Time is precious. Being a landscape photographer requires a lot of exclusive time but most people don't seem to have it. These are some things I used to do that helped me find that time.
Back in mid-October, 2017, I walked out of the office for the last time: I quit my job to hit the road and visit places that would take me years to see (and photograph) otherwise. And now that the road trip is over, I have a lot time to spend working on my passion. But for more than two years, I'd been photographing the Pacific Northwest while having a day job.
Landscape photography can be hard because it requires a lot of time and dedication. The difference between a good and a great landscape photo is more often than not the light and the weather - "weekend photographers" have only 2 chances a week to catch those conditions. But it doesn't have to be that way.
These are some of the things I used to do while having a job that allowed me to get photographs even during the week.
1.- Treat your photography as a job
If you are serious about photography, take it seriously and treat it as a job even if you aren't making any money with it. That means saying no to some other "compromises" if there's a chance to get some great photography, allocating the time you need for it, and executing it even if you don't feel like doing it.
There has never been a time when I got out to take photos and said "it wasn't worth it". It always is.
2.- Optimize your time outside - "background scouting"
As it usually happens, it's not about spending a lot of time doing something but actually using that time wisely. That usually means scouting and planning.
But don't think I'm going to tell you you have to spend hours in a location looking for the perfect shot. I don't like to do that either. Enter what I like to call "background scouting".
Pay attention while you do other things during your day: while you drive, during your commute, when walking the dog or even browsing the internet, you will run into stuff you might want to photograph. Remember, you don't have to be in the wilderness to make a great landscape image.
A couple days ago, I found this path leading to the trees 100 feet away from our house (see picture above). It's been there all this time, but it was covered in snow and only now I could see it. This is a shot I want to take, but I need some fog to hide the houses in the background and, why not, add some mystery to the scene.
When the fog comes, I'll be ready to get out of the house and shoot the scene. It won't take me more than 5 minutes but you and I know that's not the whole story.
3.- Be always aware of the weather
Following up on the previous point: if something catches your eye but it doesn't quite have what you want to make a good photograph, try to imagine the same shot under different conditions. Would it be better if it was sunny? Or foggy? Maybe at night?
You can have a list of places to shoot under certain conditions, so when a day like that comes and you have some free time, you are ready to go and get great shots in no time.
They might say you got lucky being at the right place at the right time, but luck usually finds its way for those who know how to plan.
4.- Find your local go-to places
It's very important that you have a list of places where you can go to at a moment's notice to spend your unexpected free time.
For example, when I used to live in Portland I had a couple places in the city where I could shoot if I had 1 hour or so. Another whole set of spots to go to if I had some 2-3 hours. And so on.
I'm still building my list here in Indiana, but I already have a spot in town, another one 40 minutes away, and another one 1 hour and a half from home. I also know what kind of shots I can take at those places so my decision will be easy to make when the right time and conditions come.
5.- Look for inspiration everywhere
Books are a great source of inspiration. Some photography volumes are expensive, but you can always visit your local library or buy them used and sell them again afterwards.
Inspiration can be found online as well, but it's too dangerous - it can quickly become a rabbit hole. I recommend visiting photographers websites and looking at their portfolios, they don't have as much clutter and you can learn a lot about how they work when you see all of their photos. Avoid social networks.
But do more than looking at photos: anything could inspire you. Try to perceive the world with different eyes. For example, if you are walking your dog, try to see the way they are seeing: not only the things they find interesting but also from their perspective. Or the squirrel's perspective. How do they see the landscape around them?
Don't look for the "hot, burning" inspiration, look for the spark that will ignite it.
6.- Reverse engineer someone else's work
If you like a piece from someone else's work, think about how to achieve something similar, where to do it, under what circumstances and even better, how to improve it. Don't be afraid of imitating others.
That's what happened to me after seeing one of Michael Kenna's long exposures of the moon in one of his books. "I have to try this!", I told myself. I figured out when the moon would be full and made a short list of 2-3 places where I could go to get a shot I'd like.
I had to wait almost 3 months for the right conditions -clear or partly cloudy skies, full moon- to happen at the right time -not only the time of the day, but when I was able to go there- and the result was a fantastic evening at Mt St Helens and an image I'm proud of.
7.- Wake up early
Once again, I recommend you to wake up early. I find it the easiest to shoot before and during sunrise since it's not likely you'll have many compromises at that time. Sunset and even night time are much more complicated: dinners, meeting friends, family or coworkers, having to sleep...
In landscape photography, the quality of the photos you take will be exponentially proportional to the amount of time you spend outdoors... if you know how to use that time.
Even having a day job, you can get some "extra time" if you wake up early or take your photography as serious as if it was a job.
To take full advantage of the time you are able to get, be ready. Know where to go and when to go. Be always aware of the weather and look for inspiration. This way you'll be using your time wisely and your photography will improve much more than if you just spend time outside but aimlessly.
It took me a while to develop some habits and to get used to early calls (waking up at 4am or earlier to catch a sunrise and then go to work for 8 hours isn't easy), but this way I didn't feel I was missing out much because I had a day job.