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A few springs ago, I spent an early evening photographing scenes of fringed phacelia (much like the image below) carpeting mountainsides in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. At the end of the day, I was driving back to town along the narrow, winding Newfound Gap Road, when I caught a glimpse of something out of the corner of my eye that made me stop the car at the next pullout and run back up the road to take a closer look.

What I had seen was a tree, in early spring bloom, backlit by the setting sun, its tiny leaves lighting up like a series of little jewels against a background mountainside in dark shadow. I ran back down to the car, grabbed my equipment, ran back up the road and ultimately made the image—which has become one of my favorites over the years—that you see immediately below.

The experience stands out for me precisely because of how unusual it was. It wasn’t the first time that I had inadvertently stumbled across the elements that make for a special image, nor would it be the last, but this sort of occurrence definitely has been the exception to the rule. Serendipitous discoveries such as this can and will happen—just not very often. The vast, vast majority of images that I regard as my best came as the result of careful scouting of locations where I determined that I had the best opportunity to be present when a series of elements might come together to produce something special.

This is what is known as giving yourself a chance to be lucky. By taking the time to do some research and scouting locations in advance you’re providing yourself the best opportunity to take advantage of the situation when the moment pops up—rather than scrambling around wildly in rapidly changing conditions.

EXAMPLES

This image took place on my third visit (in three days) to Trillium Lake, in the Mt. Hood National Forest. I had the opportunity to look over a copious amount of shoreline to determine the most pleasing composition that would include the mountain, the tree-lined slope to the left and the reflection of both. The scouting experience also gave me good reason to believe that mist off the lake in the morning was highly likely. (The boat, admittedly, was little more than dumb luck.)

 

I scouted this area of thickly growing bluebells for four consecutive springs before finally obtaining the conditions I needed, in terms of lighting, lack of wind, prime specimens and timing of peak bloom. Everything finally came together for me one day last year. (I’ve already checked the same location this spring and, presumably due to a harsh winter, I don’t expect this year to yield anything approaching what you see here.

I scouted this location in the Daniel Boone National Forest the day before I found the conditions that you see here. I’d already discovered what I considered to be the prime spot (perched on a rocky outcropping a couple of hundred feet away from the “official” overlook, roughly 500 feet above Swift Creek). Given the time of the year and my review of the weather forecast, I had good reason to believe that there would be copious low-hanging valley fog that morning, and at least the chance for a good sunrise sky. Had I shown up at this spot without an advance scouting session, I never would have been able to produce this image.

THE MORAL OF THE STORY

While I’ve relied upon landscape examples—because that’s virtually all I do—the principle of scouting applies to all forms of outdoor photography, including genres that ostensibly seem entirely spontaneous—such as wildlife or avian photography. Scouting spots in advance will provide useful information about where certain subjects congregate and how they’re likely to behave, which will give you an idea of what to look for and where to look for it so you can be ready when that once in a lifetime moment occurs. The principle holds for other forms of seemingly “unscripted” genres, such as street photography. You can’t necessarily predict a specific shot, but some careful scouting can give you a better sense of where and when the best action is most likely to take place, allowing you to be at the ready.

Great shots rarely “just happen.” By taking the time and making the effort to scout, you’ll greatly up your “keeper” quotient.

Thursday Tips is written by Kerry Mark Leibowitz, a guest blogger on 1001 Scribbles, and appears every other Thursday. To read more of his thoughts on photography, please visit his blog: Lightscapes Nature Photography.