If you want to capture great portraits, then location scouting is a truly essential skill.
While it’s often tempting to simply schedule a session, pick a nice-sounding location (e.g., the nearby park), then show up with your camera and gear bag in tow, that’s a recipe for disaster. Sure, it might work some of the time, but you’ll eventually run into problems – construction, bad lighting angles, bad backgrounds, huge crowds, etc., – that’ll ruin an entire session and leave your clients deeply frustrated.
That’s where location scouting comes in. By spending time actually considering potential locations in advance, and by visiting your location of choice a day or two before the session, you can maximize your chances of capturing some great portrait photos, and you can minimize your chances of encountering difficult-to-handle environments.
Below, I share five practical tips to help you scout out the perfect location for your next photoshoot!
1. Know your clients
Every client is different, and every photoshoot is unique. Therefore, it’s our responsibility as photographers to really get to know the folks we’re photographing – that way, we can tailor the photoshoot, including the location, to fit their personality.
By getting to know your clients, you can ensure that they have a good time, and you can also ensure that they’ll be more relaxed and happy during their photoshoot, which is extremely important. It means you’ll capture pictures that they are bound to love and that they’ll recommend you to all their friends and family. (It’s a win for everyone!)
As I hinted at above, this isn’t just about understanding the locations that will fit your clients well, but that is a big part of it. Therefore, before you do any location scouting at all, make sure you gain a sense of what your clients are after. You can then filter potential locations based on how they align with your clients’ interests.
But how do you get to know your clients? You have a few options: You can meet with them in person, you can talk with them over the phone, or you can give them a survey.
When I work with a wedding couple, I have a formal questionnaire that they fill out so I can gauge their style. I then plan out locations accordingly. For family photos, however, I just have a conversation with the family to understand the type of images they gravitate toward. Do they want to have fun outside in a park? Or do they want to hang out at home with each other? That way, the photo session is tailored to their needs.
2. Scout at different times of the day
When I scout potential locations for my photoshoots, I always try to visit each place multiple times throughout the day.
Why? Locations can change dramatically from hour to hour, and it’s important to know when a location is best before setting a time with your client. (Alternatively, you can schedule the time in advance and pick a location that looks best during that time.)
A key feature here is lighting. Assuming you’re using natural light, every location will look different in the early morning and the late afternoon; if you’re not aware of these differences, you’ll head to a great sunrise location at sunset or a great midday location at three in the afternoon.
So make sure you check out each location several times, paying attention to the general conditions, but especially the light. When you go, ask yourself:
- How does the light change throughout the day?
- Are certain portions of the location better at certain times?
- How does the light affect the selection of backgrounds?
- Does the location appear busy? If so, when?
When I’m planning my photoshoots, all these items are really important to me – because if I don’t pay serious attention, I won’t manage to get the best possible photos in the time I have with my clients.
Pro tip: If you cannot get to a location ahead of time, use an app like PhotoPills to predict where the sun will be at the time of day you’re planning to do your shoot. While it won’t be a replacement for in-person scouting, it’ll help you be at least somewhat prepared when you arrive on location.
3. Pay attention to the details
Many of the biggest problems that most portrait photographers face are related to light. Not all light is equal, and photographing in different lighting conditions will lead to different results. In the previous section, I discussed the importance of scouting a location at different times of day, and in this section, I’d like to explore some of the elements you should look for – in particular, good lighting and good backgrounds.
First, when scouting a location, pay attention to the direction of the light, but also make sure you’re thinking about the light’s quality and how it affects the area. Early morning and late afternoon light is soft, while midday light is harsh. Shaded light tends to be nice, though it’s not always quite as nice as the light cast by the low sun.
It’s not just about the light on its own, though. Different scenes do better with different types of light, so by paying careful attention, you can make sure you schedule your shoot at the right time.
On a related note, make sure you consider precisely where you’ll want your subjects to stand during the shoot and how that affects the background. One side of a park might offer a great background while the other side might look uncomfortably messy, and depending on the light, only one side may actually work for the shoot. Therefore, it’s important to troubleshoot these issues in advance! (After all, you don’t want to be frantically seeking out backgrounds while your subjects wait.)
One more thing to keep in mind is color casts from surrounding objects. You may not realize it, but these casts can be strong around trees, colorful buildings, and graffiti walls. Try to find a natural reflector (e.g., a white wall) that will bounce neutral light back onto your subjects, or use a basic reflector to help bring some neutral light back into the scene.
If all else fails, you can always fix the problem in post-processing – especially if you’re shooting in RAW – but it’s good to handle this type of issue in the field whenever possible.
4. Use other resources
Location scouting doesn’t have to be a solo endeavor, and you don’t have to rely completely on your own wits to determine the best locations! There are plenty of photo groups online and offline – I belong to a few, myself – and members are often willing to share location ideas and insights.
So if you aren’t familiar with any good locations in an area, there’s no need to spend many hours (or days) visiting every potential spot. Simply find a local group (or a local photographer) and ask! Not only will they likely be able to suggest different locations, but they also might offer tips for shooting at said locations (e.g., the best times of day to shoot, how to handle different backgrounds, etc.).
If you’re friendly and genuine, you may end up discovering some unique and off-the-beaten-path locations, and you’ll end up with some very happy clients! (Of course, always make sure that the locations that you choose still fit your clients’ personalities, as discussed in my first tip.)
5. Take a road trip
I love road trips! And for me, a trip is the absolute best way to explore new areas and scout out potential photography locations that’ll suit different clients. (I generally take my family along so that way can all have fun – plus, in a pinch, my kids can also act as models to test out the light and background ahead of my photoshoots.)
A few years back, I had a high-school senior’s photo session, and her mom wanted to find a unique spot where we could see the fall colors. I drove around my area for a few hours but wasn’t finding anything that I really liked. Then I stopped by a local farm to pick up some fresh fruits, and I realized that the farm had everything I was seeking for my session. I walked up to the owner and got permission to photograph there, and everyone ended up happy: The senior’s mom got the photos she wanted, and I found a unique location for my fall photos.
So if you’re struggling to find a good location, don’t be afraid to get out and explore – either by foot or by car. You never know what you might come across!
Photography location scouting tips: final words
Location scouting should be a key part of every portrait photographer’s workflow, but it’s not always the easiest task to accomplish. Hopefully, these tips will help improve your scouting experience – and, of course, your final photos.
So be sure to dedicate some time to scouting! And watch as it elevates your images.
Now over to you:
Do you have any location-scouting tips that we missed? Share your thoughts in the comments below!