This post is one of ten appearing in the series 10 Ways To Improve Your Landscape Photography. Whilst it's possible to leave our photography and its results to serendipity, to produce consistently good results (and avoid the increased frustration of putting the time in and not enjoying the results) it's important to do some research and planning.
That isn't to overstate it and turn it into a project management exercise, but a bit of preparation will go a long way. I've got up early and gone out for sunrise more than once where I hadn't done any prep and even with a glorious sunrise I've been ill prepared and so end up making random and hurried images to make sure I get something. I kick myself that I've gone to the effort of the early start without making sure I know the location, have a vision for my shots, direction of sun, times, etc to maximise my chances.
There are a number of tools I rely on when planning my shoots.
The Photographer's Ephemeris
This is a brilliant application that will give you sun and moon directions at any time of day, shown on a map. I use this to know where the sun is going to be and plan to be in a good position relative to it. There are a whole range of functions that are available, such as twilight times, using relative heights between your location and another to determine if the sun will be visible above a mountain and to find the next date that the sun will be in a certain position and elevation. It really is a good bit of kit, and available on iOS so I take it with me on my iPhone.
Good Quality Maps
I love good quality mapping! Not only do I find them interesting in their own right, they help me understand and predict the terrain. Ordnance Survey (OS) maps here in the UK are available in 1:50k and 1:25k, with the 1:25k maps providing some great detail. I use these to plan routes in and out, look at the lay of the land and interesting formations within it. I use MemoryMap which provides electronic OS maps which again I carry on my iPhone.
I don't use this as much as I probably should, but it allows you to virtualise the landscape and get a feel for the lay of the land and what your view or obstacles may be. If you've not been to a location and need to familiarise yourself with it then this is a good backup if you can't go there in person ahead of time.
I'm often shooting when the weather is "not brilliant". I'll keep an eye on the weather forecast to give me an idea of what I can expect in a few days' time. I use WeatherPro on my iPhone which has proven itself to be relatively reliable over the last year.
As I've mentioned I like to shoot near water. The coast can change radically between low tide and high tide. Depending on location I find that it can be quite "messy" at low tide with lots of boulders and seaweed to contend with so I generally favour high tide for shooting. I use an iPhone app called UKTides that provides me with tide times so I can plan to be in the right place at the right time with the right tide.
Flickr has billions of images in its database. Whilst many/most aren't tagged and geocoded, it is still a gold mine for location inspiration and information. The aim here isn't to see a shot you like and head out to copy it, but to see what potential there is and build up a better picture of the place ahead of time. When I'm planning a trip somewhere new I like to see what's on Flickr to whet my appetite. This is similar to looking at postcards or photo books for inspiration.