Scouting in landscape photography is the unsung hero behind nearly every breathtaking image you’ve ever admired. Sure, it might not be as glamorous as capturing the golden hour or snapping the perfect waterfall shot. But believe me, it’s the cornerstone of any successful landscape photography outing. Ignoring scouting – or even doing it haphazardly – sets you up for missed opportunities and mediocre results.
The irony is that many photographers, both newbies and those with a bit more experience, often overlook this critical step. Maybe it’s the excitement of getting out there with your camera or perhaps the idea that spontaneity leads to the best shots. Regardless, scouting matters, and that’s precisely why this article is here: to offer you a comprehensive guide to scouting, the right way.
What is scouting in landscape photography?
In the simplest terms, scouting is the preliminary research you conduct before a photo shoot. It’s the time spent understanding a location, absorbing its nuances, and contemplating the shots you want to capture.
The time commitment can be as little as a few hours or stretch into days and weeks. Some professionals spend a fortnight preparing for a single, perfect shot. On the other hand, there are plenty of experienced photographers who think that just a couple of hours can be sufficient. The point is, there’s no one-size-fits-all time frame for scouting.
Now, what do you do during these scouting expeditions? The activities can vary widely. Mostly, it involves a good amount of hiking or even camping, as you navigate through terrains looking for vantage points, natural formations, and unique compositions.
The objective is to amass a wealth of information that you can later use to capture that perfect shot. Think of scouting as creating a mental or even a digital “mood board” for your upcoming shoot. You’re collecting colors, lighting conditions, and ideas that will inform your creativity when you’re finally ready to shoot.
One note: It’s crucial to differentiate between scouting and shooting. While you might feel the temptation to start taking photos immediately as soon as you head out with your landscape gear, remember that scouting is not about capturing the final image. It’s a preparatory phase, one that will provide you with the insights and details you’ll need later on. So hold back on the shutter button (for the most part, anyway), and focus on gathering the data you need for the main event.
Why is landscape photography scouting important?
Imagine capturing the perfect sunrise over a mountain range. The lighting is magical, the clouds are just right, and the composition is sublime. It sounds like a once-in-a-lifetime shot, right? Well, it could be. But what if I told you that scouting could significantly increase your chances of getting such an incredible photo?
Scouting is your roadmap to visual success. Understanding the nuances of a location means you’ll know exactly where to set up your tripod when the lighting gets dramatic. Let’s face it: conditions can change quickly, and the sun waits for no one. Knowing your location inside and out puts you in the driver’s seat to catch that perfect light.
And what happens if you’re in a picturesque setting and suddenly fog rolls in, or maybe snow starts to fall? If you’ve done your scouting, you’ll know which spots will look particularly heavenly under a fresh blanket of snow or shrouded in mist. Essentially, scouting gives you a kind of “weatherproofing,” allowing you to pivot and still get compelling shots no matter what Mother Nature throws your way.
But it’s not just about weather. Scouting helps you explore different vantage points, potential foreground elements, and even obstacles you may need to overcome. Are there fences, is it a popular tourist spot, or is there a large rock blocking an otherwise great shot? When you scout, you’ll know the answers to these questions in advance, saving you from nasty surprises and wasted trips.
The bottom line? Scouting equips you with the insights and details to make informed decisions quickly. You won’t be fumbling around trying to find a good spot while the conditions change. Instead, you’ll have a game plan. And in the world of landscape photography, a good game plan can be the difference between an average photo and an extraordinary one.
Tips for landscape photography scouting
So how do you go about scouting in a way that’s both efficient and effective? Don’t worry; the following sections will dive deep into practical advice to ensure your scouting efforts are fruitful. You’ll get actionable tips on when to scout, what tools can help, and how to document your findings, starting with:
1. Scout when the conditions are bad
Scouting under less-than-ideal conditions has real perks. Think of rainy days or midday sun – these are times when you generally wouldn’t be out shooting landscapes.
Why scout in bad conditions? The idea is simple. When it’s raining or the sky lacks drama, you won’t feel the pressure to shoot. It’s the perfect time to focus on your surroundings, examine terrain, and explore various viewpoints.
Plus, exploring in bad weather gives you a different perspective of the landscape. You’ll discover how a scene changes under varying conditions, offering new shooting opportunities you might not have thought about before.
So take advantage of those rainy days or overcast skies. They let you spend quality time analyzing your future landscape photography locations without the worry of missing out on a great shot. You’ll find that you’re much better prepared when the light turns magical, and you’re ready to capture that breathtaking landscape.
2. Use apps to visualize the lighting
There’s a range of handy apps designed to help landscape photographers like us. For instance, PhotoPills is an app that I highly recommend. It provides essential information about sun positioning that can be a game-changer for your scouting and eventual shooting.
How does it work? PhotoPills gives you accurate predictions of where the sun will be at different times of the day. This way, you can plan the best moments to capture that golden glow or dramatic silhouette.
Visualization is a powerful tool. With these apps, you can almost see the scene in your mind’s eye – where the sun will rise or set, and how the landscape will be illuminated. You get to imagine the lighting in your shots before you even press the shutter.
But apps aren’t foolproof. It’s crucial to use them as guides rather than absolutes. Always be prepared for some discrepancies between the app’s data and real-world conditions. You still need to trust your own eyes and intuition to some extent.
Bottom line: Relying on such apps can significantly reduce the guesswork in scouting. They can help you anticipate how the landscape lighting will affect your shots, and guide you in choosing the best locations and times for your photography.
3. Take careful notes on your phone
Scouting isn’t just about walking around and looking at the landscape. Documenting your observations is just as important. And thanks to modern technology, taking notes has never been easier.
You could opt for voice-to-text features on your phone. As you scout, you can narrate your thoughts and observations directly into your device. This way, you don’t have to stop and type out notes, keeping your workflow smooth and uninterrupted.
Or maybe video notes are more your style. A quick video showing the landscape, combined with your voice explaining what caught your eye, can be invaluable. These videos serve as visual reminders when you’re planning your shoot.
Of course, the devil is in the details. Use GPS to mark your precise location. This way, you won’t waste time searching for that perfect spot you found during scouting. Note down your imagined compositions, the types of shots you envision, and any challenges you might foresee.
Documenting your scouting findings meticulously will save you time and stress later on. You’ll walk into your actual shoot with a slew of ideas, better prepared to capture those stunning landscapes that drew you into photography in the first place.
4. Use a camera to capture test images
In addition to taking notes, I highly recommend you capture test shots – these will help you experiment with different compositions, and they can also help you remember precise compositions. Test shots act like quick sketches, offering a rough idea that can be transformed into a masterpiece later. Your phone will often suffice for this, so you don’t have to lug around your DSLR or mirrorless camera while you’re exploring.
When you take these test shots, aim to get various angles of the same scene. Try different elevations, move closer or farther away, and shift your perspective. This lets you go beyond the obvious and discover compositions that might not have been apparent at first glance. Remember, though: You’re not aiming for perfection here, just possibility.
Now, about organizing these test images. Create folders on your phone or computer where you can easily find them later. Categorize them by location or any other metric that makes sense to you. Review these shots before your final outing, and consider taking them with you (on a phone, of course!). They can provide last-minute insights that are easy to overlook but can make a significant difference in your final shots.
5. Make sure you’re comfortable
Comfort is crucial when you’re scouting. You’ll likely be walking for extended periods, traversing uneven terrains, and facing various weather conditions. That means your choice of footwear isn’t just a minor detail; it’s a key factor in how effective your scouting session will be. A pair of comfortable, durable hiking boots can make all the difference in the world.
Next on your checklist should be clothing, especially if you’re scouting in a location with fluctuating temperatures. The weather can change quickly when you’re in the great outdoors, so be prepared for anything from sunshine to a sudden cold front. Bring an extra jacket, or wear clothes that you can easily add or remove as needed.
And don’t underestimate the importance of hydration and nutrition during your scouting mission. Even if you’re not planning a strenuous hike, walking and exploring can quickly deplete your energy. A water bottle is a must, and it’s wise to pack some high-energy snacks like trail mix or energy bars. A little snack can go a long way in maintaining your energy and focus!
And let’s not forget a basic but vital element: a good backpack. All these essentials – water, snacks, extra clothing – need to be carried in something that won’t weigh you down or strain your back. Choose a backpack that distributes weight evenly and has multiple compartments for easy access to your gear.
Lastly, know your limits. Scouting can be physically demanding, and it’s easy to get carried away in the excitement. If you start to feel fatigued or notice any discomfort, don’t push yourself too hard. It’s better to end your scouting session and come back another day than to risk injury or exhaustion.
6. Take safety precautions
Scouting, like photography, isn’t risk-free. Nature is beautiful but unpredictable. You could slip on a wet rock, take an unexpected tumble, or encounter sudden weather changes. Safety should always be your first priority.
Firstly, never go scouting without letting someone know where you’re headed. Even if you’re heading to a location you’re familiar with, things can go south quickly. So send a simple text to a friend or family member before you head out.
Secondly, keep that phone charged and within a signal range. It’s your lifeline. If you’re heading into an area with spotty reception, consider taking a satellite phone. If something goes wrong, having a way to call for help is not just smart; it’s essential.
Third, bring a first-aid kit. Pack essentials like band-aids, antiseptic wipes, and some basic medication for headaches or allergies. You never know when you’ll need them, and they take up very little space in your bag. I also like to bring along some insect repellent and sunblock.
Steer clear of scouting in the dark. You need to see clearly to assess the risks and potential of any location. Low light or darkness significantly increases the chance of accidents. It’s not just about vision, though: darkness often brings out wildlife you don’t want to meet unexpectedly.
Lastly, develop a habit of surveying any new location for possible risks. This might be unstable terrain, fast-flowing water, or changing tides. Identifying potential dangers ahead of time can be the difference between serious injury and unequivocal success.
Landscape photography scouting: final words
Scouting empowers you to be in the right place at the right time, fully prepared for whatever nature throws your way. You’ll know the lay of the land, you’ll have thought through your compositions, and you’ll have contingency plans for unexpected weather. You’ll also be prepared for any possible challenges.
If you don’t scout before your landscape photography shoots, it’s time to start. It’s an investment of time and effort, but the returns are more than worth it. You’ll capture more engaging, more compelling, and simply better photographs.
So go out there, explore, and bring back not just photos, but experiences and stories. Landscape photography is a journey, and like any journey, proper preparation sets the stage for fulfilling adventures.
Now over to you:
Do you scout before landscape adventures? If so, how do you do it? Share your thoughts in the comments below!
Note: This article was updated in October 2023 by dPS’s Managing Editor, Jaymes Dempsey.
Table of contents
- The Importance of Scouting for Landscape Photographers
- 5 Tips for Setting the Focus in Your Landscape Photography
- ADVANCED GUIDES
- CREATIVE TECHNIQUES