Location Scouting for Landscape Photography

Location Scouting for Landscape Photography

Location Scouting for Landscape Photography is an activity that if done well, can save the photographer countless hours and helps to deliver outstanding images every time. I’m going to talk about my methods and probably ramble on a bit about the awesomeness of just being in the landscape!

Perhaps it’s because I’m getting older. The attraction of wandering around in the wilderness with a 20kg camera bag and tripod for hours without the first idea of what I’m looking for is beginning to wane. 

One alternative, rocking up to well-known tourist attractions and taking my place in the throng of other photographers all taking the same shot doesn’t appeal much either.

Landscape photographers have a variety of ways of finding photographs, ranging from running around like a loon snapping everything they can see to carefully composing their shots and being still in the landscape. I was that first photographer for very many years and I found some great shots in amongst the dross, now, I’ve found I’m leaning towards the second photographer. Appreciating being still in the landscape and composing rather than grabbing shots like a demented paparazzi.

So I’m going to go through a few methods that I use to scout landscape photography locations before and even during the shoot.

Virtual Scouting

Without having to go on-site, there’s a lot of priceless information on the web. A few minutes of directed search from the comfort of your armchair can make the difference between a hike and a photo shoot.

Google

Inevitably, Google figures large in this stage of the research. It is not the only source, but it is significantly good at moving you from general searching to specifics.

Search

There’s a lot to be said for simply inputting the location in Google Search and choosing images. This will give you an idea of what’s possible.

Google Earth

Google Earth shows you images that people have taken at or near the location. On top of that, you can zoom in and check out the geography of the location, mountains, lakes etc, Also check out how to get there or where to leave the car!

People upload photographs to Google Earth too, so again, you’ll maybe get some ideas from those pictures of what is available to shoot. 

WikiLoc & AllTrails

WikiLoc and AllTrails document walking trails and encourage people to upload photographs they have taken on the trail. 

The Photographers Ephemeris

This is the go to app for landscape photographers. I’ve been a fan for years, it is essential if you want to know what time and from what direction the sun rises and sets. Or the moon. You can alter the time and date so that if the site has potential, you can see when the perfect lighting conditions will fall and plan your trip accordingly.

Photo Pills

The Swiss army knife of landscape photography! It’s an app, for iPhone or Android, so screen size is challenging for the sunrise/moonrise functions, but it also features a host of other functions that will help you get the right focus and depth of field. This app has worked its way so thoroughly into my practice that I’m never without it.

For example, working out what will be in focus for any given settings. Photo Pills calculates the hyperfocal distance precisely and enables you to determine whether you’ll have to focus stack to get the foreground in focus or not. That function alone is priceless.

Sky Guide

If you’re interested in Astro Photography, then Sky Guide is a must have app. If you switch the compass on , it shows you precisely where in the night sky any given constellation is. It also shows you below the horizon, so for shooting the Milky Way for example, I can see in what direction it will become visible once darkness falls.

Meteo Blue

I’ve used dozens of weather apps and Metro Blue is in my opinion the best. 

Putting it all Together

Typically, if I’m travelling I’ll start with Google and Google Earth before moving on to the more detailed walking trail apps. That will give me enough information to know if a location is worth visiting or not.

Closer to the shoot, I’ll do the detailed research, looking for images others have shot at this location, and cross-referencing them with maps to try and deduce where the vantage point was. 

This is not done with the intention of duplicating a shot from the exact spot it was taken, it’s done because I can see elements in the image that look as though I can use them myself.

I’ll use a weather app to figure out conditions and that in turn influences my choice of shot. It might be foggy, there may be conditions suitable for an inversion or lenticular cloud formations.

Virtual Scouting will give you the building blocks for a successful shoot. What it won’t give you is the quirky juxtapositions or the decisive moments that can make an image complete. These come into focus on location.

On Location

It might be my background as a commercial photographer or it might be that I’m slowing down but I prefer to prepare, My preferred method these days is to visit the location with a light camera or phone, simply getting a feel for the landscape and working out what equipment I will need to bring to the site. 

I treat it as though it were a commercial shoot and I have a very demanding client!

This way of working tends to yield a few good images reliably.

Of course, if I’m travelling it’s not always possible to allocate the extra time, but I can identify subjects and backgrounds pretty quickly and if the light is not good use the ephemeris to find out the optimal time to shoot.

For example, on the Ruta Camino de los Pinos shoot, I noticed some good locations where the sun was not ideally placed. I went back in the morning when I knew my subject would be lit the way I need it to be. In fact, this particular location ended up with two shoots as the lighting requirements of different spots were several hours apart.

New Locations

If I haven’t been able to visit the location, then I’ll simply do the extra steps on the day. And it’s at this point that preparation blurs with practice. Something I’ve found to be true is that the more I prepare (up to a point at least), the better I am able to improvise on site. Location scouting for landscape photography offers a virtual experience of the site so that you’re almost familiar without ever having actually been there if that makes sense.

As an extreme example, I’ve discovered a location in Andalucia that closely resembles the much more famous Antelope Canyon in the US. During my research I came across a photograph of somebody waist-deep in the river, very close to where I wanted to shoot. So had I turned up in my normal footwear I’d have had a major problem accessing the site.

Composition

Is this part of the scouting process? There’s a blurred line that I’m going to enthusiastically cross! I use my scouting expeditions to identify subjects and backgrounds that look interesting. I’ll take some snaps on the iPhone to remind me. If I’m shooting in a hurry this is all I need. Get to the spot, identify some foreground interest, fine tune the angle and shoot away.

If I’m not in a hurry, then I’ll take a lot more care and produce fewer, more considered shots. The difference between an average and outstanding shot can be down to a few metres, or minutes. 

I’ll take a master shot of the location to help me decide on exposure requirements. Can the camera get the whole dynamic range in one shot? Do I want the background to be in focus? Then I’ll start to shoot. I always look for an interesting idea. By this I mean something other than the obvious shot. Landscape or Portrait, Wide Angle or Zoom? 

Awareness

In the course of my own learning, I have found that at the beginning I would suffer from terrible technology overwhelm. No time to think about the image, simply trying to stay on top of the endless settings and different lenses, filters, bracketing and so on. The result was that I developed a few routines that worked for me and would repeat them without thinking.

HDR 

For example HDR. I embraced HDR as a way of extending my camera’s dynamic range. And it was good so I would shoot three or five shots depending on the light I found in the scene and wrong them together in photoshop.

But actually, many of those frames are redundant and simply give the software more work to do and a greater chance of messing it up. If the aim is to capture the whole dynamic range of light in a scene then a better way of doing it, rather than starting in the middle is to expose for the highlights first. 

This gives you your dark frame, it ensures that no highlight is clipped and then you can add light by opening up the exposure a stop and shoot again until you have no clipped blacks. At that point, and its often in two frames, you have captured the entire dynamic range of the scene.

Another example I hinted at earlier is the business of the Hyperfocal length. Most photographers will tell you to focus one third of the way into the scene with a narrow aperture (big number) to capture front to back focus. And as a simple rule of thumb it can often work. However it doesn’t always work and its good to understand why.

Focus

Every lens has a closest focusing distance. The concept of front to back focus is flawed at source! Also the f/stop has something to say on the subject. f/22 will give you a depth of field that might seem attractive but it will also give you a softer image than f/8 or f/11. Why pay all that money for a sharp lens if you’re going to shoot at f/22?

It’s better in my view to shoot in the sharpest range of the lens and determine whether this gives me everything I need in terms of focus. Sometimes I’ll focus stack to make sure that I have a sharp foreground. Other times, with a wide angle lens, I may not need to.

So move beyond focusing a third into the scene – at least understand why it doesn’t always work and make sure you get the shot!

Having mentioned focus, in terms of preparation, make some decisions about the lenses you bring. There’s no need to bring every lens you own, I tend to take a wide angle, a mid zoom and a long zoom covering all focal lengths from 16mm to 200mm. That gives me enough choices for most locations, but sometimes my research will suggest a different choice,

Process vs Creativity

I use HDR as an example because a lot of what I’ve been talking about is process, we need process because it helps with the technology overload, but there are times too when it gets in the way of creativity. There are any number of cliches that apply here. “Don’t break the rules until you know what the rules are”, “fail to prepare, prepare to fail”

While we recognise that process delivers good things, we don’t want it to stand in the way of our creativity so if you find yourself doing things by rote, then question them. Is there a better way? There often is. 

Summary

Location scouting for landscape photography is important. because it really helps landscape photographers to raise their game. I go on about this and there are many photographers who will contradict me, but I think if you prepare well, you will get the shot you want, you’ll get it faster and that leaves time for off the cuff improvisation.

The other benefit of preparation is you’ll have much more time to get in the zone. That place where there is only you, the landscape and your camera. It’s where I’m most relaxed and most open to appreciating the land for its own sake.

I’d be interested to know what your thoughts are on this or any other subject I’ve tangentially addressed? Drop a comment below if you agree or disagree or think I’ve missed something out.

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