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Marsel van Oosten: why planning is important in photography

April 6, 2022

In his latest column, nature photographer Marsel van Oosten explains why planning is essential for him…


I’m a perfectionist. Whatever I do, I want to do it as well as I can, without any mistakes. However, whether it’s animal behaviour or the weather, as a nature photographer I know I have little to no control over my subjects or the conditions – anything can happen, so I try to control other variables that are more predictable. Therefore I spend a lot of time on planning.

In an earlier column I talked about ‘pre-visualisation’, which is my most important creative tool. Once I know what I want the image/s to look like, I know what I need to do to get the results I’m after… choose the location, the season to shoot, work out the logistics, book accommodation, choose camera gear, pick clothing to take, check the weather – all of this goes into my general planning routine.

Perfectionists like to plan ahead and to expect the unexpected. That’s why I don’t just make a plan A, I also make a plan B and a plan C. I need to take care of all possible contingencies. I don’t like any negative, nasty surprises, so I think about the tiniest little details that could make or break my plans.

Chinese fisherman. planning photography

Chinese fisherman, Xiapu, China. Nikon D5, AF-S VR 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6 lens, 1/250sec at f/11, ISO 800

For a scouting trip to China for a landscape photography tour, there were two locations that needed careful planning. The first one was Huangshan, which is also known as ‘Yellow Mountain’. It’s an area known for its granite peaks, hot springs, pine trees and oceans of low hanging clouds and is a frequent subject of traditional Chinese paintings and literature.

The vistas at Huangshan are beyond stunning, but I wanted one extra component to take them to the next level… mist. To maximise my chances, I had to research what would be the best time of year to get the conditions I was after. The most important contributor to mist in this area turned out to be rain – mist often forms after rainfall. It wasn’t as simple as that unfortunately, because, with too much rain, there’s no visibility. I ended up going at the start of the rainy season and got lucky a couple of times. This image was later chosen as a winner in the European Wildlife POTY awards.

Huangshan, China. planning in photography

Huangshan, China. Nikon D4S, AF-S VR 70-200mm f/2.8 lens, 0.8sec at f/16, ISO 100

Another location in China was at the coast: the extremely graphic looking aquaculture in Fujian province. All fishing and seaweed harvesting activities in this region are based around the tides. The tides differ between locations, so we spent a lot of time creating an efficient shooting schedule so that we knew when we should be where.

I say ‘we’ because I am fortunate to be married to Daniella, ‘The Queen of Planning and Logistics’. This got pretty complicated because I obviously wanted to only shoot when the light was good – in the early morning and late afternoon. But often the best tide was during the middle of the day, or the tide was either too low or too high when the light was perfect.

The shooting schedule for this area of China turned out to be the most complicated ones we have ever created. It was a lot of work, but without this level of planning I would never have been able to shoot so many images in perfect conditions. Failing to plan is planning to fail. This image of a Chinese fisherman checking his nets was later awarded in Travel POTY, and it was used for the cover of the awards book.

Daniella, ‘Chief Executive Planner’, Huangshan, China

Daniella, ‘Chief Executive Planner’, Huangshan, China. Nikon D810, AF-S 24-70mm f/2.8, 1/200sec, f/8, ISO 400

As told to Steve Fairclough


Marsel van Oosten

Marsel van Oosten was born in The Netherlands and worked as an art director for 15 years. He switched careers to become a photographer and has since won Wildlife Photographer of the Year and Travel Photographer of the Year. He’s a regular contributor to National Geographic and runs nature photography tours around the world. Visit www.squiver.com

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