Planning Out Your Shots: Why This Should be The First Thing You Should Do Before Taking Any Shots

There are many photographers out there that love shooting from the hip. I used to be one. I used to get lucky with the shots that I got but sometimes I would miss the mark. Sure, I got some decent shots but they seemed just off. The reason was that I was merely shooting from the hip and hoping that if I was at the right place at the right time with the right lens, I would walk away with a winning shot.

The trouble is that I was never really sure of what I wanted. I knew the kind of shot that I wanted to get beforehand or even simply the location but I never really had a clear vision of what short I wanted or the story that I wanted to tell. Once I started planning my shots, I had a better idea of what I wanted to say with them. That later lead to, in my opinion, much better shots.

The What and the How?

The biggest questions are basically what to do and how to do it. One is a little easier to do than the other. In order to better explain this to you, I will take you through my process of getting shots from this year’s Buddha’s Birthday celebration. Most of the time, I get so overwhelmed by the colours and the lanterns that I end up taking the same shots over and over again.

I first visited Junggwangsa, an old standby in Ulsan that I have photographed for years.  At any rate, I started to fall into my old habits of not really thinking about what I was shooting.  This time, I stopped and asked myself a few questions.

What did I want to shoot? Why?

What stories do do I see?

How can the shots that I am taking add to or tell the story better?

I sat on a bench sipping a coffee and then it hit me. I was missing something here. Sure there were a lot of pretty lanterns but I couldn’t really tell the story that I wanted to at this location. I had to go elsewhere. So I went out to Tongdosa the next chance that I could. That is where I got a better idea of what I wanted to achieve from these shots. I walked in from the front gate where the parade was being assembled. I knew they going to walk with the lanterns down the path to the temple. My brain was constantly pointing out places to shoot from. I walked to the temple and back before I had a better idea. Then I got into position and waited.

So the how here is to have a clear idea of what you want to shoot and where you want to shoot it from. This means getting there a bit early and scouting the location. Knowing where you should be at what time is also helpful. I use an app called PhotoPills for this.

Taking a walk around the location and making a plan is HOW you get the shots that you want when the light is quickly fading. For Tongdosa, I knew that once the light was gone it would be next to impossible to get anything good from the forest path. So as soon as I got the shots that I wanted, I walked up to the temple where there was more light and I could get better shots.

Putting this into Practice

Shortly after this epiphany at Tongdosa, I went to Samgwangsa. This is one of Busan’s most famous temples and probably one of the busiest at this time of the year. I HAD to have a plan. So with my wife alongside of me we got to the temple early and walked around. We scouted locations and took test shots. Then made a plan. I wanted to get the “money shot” which was from the main building’s balcony and then finish on the other side of the complex. This meant that I had to budget for time properly.


This was one of my most popular photos on National Geographic’s Your Shot site. It earned me an editor’s note.

Once blue hour hit, it was go time. I snapped away and moved from location to location with ease. This also freed my brain up to find other locations as I finished. There was no stress as I had everything mentally planned out and new exactly where to be and when.

If you are thinking that this sound like a lot of effort, it really isn’t. It just means taking a bit of time to scout before you settle in. If you are heading out for a sunrise shoot, maybe try to get there during the daytime and scout as things will look completely different in the dark.

The Bottom line is that you should have some sort of plan when you go out. Most of us look at the photos on sites like 500px or Instagram and think “Yeah… that is what I want” and then either come away with only that or just random shots. Building a plan on site will help you conceptualize what it is that you want to achieve when the light starts to get good.

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