Planning and Spontaneity: Embracing Both for Capturing Great Images

Above a bend in the Little Missouri River in the North Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park, clouds glow purple and orange as the sun just begins to rise above the horizon.
Little Missouri Sunrise

Before leaving home on a photographic trip to somewhere new, I do research. I look at maps and reviews to help me decide what locations I should try visit and photograph. On my first day at the location I always try to scout the area to become familiar with what compositions may work depending on the angle of the rising and setting of the sun. I make a mental checklist of various landmarks and areas that would be good for dawn and dusk as well as the possibility of completely overcast days, party cloudy days, and days without clouds at all. With proper planning my photographic successes have increased. Additionally, the more I visit an area and the more I become acquainted with the features of the landscape and the location of the sun at different times of the day and year the more ideas I get for compositions.

With all that planning, I should always be prepared to capture the strongest image, right? Wrong. If there is one thing I’ve learned it’s to never be satisfied with your first composition and be prepared to move, quickly. Whenever I setup for my shots I always make sure my bag is packed, zipped up, and ready to be grabbed at a moments notice just in case the light changes and there is a stronger composition elsewhere.

On my latest trip to North Dakota this very situation occurred. I arrived at the North Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park just before sunrise. I setup in my planned, predetermined spot and composed my image based upon my scouting trip a couple days previous. A rainstorm the night before had cleared the air and doused the landscape. The plants were bursting with color and everywhere birds chirped greeting the day. A bank of clouds still hung, but the sky to the east was clear, a good sign. I waited with anticipation as the sun’s light began to illuminate the underside of the clouds. The Little Missouri River sparkled in the distance. The clouds above my head and all around glowed with pastel colors. After clicking the shutter a few times with the vivid scene before me, I moved my tripod and tried a couple of different compositions in the same spot.

Clouds from a passing storm are illuminated by the brilliant warm hues of the rising sun above a field of wildflowers in Theodore Roosevelt National Park.
Brilliant High Plains Sunrise

After about 3 minutes I realized the sunrise was becoming more intense with yellows and oranges. On my way up to the overlook I had passed a yellow wildflower field that I thought would work better with the colors and clouds in the sky. I grabbed my bag, my tripod and my camera and raced back to the car. I threw everything into the vehicle and drove about a half mile to the spot I had passed. I setup quickly and found a spot that allowed me to capture the rolling hills with the vibrant yellow flowers complimented by the intense sky. I clicked the shutter a few more times and reviewed the results on my screen.

Sunlight streams across the Little Missouri valley in the North Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota.
Daybreak in the Valley

The intense colors of the sunrise continued to surround me and I decided to make one more run to an overlook I had photographed the previous evening. I quickly placed my gear back in the car and drove about three more miles back down the road. I grabbed my gear and literally ran down the path quickly searching for an ideal spot to setup. I extended the tripod, moved the camera into placed, positioned my filters and clicked the shutter. The sun beamed into the river valley, but the clouds were moving fast. As I realized the sun was about to be covered, I checked my focus and settings and clicked the shutter one more time.

Then it was gone. The intense sunrise was replaced with an overcast sky.

It seemed like one of the top 5 sunrises I have ever witnessed while I held a camera in my hand. It felt like it lasted forever when in fact the entire endeavor probably lasted less then 20 minutes. For me it underscored the reason why I always try to prepare for every location, but at the same time, to be ready to change my composition quickly given what is happening around me. Sometimes the strongest images are those that are not completely planned and are created with a dash of spontaneity.

Equipment used in the Making of these photographs:

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