I am very fortunate to be living in a highly photogenic area of the Czech Republic. It is called Bohemian Paradise (Bohemia is the historical name of one of the regions in the Czech Republic). The dominant feature of the Bohemian Paradise landscape is its sandstone rock formations. But since these rock formations are often hidden in woods, the symbol of Bohemian Paradise is an extinct volcano, which rises above the horizon and can be seen from far away. It is called Trosky. This remnant of an old volcano is rather remarkable as it consists of two towers. On top of them, a medieval castle was built in the 14th century. Today, only the ruins of the once beautiful castle are visible.
How Trosky became my life-long photography project
Ever since 2008, when I started to photograph with a DSLR, I have regularly been taking photographs of Bohemian Paradise. Since the ruins of Trosky are visible from many locations in Bohemian Paradise, they appear in many of my images, sometimes even unintentionally. I realized this only when I began using Lightroom and started to tag objects in my photos. In 2011, I created a small collection called “Trosky”, but still had no plans of shooting this motif in any systematic way.
It was only when I saw a project by Tunisio Alves Filhothat that the situation changed. His project “One Lighthouse, 365 Clicks” totally inspired me. The Brazilian photographer created 365 different images of one lighthouse using various standpoints, occasions, angles, compositions, perspectives and styles. His final portfolio is very creative. I was inspired. I knew my next project would be to photograph Trosky ruins in as many different ways as possible.
Why a photography project?
“If you want to improve and develop your skills, set yourself some big challenging photographic project.” That is what I read several times on various blogs and photography sites. Finally, I had a project and a challenge too. Shooting one object again and again is a good means of pushing yourself out of your normal modus of seeing and photographing.
We all tend to have preferred locations and standpoints, our favorite compositions, and our beloved gear. And after we exhaust our normal range of tools and normal dose of creativity, we think it is sufficient and we can do no more.
By setting my goal of having as many different images of Trosky as possible, I increased my motivation and triggered my imagination. Returning to old, well-known places was fun again, because I was re-thinking my compositions and starting to use different equipment to get different results. As one could expect, I was shooting mostly in the golden hours and around sunset and sunrise. However, I also obtained good photos in midday light and on pitch black moonless nights. I used different cameras and lenses, but with hindsight, I know it is the quality of light and composition rather than the pixel count or the sharpness of the lenses that make for good images.
While the size and the location of the ruins of Trosky do not allow for too great a variation in perspective, still the beautiful surroundings and changing four seasons provide enough variation for a diversified portfolio. And although my portfolio is far from being complete, I have decided to publish the selection of 50 photographs here with my side remarks on what I learned through this project.
Lessons learned from my project
- The blessing of (Lightroom) virtual collections. To list this as the first lesson learned here might be surprising. Yet I do believe that without the virtual collections in Lightroom, I would never really have as many good images as I do. Until 2011, my photographic workflow relied heavily on Adobe Photoshop and Bridge. But Bridge did not enable the creation of virtual collections. What I created instead was a complicated system of subfolders with several physical copies of my good photos. Admittedly, the system was a mess. Only after switching from Photoshop workflow to Lightroom workflow back in 2011, did I discover the beauty of virtual collections (and their hierarchies).
Lightroom is, needless to say, not the only option. There are several similar software tools that organize images in libraries and enable virtual collections. One photo can appear in an unlimited number of collections based on a different set of criteria, while still being on your hard drive in one single copy. Organizing photographs into collections unleashed a different style of conceptual thinking about my whole portfolio and invoked my new ideas for further projects.
- Know your subject/location. A thorough knowledge of your subject/motif/location is crucial. In my case, I spent many hours in scouting the surrounding valleys, vistas, fields, meadows and villages from where Trosky is visible. I explored the landscape both on foot, by bicycle, while jogging or driving a car — on countless opportunities during different times of the year. I tried to make visual notes of the suitable places. Just by traveling around, new ideas for different compositions occurred to me. Taking smartphone photos may help to build a database from which you can plan the final shots.
- Practice patience and reserve more time for shooting. If you want to have a great portfolio, you will need a lot of time, especially in the case of a landscape portfolio (in four seasons). You really need to return over and over again to the site and wait for the right light. There is no shortcut to this. You can only increase the likelihood of getting the right light by using sunrise and sunset hours as often as possible and by knowing how to predict light conditions. But even with proper planning (next point), you have to accept that weather is whimsical and that sometimes it takes 3-10 attempts to obtain the right conditions. Without patience, one can easily get frustrated.
- Plan the shots. Without planning it is possible to be lucky to take a few good shots, but you cannot build a comprehensive portfolio. Today, we have all the tools to know when the sun will set in the right position, when the Milky Way will be just above our subject or when the full moon will be rising above it. I use the Photographer’s Ephemeris web App for the sun and moon position and Stellarium software for night shots. I learned how to predict morning fogs or red sky by reading radar data and using meteorological websites. Last but not least, even if planning is crucial, there is one overriding principle to it: always be ready to modify your plan and improvise if the conditions change unexpectedly (especially if the change is in your favor).
- The power of visualization. Very often, my to-do list of planned shots told me that the right moment was early in the morning around 5 a.m., which required waking up at 4 a.m. As a night-owl who goes to bed long after midnight, these are excruciating moments for me. I need super high motivation to get out of a warm bed. Visualization is key for me – only when I can imagine some great shot in my head, can I make myself overcome the unpleasant emotion of an early wake-up. A good visualization of my “ideal” final portfolio drives me forward and is the source of my motivation.
- Good luck or serendipity. Even with the best planning and meticulous preparation, sometimes you need a bit of a luck for a great photograph. Typically, the appearance of wildlife cannot be properly planned for. The same holds for some exceptional cloud formations or light conditions (double rainbow, etc.). For those, one needs to be rather lucky. Having said that, it still holds that more time spent planning and shooting means higher odds for some lucky circumstances.
- Sometimes, gear matters. I always point out (to those who seek advice from me) that gear matters so much less than a good eye. Yet, there are moments when your vision can be materialized only with special gear. Only after I bought a Nikon D750 with two fast fixed primes (14mm and 20mm), was I able to get good night shots of the Milky Way. In general, however, for a good portfolio it is more important to have a good range of different focal lengths than to have the most expensive camera body. 80 % of my portfolio is shot with now outdated cameras such as the D90 and D7000, and with cheap lenses such as a Nikkor 18-55mm VR II.
- Be inspired by the work of others, but not too much. I already wrote at the beginning that I was greatly inspired by the Brazilian photographer. Following other photographers and researching web galleries is a good source of inspiration. But beware: in the case of highly photogenic subjects, you may easily get frustrated. With thousands of good photographers shooting every day, the huge websites such as flickr.com or 500px.com will always have an astounding number of exceptional photographs, which can leave one with the feeling of never being able to obtain such images. But that is not the point. You will ultimately get your unique shots. You should use your precious time by shooting out there, rather than scrolling down the online galleries! So, always get a decent dose of inspiration but never overdo it.
- Review your portfolio from time to time. If you are losing motivation or get the feeling that others have much better portfolios, do review your own portfolio and acknowledge what you have already achieved. Reviewing own work must be in a good balance with getting inspiration from other photographers. We tend to forget about how much we already have in our archives. Again, good organization (see point 1) is crucial for this to work in your favor.
- Have a good excuse for your family and friends. Be ready to face questions by your family: “Oh no! You are going to shoot Trosky again? You must have photographed it 1000 times already, aren’t you rather overdoing it?” So I advise letting your family know that by returning to the same place you are creating a unique project which will ultimately make you famous (be ready to be laughed out!)
This in a nutshell is what my life-long project has taught me so far.
I still have more ideas for completely different images for my project. Currently, I am considering buying a drone – from the air, a whole new range of possibilities for diverse compositions would be possible. But I also know I need to keep my Gear Acquisition Syndrome in check. So I’m not sure yet.
The best thing for me is that my project is still ongoing and I am looking forward to building on it further. The process itself (of creating the portfolio) is perhaps more important and rewarding than the final result.
And what about you? Do you have a long-term (or even life-long) photographic project?
This guest post was submitted by Vaclav Bacovsky, a photographer from the Czech Republic (in the very heart of Europe). He loves shooting landscapes, architecture, macro and wildlife (see his 500px page). He blogs at www.krasnesvetlo.cz (in Czech language only though). And his infrared photographs are published on his Instagram account.