Preparation and Process


While recently watching the TV show, Grey’s Anatomy, one of the medical residents was being quizzed on the step-by-step procedures for the surgery she was about to perform. Of course, she accurately recited each step, but when it came time for the surgery, she couldn’t remember one small, but critical step in the procedure. While I certainly don’t equate medicine with photography, preparation for a photo shoot or for a photo trip are critically important.

A few months ago, I decided to add to my growing portfolio of black and white images of Washington, D.C. You can view a partial group of my D.C. images in the Capital Idea gallery of my website. I find photographing my hometown especially challenging in spite of its incredible beauty, because so many “postcard” shots have been taken and are embedded in everyone’s minds.

When we do things regularly, we often don’t think about everything that is involved. We just “do it.” I thought it might be an interesting blog post to keep track of the process I followed before, during and after a shoot. Yes, I know, by writing down most of what I thought about and did might be considered being obsessed with details, or even worse, but I’ve been accused of much more!

Here are the things I thought about or did before, during and after my dawn shoot.

The night before:

    Checked sunrise/moonset times with the LightTrac app on my iPhone – sunrise will be 6:24am
  • I want to be in position 30 minutes before sunrise because that’s often when the best color is in the sky
  • Determined the amount of time to drive/park/walk to first shooting location
  • Set alarm for 4am – leave house by 4:45 – on location by 5:45
  • Used LightTrac app for various shooting locations to determine sun location over 2 hour window at and after sunrise
  • Checked hourly weather forecast with iPhone app The Weather Channel MAX: Found partly cloudy, at sunrise, which might be ideal
  • The Weather Channel app also showed a weather alert – “code orange air pollution alert” for the shoot day – could be good if adds some color to sunrise – may be bad if hazy, which can affect telephoto shots
  • Based on weather forecast, selected clothing
  • Selected a number of shooting possibilities and then found a parking area within 1 mile of the places I planned to shoot
  • Thought about possible shots (wide, telephoto, pano), which determined what camera and lenses would be needed
  • Some shots will be before sunrise, therefore they would be long exposures. A tripod is a must, but will be prohibited in a number of shoot locations, such as The Mall and at certain locations in some monuments.
  • Because of the low light before sunrise, some locations where tripod cannot be used, I will need higher ISOs and longer shutter speeds, so I decided to take my low noise camera (Nikon D3), in addition to my high megapixel camera (D3x).
  • I may do panoramas, therefore I need my pano rail and PC or tilt/shift lenses
  • Checked batteries and left to charge overnight
  • I no longer carry a camera backpack, and instead use a
    ThinkTank Belt and pouch system. This allows me to change cameras/lenses faster and without having to lay a backpack on the ground. I loaded my cameras and lenses in the pouches and put other items (pano rails, neutral density grad filters, polarizer, etc.) in my photo vest.
  • I put a few snack bars and a bottle of water in my photo vest
  • I checked all equipment, formatted memory cards, blew dust off the sensor with a Giotto Rocket blower
  • Laid out all equipment (tripod, vest, belt system) for fast morning departure

The morning of the shoot:

    Woke up on time (4:00am)! (I’ll leave out my personal grooming details!)
  • I put the now charged batteries in my camera
  • I loaded the car, left at 4:45am and drove to my pre-determined parking location and luckily found a parking space
  • Walked to the first shooting location (Vietnam Memorial) and was in place at 5:30am
  • I began shooting a variety of pre-dawn shots of the memorial until the lawn sprinkler system turned on at 5:45am, which I had not anticipated or even known about!
  • As primarily a landscape photographer, I typically have my camera set on aperture priority, because I want complete control over what is in focus, and what is out of focus. I had my hyperfocal chart in my vest pocket and referred to it very often to be sure I chose the proper aperture for the affect I wanted to create.
  • Because of the sprinkler, I had to change locations and began shooting with the Washington Monument in the background UNTIL 6:10am when the lights on the Washington Monument were turned off! In the pre-sunrise, that eliminated including the now dull, grey obelisk in any shots until sunrise.
  • After sunrise, I walked to and shot at a number of other planned shooting locations.
  • Even at sunrise, there are numerous National Park Service police located around the Mall. When wearing the belt system and harness, I always make it a habit of walking up to them and saying, “Good Morning,” which enables them to see I’m really a photographer and not a suicide bomber!
  • As the sun rose, the dynamic range of the light created a number of challenges. In some cases I need my neutral density graduated filters, and in others I shoot bracketed exposures that could be layered in post-processing.
  • I continue shooting a variety of possibilities until the light begins to turn harsh.
  • By 7:30am, just as the commuters began pouring into downtown Washington, I was heading home.

After the Shoot:

    Arrived home at 8:15am and downloaded memory card to computer
  • Lightroom is the hub of ALL of my photograph organization and RAW processing. I imported all shots into Lightroom, automatically adding copyright information and high-level keywording to all images.
  • I then used Lightroom to rename all images with my standard date/filename format.
  • Did a quick run-through all photographs taken, adding a star rating to those images that may have potential
  • Added more specific keywords to all images
  • It’s now 9:30am and I go to sleep for a few hours

I remember the first time I drove a stick-shift car. I had to think about EVERYTHING! Depress clutch, shift into gear, s-l-o-w-l-y release clutch while pressing the accelerator. When the car stalls, go back and start again! I can now get into a car with a manual transmission, and although I haven’t driven one for many years, don’t miss a beat. The more we do something, the less we have to think about it. That’s certainly the case with photography.

The amount of knowledge and experience we build after shooting tens of thousands of images is often overlooked. Now that everyone is a photographer, with their smart phones and point-and-shoots, it’s a useful exercise to remind oneself of just how much time, thought, preparation and experience goes into making a portfolio-worthy photograph. I found it a valuable learning experience to take note of many of the things that were involved in this shoot. Try it, it’s enlightening!

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