To come home from a trip with great photos, plan ahead. This goes for everything from landscape and nature photography to street and general travel photography. We spend a lot of time and energy scouting for our workshops because that’s our business. Before we lead a group to a new destination, Brian and I spend several months doing research. A lot of what we’ve learned about photography scouting can also apply to a casual or family traveler who wants to come back with meaningful images that are more than just snapshots.
Scouting locations for beautiful photography is like working on a puzzle. There are a number of different ways to do a puzzle. Some people like finding all the border pieces first. Others like to focus on a specific object. There is no right or wrong way to start. The key is to have a plan and do as much location scouting research before you even leave while allowing time for unexpected left turns when you’re there.
Our research happens in two stages. First, we do pre-research before leaving. This can take a few months. We create Pinterest boards of images that stick out to us. Then we dialogue about why certain images draw us in. For example, when researching areas for our Portrait of a Winter Wonderland workshop in Sundance, Utah, we created a Pinterest board of beautiful winter landscapes from all over the world. Then we started to look for consistencies in what draws us in to certain images. Brian and I found that we like images with repetitive patterns like an aspen grove or an element in the midst of landscape; barn, winding path, ski lights at night, lake with reflection, etc. These elements act like a visual anchor to the landscape. Creating the Pinterest board helped us narrow our location scouting down to specific areas that had these elements.
Utah. Sony α7R III, Sony 24-70mm f/2.8 G Master lens. 2.5-sec, f/16, ISO 100
Websites like Flickr are great for finding the exact location of shots by their longitude and latitude. We research time of day and year certain shots were taken. Photo Pills is an amazing app that Sony Artisan, Chris Burkhard, told us about. The app shows you where the sun, moon and stars will be when you’re there and when to expect golden and blue hour.
Sunrise in Greece. Sony α7R II, Sony 24-70mm f/2.8 G Master lens. 1/80-sec., f/6.3, ISO 400
Community is key to pre-research. I’ve been a Sony Artisan of Imagery since 2007, and I continue to learn from my colleagues. If one of them has photographed an area we’re researching, I’ll ask them for advice on what they learned. Sometimes I email professional photographers that live in the area we’re going to visit and ask them for advice. Some never respond but others do and even become friends or guides for when we arrive. Being able to help each other save time and money is one of the many benefits to having a creative community.
Tap Into Local Knowledge
The second half of research happens when we arrive. Dialoguing with locals is our favorite way to start this next step of location scouting. Upon arrival, we’ll buy a handful of iconic postcards from local vendors. Postcards are a great tool if there is a communication barrier. We’ll walk through a village holding up the postcard in one hand and camera in the other. That gesture often does the trick, and locals will either give us advice on where to go or find a friend who can help us. The unexpected friendships we’ve developed through this process is one of my favorite parts of travel.
Local guide in Egypt. Sony α99, Sony 85mm f/1.4 ZA lens. 1/800-sec., f/1.4, ISO 160
The one thing you must always keep in mind is that unless the local is a photographer, they’re not thinking like a professional photographer. They may give you advice on where to go, what time to be there, but they’re coming from the mindset of someone who will take the photo with their phone. If they’re taking you, they will often expect you to get out of the car, take the shot and be on your way. It’s important to let them know how much time you’ll want to spend at a location and to tip them well or offer to buy them dinner after.
This happened when we were in Greece. A friend in Italy introduced us to her friend in Greece, an enthusiastic local who offered to show us around. The first two days, Nicolas showed us several off-the-beaten path locations on the island he grew up on. Even though the spots were beautiful, they weren’t what we were looking for. On day three, our family decided to rent our own jeep and off-road the island to explore. We ended up finding several spots we had envisioned from our research.
Scouting in Greece. Sony α7R II, Sony 24-70mm f/2.8 G Master lens. 1/60-sec., f/10, ISO 50
Do we regret those first two days with Nicolas? No way. Nicolas is a character that our family will never forget. But it was also important to keep our own expectations in check. When you have limited time to scout an area, you can easily get stressed about finding the best spots and lose sight of the people.
Sunrise in Greece. Sony α7R II, Sony 24-70mm f/2.8 G Master lens. 1/160-sec., f/9, ISO 100
You Made A Plan….Don’t Be Afraid To Ditch It
Any time you travel with a camera, try not to be too wrapped up in getting a perfect shot. Planning and preparation helps stack the odds in your favor, but sometimes things just don’t work out like you planned. We’ve found that by keeping an open mind and not being too focused on our original plan, incredible unforeseen opportunities can come up. If your anticipation is to learn something new, make new friends, and take a few left turns that may lead to somewhere even better, you’ll never be disappointed.
Sony α7R III, Sony 24-70mm f/2.8 G Master lens. 1/100-sec., f/4, ISO 500. There is always an element of risk involved because no matter how much you prep, you never know if the time and finances you’ve invested are going to pay off. This is one of the reasons why people love our Portrait of the World workshops; we’ve already done the work of making sure each spot is amazing for both adventure and photography.
You can see more from Me Ra Koh and sign up for her workshops at her website.