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Tip of the Week: Planning before you shoot

March 16, 2017

Joe West kayaks through The Narrows near the mouth of Ogden Canyon on Saturday, Feb. 18, 2017. The river was flowing at around 1,200 cubic feet per second in mid-February. The Ogden river hasn't seen such high water in at least five years. "Utah doesn't have white water a lot of the time, but when it's good, it's good," said West.
Joe West kayaks through The Narrows near the mouth of Ogden Canyon on Saturday, Feb. 18, 2017. The river was flowing at around 1,200 cubic feet per second in mid-February. The Ogden river hasn’t seen such high water in at least five years. “Utah doesn’t have white water a lot of the time, but when it’s good, it’s good,” said West.

For all of the technical aspects that go into photography, the most important part of shooting a strong photo is the planning. This is especially true in photojournalism where we don’t stage photos, but instead, capture moments as they are naturally happening.

A prime example of the importance of planning came in a recent photo story on whitewater kayakers enjoying the high water in Ogden Canyon.

Most of the story was about kayakers paddling through The Narrows, a 1.4 mile stretch of river at the mouth of the canyon. The final photo story featured several action shots of two kayakers in The Narrows.

When it came time to get the peak action images, I only spent a few seconds shooting photos. However, there were days of planning and preparation that led up to those shots.

The first step was simply finding out who was going kayaking and when they would be out there. This involved reaching out to local kayakers, talking to friends of friends of friends on Facebook, stopping by the river at random hours and digging through old stories on kayaking in Northern Utah. The people I eventually photographed were friends of someone that I stopped to chat with on the side of the highway who happened to have kayaks on top of their truck. 

After finding a subject to photograph, there were two weeks of delay due to changing water conditions and scheduling conflicts.

Before the day of the shoot, I made a trip to Ogden Canyon and slowly traveled the route they would be taking.

Eric Jones and Joe West, the two kayakers, would only be in the water for around ten minutes. In that time they would be traveling alongside a busy highway, in and out of narrow canyons, beneath trees and through constantly changing water. As I previewed the route, I made notes and took sample photos of every place that I could stop along the highway. I then judged each spot based on how the location looked, how obstructed the view was, how similar it was to other areas, and how quickly I could stop my car, get out, shoot and get back on the road.kayak combo 1

There was one location that looked beautiful, but it took several minutes to scramble down the bank of the river to get there. If I went there, I wouldn’t be able to reach any other locations to get a second photo.

On the day that I was to meet Jones and West, I did a second quick survey to see if any of the planned shooting sites had changed as the water flow increased and large debris washed downstream.

Kayakers paddle through The Narrows in Ogden Canyon as the Ogden River reaches levels that haven't been seen in years on Saturday, Feb. 18, 2017.

When it came time to shoot kayaking, I prepared two cameras: one with a long 70-200mm lens and one with a wide 16-35mm lens. I parked with my car pointing down the highway at the put in. As soon as the kayakers were in the river I sprinted to the car and drove to my first planned photo stop. For the next ten minutes I repeated the pattern of driving several hundred yards with two cameras strapped around my neck, jumping out of the car, sprinting to a pre-ordained vantage point, shooting photos for around ten seconds, sprinting back to the car and heading to the next point.

Kayakers paddle through The Narrows in Ogden Canyon as the Ogden River reaches levels that haven't been seen in years on Saturday, Feb. 18, 2017.

Thanks to the planning, I was able to race through the shoot without worrying about where I would be able to get a good shot.