Scouting is one of the best tools available to landscape photographers, especially when conditions are changing quickly. In this article, I’ll go over the three different levels of scouting and how you can use them to take better landscape photos.
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What Is Scouting?
Not everyone uses the same definition of “scouting” in landscape photography, but the way I define it is as follows:
Familiarizing oneself with a location in hopes of taking good photos there in the future.
I think you can divide scouting into three different levels: researching, exploring, and understanding the landscape. Let’s look at each of these in a bit more detail.
If you’re planning to visit a location that you’ve never seen before, it’s obviously important to do some research ahead of time. Beside the basics – Is the trail open at this time of year? What’s the weather forecast like? – you’re probably also looking at photos on Google Images just to get a general sense of the place you’re considering.
This is all so fundamental that it feels wrong to give it the esteemed title of scouting, but that’s exactly what it is. You’re familiarizing yourself with this location in order to get better photos there in the future.
Prior research is anything that you can do to learn about a location without actually visiting it in person. It goes far beyond just searching for images online. These days, there are tons of tools available for visualizing the lay of the land before you visit, such as The Photographer’s Ephemeris and Google Earth.
Of course, some photographers may say that scouting doesn’t apply unless you’re at the landscape in person, and although I disagree, that’s not really the point. No matter what you call it, prior research is extraordinarily powerful. Landscape photographers just a few decades ago would be floored by the tools at our disposal for scouting locations from the comfort of our homes.
I could list countless photos where prior research was essential, but one that stands out the most is from a trip I took with Nasim to the Faroe Islands. Before leaving, we did a lot of research to find some good spots to take pictures at sunrise and sunset. One lesser-known overlook seemed especially interesting to me, but each time we went there, it was covered in clouds. On one of the last days of the trip, with the sky starting to look amazing, we decided to try that spot again instead of going to a “safer” location we’d already visited in person. If it hadn’t been for our research ahead of time showing that overlook’s potential, I know we would have made a different decision.
In the end, it turned out to be one of the best locations all trip, and I took one of my favorite photos there. The power of prior research!
Even though there are countless tools available to scout a location virtually, nothing beats seeing and exploring the landscape in person. Figure out which areas are accessible and which are difficult to reach. Try to imagine how the landscape will look under different lighting conditions, particularly at sunrise and sunset. You could even start planning out specific photos that you want to take, and what time of day they’d look the best.
Once again, modern technology offers a huge advantage. Apps like Photopills (among others) can show you where the sun, moon, Milky Way, and other features are going to be throughout the day. If you’re the type of photographer who likes to figure out exact compositions ahead of time, this can be a huge help.
Even if you prefer more of a freeform approach to landscape photography, it’s still good to take some reference photos as you scout. That way, whether you return the next day or the next year, you’ll have a good idea of what subjects are available to shoot. These can easily be taken on your phone for later reference.
As I see it, the end goal is to have good situational awareness of the landscape when it matters. If you’re near an area you’ve scouted, and the light takes an amazing turn, you’ll know where to go before the light fades away. Along similar lines, if you’ve planned a composition ahead of time, all you may need to do in order to take a great photo is wait for the light to cooperate.
One example that I think embodies this is Nasim’s photo of the 2017 solar eclipse over a rock formation at Hell’s Half Acre. You can see his photo below:
It took more than some online research to get the eclipse perfectly positioned above this rock formation. Nasim went out to the location a few hours ahead of time, used Photopills to figure out where the eclipse would be, set up his composition, and waited. The eclipse only lasted a couple minutes, so this photo would have been impossible to take without scouting the shot ahead of time, in person.
Understanding a Location
The most involved level of scouting is what I call understanding a location. This is when you revisit the same location multiple times, sometimes dozens or hundreds of times over the course of several years.
As you visit a location more and more, you’ll pick up so much that you missed the first time. You learn all the best vantage points, backroads, and hidden spots. You also learn more basic – but equally useful – information like good parking lots, restaurants, camping spots, and areas of cell coverage nearby.
It’s a place that you visit often enough to take a photo, bring it back home, edit it, decide that you’d prefer a composition slightly to the left, and then go back later to capture it better. Essentially, this level of scouting means that you know the location like the back of your hand. You’re an expert.
Think of Ansel Adams with Yosemite. He must have been there hundreds of times, if not thousands. His photos show the best locations in Yosemite under extraordinary conditions, because he knew the landscape well enough to be in exactly the right spot when the light called for it.
Of course, all this takes time. Most photographers are only going to scout a handful of locations, if any at all, at this level of detail. It’s easiest if you live near the location in question, or at least close enough that you can visit it regularly. (If you get a good tour guide or workshop leader, they’re ideally going to be at this level of familiarity with the locations you’re visiting, which can be a good substitute.)
I’m not at Ansel Adams’s level of familiarity with any landscape, but there are a few that I’ve visited at least a dozen times. One of those is a place called Greeter Falls, which is a couple hours away from where I grew up in Tennessee. I’ve seen that waterfall under all sorts of conditions, from the summer where it ran dry to the winter where it froze completely. As time passed, I learned more about the composition, light, and weather that it took to get the best photos of the waterfall (and the gear, like fishing waders, that I needed in order to stand at the right spot).
It wouldn’t have been possible to take a photo like this on my first trip to Greeter Falls. That makes this photo a bit special to me. I think that most landscapes are similar. The longer you spend there, and the more times you visit, the better sense you’ll get of the place. Your compositions will improve, and your working knowledge of the best light and weather conditions will grow. And you’ll know what restaurant to eat at afterwards :)
Perhaps you can see why scouting is such a valuable tool in landscape photography. By doing preliminary research and exploration, you can get a much better sense of a location’s photographic possibilities. By returning to that location in the future, you can improve upon your past compositions and capture better light along the way.
I don’t mean to say that every landscape photo needs to be scouted in order to look good. Many times, I’ve been driving along and decided to stop to take a photo that inspired me on the side of the road. There’s not much scouting involved in cases like that, but if the photo turns out well, who cares?
What scouting really does is improve your odds. The more background knowledge and familiarity you have with a location, the more likely it is that you get a good photo. Especially if conditions are changing quickly, that familiarity could be the difference between getting one of your best photos and not even knowing that there’s a good composition nearby at all.