What makes a good photography location?
When it comes to choosing the perfect photography location, there are many factors to consider. Some are obvious, but some you might not have thought about. Rather than learn the hard way, read our top 14 tips to ensure your next location shoot is awesome.
1. The photo shoot style
To decide what makes a good location, first and foremost, you must ask if the location suits the style of your shoot? Will it add to the story that you’re telling?
For the boho fashion shoot photo at the top of this post, we needed the location to look hot and earthy to match the tones of the clothing. In addition, as the brand’s target market are adventurous, free spirited festival goers (think Burning Man, or in this case, Africa Burn), we wanted the feeling of space and freedom in nature.
This leads to the next factor to consider…
2. Shade vs full sun
When shooting on location, the sun is going to be your next biggest consideration. Are you going to need shade from the sun, or is it a feature of the shoot? If shooting in full sun, what gear are you going to use to light your subject and deal with shadows?
Photographing in full sun is great for colour and vibrancy in a shot, but you will need to have a game plan for the shadows. Either embrace the full sun and use it as a studio light, or use it to backlight your subject. You will then need reflectors and/or strobes to light your subject.
If you shoot in the shade, your light will be more diffused.
3. Overhead cover
I have a few favourite locations I use that are covered. Aside from the look of the locations, there are 2 reasons why they are my favourites:
- I love channelling natural light to light my subject
- It doesn’t matter what the weather is doing, which is a big factor in the UK
The other reason to have overhead cover on location is bags. Not the type you carry, the type that appear beneath eyes. Under eye bags and shadows are emphasised by overhead light casting shadow. If you have cover above, the shadow is hugely reduced.
Have you noticed how many videos on social media have been shot in the car? Well, this is because people have figured out that they look good in this setting. They probably don’t know why – diffused light and no overhead light – but they know they do. It’s a great little studio really.
The same goes for “garage light” or “door light”. With no direct sunlight pouring in, position your subject just inside with the door open and facing out to you. All that beautiful natural light flows in and lights your subject, but there is no overhead light to cast under eye shadows.
The location is a covered spectator stand at a local sports field. Jade is lit purely with natural light and no reflector. The main light is coming in from the stand opening at camera left. The windows behind Jade are frosted and perfect for creating a nicely diffused backlight.
4. Environment colour has a big impact on your location decision
I enjoy photographing families in leafy green environments, because the greenery is very fresh and wholesome looking. Blue sky and white sandy beaches are also great for families. Whilst the golden hues of autumnal forests feel cosy for families, colourful graffitied walls are great for teen shoots.
This setting was ideal for the silver, blue and turquoise boho jewellery, teamed with blue clothing. In this close up shot the grey in the granite rocks behind Katya complemented the silver jewellery and matched the grain of the stones beautifully. These might be tiny elements that are not immediately obvious to the viewer, but even if your viewer doesn’t notice, it ties the image together.
The colour of the granite matching the jewellery is no accident. Paying attention when choosing the perfect photography location, gives variety when shooting.
We used the burnt remains of a forest as a backdrop, because the monotone blacks and greys of the charred trees complemented the black and white dress. The pops of green from the regrowth add life and colour to offset potential monotony.
Incidentally, this location was just off to camera left of the image at the top of the post, which leads me to my next point…
We scouted the location with the clothing in mind. Then planned the order of the outfits to ensure an easy flow from one part of the location to the next. My assistant blocked the sun from hitting Xané directly with a 1 stop diffuser, so the light is diffused and harsh shadows are eliminated.
5. Variety in one place
I like variety. For me, variety is essential when choosing the perfect photography location. I want to be able to shoot completely different looks without having to break off and shift elsewhere. A major interruption like this breaks the flow of the shoot and everyone falls out of the zone by getting back in the car/s and driving to another location.
6. Access to the location
Something you shouldn’t overlook is access. How easy will it be to get everyone and everything to the spot where you want to shoot?
If you have small children in the group, how sure are you that they will arrive at your perfect photography location without mud or grass stains? If there is a bit of a walk or a hike to the spot, will everyone cope with it easily? Will your family/clients be happy to exert themselves to get to your awesome location?
7. Is the location public or private?
Not all places that are open to the public are public spaces. Some are privately owned and therefore might carry restrictions forbidding certain types of shoots. If you’re shooting for commercial gain, you need to check first if you are able to use the space.
For example, all public parks in London are restricted when it comes to commercial photography and you need to apply, and pay, for a license to shoot there. In addition, you will need to do this within a certain time limit of your shoot, so don’t leave it too late.
In most cities you can shoot on the sidewalk without the need for a licence, but you can’t block the sidewalk. So, if you’re planning on using lighting, the best way to avoid falling foul of the law and being asked to move on is not to place your lights on a stand.
Assistants are worth their weight in gold on location shoots for holding lights, amongst other things.
8. People in the background
Your shoot might benefit from people in the background. On the other hand you might need a people free zone. So, you need to know how busy the location will be at the time of your shoot before you decide to shoot there.
If you’re photographing in public, be considerate of others using the public space, especially if there are children in the area. It’s not just about what we’re allowed to do, we also need to think about how others might feel about being in the background of our photographs.
You might know that your camera settings will blur the background and make background people totally unrecognisable, but they don’t know that.
9. Safety on location
You are responsible for the safety of your subjects. So, while a location might seem like the coolest, grungiest most perfect spot to shoot in the world, you have to ask yourself if it’s safe to shoot there. Safe from people who might do you harm or steal your gear and safe in terms of structure.
I love using an abandoned building as a photography location, but there’s very often a very valid structural safety issue that lead to it being abandoned in the first place. Stitches and broken bones are not a good way to end a shoot.
Practicalities to consider when choosing a shoot location:
So, you’ve chosen your location. It’s perfect for the shoot and you can’t wait to shoot there!
Before you get all carried away and start organising your location shoot, there are four more practicalities to think through.
10. What time of day is the shoot?
You need to decide on the time of your shoot. This goes back to the point of shooting in full sun or shade. At midday the sun is overhead and generally this is the worst time of day to shoot outdoors as the light will be at its harshest and the shadows hard to control.
The color and strength of natural light changes throughout the day. For example, if you want warm golden tones, the golden hour is a must. The angle and color of the light at this time of day is so beautiful and ideally suited to photography. Some photographers don’t shoot at any other time of day.
Read more about the golden hour here: Golden hour – what is it and why is it so amazing?
You need to know how long you will be shooting there too, as the light color and direction will change with the movement of the sun.
11. What if the weather is not good for photography?
Are you going to be able to rely on the weather for your shoot? If not, and if you can’t change the date, do you have a backup location in mind? Or can you still shoot there, regardless of the weather?
Sometimes choosing the perfect photography location means finding somewhere that is ideal for shooting in good and bad weather.
This is one of my favourite UK locations for a number of reasons. One of them is the weather. We shot here in the middle of winter on a very stormy day. The weather had no impact on the shoot and, if anything, it enhanced the atmosphere. I wanted a grungy feeling, which is why I chose the location, and the wind whipping Helen’s hair just added to the atmosphere. It helped that Helen was an absolute trooper and handled the cold brilliantly.
It was the middle of winter on a stormy day, and although we were cold, we were able to shoot and stay dry.
Obviously, this would not have worked for a family shoot. This leads to the next point…
12. Who/what are you photographing?
If you are photographing children, especially young children, you will need to consider how they will feel about where you are shooting. It needs to be fun and safe. If they’re not happy and parents are stressed, you may as well pack up and go home.
Even when shooting paid models, I think it’s important to remember that they are humans, not just photography subjects. A professional model knows that discomfort goes with the job, but it doesn’t hurt to be a considerate photographer.
In the example above of Helen, in between shots we took time out where she could be wrapped up to get warm before carrying on. Yes, it makes the shoot longer, but I feel it’s important.
13. How much stuff are you bringing to set with you?
There are three reasons to consider how much stuff you’re bringing. You have to:
- Carry it there and back
- Move it around with you, so don’t want to be too weighed down
- Keep an eye on it, so that it doesn’t get stolen or blown away
If you want to shoot fast and move on, you can’t be weighed down by loads of stuff. I’m not just talking about camera and lighting gear. This also includes outfits for your subjects.
The more you bring to set, the more rooted to one place you will be. If your location is such that you can put everything down and shoot in that spot for the duration, great. Even better if you don’t have to carry it far from the car. If not, or if you want variety to your shoot, pack light.
Stuff is physically exhausting if you’re a lone wolf photographer. If you have a team, stuff is cool.
A final word on photographing on location
When it comes to choosing the perfect photography location, even the best locations have drawbacks.
14. Don’t leave anything valuable in the car. Ever.
I’ve heard too many stories of car parks being watched by thieves and gear being stolen after a photographer has returned to their car to either get stuff out or put some stuff in the boot (trunk). If your gear gets stolen, it can be replaced, but if for some crazy reason you put your memory cards where they can be stolen, you will never get those images back.
I hope your mind is buzzing with ideas of where to find amazing locations. Next week we’re going to look at what is involved in preparing to shoot on location. It involves more than just charging batteries and formatting memory cards.
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By Jane Allan
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