Pre-Plan Your Vacation Photos and Adapt When You Don’t

A wasted sunrise this past memorial day weekend was a reminder of two things to think about when trying to do any sort of travel photography: Plan ahead and adapt.

Whenever I’m in Washington D.C., I always try to find a good spot for a sunrise, and this weekend was no different. It’s not always ideal to wake up at 3:30 a.m. just for a photo, but it’s really the best time. There’s nobody around to bother you or get in the photos, and the “golden hour” is called that for a reason: You’ll get the most gorgeous skies in that time.


I trekked out to the Capitol Building (and by trekked, I mean used Lyft). My plan was to get a photo at the reflecting pool in front of the building and then maybe get in a little closer to the structure itself. However, in what was admittedly a bone-headed move, I neglected to think about what the day’s events would bring. There was a memorial day concert in the front of the building the night before, and at sunrise the crews were still there, breaking down the stage, which was still partially up and lit. There was detritus from the crowd over the entire area. My original idea wasn’t going to work, as you can see from a shot of the scene here:

The stage set up for the Memorial Day concert ruined reflection opportunities for the Capitol Building. I had to think fast for something else.


A simple Google Search would have revealed information about the events from the day before that would impact my photography. Undeterred, I thought I still had time to get to the White House and maybe give that a try. I tried to get another Lyft, but after 15 minutes of waiting for a ride that was supposed to arrive in 4 and watching the driver teleport all over the DC area on the map (not quite sure how that happened), I decided to just walk down the National Mall and maybe try for a shot at the Lincoln Memorial. I was glad that my travel kit involved a lighter travel-tripod (a Manfrotto BeFree) and a smaller Micro Four Thirds camera (an Olympus OM-D E-M10 Mark II).

Sometimes though, the best shot is the one behind you, and that’s what ended up being the case this time around. While walking across the National Mall, I turned around and noticed that the curvature of the lawn was just high enough to cover the remnants of the stage at the capitol building. A quick setup of my tripod and a few minutes later, I was able to get this shot where brightly lit, empty stage was obscured, but the Capitol was still recognizable against the purple-hued sky.

Using the curvature of the National Mall, I was able to obscure the stage for an at least OK shot of the Capitol Building at sunrise.

It’s not the shot I was hoping for, but any day you don’t go home empty-handed in photography is a good day. With the sunrise on the way and the golden hour quickly being reduced to a few golden minutes, I had to figure out something to make the early wake-up call worthwhile.

The lessons to take away from my bungling: Always Google before you go, and don’t throw in the towel right away if things aren’t working out photographically.

Do you have any stories of photographic setbacks you pushed through? Share them in the comments below!

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Mike Dixon's picture

We drove from Michigan to Gettysburg Pennsylvania for the memorial day weekend. We intended to go to Washington DC one of those days but once we saw the events going on in DC we decided to just stay at Gettysburg. It worked out great because there was more to see at Gettysburg than I thought there was going to be and we got some great sunrise photos.

Don Risi's picture

Fabulous shot.

John Ellingson's picture

I make several photo treks every year. They are usually a week to ten days long. They are frequently to places I have photographed before -- maybe many times before -- like the Grand Canyon. My planning will be for shots that I have not taken before and shots that have not been taken thousands of times by others. I have no interest in replicating the cliche shot that has been taken before -- regardless of how lovely it might be. What I plan for is what does my vision bring to the shot. I will carefully plan location, time of day, equipment, average weather, etc. The planning for these trips might take months.
Even for a shoot that I do regularly, like weekend polo, where I have press credentials and I have shot dozens of times, I will plan each new shoot carefully. I will have several images that I want to work on that might be hard to get. I will clean my equipment and make sure all batteries are charged etc. Success is not so much being in the right place at the right time, but in careful preparation for what is there when you are there.
Planning is in working on your vision and executing on it when on location.

Mike Gorman's picture

Last week I took a trip out to Washington, and made a side excursion to Mt. Ranier. My goal was to capture my own take on the typical Reflection Lake shot - the mountain in profile reflected on a broad, still lake, surrounded by green and wildflowers. I'd planned the visit around the shot, with sunrise/sunset, golden and blue hour times carefully noted.

As I wound my way around the parkway, I noticed that a thick fog was setting in around the peak. As I gained elevation, I also noticed more and more snow on the ground. When I reached the lake, I found it completely snowed over - the snowbanks in spots were 5 to 10 feet deep. My sunrise and sunset shots were blown by thick fog, and I had to wait until later in the morning for it to burn off. I ended up capturing the mountain, against a bright blue sky, reflected in a small break in the snow.

In the end I had to call a bunch of audibles on the shot. It wasn't what I had planned, but in the end I think I ended up with something a bit more unique and creative.