Choosing a photo shoot location is one of the most overlooked (and yet critically important) areas in photography. If you're thinking about investing in new equipment, you're going to spend a large portion of time looking at the market and researching the product. But while we all salivate over one gadget or another, how many of us go out for the sole purpose of researching, finding, and testing shoot locations?
A photo shoot location may be as simple as your backyard or as complex as the top of a volcano in South America or Hawaii. These locations change, sometimes dramatically, according to time of year, time of day, weather conditions and a host of other factors. How do you even begin to explore them photographically?
Before you get overwhelmed by the options, take a deep breath and start simple: step into your backyard. Easy, I can hear you saying. Nothing too dramatic there. But go into your yard and really look at it. Leave your camera inside and look at it without a lens. Can you see how the shadows are falling from your house or that big tree? Is there a strong vantage point you could shoot in the middle of the day when the lighting is not great?
Once you think you know the space like the back of your hand, change your point of view. Stand on a ladder, lay on the ground on your stomach and then roll over onto your back. I guarantee you'll have different ideas about the space than you did before.
After you have the space firmly in your mind, visualise clients or subjects in your yard. Where do you want to put them? Layer the elements one at a time -- and don't try to run before you can walk.
But you may not always have unlimited access to a photo shoot location to prepare and brainstorm, so how do you get ready for that?
Again, we return to the importance of research. Now especially, research is at your fingertips. The obvious places to start? The Internet, travel magazines, your local library. However, there is another, somewhat overlooked resource: photographers. In this business, as any other, it's important to network. Contrary to popular belief, even as an artist-based community, we usually don't "guard" our secrets. I, for one, am quite flattered when someone asks how or where I got a particular shot -- and I know they walk away thinking about how they might do it better. That's how we all got into photography in the first place: we see the beauty of a work, and then go on to figure out how to change it. This is how photography, as an art form, continues to evolve.
If you're feeling a little shy, however, the library is a great place to start. I recently took a gander at a book called The Print and The Process by David duChemin. This is an artist based out of Vancouver and I found it to be an incredible resource. Among others, he tells a story (which really illustrates the point of shoot location preparation) about a trip he took to Iceland to photograph some of the natural landscape. He was there with another photographer, Dave Delena, and when they arrived they drove out into the country for a week or so, making notes about location and conditions and shooting the occasional photo. It was on the way back that the magic happened. They looked over the notes they had taken, having already considered what they wanted to shoot, and from that game plan they produced the best possible outcomes for the return trip.
On the other hand, when we go on a vacation with our families as amateur or semi-professional photographers, that system probably will not work for most of us -- backtracking is not always possible, and taking a thorough look at your surroundings while travelling can bore the rest of the family to tears. On the other hand, you can do a couple of things. Step one: look at what where and when other photos have been shot. This is easy enough to research before you leave, and this gives you a good jumping-off point. You can get a rough idea of locations you may want to explore further, and from there you can plan some family events in those areas. Even when you get to your holiday spot, I suggest making brief unplanned excursions for an hour or two to take some family "snapshots." The family, after all, is expecting you to document the vacation -- and if you spend all your time focusing on personal photography, they might get a little steamed when there are no memories of the family vacation. Spend time with your family or travel buddies first, and don't forget to come out from behind the lens.
Meanwhile, think about where and what you want to shoot on the way back. Once you have a few places in mind, set aside the hours or day that you need to create your pictures. Your family will be more patient, as they have had your undivided attention for a good part of the trip, and you won't feel rushed, because you filled your family's needs first.
Whether shooting at home or abroad, remember that research is just as important as knowing your equipment and taking the actual photo. Take some time and research your yard, your local park, and any particularly picturesque areas within 50 km. Network with other photographers, both in your area and in areas you would like to travel.
Lastly, have fun. Don`t be afraid of your failures; these are just successes in a different frame, and creativity comes to those who wait and are relaxed.