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Tips and techniques

FIELD TECHNIQUE: The Best Laid Plans

By June 24, 2016No Comments

Story and photography by F.M. Kearney


The view from my airplane window on the way to Orlando.

Summer is finally here, and vacation plans are probably on the minds of many of us. For nature photographers, a vacation offers the perfect chance to explore and photograph new environments around the world.

Planning is an essential part of successful photography. When it comes to nature photography, the weather is probably the most important factor. Rarely do I go out on a shoot without checking the weather on a variety of websites. Certain subjects require cloudy days. Others may favor sunny conditions, and some might look best in heavy fog.

If I’m visiting a new location, Google is an invaluable resource. Google images will show you a ton of pictures that others have taken in the area. The goal is not to duplicate, but to gain ideas and inspiration for your own images. Then, when it comes to gaining the ultimate knowledge of a new locale, few things can beat the 360-degree street views of Google Earth and other similar services. I’ve used it to virtually map out numerous angles and compositions, saving valuable time in the field, especially when the light is fleeting.

I recently took a trip to Orlando, Florida. I wasn’t too thrilled about going there. I would have preferred a more coastal location to capture dynamic sunrise or sunset photos, but this was a family trip. Nevertheless, I didn’t want to waste an opportunity to shoot some fresh images in a location that was new to me.

Not knowing what to expect, I turned to Google Earth. I was pleasantly surprised to discover a huge lake behind a resort that was directly across the street from where I would be staying. This location was on the west side of the lake facing east—perfectly positioned to capture stunning sunrise photos under a beautiful Florida sky. I would be able to get some great photos without having to spend too much time away from family. It was the perfect plan, and nothing could possibly go wrong. Or, could it?

When I arrived, I immediately headed to the lake to scout out the best vantage points for my next few days of early morning shoots. I went behind the resort, but found the lake to be totally fenced off. I saw a lot on Google Earth, but I sure as heck didn’t see that fence. When I asked the front desk personnel how I could gain access to the lake, they told me it was private and accessible only to guests of the resort. I could actually hear John McEnroe in my head: YOU CAN’T BE SERIOUS!

With not much other than streets and strip malls in the immediate area, my camera equipment became little more than a heavy paperweight.

As it turned out, the only photos I got on the entire trip were the ones I took on the plane ride to Orlando. The view out the window as we climbed above the cloud layer was spectacular. I’m always amazed at how such a dull, dreary day can be instantly transformed into a beautiful gem once the cloud layer is breached.

As I would normally do on the ground, I placed a polarizing filter on my lens to make the clouds pop. When I looked through the viewfinder, I saw a kaleidoscope of weird colors overlaying the scene. Not knowing exactly what was causing it, I removed the filter and the colors returned to normal. I later learned that most airline windows are already polarized and will create a rainbow effect if you shoot through them using a polarizing filter. To block out reflections, I placed the lens as close to the window as I could without actually touching it—the plane’s vibrations would have caused too much camera shake. I was also concerned about shooting through such a greasy, scratch-covered surface. I normally avoid shooting through vehicle windows, but I didn’t really have much of a choice in this situation. I cleaned it as best I could and used a moderate depth of field to render the scratches invisible.

Hopefully, my plans won’t fall through on the next trip as they did on this one. It would have been nice to come back with something more than just an ad for Southwest Airlines. But, in retrospect, I guess it’s more important to spend quality time with family than it is to take pictures. It is – right?

F.M. Kearney is a fine-art nature photographer specializing in unique floral and landscape images. To see more of his work, visit