Landscape photography is, at its simplest, the process of finding a great location, creating an arresting composition, and capturing the image in great light. A successful photograph is normally a combination of planning and a certain amount of good fortune with the weather and the quality of the light.
I try to plan carefully, to maximise my chances of capturing great images. There are a few items I use to help in this process -an Ordnance Survey map, my tablet with The Photographer's Ephemeris, sometimes google street view, and also the highways agency traffic camera website (and sometimes other webcams), and a Satmap Active 12 GPS.
My planning process starts with my knowledge of the area I want to cover, and an ordnance survey map. Over the years I have accumulated a good collection of paper 1:25,000 maps. These maps give the most detailed view of the shape and features of the landscape. I prefer to use the paper maps for planning, as they cover a wider area. With practice it is possible to visualise the sort of view to be seen from a location, and evaluate possible issues such a woodland blocking the view or an inconveniently located industrial estate.
The next stage of my planning process uses a great little programme called The Photographer's Ephemeris. This combines a map with a display showing sunrise and sunset times and angles. This screenshot shows the main features of the programme:
The programme superimposes the sunrise and sunset times and angles on a configurable map. It also shows the sun direction at any chosen time of day, and the corresponding length and direction of shadows at the same time. For planning purposes the date can be changed. This allows for planning when the sunset will occur at a particular angle at any chosen location.
As an added bonus, the Photographer's Ephemeris also shows moonrise and set times and angles, and the times of the various types of twilight. This can be extremely useful in planning night photography in cities or countryside, and in setting up astrophotography shoots.
The Photographer's Ephemeris is available as a free desktop app through a webpage, and as a paid for app for Apple and Android devices. I use both - the desktop version for planning, and the apple version in the field, particularly if I need to change plans during the day.
Once I have planned through my maps and the Photographer's Ephemeris, I often have a quick look at the area with Google Street map. Although the age of the images on street map can vary, it can give useful information on the level of tree cover around a location, and on one occasion showed me that an area of coniferous trees had been felled, resulting in a change in my plans.
All of the above work can be completed days before a shoot. On the day before, and the day of a shoot, I look carefully at weather forecasts (both met office and the Mountain Weather Information Service "MWIS"). I also look at the rainfall radar history and forecast, and any webcams around the area I am planning to visit. The weather in hilly areas can be very different to the lowlands on some days. I have set off for the Yorkshire Dales quite a few times in bright sunshine, only to watch the weather close in as I approach my target location. There is a webcam near Ingleborough which can sometimes give useful information, and for some locations close to major roads, the traffic cameras on the Highways Agency website.
The screenshot above, from the Traffic England live traffic information system, usefully confirms that there are no queues or other delays on the M62 westbound over the Pennines, and that the weather at that camera appears to be a mixture of sunshine and showers, with some quite impressive cumulus clouds in the view. This image suggests there could be some interesting conditions in the area, so its probably time to pack up the car and go!
Once in the field, it is important to keep an eye on the broader conditions to take advantage of any opportunities. I use my Satmap Active 12 to help navigate to the locations I have planned to visit, and to estimate the time required to reach alternative viewpoints if I need to change my plans. The Active 12 is waterproof, and I have purchased the UK 1:25000 map pack, so I have access to detailed maps wherever I am in the country.
Planning helps, but it is only part of the process of taking landscape photos. Making the best of the location and conditions is equally important, and waiting (sometimes for a long time), is vital to capture the decisive moment when the view is at its best.