3 Tips for Scouting Landscape Photography Locations

Visiting a location for the first time can be quite overwhelming as a landscape photographer, especially when you might be arriving in the dark for sunrise. In this article, I go over a few quick tips on ways to productively scout a location during your first visit.

As landscape photographers, visiting new locations feels endless, especially when you are just starting out. This year, I moved across the country to Colorado and have found myself driving, hiking, and climbing to new places all around me. This video and article highlight a visit to a spot I had never been to before, and the entire journey there was in the dark. Waking up at 3 am, driving over an hour, and hiking uphill for another hour is a lot of time and energy invested without knowing if there is anything even worth photographing once you reach the top.

Thankfully, with resources such as the internet and social media, you can find out what potential there may be to nearly any location in the world. This is one way to make sure all that time and energy you put into a trip isn't for nothing if you don't get a portfolio-worthy image. I've put together three tips that should help the next time you're planning a trip to a new location, so no matter the outcome, you come back with something. If you aren't into cinematic intros, feel free to skip to about 2:20 for when I start talking.

Plan One Shot

Anytime I'm waking up for an early morning sunrise, you bet your backside I have at least one shot in mind for the location I am visiting. For this particular location, I simply googled the spot and looked at the results to get an idea of what may or may not have been up there, but it didn't give me enough inspiration by itself. Typically, this can help a lot if it's a location known for being photographed, but what about places that haven't been photographed very much? I suspect if you're vising somewhere like Horseshoe Bend, Moraine Lake, or Mesa Arch, you really don't need to do any research to take a photo in those spots. The challenge comes when you're just trying to shoot locally or areas that aren't too far away yet aren't necessarily photographic destinations.

Google Search Results

In my case, I was able to get some idea of the location with a Google image search, but it wasn't enough for me to feel confident to push myself to be there for sunrise on its own. There are a few other tools I use often when trying to find my single shot when I'm scouting a location:

  1. 500px: This can be extremely helpful when searching for "better" landscape photos than just Google Images. Many of their photos are geotagged, meaning without making an account, you can simply search your destination and find shots others might have taken there. This is usually my best tool when trying to get ideas for shots at a new location.
  2. Instagram: This is basically 500px lite. Many people still geotag their photos, and even though many of the photos you'll find won't be landscape photography, you can still get a sense of conditions and the location through the eyes of the masses.
  3. Alltrails (or any trail website): A lot of spots I visit also happen to be hiking trails. I'll admit the photos attached to many of these trails don't do justice to what you can potentially capture, but you can get a really good idea of what you might see on the trail or at your end destination. In fact, the main photo on the trail page for this article's location was how I saw the potential for my sunrise shot and ultimately pushed me to wake up at 3 am to go.
  4. Google Earth: Sometimes, you might be visiting a spot that many others have not and you just can't find resources for your destination. That's when I tend to resort to Google Earth and try to plan where sunrise/sunset light will be hitting during my visit.

Ultimately, the goal is to have at least one shot in mind before visiting your location, but don't be discouraged if you don't know your exact shot. The image I captured on my trip was unplanned. I researched the lake and consumed a lot of people's images from there, but none of them had the rocks I ended up photographing. The key was seeing the potential in other photos and knowing that I might not get a shot, but I at least had ideas in mind before getting up there in the dark. 

Keep Things Simple

When I visit a location for the first time, I don't try to reinvent the wheel when I'm trying to find a shot, especially considering the light can come and go before you know it. For example, during this trip, I knew I wanted to photograph the mountain peak and lake, so I just needed to find a foreground, which ended up being a few rocks in the water. That is a very standard and simple composition I shoot often without much trouble.

Shooting what I'm comfortable with

The not-so-simple part was having to focus-stack the image, but the technical aspects of image capture are not what you need to keep simple if you feel comfortable doing those things. The goal is to find a shot and just stick to it. Don't feel the need to change or get the absolute best shot possible your first time there. Remember, the goal of these trips is to location-scout; your final images are not the objective. However, it can be quite productive if you find a shot you enjoy by keeping things simple and getting a bit lucky with the conditions presented to you. I know for a fact there are better compositions where I was than the one I shot during sunrise, and that's exactly why I was visiting, to find those spots. I just kept things simple to increase the chances I might get something, and during my next visits, I may think outside the box a bit more while I'm up there.

Photograph More During Poor Conditions

On the way back down the trail, I shot a few more shots during non-ideal conditions to get an idea of what other compositions might exist on the trail. Many times, there is a plethora of great shots in any given location; however, they also might require specific conditions to expose themselves. Think of a forest filled with fog and without fog or of a sunrise with perfect lenticular clouds or just clear blue skies; I think you get the idea. 

Trying a composition even in poor light

If you've ever done some location scouting before, it was likely during the afternoon, a leisurely hike, or when you have some free time. I did this a ton when I was visiting the San Juan mountains during the afternoons when the light was the worst. The key is to take the time to shoot what you think might look good in different conditions rather than just looking around and mentally noting what potential there might be. The reason this is important is if you go back to capture that same spot with the conditions you desire, you'll already have a good grasp of what works and what doesn't behind a lens. Here are a few questions to ask yourself when hunting for shots:

  1. How strong is the composition? Try to look at shots regardless of their light and determine how strong the composition is. Does it have leading lines or a balanced foreground and background?
  2. How rare are the conditions needed to make the shot work? Do you need snow in an area that rarely gets snow or would sunset light completely change the photo?
  3. How accessible is the location? This is important to note in the event the shot might require frequent visits to get the conditions needed to make it work.

This part isn't easy and will take time as you grow as a photographer. Being able to visualize the potential of a location with completely different conditions is certainly something seasoned landscape photographers know better than others. That's another reason why taking the time to actually create the shot, even in poor conditions, can help you find more shots for the future. When you get that photo back to your computer and edit it to find that you might like the shot even with bad conditions, it means it can only get better once you return. 

Conclusion

What separates some landscape photographers from others is their persistence. Great landscape photographers visit locations for years, decades even. They go back to shots they've taken five, ten, or even one hundred times. This is why location scouting can be important. It's not about visiting a spot one time and hoping to get a portfolio-worthy shot in one trip. It's about learning a location and the potential it holds as a landscape photographer. With these tips, hopefully, each trip can be more productive than simply showing up and looking for shots. Sometimes, you might even walk away with something for your portfolio. 

The hard part is simply waking up and going to take the shots. I hope you enjoyed this article and video and would love to hear what you think down below.

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4 Comments

Don Olivett's picture

I use photographer’s ephemeris 3D to scout a new location. They have a free web application, but own it on iOS. I highly recommended it for new locations as it shows how the sun hits the terrain and when to expect it to hit. I have used it in the Uncompahgre Wilderness to take sunrise shots

Alex Armitage's picture

Great tip! I use this as well. Didn't include it here because it's rare I check sun directions when I'm scouting but it can be super useful when you're trying to get the sun just right.

Mathew Browne's picture

You may find PhotoHound of interest for your planning - https://www.photohound.co - a community for photographers to share information on photo locations. Co-ordinates, recommendations of when to go, where to park, and so on. Essentially trying to bundle all of your online planning for a location shoot in one website. I speak as someone who is used to trawling 500px, IG, stock sites, various trail sites and so on, trying to research photo spots ahead of a visit. The web version is free to use and contribute. A mobile app is on the way also.

(Disclosure: I'm one of the co-founders.)

Alex Armitage's picture

This is really cool. Let me know if there is anything I could do to help!