In the last part of this tutorial, I introduced you to Wikimedia Commons and its featured pictures. I also told you why I think it’s worth going through Commons’ featured picture nomination process. Today’s post is about “Getting the shot”.
The final result and some remarks on the type of picture we’re talking about
Now, before we dive into a detailed description of my workflow, let me start with giving you some background information about the featured picture that I’ll be covering throughout this tutorial. It’s a photo of the lighthouse at Point Cabrillo that I took in early February 2013. Point Cabrillo Light is located in Northern California, between Point Arena and Cape Mendocino. It was first lit in 1909, and in my opinion, it’s among the most beautiful lighthouses in California. Here’s the final result of my work:
The image is currently being used in articles on the English, German and Polish Wikipedia. And that brings me to a point that is important to understand when you’re eager to see your pictures featured on Wikipedia. Wikipedia is an online encyclopedia and that means that pictures you upload to Commons should have educational value. If you’re into selfies, family pictures, or you like using fancy filters with your photos, Commons is not the right place to upload your images. That doesn’t mean that the photos uploaded to Wikimedia Commons shouldn’t have artistic value, it just means that images being used on Wikipedia are mostly shot in a style that I would call “documentary”.
Doing research first will help you with getting a better shot
Whenever I plan a photo shoot (quick reminder: I’m into landscape and travel photography, and if you’re into portrait or street photography your workflow might be very different), I do extensive research first. That means that I sit down at home in front of my computer and see how other photographers worked the subject. Usually, I start with 500px. 500px is a photography site that features a stunning amount of very high-quality images. If you want to find the ultimate picture of a specific subject on the web, 500px is a good point to start. What you want to do on 500px (or any other of your preferred photography websites) is to create a mental checklist of what you might want to do when you’re at the scene.
In this specific case, I found a few images of Point Cabrillo Lighthouse on 500px and some more on Flickr. What I was looking for were initial ideas about:
- from which angle I might want to shoot the building
- whether night shots were worth it (think of the beaming light of the lens)
- whether other photographers thought any details of the building were worth shooting
- what the surroundings of the lighthouse looked like
The last point is somewhat unique to lighthouse photography. Some of California’s lights are located on steep cliffs and don’t offer too much room for you to maneuver. That’s not an issue if you’re shooting wide angle zoom lenses. However, I personally prefer prime lenses, but the 50mm lens that I borrowed from a colleague might have just been too long to use on a cliff where you can’t take another step backwards or you’ll fall.
Working the scene
Working the scene is the most important part of my photographic workflow. For the Point Cabrillo Lighthouse shoot, I drove up to Mendocino County on a Saturday at about noon. It took me two hours to get there and when I arrived, the sun was still too high in the sky to get a great shot. However, I immediately started to circle the building and to take shots from a variety of different angles. Here are some of my first shots that day (beware – some of the shots are really crappy and I’m only including them here for educational purposes):
As you can see, I tried to include some of the terrain around the lighthouse as well. But somehow I was not in a good mood for shooting that afternoon. It was bitter cold, I was tired and hungry, and you can clearly see that in my pictures. That’s why I decided at some point to head back to the small town of Mendocino and get a hotel room for the night.
Letting my first impressions sit for a while and coming back on the next day (or the next weekend) is actually something that I do quite often. It offers me the opportunity to download the first batch of shots onto my computer and study them in order to discover what I could have done better. On this specific Saturday in Mendocino, I just headed straight to the hotel’s restaurant, ordered some food and a good glass of Sonoma wine, and went to bed early.
The next morning, I got up at 4am and drove to the lighthouse while it was still pitch dark outside. Over the next 3 hours, I was taking photos in changing lighting conditions. While the sun was rising and the color of the sky changed from blue to red, I took more than 300 exposures with both my small Leica X1 and the Canon 7D. I screwed polarizer filters on my lenses, changed my position relative to the lighthouse and moved back and forth. At some point, I felt like I got the perfect shot, but kept pressing the shutter releases of the two cameras:
In the end, all this activity on a bitter cold Sunday weekend in February resulted in hundreds of photos, with one being the magic shot that I considered being good enough for a featured picture nomination.
In my next post in this series, I’ll describe how – after getting back home – I found the final photo and improved it during post-processing. Stay tuned.