The ‘Lucky’ Shot

I’ll start this blog post with a list of questions that we are often asked by people who have seen our work.

1. Do you photoshop your photos?
2. That’s an amazing shot ! What camera do you use?
3. Wow! You were soooo lucky to be there in those conditions! Did it really look like that?

I have answered the first question in a previous blog post :. The simple answer is yes.

The second question implies that the camera is the be all and end all of the image. Put simply, if the late Ansel Adams had used any other brand of camera, he would have still taken striking images ; If Roger Federer used the 50 dollar tennis racquet I use, he’d still be an awesome tennis player; If Jamie Oliver used the cheap K-mart cook set I own, he’d still be able to cook up a feast with panache.

Finally, the topic for discussion in this post is making the most of your opportunities. Because of mother nature’s moods, there will always be an element of luck, but if you know what to look out for and plan your location shoots wisely, you minimise the chance of that grain of luck falling through a sieve.
The following images were examples of varying degrees of ‘luck’ mixed with planning.

Aurora at Hveravellir

When planning our trip to Iceland in 2010, we wanted to visit the interior highlands when the weather was at its most stable and accessible to my novice 4X4 driving. Toward the end of late August, we also knew that there would be periods of true darkness at the tail of the Icelandic Summer. This would give us a small chance of viewing the Aurora Borealis. Initially, Marianne and I had planned to drive through the interior in one day but two things changed our mind. Firstly, auroras themselves are remarkable to watch but we felt that an effective photograph should somehow encompass the location from which it was shot. What better location than steam from  a geothermal area! Secondly, wherever we had internet access , I had been checking a very rough aurora forecast from this site:

During our night in the interior, the forecast was for a moderate degree of auroral activity. As the sun set on this evening, there very few clouds in sight and so, we went to bed during the daylight hours and set our alarm for midnight. To our relief, the clouds had stayed away giving us a clear view of the night sky with a near full moon. This was an added boon as it gave the foreground illumination. Due to the clear skies, the temperature dipped to freezing and the surface became iced over. As we waited, and started to lose hope, the ribbons of light slowly began their dance across the skies. Imagine standing among steaming fumaroles by the light of the full moon while watching green lights of the aurora dance overhead.

This image was taken from the west coast of Heimaey , the largest of the Westman Islands of Iceland (Vestmannaeyjar). This was one of those shots where planning and weather all came together with a satisfying result. A very useful application for planning sunset and sunrise shoots as well as knowing moon phases, is the tool “The Photographer’s Ephemeris” , or TPE for short. ( Knowing that we were going to be on Heimaey on the 17th of August, I used the tool to work out which of the distant islands might be a good subject for a sunset silhouette. The three seastacks of Stafnsnes, Hani and Haena off the west coast seemed ideal and with the aid of the tool, we were able to estimate when and where along the coastline we would have to be in order to see the sun setting behind these stacks. We were deceived initially by near horizontal motion of the sun but stuck to the estimates of the program and ended up with the above image.

The Lucky Rainbow!
One thing that keeps me wanting to stay up late for sunsets or wake early for dawn even in bad weather, is the prospect of rainbows. The above image of Ardvreck castle in Scotland was one that I had planned from looking at images on flickr and looking at TPE. In my mind, I had pictured taking some images of the castle side lit while standing on its southerly aspect. As we arrived at the scene one hour before sunset, heavy rain set in. Marianne and I parked the car facing the sunset and had a brief snooze while waiting for conditions to improve. During this time,  patches of light started to appear ,which during rain, triggers ‘rainbow alert’! True enough, behind us and to the east of the castle was one of the most striking rainbows I’ve ever seen. Fearing the fickle nature of Scottish weather, I sprinted out to the west side of the castle and basically abandoned the preconceived plan of photographing the sunset and instead, focussed on the rainbow proper.

The second most remarkable rainbow I’ve seen was at the beautiful West Fjords of Iceland. The town of Bildudalur lies along a stretch of coast which faces north east ; perfect for shooting into the rising sun during Icelandic summer. The dramatic clouds certainly made dawn a wonderful scene but no sooner had the sun risen, did the rain set in. Turning around, we witnessed a rainbow disappearing into the clouds and spent the next half an hour photographing and generally standing in awe of the scene before us.
Facing the sun at Arnarfjordur

Weather phenomena always attract a group of photographers who will often set alarms at crazy hours to capture that eclipse, that incoming storm cell, that ferocious lightning storm or perhaps, that one time of the year when a given scene has unique lighting such as the ‘firefall’ phenomenon in Yosemite. Capturing the phenomenon itself takes a degree of technical proficiency which requires practice. However, my personal opinion is that once the technical aspects have been mastered , it’s time to let the journalistic or artistic aspect of photography take over. The image below was of the recent lunar eclipse. I happened to be in Melbourne at the time and wanted to show that context in the image somehow. As I was wandering the streets, it just so happened that the spire of Flinders Street Station was in a dream position.

Eclipse with a context?

For the next image below, summer storms had hit Adelaide and the reports on showed multiple lighting strikes occurring toward the north of Adelaide. It would have been relatively straightforward to set up taking images of where most of the lightning was in the hope that a suitable composition would follow. I chose instead to achieve a composition I’d be happy with and prayed that lighting would magically fill the frame in the image. There was a risk that I’d just get a bunch of shots of jetty alone but fortunately, during my few hours there, just one lightning strike occurred in the desired location!

Lightning with a context

To sum up then, I would make the following points:
1. Be aware of the very many useful planning tools that will assist you with location and lighting: TPE would have to be high on the list of my favourite programs.
2. Look through as many images of the scene you plan to shoot and challenge yourself to come back with something unique. Don’t be afraid to take ‘that’ iconic shot though.
3. Know a little about weather and remember always to turn around when there is rain or you may miss a striking rainbow!
4. Lastly, as ever, go out and shoot! You can’t make your own luck if you’re not even out there!

Phillip Island Pinnacles in late afternoon light



Posted on June 30, 2011, in How we..., Iceland, M&D Corner, Photography, Scotland and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

  1. Loved what you said about Ansel Adams here – I’ve often said that to people too. It’s not the gear – it’s the shooter. Dylan, you could go out with a cardboard pinhole camera ad blow away someone with a $20,000 set-up. You always amaze me with your insight and skill.

  2. Thanks for dropping by again Ray 🙂 – the pinhole wouldn’t be too far off how I use SLRs since I’m often at F16 or smaller aperture lol!

  3. A very informative post dtoh. Well scripted and fantastic shots. I think your photography expertise and results are just phenomenal. Well done.

  4. A great read Dylan, I admire your perseverence in getting “the shot”. I’m also a fan of TPE, its a great little program 🙂

  5. Thanks Shirl & K 🙂 gotta find more opportunities to use it for closer to home

  6. Stefan te Winkel

    Hi, Dylan. Enjoyed every bit of it. Great post. I checked out TPE which will be really helpful during our next trip to Iceland. I remember the night in Hveravellir waiting for the Aurora, shivering and us giving up 20 minutes too early. So yes its more than luck, its also planning ahead (good sleep, warm clothes) and patience. We did spent some extra money on a new lens, filters and a tripod for Brenda though.

    • Hi Stefan, glad you enjoyed the blog post! That night was certainly one to remember, and patience definitely has its rewards. Iceland is yet again on our places-to-return-to list; but possibly next time we will go during the colder months to catch frozen waterfalls. Good to hear that Brenda has some new equipment to experiment with!

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