I often have students or other photographers message me with questions about photography, and I welcome that! I get one question so frequently, I thought it might be a good idea to do a blog post about it - WHERE.
"Where do you find such cool locations?
What are some of your favorite locations to shoot at?
OMG where was photo XYZ taken??!?!?!"
(Okay, now's the time to to fess up - the headline of this post is a little misleading.)
My answer to most of those questions is usually, "Nowhere cool." I have kind of a mantra that I end up repeating to people who ask these types of questions: It doesn't matter. It's not about the location.
Part of what makes this job fun and unique is that it forces you to use your brain in different ways. You have to learn to see light differently from other people, to look for different angles, and to figure out how to turn nothing into something cool. In fact, it's one of my favorite challenges to look at a bleak, boring, or uninspiring location and figure out fun ways to make it look awesome. Beautiful backgrounds are awesome, but simply sticking some people in front of a beautiful background does not guarantee an artistic image, or even a good image. Just sticking a person in front of the Eiffel Tower or a cool wall is not what's going to make you a great photographer.
It's not about the location. We have to be magicians and illusionists - we have to learn to use the tools at our disposal (angles, lighting, posing, color, creativity, etc) to make something look like something else. A LOT of my "favorite spots" are literally just off to the side of the road somewhere... and it's often a busy, boring road and not even a scenic road :)
TIP #1 - IT'S NOT ABOUT THE LOCATION, IT'S ABOUT THE LIGHT
The most important advice I can give you: There are no good locations, there's only good light. The coolest wall or the most beautiful garden could look totally terrible in the wrong light or with the wrong equipment. If I'm shooting at morning vs. afternoon, I end up guiding clients to very different types of spots, because I know which direction the light will be coming from at that time of day. Some spots have great light in the morning and don't work well for my style in the afternoon. I always carefully place clients in good light, pretty much regardless of what's in the background. This also really requires you knowing how to manage your equipment properly and efficiently in all types of lighting conditions - they might change at any minute. Get out of auto mode and learn how to shoot in manual for maximum control of your light.
TIP #2 - IT'S NOT ABOUT THE LOCATION, IT'S ABOUT THE ANGLE
Very rarely is some kind of epic landscape going to be laid out for you, where you can just show up and click the shutter without any thought and have your image look stunning. You will have to look up, look down, kneel down, lay on the ground, stand on something tall, shoot through that bush - whatever you have to do to make where you are look like something worth looking at. This part takes some practice and some effort. This is why I rarely wear nice clothes while shooting (I'm often laying in the dirt) and I usually wear flip flops (I can kick them off, roll up my pants, and step into the water or scramble up into a tree, etc).
Often, you can use angles to your advantage to cut out parts that don't fit your vision for the image. Sometimes, by lying on the ground, you can make power lines disappear, or fake a different horizon. By standing on something tall and shooting down, you can eliminate the sky and the horizon line if it doesn't fit with your vision for the image.
I would recommend TOTALLY FORGETTING what you've seen in other photographers' work, especially if you're shooting at commonly-photographed locations. If you're researching commonly-photographed locations, you'll see the exact same angles a hundred times, which results in hundreds of almost-exactly-the-same images. It seems like lately, I've seen a lot of photographers talking about wanting to go to "THAT location "to get "THAT shot", and by that, they mean that they pretty much want to exactly duplicate an image that's already been photographed by someone else. "I'm so excited to shoot in front of THAT graffitti wall / on THAT overlook," they'll say, and then line their subjects up in exactly the same way that another photographer set up.
Sure, it's easy to throw your client into that same spot as everyone else and snap the shutter, but then, what's going to make your work stand out? We can do better than that, and we can be more creative than just copying stuff we find on Pinterest (or copying what you've seen other local photographers do). So switch up your angles, shoot the same cliche location in a new way, and think for yourself rather than copying stuff you've already seen so you can stand out and help people see the world in a new way! Aside from the fact that being a copycat isn't cool, shooting new angles will turn boring old locations into, "OMG where was this taken?!?"
Along these same lines, if you really want your work to be unique and remarkable, avoid asking other photographers for location recommendations - many commonly-photographed locations are crowded, busy, and overused. And besides, you want your work to stand out and be different, right? To create your own cool, unique, images, find your own cool, unique locations! Do something that hasn't been done!
TIP #3 - IT'S NOT ABOUT THE LOCATION, IT'S ABOUT THE COLORS
A lot of the images I get asked about have more to do with good use of color than actual location. For maximum impact, I try to match or coordinate colors of outfits with colors that appear in the background. It doesn't matter WHERE you can find these colors, as long as they work within the frame of your image.
So, when you actually go location scouting, here are a few tips:
- Go at the same time of day that you'll be shooting at. This helps you figure out what the light will be like at that time of day.
- Go do the footwork yourself, rather than just asking someone who's been there. Take a day, hop in your car, and drive around and explore! Figure out what types of locations work best for your particular style and shoot, and then check them out for yourself. Then, get out of the car and walk around : maybe some place looks gorgeous from a distance, but when you get right up to it, you'll realize it's all marshy, and if you put your model there, they'd be standing up to their shins in murky water.
- Be aware that many, many locations (especially in the Boulder area) require permits to shoot at. If you get stopped by rangers, which happens frequently, and you can't show proof of your permit, you may get ticketed and forced to stop shooting. I hear that those fines are around $500 bucks, so make sure that if you're shooting professionally (or even with professional-looking gear) that you have your required permits. Also I should remind everyone that shooting on train tracks is illegal, dangerous... and stylistically overdone anyway :) Totally not worth putting your life or your clients' lives at risk.
Hope this helps you go out and create something totally unique!