You’ve decided that you want to go on a photo expedition. Perhaps a trek to Alaska or one of America’s beautiful national parks is in order? Here are some tips for effective scouting.
Start at home. With the advent of the Internet, there’s tons of information online for almost any destination. Use search engines to look up photos of the location. Use online mapping services to plan routes. Use online travel companies to arrange transportation and places to stay.
After you get the basics figured out, the next step is to actually go to the location. From a practical standpoint, unless the location is cheap and easy to get to, you may have to tie both your scouting and your shooting into the same expedition. Another tactic is to shoot during the magic hour around Sunrise and Sunset, and use the time in between to look around for the next shot.
I usually scout by arriving a day early at my pre-arranged location. If I am alone, one of the first stops I make is to a police or ranger station if I am going to be on public lands. Generally, no permit is required, but I like to stave off any unpleasant war on photography events by letting the authorities know who I am, where I am going and what I am doing – in advance. Sometimes, they’ll appreciate this so much that they’ll offer tips on good shooting opportunities. It also provides a lifeline in case I disappear. At least they’ll have some idea where I am.
My next step is to drive the route at or near the time of day I plan to shoot. This gives me a starting point with regard to light. From there, I can plot the course of the Sun throughout the day, match that with Sunrise/Sunset tables, and get a good idea where the light will be coming from all day.
Things to look for here include paying attention to tall terrain and seeing how it might impact the light. For instance, in Yosemite in April, there’s no need to get into the park at 4:30 AM to shoot the valley, since the tall walls surrounding it block the sun for several hours.
I leave my big camera in the bag and take a point and shoot, documenting interesting areas and using the built-in voice recorder to make notes.
From there, the primary job is to look for something to shoot that matches your goals. If you’re a landscape shooter, you’ll want to identify places that look good in early morning and later afternoon light. Then you’ll need to mark those places on a map, geo-tag them or set a GPS waypoint so you can get back there. If you’re a wildlife shooter, some of the same skills are required, but you’ll also need to be trained to look for wildlife signs. Learning how to spot and identify wildlife tracks and droppings would be helpful here.
One thing to remember is that scouting should not turn into shooting unless the place AND the light are perfect. Use this time to get ready for that perfect shot. Don’t be tricked by a pretty scene in marginal light. Note the light’s direction and plan to come back the next day when it’s just right.
Another consideration when you’re scouting is spotting potential trouble spots. Is the road you plan to use open after dark? If not, you might be in for a rude awakening when you come back down off the mountain and find the road blocked by a gate until the next morning. How about signs of criminal activity? If you come upon a grow operation in the middle of a National Park. Note its location, get out of there and call police. This actually happened to me in the Goat Rocks Wilderness of the Gifford Pinchot National Forest. I nearly got shot.
When it’s all said and done, it takes a great deal of discipline to keep a journal of opportunity as I call it. It’s easier to just go out and randomly photograph what shows up in front of your face. But scouting ahead of time, even years ahead of time, is part of a planning process that almost always pays off with improved photos.