Lava Tube, Mojave National Preserve, CA

How to find the best photography locations

posted in: How to, Photography

Do you ever look at a breathtaking photograph of a landscape and think - I wish I lived somewhere like that? Or could at least visit without having to travel halfway across the world? All photographers experience location envy. Especially in the internet age, we endlessly scroll through images shot in far-flung corners of the globe, in places we only dream of visiting. Let me share something I’ve learned as a professional photographer. You don’t have to pack your bags and sit on a plane for hours. Wherever you may be, chances are good that you’re surrounded by more photogenic places than you thought. To find the best photography locations, all you need are two things: an open mind and a willingness to research.

There’s no big secret to finding locations in your own backyard. Take a few simple and very commonplace tools, add a healthy dose of curiosity, and I guarantee you’ll find a worthy spot. Here are the resources I rely on for preliminary location scouting for my professional shoots. Anyone can start using them right away, for free!

1. AllTrails

The AllTrails website and app is best known by casual hikers, climbers and snow sports enthusiasts to share information about trails. But it also doubles up as a fantastic resource for photographers looking for natural settings that you can bet are going to be big on scenery. There are more than 100,000 trails uploaded with detailed reviews, photos, maps and much more. I used this app to find a stunning rock formation less than a mile from downtown Boulder, Colorado. It was so close to town that it made easy access for my production crew.

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2. Trip Advisor

Trip Advisor is a fantastic travel community forum, information resource and booking portal. Basically, anything you want to know about a place, look it up on Trip Advisor - photos included. Like AllTrails, much of what you find on TripAdvisor is user generated, so you’re not just getting articles about mainstream tourist destinations. People are posting about all sorts of weird and wonderful places that are also free.

You will get useful advice about how to get there, when to go (or not to go!) and tips for other nearby places you might want to check out. While you can filter out places by popularity and price, I would advise against it. Even though some places appear to be heavily trafficked or are serviced by tour companies, you can still go there on your own dime, during weekdays or times when tours are less active.

I discovered Emerald Cave near  Las Vegas through Trip Advisor, but I took my own kayak and avoided the tourists by going at an off-hour.

Side note: when visiting private locations (see Mystery Castle below) always ask for permission to take photographs, and if your shoot is for commercial purposes you'll need a signed property release anyway. I highly recommended the EasyRelease app for this purpose.

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3. Atlas Obscura

If you’ve got a taste for the hidden places steeped in history and stories - and let’s be honest, as a photographer you should be fascinated with such places, right? - you'll love Atlas Obscura, which currently boasts 20,000+ listings all over the world. It’s a community project, so listings are added all the time. One of the things I really like about Atlas Obscura is that it features unusual attractions that I normally wouldn't find anywhere else. For instance, I was recently passing through the middle of nowhere on I-40 between Los Angeles, CA and Kingman, AZ. A quick view of the Atlas Obscura California map revealed two places that ended up being pure gold. An old, urban decay post office aged to perfection and a lava tube with the most incredible shafts of light I've ever witnessed (see images below).

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4. Google

Google isn’t the world’s most powerful internet search tool for nothing, and you can use all of its might to your advantage to track down potential shoot locations. There are so many great tools you can use - it's almost daunting! These are my favorite power tips.

Images

Google Image search hardly needs any introduction. Simply type in an area of interest, click Images and … well, you probably know the rest.  Be sure to explore the tabs above the main search results. There is a horizontal menu of sub-categories, often listing the most notable places of interest for any given area. Also try adding the sort of thing you want to find in the search bar. Simple modifiers like ‘top attractions’ or ‘hidden gems’ can turn up surprising results even for your hometown. Another great feature of Google Images is the reverse image search function. If you find a great photo online but don’t know where it was shot, just copy and paste the URL into Google Images. Not only will you find out where that place is, you will probably uncover a heap of other shots from the same place at different angles.

Maps

If you bring up a location on Google Maps, you can look for places of interest tagged on the map itself or, similar to Images, modify your search by adding search terms to the bar in the left hand window. Click on a destination tag, and scroll down this same pane for photos and more suggestions. I find the Street Level and 360o view features especially useful for getting an immersive idea of what a location is like. For an up-to-date view of the seasonal conditions, e.g. how much foliage is on the trees, how much snow is on the ground etc, I use the ‘Latest Photos’ feature. Maps is also the quickest way to find out if a place is open or closed, or what the hours of operation are.

Bonus tip: hit the save button to keep a record of your favorite spots and easily navigate to them while out in the field.

Earth

Google Earth may be overkill for some, but for professional photographers it is one of the most powerful tools available for virtual location scouting. Launch Earth in your Chrome browser, enter the location and click ‘Points of Interest’ for local suggestions. It will not only show photos but also let you ‘fly’ around the place in 3D. The 3D feature is great for seeing topography, gauging what the surrounding views will be like and also for getting a sense of the orientation to the sun - critical for getting your position right for the all important ‘golden hour’. Power tip: use the Projects feature to save particular locations with the option to include your own photos and written notes for reference. You can even present all this scouting info to your client in a customized, 3D presentation. It's almost as if Google made this resource specifically for photographers and filmmakers!

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5. Instagram

Instagram is popular with everyone from pro photographers to smartphone snappers (perhaps leaning a little towards the latter), and again is stacked with millions of reference images. A few key features are especially helpful when searching for location ideas. Instagram lets you search for images by location in two ways, either by searching ‘Places’ or ‘Tags’. Searching Places brings up all the relevant geotagged images within a certain radius, and tends to work better the more specific you are. Searching Tags brings up all results that people have manually tagged with the name of a location. However, Tags are generally much less helpful because they're oversaturated with selfies and food pics.

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Runners Up

Flickr is one of the biggest and best (not to mention longest-running) online communities for photographers. As an image hosting service, its best attribute is that it lets you geotag and post hi-res files that show off photographs the way they were meant to be seen (i.e. something better than a tiny thumbnail). To find the best photography locations, simply go to the map, find the area you are interested in and browse for the images. You can also narrow down your search using sort tags like ‘interesting’ or ‘recent’.

MeetUp is an online community hub for finding and joining activities. You can search by location, by type of activity or both. I like using MeetUp to see if there are any events nearby that might make for good subject matter for a shoot, often for my portfolio or for stock photography. By contacting event organizers in advance, I can potentially set myself up with a group of real people as candid models for some genuine real-life storytelling. In exchange, I give them free professional images of themselves or the event. It's a win-win!

Finally … Get Out There and Explore!

For all the convenience tech offers, there is no substitute for being curious and getting out into the world with your camera and a map to discover what’s out there. Start with your own local area - drive around those back roads, get out on foot and explore out-of-the-way place. I can guarantee you will find places worth shooting you’d never have discovered online. With any luck, you might even be the first person to captured them. 

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All photographs were created by me and are copyright protected. They are not to be used without explicit permission.

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