What to Photograph When There’s Too Much to Photograph

Tips & Techniques

Last year, I wrote an article about finding subjects to photograph when there isn’t anything obvious to shoot. That’s a common situation in photography: not enough good subjects. Sometimes, however, the opposite is true, where there’s an abundance of good subjects and not enough time to photograph them all.

It sounds like a good problem to have, and of course it’s better than the alternative. But it’s still a problem that can lead to missed opportunities and a lack of success from your shoot. I’ve had my share of failures in promising locations because I waste time, stop putting thought into my compositions, and/or settle for “good enough” subjects.

I just returned from one of those locations: a shoot from the Liwa Desert during our Middle East workshop (hence the lack of articles this week on Photography Life, and my apologies for that). It’s a beautiful desert that feels endless, both in its vastness and in its photographic opportunities.

Even so, I found myself wasting time taking a lot of weak photos, perhaps because the number of subjects to shoot was so overwhelming. After processing my photos and figuring out what worked and didn’t, I’ve gotten a better sense of what to do next time in locations like this – situations where there’s almost too much to photograph.

Table of Contents

1. Don’t Get Stuck on Any One Subject

If you’re at a typical, ordinary location as a photographer, there may only be a handful of good subjects at best. The trick in cases like that is to find them and take your time to capture them as best as possible. It works well normally, but in overabundant locations, it can be a bad approach.

During one of our two sunsets in the Liwa Desert, I spent most of my time photographing the same subject with minor variations of light and composition. It was an interesting subject, but it was still a waste of time, because there were a dozen other (often even better) subjects I missed shooting in the meantime. Not to mention that I took the photo below – my favorite variation out of dozens of nearly identical shots – near the very beginning, so I didn’t have any reason to stick around so long.

Sunset in Liwa Desert with Good Subjects
Sony A1 + FE 20mm F1.8 G @ 20mm, ISO 100, 1/20, f/16.0

If your approach to photography is like mine, where you prefer to steadily refine your compositions, it’s easy to get stuck on subjects that are “good enough” or “refinable.” You’ll find yourself no longer looking around for anything better or for a greater variety of shots, instead seeking to improve the subject you’ve already got. That mindset can lead you to capture only one good photo in a location where you just as easily could have taken half a dozen better ones.

Once you recognize that you’re in a place where you can “close your eyes, put on a random lens, and get something interesting” (as one of the photographers on our workshop phrased it regarding Liwa), it’s time to change your approach. Don’t spend all your time on any one subject. I’d even recommend limiting yourself to a certain number of photos or a time limit, like a dozen shots or 5-10 minutes, before moving on.

2. Predict How the Light Will Change

Even in a location with a million good shots to take, the best photos will still change as the light changes. Maybe before sunrise it’s an intense blue hour silhouette; at sunrise, a classic wide-angle landscape shot; shortly after, a macro photo or telephoto abstract.

My advice is to think about the path of the light and how your scene will look next, especially from different vantage points. Try to move around so that your position is always in sync with the light. The goal is to stand in the right spot just before the best conditions happen, hence maximizing your use of time.

This is another thing I got wrong at one point in the Liwa Desert. I found a really killer sand dune and took a series of abstract photos of it, some of which are even among my favorite photos from that day. The problem? I missed the sun dipping below the horizon because of it.

Eye of the Desert
Sony A1 + FE 35mm F1.8 @ 35mm, ISO 100, 1/4, f/16.0

As you can see, the sand dune was in the shade even while I was photographing it. So while I actually loved the subject and am happy with the photo above, I easily could have stepped away from it, taken photos of the sun setting for a couple minutes, then returned to afterwards to get basically the same photo. It would have been nice to have some sunset shots from that beautiful evening as well.

That’s why it’s so valuable to think about how the light will change and where you should be as it does. It increases the variety of shots you’ll be able to capture at the optimal moments, helping you maximize your opportunities.

3. Ration Your Time

Much of what I’ve said so far is about using your time wisely, but I want to put a finer point on that tip. Photography in general requires a lot of little time-consuming activities, from adjusting your camera settings to changing your lens. In environments with too much to photograph and not enough time, I recommend trying to keep these things to a minimum.

For example, rather than using manual focus and/or exposing manually, instead use autofocus and aperture priority. Rather than reviewing every photo and zooming in to check sharpness, just do so occasionally. I’d also suggest using a zoom instead of a set of primes if you have the option, since it minimizes lens changes and often lets you carry a lighter, more maneuverable kit.

Even though I’m a landscape photographer, and much of what I’ve said above may seem like it’s geared toward landscape photography, this applies to anyone trying to get a wide variety of shots in a time crunch. It’s why wedding photographers so often carry two camera bodies with different lenses, or why wildlife photographers might wear a photo vest instead of a backpack to quickly access their accessories.

Wildlife photography with a short telephoto lens
NIKON Z 7 + 70-200mm f/4 @ 200mm, ISO 400, 1/800, f/4.0

When good subjects are abundant, usually the most limited resource you’ll have is time. Make the most of it. This is true for the two other tips so far – not getting stuck on any one subject, and matching your shots to the best light – as well as not wasting times on the little things.

4. Figure Out the Scene’s Best Qualities

There’s usually a reason why a particular, promising location works so well for photography. In the Liwa Desert, it’s the wide variety of sand dune patterns, from close-ups to classic shots. In one of my other favorite locations, a grove of aspen trees in Colorado, it’s the colors and how many abstract patterns can be found.

When the number of good subjects seems overwhelming, I encourage you to take stock of the place you’re photographing. What is it about the area that makes it hold so many good photos? If you can pin down an answer, you’ll have an idea of what to prioritize photographically.

For example, one of my favorite hikes – the Narrows river hike in Zion National Park in Utah – is an abundant location for photography. To me, the reasons why boil down to two things: how tall the canyon walls are, and how smooth the stones on the ground look with water flowing over them. When I went back there a few weeks ago, I tried to tailor my compositions to include those two subjects prominently. I only stopped for photos (always a time-consuming effort in the middle of a river) when the combination of the two was especially appealing to me.

Narrows
NIKON D800E + 20mm f/1.8 @ 20mm, ISO 100, 2 seconds, f/16.0

Another time a few years ago, on the rare chance I had to photograph Iceland’s glacial rivers from an airplane, it felt like I kept seeing something interesting no matter what direction I pointed my telephoto zoom. I had to narrow it down in order to get something good. It struck me that the defining features of these rivers were the vivid colors and how abstract they looked from above – hardly anything like rivers, in fact. This realization let me make the most of my limited time in the air and capture one of my favorite abstract shots in my portfolio.

Abstract Photography
NIKON D800E + 70-200mm f/4 @ 140mm, ISO 500, 1/500, f/5.6

When there’s no shortage of things to photograph, try to prioritize the subjects that epitomize the area as best as possible. After all, if it’s a great area, there’s little doubt that those particular subjects will be good.

Conclusion

It’s not the norm to have too many good subjects to photograph, and more often the opposite is true. But I’m sure that you’ve experienced those serendipitous locations as a photographer, where there are an unusually high number – even an overwhelming number – of potential subjects to choose from.

As much as I love it when that happens, you won’t just automatically get good photos if it does. As always, it takes thought and attention in order to steer the best compositions your way. Maybe even more thought and attention than usual.

So, I hope the tips in this article gave you a good sense of what to do when it happens! A lot of it is about time management: not getting stuck on individual subjects, always predicting and following the light, and trying to minimize small time-wasting moments. Beyond that, if you can analyze the scene and figure out why it’s so good for photography, you can tailor your compositions to emphasize those characteristics in your photos.

If you do all that, you’ll be able to get a high number of keepers and good variety in your shots rather than feeling like you missed a lot of good opportunities.

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