Planning Versus Spontaneity in Landscape Photography


Landscape photography is an art that often balances on the precipice of meticulous planning and spontaneous creativity. As a landscape photographer, I’ve found myself torn between meticulously planning every detail of a shoot and simply going with the flow, capturing the unexpected. In this article, let’s delve into a debate: Is it better to meticulously plan a landscape photography shoot or embrace spontaneity?

The Case for Planning

Maximizing the Golden Hour

One of the primary reasons for meticulous planning is the desire to make the most of the golden hour: the magical time just after sunrise and just before sunset when the light is soft, warm, and ideal for landscape photography. Planning allows you to pinpoint the exact time and location for these moments, ensuring you’re in the right place at the right time. 

Composition and Framing

A well-thought-out plan can help you identify compelling compositions and framing opportunities. By scouting locations in advance, you can assess the potential for leading lines, foreground interest, and the rule of thirds. This ensures that your images have a strong visual impact and you have an idea beforehand of what type of shot you are going to get. For example, when I was putting my photography location guides for Ireland together, I wanted to ensure that I could at least help people find the location, know what’s possible to shoot, and how to plan it in advance, then all that was left was for the weather to play ball. If you are planning a moonrise or moon-set shot, then this is when planning comes into its own.

Weather and Seasonal Considerations

Detailed planning also involves researching the weather and seasonal conditions of the location. Knowing what to expect can help you pack the right gear, such as rain covers, warm clothing, or filters for specific lighting conditions. It can also ultimately tell you that today isn’t the right time to go shoot as the weather conditions won’t be what you needed them to be. There are some great weather apps out there to give you that edge you need to at least have a stronger potential hit rate.

Permits and Regulations

There are some iconic landscapes require permits or adherence to specific regulations for photography. Thankfully, I don’t have that challenge here in Irelan. However, should you have to get them, planning ahead allows you to obtain the necessary permissions, preventing legal hassles during your shoot. If you are a commercial shooter, then it is going to be almost always the case that you need to let the location know in advance so that they can plan around your needs if necessary. 

Equipment and Technical Preparedness

Planning helps you ensure that you have all the necessary equipment, from lenses and filters to tripods and remote triggers. It also provides an opportunity to clean and maintain your gear before the shoot. By ensuring you take the steps in advance, you reduce the risk of forgetting to pack a key component.

The Case for Spontaneity

Capturing Unique Moments

Spontaneity in landscape photography can lead to capturing unique, one-of-a-kind moments that no amount of planning could predict. Nature is unpredictable, and sometimes, the most extraordinary scenes unfold when you least expect them. By being fluid in our approach, we can essentially go where the conditions bring us.

Embracing Creativity

Going with the flow allows you to be more open to creative experimentation. You might stumble upon an unexpected angle, lighting condition, or subject that sparks your imagination and leads to breathtaking shots.

Reducing Stress and Pressure

Overplanning can sometimes lead to stress and frustration if conditions don’t align with your expectations. Embracing spontaneity can relieve the pressure of sticking to a predetermined plan and allow you to enjoy the process more. A good friend of mine, Adam Gibbs, once said that having expectations in landscape photography can only lead to disappointment, and he has been right on many occasions.

Flexibility in Challenging Environments

In challenging environments, like coastal and mountainous areas, where conditions can change rapidly, spontaneity is often a better approach. Rigidity in planning may lead to missed opportunities, as the light can break anywhere, and it can also potentially lead to safety risks because of not being aware of the surroundings. 

Authenticity and Connection

Spontaneity can result in more authentic and emotionally resonant photographs. When you allow yourself to be present in the moment, you’re more likely to capture the true essence and mood of the landscape. Mindfulness in photography is something that I would highly recommend. Instead of rocking up to a location and immediately hauling the camera out of your bag, grabbing the shot, and heading off, upon arrival, leave the bag in the car if possible or just have it beside you, take your time to breathe in the location, sit down, relax, and look around you. Enjoy the moment, let the landscape envelop you before you even take the camera out. This way, you may spot compositions that you wouldn’t have.

Finding the Balance

While the planning versus spontaneity debate may seem like an either/or proposition, the truth lies in finding a balance that suits your style and the specific shoot. Here are some strategies that I use to help me to strike a balance:

Research and Scouting

Even if you prefer spontaneity, basic research and scouting are invaluable. Identify locations, check for access, and understand the general conditions of the area. This provides a foundation for your spontaneous adventure in a scouted location.

Weather Apps and Predictions

Modern technology, such as weather apps, can be your best friend. They allow you to anticipate weather conditions and make informed decisions about when and where to shoot. If, however, you live in an area like I do, you will know that these apps are merely a guide, and the weather can in fact be the total opposite of what the data told you. If you have a fluid and planned approach here, then regardless of the weather, there will always be a shot.

Flexibility in Your Itinerary

When planning a shoot, leave room for flexibility in your itinerary. Allow for unplanned detours and extra time at locations that capture your interest. I have found that as cliché as it may sound, enjoying the journey as well as the destination is key, far too often, when we are fixed on a timeframe or a destination, we don’t allow ourselves to look around and take in the scenes that present themselves to us along the way. Consider blending planning and spontaneity. Plan for your primary shots, but be open to spontaneous opportunities that arise during the shoot.

Trust Your Instincts

Sometimes, the best shots come from following your instincts. If you sense that a change in location or composition is needed, don’t hesitate to go with your gut feeling. Likewise, if you find that killer comp and all you need is the light, look around you and be ready to take the camera off the tripod and shoot it. You can always put the camera back on the tripod when the light kicks in, as the composition will have been locked in. 


The debate of planning versus spontaneity in landscape photography is not one that has a definitive answer. Both approaches have their merits and can lead to stunning results. The key is understanding when each approach is most appropriate and finding the balance that aligns with your creative vision and the specific circumstances of your shoot.

Ultimately, whether you meticulously plan every detail or embrace spontaneity, landscape photography is about connecting with the natural world, capturing its beauty, and sharing your unique perspective with others. In the end, the best approach is the one that allows you to do just that. Planning can be just like life: be ready for change and the unexpected.

Have you points to add to this topic or have you examples of when, without planning a shot, it would never have happened, or perhaps because you didn’t plan, you got that banger shot? I’d love to read your thoughts in the comments below.


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