How I Plan a Photo Trip

Since I first got involved in nature photography in the late 1990s, I have been planning all my vacations for either visits to family or places that have worthwhile subjects. I was fortunate to have grown up in Washington State and after I moved away I would come back every couple years to see my family. That allowed me to combine a family visit with one or two multi-day trips away from their houses to see different parts of the state. Typically, I would seek out places I hadn’t been previously, or at least places I hadn’t exhausted photographically. Along those lines, I’ll break this photography trip planning article into two parts; one for areas I’ve been to previously, and one for areas I’ve never been. I will be using the word "area" to refer to a broad section of geography, such as a national park, island, state, or province throughout the article. When I speak of "location", I mean a particular place within that area.

Areas I’ve Been to Previously

When I’ve been somewhere previously, I obviously have some experience with locations. Some locations I may have visited but only at a certain time of year, and will try to get back to at a different time of year to shoot again under different circumstances. A good example of this may be visiting in the fall for autumn foliage and coming back in spring to get the bright greens of new growth or winter for ice and snow. Sometimes I may have visited but with poor weather for the subject, such as a forest waterfall on a sunny day in which case I’ll hope to come back on a cloudy or rainy day. Also, I may simply have been unable to visit some locations in the limited time I had or because they were closed. I make aggressive, full day plans, and circumstances don't always allow me to completely follow those plans.

One example of needing to visit multiple times due to closures is Proxy Falls in Oregon. I tried to visit this impressive waterfall on three separate occasions; the first time in April, then a year or so later in June, and finally in August. Only on my third was the road to it not closed for the winter.  Even when I finally made it on the third attempt, it was near the end of the day and I walked the last portion of the trail out in the dark. So I will definitely be going back the next time I am in Oregon and able to make it to that portion of the state!  There's a second falls I didn't even make it to which will also be worth an attempt on a subsequent visit.

Speaking of waterfalls, they are almost always worth visiting more than once since, beyond the changing weather and seasons, you can also get them with varying amounts of water depending on the rain. Earlier this year I visited Cathedral Falls in West Virginia for the first time. Unfortunately, it was after a period of drought. From photos I’ve seen, this waterfall is definitely worthy of a visit if you are in the New River Gorge. However, as you can see by the accompanying photo, there was no falls at all when I visited! The watershed that feeds it was dry with only a cliff face where the falls typically resides. I also included two photos of Branch Creek Falls coincidentally also in West Virginia. The first time I visited was in May 2017 after a heavy rainfall and the falls were roaring! The next time I went was in October 2019 when it had only a fraction of the water going over its face.  The autumn photo was shot from slightly further back and a higher angle, but you can see the same rocks on the shore and in the stream bed in both photos, and the tree is of course also the same. Again, waterfalls are almost always worth multiple visits.

Dry Cathedral Falls, WV.

Dry Cathedral Falls, WV.

Brush Creek Falls, WV with spring runoff.

Brush Creek Falls, WV with spring runoff.

Brush Creek Falls, WV in autumn after drought.

Brush Creek Falls, WV in autumn after drought.

Something else that is key to visiting a location is the time of day. I typically scout locations using online maps, and also calculate when sunrise and sunset will occur for the time of year, but I can’t visit every place I’d like to at sunrise or sunset since I’m only in an area for a set number of days. If I can’t make it to a place at the ideal time of day, I’ll plan to visit it at that time when I’m next in the area. I may find new compositions or new foreground elements as well to include in a composition on a subsequent visit to a location. Even when I have been to an area before, I often go back to the same locations for a variety of reasons.

I’m also always on the lookout for new locations in previously visited areas. If I know I am going back, I seek out new locations and add them to my trip plans. I find new locations in an area by browsing satellite views of the area, reading articles about the areas, or doing keyword and image searches of the area. I also look at postcards in stores when I am in an area, and photo books of the area which I will often buy for information on interesting subjects in an area. As an example, I found out about The Channels in Southwest Virginia by reading about it in a Nature Conservancy magazine. However, I quickly forgot about it until I stumbled upon it again while looking through tourist brochures (another good source of location information) while staying in a hotel nearby. So I have taken a note to visit the next time I am in that part of Virginia and have a whole day for a hike.

I create lists of locations for any particular area, and I arrange them by both proximity to each other and best time of day to visit based on the direction of the sunlight. Once I have a list of potential locations to visit, I then spend time figuring out the best time to be at each, and also use online maps to determine their proximity to each other so I can arrange them in a logical sequence to visit. I also estimate how long it’ll take for me to hike to and complete a photo session at each location, and how long it’ll take me to drive from one location to the next. I use that to determine how much I can see in any particular day and also where I need to find a place to stay at the end of each day. Those lists are saved in my files on my computer, and I will bring up lists from previous trips to an area to use as a basis for a subsequent visit. Each list includes estimated drive times, best time of day, and directions from one location to the next. After a trip, I go to the list on my computer and flag the places I visited so the next time I bring that list up as a basis to plan a future trip to the area, I’ll know what locations I wasn’t able to visit and put priority on getting to them.

Areas I’ve Never Been

When I’ve never been to an area before, I use many of the same techniques to find interesting locations as when I have previously visited. I’ll look at online maps, especially satellite imagery, and if I see something that warrants exploration from the ground I will take a note of it. I also do keyword searches with the names of areas (e.g. Mount Rainier, Outer Banks, Yellowstone) to see what articles or web sites comes up, and use those same keywords for image searches to see what sorts of photos other people have produced and how locations actually appear from the ground. If something draws my interest, such as a unique structure or place (e.g. Spray Park, Currituck Lighthouse, West Geyser Basin), I will then do further web and image searches on it. Web sites dedicated to waterfalls, covered bridges, lighthouses, mills, and hikes are great resources to find out more information about locations.  From all that research I build a list of locations I want to see.

From there my process is similar to what I do for areas that I have visited before. I figure out where each location is in relation to the others, then organize them in a logical sequence to visit so I don’t leave Site 1, drive 100 miles to Site 2, then turn around and drive 100 miles back toward Site 1 to visit Site 3. For that example in which Sites 1 and 3 are closer to each other than Site 2, I would instead arrange my list in order from Site 1 to Site 3 and then Site 2.  I also make notes on addresses, driving directions, distance/time between locations, and any other factors that will impact my ability to get the photographs I want. If there are park or location maps available online, like you typically find for national and state parks, I will download and print them to take with me. I put my location lists in plastic page protectors so they don’t get wet or crumpled, and will slide them out sometimes to take notes on them as I’m in the field.  I add those notes to the lists on the computer when I get home for future reference. As with known areas, I will add locations I want to see on future visits and mark the locations I was able to visit. I try to print two lists; one of which I keep in my photo backpack, and one I keep in the vehicle.

October 2022 Update: I just got back from a trip to Michigan and my route took me right past Cathedral Falls in West Virginia.  Because of Hurricane Ian there had been a good rainfall and Cathedral Falls was flowing!  The falls wasn't on my itinerary and I had a log day of driving ahead of me but couldn't pass up the opportunity so stopped and finally got the shots of the falls I was unable to get on two prior visits.  They are below.

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