Behind the Scenes: The Science of Nature Photography


Have you ever wondered exactly how professional photographers get that perfect shot? How did they know where to be, and at what time? What lengths do they go to? Where are our Kickstarter campaign donations really going to? In this post, you'll learn the answers to those questions, and about how dedicated our staff at BlueHour is to both photography, and your experiences at our workshops.

As many of you know, BlueHour will be scouting out the Rocky Mountains this coming August. What that really means is, we need to pick locations that are photographically interesting and figure out the best times to be present in those locations for that perfect shot. We also need to figure out how difficult it will be to get to those spots. So, how do we do it?

At BlueHour, to make the most of your donations, we first scout locations using Google Earth. We look for places that might be interesting places for scenery and hold educational value. Then, we set placemarks for them. So far, we have chosen around 30 sites. Here is an example at Peyto Lake in Banff National Park, Alberta, Canada.

What's great about Google Earth is it offers streetview, so we can get accurate previews of these sites in terms of standing spots, terrain and road access. Next, we use an app called Sun Surveyor, which displays the sun or moon's rising and setting times as well as their relative positions for any given date. This tool is central in preparing for our early morning, dusk or night shoots. The app is available on iOS and Android devices, and is extremely useful for shot planning even on your own. Here is a screencap of the app in action in the same location:

As you can see from the image, we’ve set the date to August 16, which is when we expect to visit Peyto Lake for the first time.  The numbers in the box on the left tell us the rise and set times for the sun and moon, and the circle in the middle is a compass that tells us the position of the sun and moon throughout the day.  Most people mistakenly believe the sun rises directly in the east, and sets directly in the west, but this is only true on the equinoxes.  Sun Surveyor shows us that at northern latitudes in the summer, the sun actually rises in the northeast, and sets in the northwest, as indicated by the “V” shape of the orange lines, and spends most of the day in the southern part of the sky, shown by the yellow dotted arc. The sharpness of the V is determined by how far away in time we are from the equinox.

Each arm of the V also tells you the angle of the sun at sunrise and sunset, which helps us figure out which terrain features will be illuminated by the sun during those magical “golden hours” when the lighting is a nice warm tone. This is the time you want to be taking photos. It looks like Caldron Peak, on the western shore of Peyto Lake, is a prime candidate to get great light at sunrise if we stand on the northeastern shore, as the peak is going to be directly across the lake from us, getting full frontal illumination. Sun Surveyor is really a cool app, and if you're interested in learning how to use it, just ask us!

We go back to Google Earth again, and this time we look at our location from a more up-close-and-personal viewpoint.  By tilting the map of Peyto Lake on its side, we see how the surrounding terrain might look when we stand on the shore of the lake, and we can get a sense of the relative elevation of the mountains in this area.

We also use other visualization tools to make sure where we're going will be both memorable and beautiful for shooting. We repeat these steps for each location we decide on, and then form an itinerary that makes the most sense. So an excerpt from our scouting list for Banff would go like this:

Banff National Park, Alberta, Canada
August 13-15:  Sunrise 6:25 AM; Sunset 9:09 PM:  New Moon

Lake Minnewanka -  Dusk glow on Mt. Costigan
Lake Louise - Dawn glow on Mt. Whyte
Moraine Lake - Dusk glow on Mt. Babel, Mt. Bowlen

… and so on.

Remember of course that these tools are just guides to help us prepare, and there’s no substitute for actually being there and seeing what the places look like when we’re standing on real ground, looking at landscapes illuminated by real light, and looking at all the smaller features that don’t show up in maps.  Like mountain goats!

After we form our itineraries, we book our campsites and go out and scout in person. And you thought photography was about "just showing up!" A big thank you to all of our supporters and who donated to our kickstarter campaign, who made this trip possible. We hope you will join us on our future offering of the Glory of the Rocky Mountains workshop! Subscribe to our newsletter for updates!