Iceland — in February, March, and May. I could not have imagined doing a photography trip any other way. To wake up at locations for a sunrise shoot or maybe stay through the night for a spot of astro. Forgot some gear? A short walk back to the van!
Two pieces of advice: make sure you’ve thought through charging gear and phones etc. Stay every second night at a campsite and get the next size up for comfort. That’s tip number five.
Tip number six: manage your own expectations. Fact: you’re unlikely to return home with more than 2-3 keepers from a week-long trip. Don’t expect more. More importantly, don’t spend weeks or months trying to make silk purses out of pig’s ears. Know when to discard an image — composition may be good but the light is awful, the light is fantastic but you’ve messed up the focus, dramatic weather but raindrops on filters, etc. etc. Put these images behind you and move on.
This is easier said than done. After all, you’ve invested so much time and cost. For some reason the brain (or mine at least) finds it hard to accept that a poor photograph sitting on the screen does not have merit. If you suffer from this condition, please go and see somebody about it as it’s very hard to cure.
Very often, it’s a roadside stop photo or spur of the moment image that makes it into your keeper folder for a trip. Recently on a trip to Iceland, I pulled in for a cup of tea and a rest after a long drive. I noticed a couple of bushes almost buried in snow and thoroughly enjoyed a very relaxed hour working a composition.
Similarly, a 3 hour round trip to the Svartifoss waterfall resulted in a panorama that I love. It was taken with a long lens as I sat in the campervan having returned from the hike! That’s tip number seven: stay aware while traveling between locations.
About the author: Jimmy Mc Donnell is a landscape and wildlife photographer from Co Wicklow, Ireland with an enduring passion for capturing images that reflect the beauty of the natural world. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. You can find more of Mc Donnell’s work on his website and YouTube. This article was also published here.