In the studio, photographers get spoiled by the environment. Pretty much every aspect of every photo can be entirely within the control of the photographer. Even studios with a large natural light window still affords a lot of control, the only limiting factor being the time of day. But once you go out in the field, that’s when things can get unpredictable. In the field, there’s actually very little you can control. The only leg up that you might have is if you to know your location and know it well.
For projects limited to a small area, knowing the location is fairly simple, but it requires some extra time. You don’t just show up at the site the moment you want to start your photo session. I don’t care if you have been there before or even if you know the site intimately. If you haven’t been there with camera in hand and your model waiting for direction, you haven’t been there as a photographer. And so at the very least, you should arrive a few hours early to brainstorm the shots that you want to take. Think about backdrops, think about lighting, think about textures and contrast and positioning your subject. Sometimes, that’s not enough. Sometimes, you need to get out there a day or two ahead of time, scout the site, note the positions of the sun and how it moves and so on. You may find obstacles that need to be addressed, and you may need time to address them – assuming something can be done. You simply do not want to stumble upon any issues last minute. If you’re renting space or working within a permit, ask the question if you can get into the space after hours or where it will not conflict with other rental times. Many facilities will accommodate. I would also suggest taking a stand-in – a partner or a friend – to help you mock up some of the shots for analysis well before the actual session. Mock ups can help you determine what changes need to be made before you get out there on session day. Hint: You’d be amazed what someone will do for a bottle of wine or a six back of beer. With such compensation, you will find you have a lot more stand-ins than you think. Such planning will take time and a lot of effort. But this will comprise more than half of the overall outcome in the finished product. Your time and research will show in the quality of your photos, and you will be thankful for the time spent.
We are not all session photographers, of course, and so that type of planning isn’t always applicable to what we’re doing. Street photographers practice the art spontaneity, and one would think that the shots are not planned. While that is often the case of having a camera at the ready, I can assure you that street photographers do plan. It’s just a different type of planning; perhaps a bit more organic. To the street photographer, it’s really about knowing where the interest will fall at whatever time of day. It’s knowing where the gathering places will be, and it’s about knowing where one can remain inconspicuous. For example, I know Philadelphia like the back of my hand – Center City especially. I know the train and subway stations, I know the gathering points and I know where I can find people who are not going to pay any attention to me. I know where I’ll find street performers or where I’ll find interesting scenes. I even know where I can go to find tourists. I also know when I can take breaks and where, and I know all of the buildings where I can occupy my time while I wait. I even know which café’s and coffee shops won’t mind if I sit at their sidewalk tables for long periods of time with my camera. Some of them know me now (and some of them have purchased my works, but that’s a different topic). These all guarantee that I’ll walk away from a day in the city with a bunch of great photos. There’s no secret as to how I learned all of this: I visit the city often and spend a lot of time there. I’m comfortable simply by having experience in Philadelphia. For comparison, I once spent a weekend in Austin, Texas. I was there on business for my other job, but I had a day to myself to do my own bidding. I brought my camera and I planned to do some photography down there. Only problem was that I didn’t know my way around. Uncomfortable, disoriented and distracted by sights I wasn’t familiar with, I don’t believe I walked out of there with a single good photo. In hind sight, I should have opted to stay an extra day and spent several hours without the camera. That would have afforded me just enough knowledge to put me in a better position to shoot.
I guess the bottom line is that you really need to know your location and be comfortable where you’re shooting. There is no excuse for missing or messing up a shot simply because you did not plan ahead or didn’t know what to expect. No excuse what-so-ever. So spend the time researching and getting comfortable in your space. Because when you’re not in the studio, the crazy and unpredictable world becomes your studio. And since you cannot bend the outside world to meet your needs, you need to be flexible and accommodating of the world in order to get the shot.