Updated: Apr 7, 2019
As an outdoor family photographer, it’s a given that I need to master my equipment, engage my subjects, and know how to frame each shot. But that’s only half the story. There’s another factor that can make or break an outdoor portrait, and that’s its location.
Rarely do the ideal photographic conditions happen by chance. I have to set them up – which makes location scouting such an important part of every photo shoot. And, with a base in Ilminster, in the beautiful Somerset countryside, it’s a task I relish.
So what does location scouting involve? Here’s a list of some of the factors I think about when I’m looking for the perfect spot. If you’d like to improve your own portrait photography, bear them in mind the next time you pick up your camera. Whether you’re shooting with a DSLR, a compact, or even an iPhone, I wager that you’ll notice a difference.
A place to be yourself
When a client books a family shoot with me, the first thing I do is find out more about them: what makes them laugh, how they spend their free time, and the places they like to hang out. Sometimes, clients will already have an idea of where they’d like their photos taken. But if not, I’ll find a location where they’ll feel at home and be able to relax. That way, we can create natural photographs that capture genuine emotions and real connections.
So next time you take photos of your children, pick a spot they love, and – most importantly – where they can have some fun.
Let there be (the right sort of) light
Light is the single most important ingredient in any photograph. In fact, I could write several blog posts about it, and still have more to say. But for now, I’ll say this: whenever you take out your camera, think about the light before anything else.
Although natural light is beautiful, it is also unpredictable and impossible to control at source. And if you can’t control it, you have to work with it.
Here are the two most important light-related considerations that influence my choice of location:
1) Direct sun is unflattering. Very unflattering. But, even in the UK, it’s something we have to contend with. There are all sorts of ways to deal with harsh light, such as using fill flash, reflectors, or creating your own shade. My preference, though, is to find the right sort of shade in the natural environment. If a shoot is to run smoothly, that requires some planning.
2) The golden hour is beautiful. Very beautiful. It’s the period just after sunrise and just before sunset, when the sun is warmer, softer, and generally more magical. I love to shoot during the golden hour, but it’s crucial to find a location that the low-lying light will reach at that time of day.
When it comes to choosing the right backdrop, there is a plethora of factors to consider. Here are just some of them:
1) Pretty locations aren’t always photogenic. Aesthetically pleasing backdrops don’t always work from a photographic point of view. Take woodland as an example. Here, the light is dappled – creating areas of shadow interspersed with hot spots. And while dappled light can be used to great creative effect, it’s much trickier to deal with in a fast-moving family context. Another feature of woodland photography is the risk of trunks and branches appearing to grow out of subjects’ heads. Although both of these issues can be avoided with the right planning, timing and composition, it’s always something to bear in mind.
2) Where will your photos end up? I always ask my clients what they’re planning to do with their photographs, and where they want to display them. They may want to display the photos in a room with a particular colour scheme, or create a particular "feeling" or atmosphere. The backdrop plays an important part in achieving this.
3) Composition. When I’m composing a shot, I love to incorporate background and foreground elements. Natural and man-made structures can be used to great creative effect: to frame a subject, for example, or create a leading line towards them
4) Other people. As sociable as I like to think I am, there’s one context in which I’m not a fan of ‘others’. And that’s when they’re in the background of my frame. Although I’m not averse to a bit of Photoshopping, I much prefer to choose a location and time that isn’t going to be too busy.
While I may be prepared to trek 10 miles in the quest for the perfect shot, I don’t expect my family clients to feel the same, especially if young children are involved. In fact, it’s a sure fire way to thwart a shoot even before it has begun.
So, I have to choose locations that are easily accessible for little legs. This might mean finding a spot near a public car park or negotiating access using off-road tracks (which also adds a frisson of excitement!).
A location that’s perfect at one point in the year may be completely unsuitable at another. This is partly due to the changing backdrop. For example, rich autumn foliage gives way to bare branches, and a field of lavender turns into stick-like stubble.
But it also reacquaints us with our old friend: light. Not only does natural light change in quality and intensity over the course of a day or a year. It also has a rather irritating habit of moving. So a backdrop that works brilliantly in the morning may be unusable in the afternoon – and a location that’s perfect in summer might be quite the opposite in winter. Luckily for me, there’s an app to help. I use it to track how the light will fall at any given location: it’s one of the most valuable tools I have.
Last but not least, as a professional photographer, I have to make sure that I’m allowed to shoot at the location I’d like to use. This might mean using public land, seeking permission from a private landowner, or obtaining a permit from an organisation like the Forestry Commission or the National Trust.
While this is less relevant in the case of personal photography, it’s still important to know where you’re allowed to photograph. You should also take care to respect the natural environment while you’re there.
In a nutshell, then, this is what ‘location scouting’ looks like for me. It might be time-consuming, but it’s worth it to achieve the best possible photographs for my clients.
I’m always on the lookout for new locations, and would love it if you shared your favourites in the comments below!