Disused trestle bridge in northern New South Wales, Australia (see story below)

Reconnaissance — it’s such a formal military term. I prefer to use “recce”. Others might say “recon” or “location scout”. Any of these terms are fine. My main point is that a recce, or lack of one, can affect the success of a photo shoot.

I’m a great believer in research – especially for location shooting. For my style of light painting, planning is essential because I shoot only one set-up per night (at dusk). That set-up needs to make the best use of my time, and the location.

So what’s the purpose of recceing a location? My working philosophy is centred on The Principle of the 7 Ps:

Proper, Prior Planning Prevents Piss-Poor Performance

In terms of light painting photography, this means that the time and effort I put in before the shoot often makes a difference to the way the shoot proceeds.

This post provides behind-the-scenes information about some difficult shoots, and the lessons I learned. I’ve included three examples of shoots that I didn’t fully recce. I’ve also included another shoot that could have failed had I not physically recced the location.

1. Treachery Head, Myall Lakes National Park, NSW, Australia

Years ago I was driving along the coast north of Sydney. I decided to break my journey and stay a night at Pacific Palms. As I had my camera and light painting gear with me, I did a Google Search of natural points of interest around Pacific Palms to see what I could shoot during my one overnight stay. Several images of Treachery Head came up on my computer screen so I did a Google Map search, realised it was an easy 30-minute drive from Pacific Palms and finalised plans to do a light painting of this prominent headland. But I didn’t make time to visit the location before the shoot so I had no idea what to expect.

Light painting of Treachery Head, looking down to the ocean

As I hadn’t physically recced Treachery Head, I made these errors of judgement:

1) Walking the bush track from the carpark through the national park to the headland took longer than I imagined so I arrived at the location close to sunset, which restricted the time I had to find the best position and compose a shot.

2) I struggled to find a strong foreground element to include in my composition.

3) The rocky spurs that descended to the ocean were massive, dark and “unlightable” at dusk.

I proceeded to do some light painting because I was determined to make the best of a poor situation. The final image is adequate but forgettable. Lesson learned – a proper physical recce before the actual shoot would have helped me find a better location.

2. Stationary Steam Engine, Tapin Tops National Park, NSW, Australia

This is another example of an Internet search that I didn’t follow up with a recce. I was returning to Sydney from a trip to the North Coast. I decided to break my journey at Wingham, a small town on the Manning River. I did a Google Image Search of the Wingham area and found an intriguing image of a rusted stationary steam engine in a bushland setting. I was quite excited about the prospect of light painting abandoned machinery in the Australian bush. My Internet research revealed that the engine was located one-hour’s drive northwest of Wingham, in a national park. However when I arrived at the location in the Tapin Tops National Park, one hour before sunset, this depressing sight greeted me. The stationary engine was no longer sitting amongst trees (as shown on the internet) it was surrounded by steel!

Traction Engine -- Tapin Tops NP

Stationary Engine at Tapin Tops — fenced-in and protected

I understood why the National Parks and Wildlife Service had erected a fence to preserve the engine, and other old machinery but the high fence drastically limited my photographic options. I was determined to bring an image back, so I extended my tripod to full height and straddled the obstructing fence. Even with a wide-angle lens I was quite restricted in my framing. Here is the resulting light painting:

Stationary Engine, Tapin Tops National Park

Stationary Engine, Tapin Tops NP

The irony is that the image of the “unfenced” stationary engine – the shot that originally inspired me — still features on the Tapin Tops National Park website (as of April 2018).

3. Paperbark Forest near Bellingen, NSW, Australia

On this occasion I did not appreciate the local circumstances or understand the risks I was taking because I had not done a full recce.

One of my favourite places in New South Wales is the town of Bellingen and the beautiful Bellinger River Valley. Many years ago my wife and I were driving along a backroad not far from Bellingen. The dirt road narrowed to a low causeway and I realised we were driving through swamp country with paperbark (Melaleuca) forest on either side. I glanced out the driver’s window for no more than a few seconds and marvelled at the vista of paperbark trunks reflected in pools of dark water. It was a mental image that would haunt me for years until I resolved to return to light paint this mysterious landscape.

Years later I drove up the Pacific Highway and turned off the highway to revisit this location. I was on a backroad that serviced isolated residential bushland properties. What I didn’t realise was that this road was also used by large timber trucks that ferried logs to a local sawmill.

The road descended to the causeway and I passed through the swampy paperbark forest. The narrowness of the causeway meant there was no place to park so I drove a further 200 metres to find a safe place for my car.

Paperbark causeway near Bellingen

This causeway near Bellingen is barely wide enough for two vehicles to pass

It was approaching sunset and the deep forest was getting dark. I grabbed my camera backpack and tripod and hiked back along the causeway to the best vantage point. The shoulder of this dirt road was quite steep and loose, so positioning the tripod was a challenge – too far one way and I would be up to my knees in swamp water, too far the other way would make me a traffic hazard. I locked down the tripod within a metre of passing cars.  Once the sun had set, I quickly became the next tourist attraction as homebound locals flicked their headlights and slowed down to peer at me, hunched over a camera mounted on a large silver tripod.

As dusk deepened and I rehearsed my light painting sequence, a local man took the time to stop his car next to my tripod legs. He wound down his window and cautioned me about the large timber trucks that use the causeway. As it was getting dark and I was ready to light paint, I asked the man about the likelihood of such a truck appearing that evening. He said I should expect the last truck of the day at any moment. After he drove away the sounds of the bush returned for a few minutes. But the croaking frogs and birdcalls were soon drowned out by the roar of a large diesel truck at the other end of the causeway. Its headlights blinded me as it slowly but relentlessly approached my position. The truck didn’t brake. It just drove through as though it owned the road. I began to panic and stood ready to quickly lift the tripod and camera out of the truck’s path, but the front wheels just missed my tripod leg. The causeway shook with the power and weight of the passing truck. Its load of logs was supported by large, rear wheels that quietly rolled past my precarious camera position. I was thankful to be spared what could easily have been a disaster. The timber trunk disappeared into the night and I set about light painting the scene.

So what’s the lesson here? If I’d spoken to locals as part of my research, would I have avoided setting up on the causeway because of the timber trucks? Perhaps. Did luck and naivety help me achieve this light painting? Definitely!

Swamped

Swamped

4. Railway Trestle Bridge, near Eltham, NSW, Australia

This final example highlights the value of a recce and how being forewarned is forearmed.

When I was visiting my father in northern New South Wales, we went for a drive to recce several abandoned bridges along a disused rail line. We found this wonderful old trestle bridge near the village of Eltham.

Railway Trestle Bridge, Eltham recce

Disused trestle bridge — showing the local access road

The abandoned bridge was well situated for light painting. There was a main road nearby but it ran parallel to the railway so at dusk any passing headlights would not affect my light painting activities.  As I recced the bridge, I realised the best composition would have to include a dirt road that passed under the bridge. This road was used by local farmers who needed access to their properties.

This road posed a particular problem. If any traffic passed under the trestle bridge while I was light painting at dusk, the car lights would appear as coloured trails in the bottom of my frame. Light trails are one thing, but given that any passing locals might be surprised or curious about a lone camera on a tripod and a stranger with a portable light, I anticipated that drivers might stop their cars mid-frame to enquire what’s going on. I knew I wouldn’t have time to explain or chat, and I didn’t want to lose a single exposure to light trails, so I devised a way of limiting any potential loss during the shoot.

The next afternoon when we returned to the bridge to set up for the dusk shot, I gave my father a special task. I armed him with a big black card and positioned him next to the camera. I asked him to be vigilant during my four-minute light painting exposures and if he saw that a car was about to pass in front of the camera, he was to yell “Freeze” to me while I was light painting, and then raise the black card in front of the lens while the car passed by. This would block the lens’ view but not affect the overall exposure in the dusk light.  Once the car had exited the frame, he was to lower the card and yell “Continue” so I could finish my light painting sequence.

Eltham Trestle Bridge

Trestle Bridge near Eltham

Sure enough, during two of the four exposures I made, locals drove home under the bridge and through the shot. My father was an excellent watchman and his use of the black card saved my shots. But the lesson here was that if we hadn’t done a recce, we wouldn’t have anticipated the problem, or planned a solution.

As a light painting photographer, I believe a recce is valuable and worth the time spent. I learn so much about a location and the challenges it presents. And being forewarned is forearmed.

Just remember The Principle of the 7 Ps: Proper, Prior Planning Prevents Piss-Poor Performance and you can’t go wrong! Well, you can’t go as wrong.

Most of my light paintings are available as limited edition, archival prints (see the menu heading — Prints).  My watermark does not appear on purchased prints.