In photography, sometimes you get lucky, and the perfect opportunity presents itself in front of you. Most of the time though, you have to work for it.
One summer morning, I hiked up above timber line on Blue Mountain in the Olympic National Park. It wasn't a long hike or anything — you can drive most of the way up, although few do since the road can be fairly rough. From the top, you can see for miles. That morning, my plan was to photograph the rising sun amongst the alpine wildflowers and rocky crags. I found my spot while it was still dark and starting shooting away as soon as the eastern skyline started showing that magical glow that landscape photographers crave. I was having a great time. As the sun started to climb above the horizon though, I was startled by a perception of movement out of the corner of my eye. Since I thought I was alone on my alpine perch, I turned to investigate. What I found surprised me. There, not ten feet in front of me, were two black-tailed deer, one a buck with an impressive rack of antlers, still in velvet. Apparently, my morning photography location happened to be in the area they were foraging for breakfast. Needless to say, I decided to set revise my original plans and took a few steps back to include my new companions in what I was photographing that morning.
But such occasions are few and far between. Don't get me wrong, I'm all for taking advantage of unexpected opportunities that present themselves. Nobody is going to complain about winning the lottery. But don't expect great images to fall into your lap every day. You can help your prospects considerably with a bit of research and reconnaissance.
Research can start before you ever leave home. There is a wealth of information available on the internet these days that can aid in being better prepared. Want to know where the subjects you
are interested are most likely to be found, and when you can find them there? Nothing is a guarantee, but a bit of searching online can help make you better informed. Looking for up to the minute reports? Don't overlook Facebook for what your friends and members of the various photo groups are sharing.
But once you there with your camera gear, there's no substitute for a bit of field work to scout out things first hand. Want to know precisely where the wildflowers are in peak bloom? Go and look for them. You'll know it when you see it.
The obvious question that comes up is, when would you have time to perform such reconnaissance? If you've made time to go somewhere with your camera, it would seem like you should be using it to take pictures. But there really aren't that many good shots to be made in the middle of the day. Peak hours for nature photography is centered around sunrise and sunset, leaving plenty of time in between to wander around and explore.
Here are some suggestions:
Talk to people in the area, both locals and other visitors. Each will have their own perspective on things when you ask them. The clerk at the gas station may have a favorite location they are willing to share if you but ask. Those from out of the area may enthusiastically regale you with what they've seen if given the opportunity.
If someone seems really helpful, offer to share what you end up with them. It's not only the considerate thing to do, it can make them even more willing to help you.
Don't take everything they say at face value. I've found that when I ask other people, even the park rangers, at National Park visitors centers where I can find good patches of wildflowers, they don't seem to understand that I'm looking for photogenic wildflowers. Too often, if I follow their advice without some follow up questions, that the flowers are well past their prime. They may be plentiful, but not necessarily pretty.
If you're in an area where people often photograph, you will likely find postcard racks in the visitors center, grocery store, or perhaps elsewhere. Keep your eye out. If you find a rack, consider where the postcards were shot. These are places you may want to visit, or at least places to ask others about.
Then go out and take a good hike and get some exercise. The only sure way to verify the reports you've gathered from others is to take a look for yourself. This will also give you the opportunity to frame some likely compositions and determine where exactly you'll need to be when you come back with your camera. This could save you valuable time when it matters most.
Where there are roads, do some driving. Pretend you're a tourist for a few hours and see what you can find.
Pay attention to compass directions. Some locations will work better at sunrise, others are more sunset locations. The light may not be ideal when you are there scouting a location, but you can generally predict when it will be better.
While out reconnoitering, you may or may not find what you expect, but beyond that, you may just find something even better. Expect the unexpected, and keep an eye out for possibilities.
Don't forget to get some sleep at some point of course. Where I live, summer days can be long, and nights can be short. Getting up before sunrise every day and staying out well past sunset can take their toll after a while. Remember, you need to be at your peak to fully take advantage of whatever you find.