How to Scout for Portrait Shooting Locations - Digital Photography School

How to Scout for Portrait Shooting Locations

A Guest Post on Scouting for locations by Kyle Miller from Photography Tips
I remember driving around for hours on end through urban and industrial landscapes and to remote areas of the countryside that even the local farmers had forgotten about, all in search of prime and unique location photography spots. In the end I came to learn that some of the best locations were, and in one instance literally, right in my back yard. I still used many of these remote locations I found, but in general I saved them for special shoots. What helped me find the location spots around my office, as opposed to miles away, was learning what truly made for the best areas for location photography.

Simplicity

scouting photography shooting locations

A beautiful location shot, but this would most likely be to distracting to also include a model. Image by Kyle Kruchok

It’s only natural to look for amazing and extravagant areas to use as location photography spots. But a problem with these areas is that they are too extravagant, and while they may be unique to photograph on their own, they do not work well when used as a location spot. This is because they pull interest away from your model, who is the main subject. Simplistic areas tend to work the best for locations spots. These areas should have a simple theme or feel about the that complement your subject rather than pull away from them.

Universal

While you should always retain a fairly large number of potential location photography areas, you should remember that not every spot will work for every shoot. The majority of the location photography areas you use should hold an almost universal appeal, that allows the area to complement virtually any shoot. If you only use specialized locations than you will inevitably come across a shoot that none of your locations will work for. I have found that it is good to retain a few cliche location photography areas, such as train tracks, a “downtown” area, an open field, and a lightly wooded area, but also to keep some specialized locations as well, such as an industrial area, a unique alley, a train bridge, and even a run down building (not a condemned building, as that is unsafe and illegal.)

Multiple Areas in a Single Area

scouting photography shooting locations 2

This would be a prime location, since it is both interesting and retains multiple areas that could be used. Image by Eneas

As you scout for locations this is probably one of the main points to keep in mind, as it lends itself greatly to the universality of a location photography spot. An area that you believe would work well for location photography, should contain multiple areas that you can shoot at, all within the same general area. For example, one of my prime locations I use in most of my location portrait shoots is a decommissioned railroad bridge. This location has a unique predominate area of an old wooden bridge with railroad tracks, but I can also use the underside of the bridge, the creek the runs underneath it, or even the light wooded area that surrounds the bridge as areas to shoot.

Safety, Seriously.

This is a huge part of finding locations to shoot at, and should always be the main point kept in mind when deciding on a location. I will not advocate that I am the safest person in the world, but I damn well make sure any location I take a client to is as safe as possible. I have some fairly run down locations that I tend to use including decommissioned tracks, bridges, and even run down buildings. But before I ever even mention these locations to a client, I make sure to inspect every aspect of the location to make sure it is suitable to do a shoot, and if it’s not I will not use that location no matter how interesting it is. A cool photo is not worth getting sued or going to jail for reckless endangerment (or potentially manslaughter). Be smart about your location choices, seriously.

scouting-photography-locations-2.jpg

It doesn't matter how awesome an idea you have is, areas such as this should be avoided. Image by Sister72

Kyle Miller has been a professional wedding and portrait photographer for several years. He shares his knowledge on his blog Photography Tips where you can also download his eBook 7 Essential Photography Tips for free.

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  • Anotherphotographynoob

    And luckily most photographer are eager to share their locations on forums, so try and find a local or national community for sharing photo locations

  • http://www.kerstenbeck.com Erik Kerstenbeck

    Hi

    I couldn’t think of a better place to shoot on-location off camera portraits than Mauii – this Bay is gorgeous!

    http://kerstenbeckphotoart.wordpress.com/2011/12/07/honolua-bay-maui/

    We have also gone opposite and used old Box cars for Trash the Dress and just plain old beach for a Surprise Wedding Engagement.

    Just look around, get creative and try to get the flash OFF that camera!

  • Steve O

    I have seen portraits being done at the openings of subdivisions. The landscaping is usually great and sometimes there is a waterfall or fountain.

  • http://jamievesay.com Jamie Vesay

    Nothing here about asking for permission to shoot on private property? As long as I’ve been in the business I still remain curious where this line seems to exist. Technically, even if you are in a public park, you should have permission. I scout more than shoot and often encounter farm owners that tell me of photographers walking on to their land to shoot or show up with a couple or model because they thought the place was abandoned – and it looked good. All property. is owned by somebody. Even for “portrait” photographers (including all the newly minted ones) I’d like for them to show the respect deserved from location owners. If you disagree, simply think about how you would react if a photographer was shooting on your property without your permission?

  • http://www.zsanae.com Zsanaé Davis

    As a new photog, I am always struggling to find the next location to top my last, this article was very helpful. I would often feel lazy if I recycled locations but now I know it is customary as long as you create some sort of variance. Thanks for sharing.

  • http://www.flixelpix.com David Cleland

    I thought of creating of a website that pinpoints areas on a map that would be good to visit if you are a photographer. I thought it would be good for Ireland… someday perhaps.

  • tony

    https://picasaweb.google.com/104249709006449034645/December302011#5691992464340454082

    Thought this could make for some neat shots. Any suggestions would be appreciated.

  • Scottc

    I’d think the available light and angle, at various times of day, would be very important as well.

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/lendog64/5836459768/

  • http://www.headshotlondon.co.uk/editorial_photographers/ David

    Great post and brilliant advice. I am often looking for great locations and hoping I will make it there one day:)

  • ccting

    Agree, safety first.. ;D Why risk your life for a shoot? :D

  • http://www.facebook.com/matejslezakphotography matabum

    i absolutely agree that there’s no need to look for some extravagant locations…

    http://on.fb.me/uDCsNn
    http://on.fb.me/rGv6ip

  • raghavendra

    handful of stuffs to remember
    i have done this long back

    http://raghavendra-mobilephotography.blogspot.com/2011/08/pigeons-playground.html

  • Average Joe

    Fantastic post! I’ll put that info in my roladex memory. ;)

  • http://custompinoyrides.com THE aSTIG @ CustomPinoyRides.com

    Thanks for sharing! You’re totally right about this. Plus your tips are very direct to the point. Somehow I’ve been applying these when I’m scouting for locations for my genre of photography.

    I do Car Photography for http://CustomPinoyRides.com

    And yes you’ve put a bit more science in how to scout for locations. Thanks!

  • Paul

    I agree with commenter Jamie Vesay about asking permission, except on her public grounds point. Public grounds are owned by the public. I paid my taxes. I don’t have to pay to snap a pic of my kid on the playground, why is taking a “portrait” much different? Who would I contact for permission, anyway? But the rest of that comment was right on. Even if the owner is totally okay with it, asking permission ensures goodwill and future openness to those cool spots.

    Great article. Often we don’t know what’s around us until we really start looking, and then wonder why we didn’t see those great spots before.

  • http://www.nikijonesphotography.com Niki Jones

    Some great tips thanks. I find if the focus is mainly supposed to be on the subject then cutting the depth of field right down is often the best bet to avoid distraction. You can’t beat a good old brick wall sometimes.

  • David Putkonen

    I base my locations on how it will benefit the shot and can I achieve the look I am going for safely
    Thanks for your post.

  • Charles

    Great post and has already got me thinking. Anyone have any advice on how to maintain a list of sites? I’d be interested to hear some ideas before I go off and “reinvent the wheel.”

  • Mitch

    I like to shoot around old cars, trucks, tractors and implements on farms here in rural Iowa. I always ask permission and have found owners very friendly and willing to let me shoot. Sometimes, if the setting is a great one, I will ask if it is OK if I return at different times of the year or if I use it for senior portraits.

  • Steve Hepburn

    ***Charles – I haven’t done this but your question makes a good point. I wonder if you have “places” in your software like on the Mac’s I-photo if you couldn’t take a couple of nice lighting / angle shots of your places and use the GPS function in your camera to “map” them for you. if you don’t have GPS then you could manually add the info. I am just not sure how accurate that function gets. I might try it myself. Good luck.

  • http://www.whitepetal.co.uk PaulB

    I see there are some very good smart phone apps available that allow you to record a GPS location and add notes.

  • http://kuhlphoto.ca deb kuhl

    thank you so much for these great tips :)

  • Angela

    The whole safety issue raises a good point, and if you are shooting a paying client, then make sure you have public liability insurance in case something goes wrong. Even the most unlikely places could get you into trouble…like a venomous spider crawling out of the log you sat a toddler on, or the snake bite on a young child that you asked to stand in the long grass. Insurance is a must.

  • http://www.blueskyphotography.net.au Benn

    I agree with what you and most of the above posts say. One tip is to keep it simple and try to choose locations that have several possibilities. I shoot weddings and the more driving we do the less shooting we do, so it is so important to have multiple options. Sometimes, simply by changing the angle you shoot at, without moving the subject, to include a different back ground can make the image look like a completely different location. And yes, public liability is a must!!

  • http://michaelhiller.com Michael Hiller

    Good article…just a few other things to consider. Get insurance. Even if a client falls at your studio you can be sued. The other is in reference to safety. I really like old buildings, funky areas, etc., but those areas also come with a lot of characters that you may not want watching you and your client with your $4,000.00 plus rig. It can put you and your client in danger. I always scout a location before I shoot there and I also check if I may need permission to shoot there. I once did a shoot at the LA County Museum outside in one of their “Rodin Garden”. I went a few days ahead and asked for the head guy and told them what I wanted to do on the day when they were closed. They asked what it was for and I just said their personal use and they said no problem. I also assured them that it was just us and one reflector…not a crew. If I had just showed up and started shooting I guarantee it would have been a problem…but now I have the OK from the top. Good way to head off an embarrassing situation and not waste a day.

Some older comments

  • Michael Hiller

    March 30, 2013 07:16 am

    Good article...just a few other things to consider. Get insurance. Even if a client falls at your studio you can be sued. The other is in reference to safety. I really like old buildings, funky areas, etc., but those areas also come with a lot of characters that you may not want watching you and your client with your $4,000.00 plus rig. It can put you and your client in danger. I always scout a location before I shoot there and I also check if I may need permission to shoot there. I once did a shoot at the LA County Museum outside in one of their "Rodin Garden". I went a few days ahead and asked for the head guy and told them what I wanted to do on the day when they were closed. They asked what it was for and I just said their personal use and they said no problem. I also assured them that it was just us and one reflector...not a crew. If I had just showed up and started shooting I guarantee it would have been a problem...but now I have the OK from the top. Good way to head off an embarrassing situation and not waste a day.

  • Benn

    January 25, 2012 03:21 pm

    I agree with what you and most of the above posts say. One tip is to keep it simple and try to choose locations that have several possibilities. I shoot weddings and the more driving we do the less shooting we do, so it is so important to have multiple options. Sometimes, simply by changing the angle you shoot at, without moving the subject, to include a different back ground can make the image look like a completely different location. And yes, public liability is a must!!

  • Angela

    January 16, 2012 11:37 pm

    The whole safety issue raises a good point, and if you are shooting a paying client, then make sure you have public liability insurance in case something goes wrong. Even the most unlikely places could get you into trouble...like a venomous spider crawling out of the log you sat a toddler on, or the snake bite on a young child that you asked to stand in the long grass. Insurance is a must.

  • deb kuhl

    January 15, 2012 05:34 am

    thank you so much for these great tips :)

  • PaulB

    January 14, 2012 06:31 am

    I see there are some very good smart phone apps available that allow you to record a GPS location and add notes.

  • Steve Hepburn

    January 13, 2012 08:18 pm

    ***Charles - I haven't done this but your question makes a good point. I wonder if you have "places" in your software like on the Mac's I-photo if you couldn't take a couple of nice lighting / angle shots of your places and use the GPS function in your camera to "map" them for you. if you don't have GPS then you could manually add the info. I am just not sure how accurate that function gets. I might try it myself. Good luck.

  • Mitch

    January 13, 2012 12:10 pm

    I like to shoot around old cars, trucks, tractors and implements on farms here in rural Iowa. I always ask permission and have found owners very friendly and willing to let me shoot. Sometimes, if the setting is a great one, I will ask if it is OK if I return at different times of the year or if I use it for senior portraits.

  • Charles

    January 13, 2012 08:38 am

    Great post and has already got me thinking. Anyone have any advice on how to maintain a list of sites? I'd be interested to hear some ideas before I go off and "reinvent the wheel."

  • David Putkonen

    January 13, 2012 07:26 am

    I base my locations on how it will benefit the shot and can I achieve the look I am going for safely
    Thanks for your post.

  • Niki Jones

    January 9, 2012 07:25 pm

    Some great tips thanks. I find if the focus is mainly supposed to be on the subject then cutting the depth of field right down is often the best bet to avoid distraction. You can't beat a good old brick wall sometimes.

  • Paul

    January 5, 2012 05:18 am

    I agree with commenter Jamie Vesay about asking permission, except on her public grounds point. Public grounds are owned by the public. I paid my taxes. I don't have to pay to snap a pic of my kid on the playground, why is taking a "portrait" much different? Who would I contact for permission, anyway? But the rest of that comment was right on. Even if the owner is totally okay with it, asking permission ensures goodwill and future openness to those cool spots.

    Great article. Often we don't know what's around us until we really start looking, and then wonder why we didn't see those great spots before.

  • THE aSTIG @ CustomPinoyRides.com

    January 4, 2012 01:12 am

    Thanks for sharing! You're totally right about this. Plus your tips are very direct to the point. Somehow I've been applying these when I'm scouting for locations for my genre of photography.

    I do Car Photography for http://CustomPinoyRides.com

    And yes you've put a bit more science in how to scout for locations. Thanks!

  • Average Joe

    January 3, 2012 04:29 pm

    Fantastic post! I'll put that info in my roladex memory. ;)

  • raghavendra

    January 3, 2012 02:27 pm

    handful of stuffs to remember
    i have done this long back

    http://raghavendra-mobilephotography.blogspot.com/2011/08/pigeons-playground.html

  • matabum

    January 3, 2012 01:53 pm

    i absolutely agree that there's no need to look for some extravagant locations...

    http://on.fb.me/uDCsNn
    http://on.fb.me/rGv6ip

  • ccting

    January 3, 2012 10:45 am

    Agree, safety first.. ;D Why risk your life for a shoot? :D

  • David

    January 3, 2012 10:16 am

    Great post and brilliant advice. I am often looking for great locations and hoping I will make it there one day:)

  • Scottc

    January 3, 2012 09:29 am

    I'd think the available light and angle, at various times of day, would be very important as well.

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/lendog64/5836459768/

  • tony

    January 3, 2012 06:42 am

    https://picasaweb.google.com/104249709006449034645/December302011#5691992464340454082

    Thought this could make for some neat shots. Any suggestions would be appreciated.

  • David Cleland

    January 3, 2012 04:19 am

    I thought of creating of a website that pinpoints areas on a map that would be good to visit if you are a photographer. I thought it would be good for Ireland... someday perhaps.

  • Zsanaé Davis

    January 3, 2012 03:25 am

    As a new photog, I am always struggling to find the next location to top my last, this article was very helpful. I would often feel lazy if I recycled locations but now I know it is customary as long as you create some sort of variance. Thanks for sharing.

  • Jamie Vesay

    January 3, 2012 03:05 am

    Nothing here about asking for permission to shoot on private property? As long as I've been in the business I still remain curious where this line seems to exist. Technically, even if you are in a public park, you should have permission. I scout more than shoot and often encounter farm owners that tell me of photographers walking on to their land to shoot or show up with a couple or model because they thought the place was abandoned - and it looked good. All property. is owned by somebody. Even for "portrait" photographers (including all the newly minted ones) I'd like for them to show the respect deserved from location owners. If you disagree, simply think about how you would react if a photographer was shooting on your property without your permission?

  • Steve O

    January 3, 2012 02:48 am

    I have seen portraits being done at the openings of subdivisions. The landscaping is usually great and sometimes there is a waterfall or fountain.

  • Erik Kerstenbeck

    January 3, 2012 02:09 am

    Hi

    I couldn't think of a better place to shoot on-location off camera portraits than Mauii - this Bay is gorgeous!

    http://kerstenbeckphotoart.wordpress.com/2011/12/07/honolua-bay-maui/

    We have also gone opposite and used old Box cars for Trash the Dress and just plain old beach for a Surprise Wedding Engagement.

    Just look around, get creative and try to get the flash OFF that camera!

  • Anotherphotographynoob

    January 3, 2012 02:03 am

    And luckily most photographer are eager to share their locations on forums, so try and find a local or national community for sharing photo locations

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