Why a good concept matters so much in your photography

For a recent personal shoot I wanted to create some imagery that really got across the concept of going running in Winter. I’ve been a runner since my teens, although I’m not very fast I do keep going all year round, and personally prefer to be out in Autumn and Winter rather than the heat of summer.  The concept I’m after in the shots is what one of those really grey winter days feels like. There’s no sun in the sky, and the whole landscape is drained of colour. There’s mud everywhere, and a fairly cold wind, but you go running anyway.

Winter Running - Concept
One of those sort of days – expect to get pretty wet, muddy and cold, but you’ll really appreciate the hot shower when you get back!

Even though it’s a personal shoot, I still plan it as if it was a job. I check the weather – I’d like it to be cloudy and overcast of course. I choose an appropriate subject, in this case my friend Simon, a very serious runner. And I search for the right location.

For the location, having recently moved to the area, I’ve got a few ideas, so I scour the OS map and find somewhere with lots of tightly bunched contours, trails, and trees. Then, I head out and investigate on foot. Long experience has taught me that there’s simply no substitute for checking a location out in person, even though it’s more time consuming than just doing it online.

There’s a real knack to looking at a location, and seeing the final shots in it. Never forget when location scouting that we have 2 eyes, and a camera only has one, and we usually view the world from head height. To get a better feel for how things will look on camera, there’s simply no substitute for taking as many shots as you think you’ll need, and it’s well worth varying your angle as much as you can – look up, look down, climb up things, or lie down on things.

Winter Running - Concept
Move around when grabbing location shots – from the location shot on the left I could see ahead to the “real” shot with a long lens of Simon cresting the brow of the hill.

The weather at the start of the shoot was perfect – grey and gloomy, but unfortunately within half an hour or so, the sun came out. Great news for everyone who was out on their bikes that day, or going out for a nice walk, but less good for the shots I had in mind.

Rather than get back in the car and give up, I opted to use spots where the sun would have little effect. So, I searched out the deepest, thickest parts of the wood, where the trees masked pretty much all the sunlight.

Winter Running - Concept
Deep in amongst the trees, not much sun gets through, and so, things still look “wintry”

Or, I chose angles where even though the sun is visible, it’s not adding any colour to the shots, or changing the mood in any way. This shot has such a dark backdrop behind Simon, and there’s so little colour in the frame, that even though the sun is out, it still fits the mood

Trail running - concept.
The hill really is that steep, and with just dark trees as a backdrop, it’s easy to minimise the effect of the sun.

Above all, the concept of the shoot is what matters. If circumstances change, but you’ve got a good technical base, enough creativity and ingenuity to work around it, and the concept itself is strong enough, you still stand a good chance of coming home with the goods. You may have to adapt what you’re doing, or chuck out some of your original ideas, but as long as you’ve got a clear idea of what your concept is you can simply find other ways of illustrating it.

Don’t be afraid to abandon some of your original plans. I’d hoped to use this fantastically shaped fallen tree in one of the final shots, but it’s in a fairly exposed spot, and as such, had a lot of sun on it, so although I took a few frames of Simon running past, they didn’t make the final cut, as the mood is much brighter than the “wintry” look I was after.

Winter Running - Concept
In thick fog, or heavy overcast, this tree could look fantastic, but in bright sunlight it’s not quite as moody!

So don’t panic if the sun comes out, or goes in, or it starts to rain, snow, or heavy fog builds up. You’re only really in trouble if you can’t get your concept across, and they may be all sorts of ways to do that.


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