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Where to shoot - scouting locations

Scouting Saxon Switzerland at Lilienstein

Where to shoot - scouting locations

One of the questions I get asked most of the time – besides gear and editing – is on how I find my spots to shoot. It is rather easy and you can do it yourself with the internet. All it takes is some time for digging through platforms, archives and maps. And of course, arriving at the spot early enough to scout the location for a good composition and to secure a good spot before other photographers arrive for sunset or sunrise if it is one of the well known photo locations.

it starts with an inspiration

There are different starting points for me when searching for possible locations. The first one is the most common one: I see an image of a spot that I find intriguing. That can be on Instagram, 500px, Flickr or even just on Google. If I don’t go on any further planning right away I just mark that place on my google maps profile and save it for later. 

If I know I will be in a certain area or actually plan a phototour I go more into detail. In 2016 – when starting to photograph with a purpose - I went on many business trips throughout Germany and even to Ireland. Days or weeks ahead I browsed 500px for images (sorted by pulse to have the top shots appear first and not having to dig through all of what was uploaded) that I could find for that cities´ or area´s name I was to be at. If there were images of places I liked, I looked up that place on google images, too. Just to see a bit more of the area. Reason being: the great shots on 500px often have a lot of blending or warping involved – in other words enhancements, that don’t necessarily represent the actual place. And I don’t want to find out on spot that the beautiful hill only exists in composites. So Google image search is for more realistic info on how the place really looks and what could be achieved when photographing it.

 This is how my google map looked in the Dolomite area for my tour in September 2017. Every star features a point of interest. The blue line shows our driving route.

This is how my google map looked in the Dolomite area for my tour in September 2017. Every star features a point of interest. The blue line shows our driving route.

Then I head over to google maps to pinpoint the exact location with the satellite mode on (at times even 3d mode). This can be a rather tricky or time consuming affair since most images are not properly tagged. Either because the photographer did not mean to give away the information or was just sloppy doing so. I also look on what other spots might be close, literally following paths or coastlines zoomed in on google maps.  When finding the exact location I want to shoot the preparation does not stop. Because I want to find how to get there. Where can I park? Where can I take public transportation? Where can I sleep nearby? Is the spot even accessible? I used Google Earth for example to find a certain tree to photograph at Alpe di Siusi (which I didn’t happen to find on the short time I spent there, unfortunately).

there is still plenty of room for unwanted surprises

Believe me, there is still plenty of room for unwanted surprises once you arrive. Like closed roads, construction sites that ruin the view or private property you better not step onto. I remember at Praia da Ursa I thought I had it all figured out. Just to see that the road I wanted to drive on was as bumpy as the moon probably is and would have ruined my rental car completely. So I had to park the car further away which meant another extra half hour to get to the spot. Praia da Ursa is another fine example on the hike to the beach. You cannot find this on google maps. Those small and at times steep walkways don’t even fit two persons so of course you cannot see it properly on a satellite image. I searched clips on Youtube and browsed google for little stories or diaries of people that had already been there. And when starting to descend at Praia da Ursa I remembered what somebody once wrote: “take the left way. It´s easier to go.”. And so I did. Even though I was tempted to take the other one at one point since it looked like a better idea. In the end I was happy I had remembered that advice. 

 My PhotoPills planning for shooting Hintersee

My PhotoPills planning for shooting Hintersee

Besides all of those informations where I want to shoot and how to get there. The big question is: when to go. What season makes sense? What time of day? Are there closing times? If I want to shoot the milky way better make sure it is even visible (and I don’t even mean the weather). So moon phases are crucial as well. I use PhotoPills and highly recommend it to see where the sun rises, sets and where the milky way will be visible. There are plenty of tutorials out about how to use PhotoPills. I suggest you take a look at it. I save the spots and exact days and time of day when I want to shoot the sunrise or –set, or milky way inside the app on my iPhone. That way I know when I have to be all set at the spot. If it is possible I always make sure to be on location at least an hour before the show (for example golden hour) begins. The worst is arriving late to not be able to look for a decent composition anymore or having to hurry with you set-up. …believe me, it has happened to me: arriving late and hurrying to catch the sunset. Just to find out on my way back home that I had forgotten to switch back to raw-format on my camera. I could still hit me in the face for that major fail and now having to deal with just the jpegs. 

But since this only means being at the spot in time to kind of reproduce shots that have been taken already – with the hope of having extra special light – the real fun is scouting the area when being there and having time for it. It is way more satisfying to find less or not used angles on nice spots or to even find new spots to shoot. But this does take time. So better make sure to have a lot of it. Let the beauty of the new environment soak in and imagine what the place might look like when framed inside an image. I did this for the first time when I travelled to Hintersee to stay there for 2 nights. I did go all around the lake and went through beautiful Zauberwald. Not only did I come away with plenty of beautiful spots to take images but it was just such a fulfilling experience all around to get accustomed to the area and get a feeling of the place rather than hurrying to collect the regular ‘money’ shots. I know time is rare. And most of us try to make the most out of it to even have something to show for. But boy, I much rather have a great experience at a beautiful place than just go for the next Instagram upload.

To sum things up: finding spots is fun. It is work. It is necessary. And it is way more planning than people usually think when looking at a landscape image. But it is well worth it.