We generally use a flash or some other light source to throw light on something that needs to be brighter. But, what happens if your flash or light source is too small to properly illuminate what you want? One option is to paint it with light: during a long exposure, “paint” over whatever you want to be illuminated with your light source. Sounds even enough.
Anyone who’s actually used this technique knows what a pain it can be to get it just right. I’ve spent hours in the desert with a headlamp trying to get that stupid Joshua Tree lit up the way I want it. So imagine trying get 50 people to do it at the same time. In order to light up a whole city…
That’s just what the Photo Association of Toledo did. You can read about the undertaking here. I can tell you, having stood in the same spot that photo was taken, Toledo is a pretty tiny, hilltop, old-world, walled city. But it’s still a city where tens of thousands of people live. It’s still a freaking CITY. So, spoiler alert: the shot took a lot of planning, and lots of trial and error.
Now the bad news: all photography takes planning. Even if you don’t shoot massive, choreographed scenes. If you’re interest is shooting weddings, you might think this is obvious. But portraits, landscapes, wildlife shooting, all of it requires a good deal of planning if you want to be consistently successful.
You might argue that some of the best, most compelling photography comes by capturing the unexpected, the random, the unpredictable. You can’t plan for the unpredictable, no matter what James Bond says (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZFrWCE9B18c).
First, while you can’t plan for the unexpected, the majority of those “chance” or “lucky” shots result from ridiculous amounts of time spent preparing for them. Take Mangelsen’s famous “Catch of the Day” (http://www.mangelsen.com/store/Posters___Catch_of_the_Day___Commemorative_Edition_Fine_Art_Poster___1698CMPOST?Args=) Sure, it’s lucky that he timed the shot perfectly. But he had to plan to even be in the spot to get the shot. He had to research where the bears fish in the river (not so well known before his shot popularized the area). He had to plan where he was going to shoot from, the gear he need to get the shot, what time he needed to be there to catch prime feeding action, etc. etc. Only after all the planning, and likely 10,000 “unlucky” frames, did he get that lucky shot.
This is more of a caveat than an imploration. I’ve been on plenty of trips to gorgeous locales where I’ve taken my camera along hoping to get the opportunity to take some landscape shots, but without actually doing any planning. Guess what invariably happens? I come back with crap. Which is fine, unless you’ve psyched yourself up about the great shot you’re going to get. If you don’t plan ahead, chances are you won’t come home with anything you’re happy with.
So, plan ahead, or expect mediocrity.