Location, location, location ~ The sweet shoot spot search guide

Apr 10, 2010 | Business, Location, Wedding | 12 comments

It doesn’t matter if you shoot weddings or location portraits under the guise of a genre like lifestyle or boudoir, the location you shoot at can make or break your pictures. Although reportage shooters usually take what they are given, the rest of us have the opportunity to create shots that make the most of the environment.  With this in mind I’ve put together these notes on selecting suitable locations for your photography.

This shot was taken en-route between the Church and a marquee reception. Farmyards can be muddy, smelly places but this one was hosed down for the occasion. The hay barn was a perfect location for a whole series of shots.

This shot was taken en-route between the Church and a marquee reception. We knew we had to come up with some shoot location options so our Bride and Groom contacted local farmers to see what was available. Farmyards can be muddy, smelly places but this one was hosed down for the occasion. This hay barn complete with a ladder was a perfect location for a whole series of shots. Don't just take what you are given, there maybe far better locations within easy reach or en-route between venues.

Weddings

When Julie and I started shooting weddings we had our fair share of village hall and marquee receptions as we learned our trade. It is very difficult to create stunning pictures at an uninspiring location when you don’t have the experience to make something out of nothing. Once we had worked out our shooting style and designed our products we set about establishing our career strategy with regard to locations. Every detail of the photo opportunities available at a prospect’s wedding was discussed in detail before we decided to take a job on. Some wedding prospects had neglected to think about photography opportunities and what would happen if the weather was bad. Take a marquee reception on the lawn of the bride’s parent’s home for instance. It really doesn’t matter if the garden is beautiful if it rains all day, because everyone will be squeezed into one end of a big cream colored tent while the main part of the marquee will be full of tables laid up for the meal. So what about the house? Well, it may be out of bounds because of the prospect of mud on the carpets. Plus the backgrounds won’t be relevant to the groom and his family either. You need to consider the psychological impact of your shooting locations.

When it's raining or dark outside it often pays to be adventrous. I shot this and all the subsequent groups in this room using a 1 second exposure.

When it's raining or dark outside it often pays to be adventurous. I shot this and all the subsequent groups in this room using a 1 second exposure at f/5.6 using an 80mm lens on my Hasselblad H2 with a Phase One back. I was lucky with subject movement although I did use a tripod to steady my camera.

We have taken on several marquee weddings at hotels when there have been interior locations for photo shoots. We have also taken on marquee weddings with alternative shooting locations en-route from the church to the reception. We’ve pre arranged shoots at hay barns with local farmers for instance. A wet weather plan is vital if like us, you set up wedding shots and shoot groups too.

At bigger venues there are often loads of places that can be set up for a few group shots. I used a Broncolor Mobil with a white umbrella to light this simple relaxed group.

At bigger venues there are often loads of places that can be set up for a few group shots. I used a Broncolor Mobil with a white umbrella to light this simple relaxed group.

Even with hotels, the shooting locations have to be planned to accommodate a wet weather scenario. Some venues let out specific areas of hotels for weddings, some even squeeze two weddings in on the same day with strict no go zones in case the two brides bump into each other. The guests may be served drinks in the library, and the dining room will be set up for the wedding breakfast, so even at a hotel it can still be a challenge to find somewhere to shoot the group photographs if it is raining outside. Don’t leave it too late to find out. Negotiating with the hotel to use other areas for shooting must be done in advance. Luckily we discovered these problems early in our career and were able to turn down any wedding where it was going to be difficult to get the pictures the couple wanted. We were not going to set ourselves up to fail. If someone really wanted to invest in fine wedding photographs they needed to invest in the locations needed to make them happen.

Street Portraits

When I started shooting street portraits in 1998 I went on several recces in Bristol to establish perfect shooting locations. Our wedding clients would come to Bristol for a pre wedding shoot and I needed to ensure I could create wonderful relaxed pictures and give them a great experience whatever the weather.

The modern buildings that are home to the Lloyds Banking Group in Bristol provide a contrast to the grunge in other shots that I take in the same area.

The modern buildings that are home to the Lloyds Banking Group in Bristol provide a contrast to the grunge in other shots that I take in the same area. The great thing about some modern buildings like these is that there is an overhanging canopy providing weather protection to passers by.


With the advent of digital shooting in 2001, the Lovegrove pre-wedding shoot experience developed into a finely tuned logistical masterpiece. We met in a Bristol cafe at 11am then shot from 11.30 until 1pm. My clients went off for a long relaxing lunch while I took the files back to the studio. Throughout my half hour drive the pictures were being automatically downloaded to my laptop in the passenger foot well. These shots were then edited by Marko using Photoshop 4 and were finished in time for the clients to see them projected at the studio at 3pm. The process is much the same today although we are working with 21 megapixel RAW files and not 3.2 megapixel jpegs.

This Lloyds bank horse shot goes to show just how fast I work. I have about a minute from putting my lighting stand in position before the security guard is bearing down on us. To be fair, I’ve often been moved on but I’ve never had any trouble on the street. in any city, including New York, Sydney, London, Edinburgh, Cork, Melbourne, Siena, Manchester, and Bristol among many others.

This Lloyds bank horse shot shows just how fast I work. I have about a minute from putting my lighting stand in position before the security guard is bearing down on us. To be fair, I’ve often been moved on in cities but I’ve never had any trouble, been arrested or cautioned etc on the street. in any city, including New York, Sydney, London, Edinburgh, Cork, Melbourne, Siena, Manchester, and Bristol among many others.

On my recces I look for backgrounds, weather protection, light control, somewhere to meet, somewhere to park and places for comfort breaks etc. I do a hazard and risk assessment and consider the whole customer experience. I look at the likelihood of getting moved on by security or police and I generally plan the whole shoot from start to finish.

It helps to have some interiors lined up incase of inclement weather.

It helps to have some inner city interiors lined up in case of inclement weather. This shot was taken with natural light in a Bristol bar. I have arranged with the staff to have access to this venue as I need. There has to be a win/win for any arrangement like this to work well. The result of putting a bit of effort in to your offerings can be a facility like this that can become an impromptu town centre studio. I take pre-wedding couples to my bar if it is raining too.

I am used to doing remote recces now. I was in New York last year for my Urban Portraits workshop and in Sienna last Autumn for my ‘Passion on the Streets’ workshop. I start the process months in advance using Google Earth and Street View. I use Trip adviser to select hotels in the funkiest areas and I plan walking routes from the hotels that take in key shoot locations.

Figure in the landscape shots sell as bigger prints. 10% of the frame is as small as I go with my subject. This shot was taken on a Nikon D700 with a couple of Nikon Speedlights during the filming of my latest DVD, Speedlight Mastery.

Figure in the landscape shots sell well as bigger prints. 10% of the frame is as small as I go with my subject. This shot was taken on a Nikon D700 with a couple of Nikon Speedlights during the filming of my latest DVD, Speedlight Mastery.

So what makes a key street shoot location? I look for intersections of navigation routes including railways, canals, rivers and major roads. Often, mainline railway stations are a perfect place to start, so I take a train. Near the stations there are back alleys and areas full of character. There are also cafés and bars to meet clients in. I zig zag the streets taking in every nook and cranny. I am looking for places to shoot if it is raining, like under railway arches or road bridges. There are often regenerated modern office buildings not far from the occasionally grotty near vicinity of railway stations. These usually have porches, covered walkways and underpasses that again provide protection from rain should it be necessary. I use these modern buildings for my reflection and high key shots.

Graffiti is transient and doesn’t hang around long. Constant redevelopment and urban regeneration creates rarity. This wonderful fireworks painting is now gone but remains in part in my portrait collection.

Graffiti is transient and doesn’t hang around long. Constant redevelopment and urban regeneration creates rarity. This wonderful fireworks painting is now gone but remains in part in my portrait collection.

I must have shot this painted face twenty times in the few months it was there by the waterside in Bristol. Each time I shot it I used a different lighting set up to keep my images fresh.

I must have shot this painted face twenty times in the few months it was there by the waterside in Bristol. Each time I shot it I used a different lighting set up to keep my images fresh.

Each time I spot a shoot opportunity I place a virtual pin in my Google map on my iPhone and take a reference shot for recap purposes later. I usually avoid banks, town halls, police stations and major shopping developments because of security patrols and CCTV although I’ve become a bit faster at shooting now, so I can usually take my shot and move on before being arrested! Once I’m getting familiar with my surroundings I find a bar or a café to use as a base, and I study the local streets again using street view. I’ll ask a few locals if they know of any interesting street art or special places that I should be checking out. On my walk and looksee I’ll use the dictaphone feature on my phone together with the camera to record my shot ideas and then I’ll write up my notes. I used to mark dots on tourist maps but the maps fall apart in the rain:(

This night street scene was shot in daylight at my latest secret location. I used two Speedlights, some Honl gels and a Lastolite Ezybox to make the picture.

This night street scene was shot in daylight at my latest secret location. I used two Speedlights, some Honl gels and a Lastolite Ezybox to make the picture. I have to keep some of my locations secret because there are a few annoying second rate photographers who try to sell workshops that follow in my footsteps.

Where possible I seek out local knowledge. I put a feeler out on Twitter or contact any friends I have in the city I’m checking out. Four eyes are better than two when searching out shoot locations. My main consideration for the whole process is to find locations that offer weather protection and these covered areas often provide great natural light too.
This year I will recce Amsterdam the day before my workshops are due to start. This may seem late in the day but I know I have the advantage of local knowledge to help me. I will email and text the start location to the delegates the night before the workshop and I’ll include a photo of the outside of the cafe we are meeting in.

This wooden brake car is an open exhibit of the Bristol industrial museum and sits on the railway tracks just outside. Not for long though as I’m sure it will be given a sterile home soon.

This sulphuric acid tanker is an open exhibit of the Bristol industrial museum and sits on the railway tracks just outside. Not for long though as I’m sure it will be given a sterile home soon. I lit this frame with a pair of Speedlights triggered with Pocket Wizard TTL units.

Boudoir and Vintage glamour

If your genre requires funky interiors there’s no better place to shoot than a hotel. Hotels often have lots of rooms available between 11am (checkout time) and 3pm (earliest check in time) and it is usual to be able to book rooms for photo shoots between these hours without affecting the hotels ability to let the room to guests. For a modest consideration of between £25 and £40 a room with a four poster bed and a chaise longue could be yours. Look for the opportunities and they will present themselves.

Go on, join me on a fabulous street shooting workshop this summer. I am shooting in various cities and locations and I have two types of street shooting workshop to choose from. The shooting Urban portraits workshop that has just five delegates and concentrates on creating beautifully simple portraits using natural light and up to one Speedlight on and off camera, and the Speedlight Mastery workshop that delves into my most demanding locations to create dramatic portraits using Speedlights. The Speedlight Mastery workshop is limited to just four delegates and is camera make specific.

Have your say. If you have a top tip to share on location shooting please feel free to please feel free to comment below. Any other comments are always welcome too. I do my best to respond to as many comments as I can :)

12 Comments

  1. Tim Hind

    Great article. I’m in Cornwall so everyone wants shots on the beach! The challenge is getting clients to go to the less glam areas where there are so many more opportunities!

    Reply
    • damien

      Hi Tim,

      You have to fit client experience into the mix. Just look for quirky shot opportunities at the glam locations and you never know. Avoiding the obvious has never let me down. When I’m at the beach I often never shoot the sea or the sky. It can be fun.

      Cheers, Damien.

      Reply
  2. David Pearson

    Damien,

    Simply one of the most indepth and well written articles i read in a long, long time.

    There is a debate running on the SWPP forum about training at the moment where I state I am going to choose my training path carefully. I have to admit I’m leaning towards you.

    Cheers

    David

    Reply
    • damien

      Hi David,

      Thank you for your kind words. You are right to be cautious and careful when selecting training suppliers. There are many struggling photographers out there trying their hand at training. Look out for inspirational photography, strong business acumen and a record of achieving success from a potential trainer. Please feel free to contact me or my team to discuss your needs.

      Kind regards, Damien.

      Reply
  3. Tom Chapman

    love the first pic, good article as always. Being on the coast there is often the urge to stop off and get a picture with the sea in the background. I am still hunting for various locations for this depending on weather and the number of tourists etc about as time is always limited.

    Tom

    Reply
    • damien

      Thanks Tom, I hope your seaside location hunt goes well. Damien.

      Reply
  4. Dasha

    Great article! Very helpful. I’ve recently moved to London and I’m scouting locations at the moment for future photoshoots. I love sort of grungy-urban-gritty spots, but in London sometimes I’m just afraid to go to this kind of places. Maybe I’m just overthinking the safety issue. )))

    Reply
    • damien

      Hi Dasha,

      Take a look around Hoxton and Shoreditch. It’s where I last shot in London and it was fab.

      Regards, Damien.

      Reply
  5. Chris

    A well written article D and once again a valuable resource to your readers.

    Alan you make a great point. I had to shoot in a venue last year in similar circumstances. I was pushed to my creative limit. Luckily with my lowel light, and off camera speedlights we were able to bag some great shots out of nothing. This was made all the more easier by shooting Cherish the dress™ You very quickly learn to see interior shots everywhere you go. Perspectives, colours, textures and nooks and crannies that come alive with a splash of light even in the most mundane venues.
    Best wishes
    Chris H

    Reply
    • damien

      Thanks Chris,

      I just want to add that we have some places left on the upcoming Chreish The Dress™ workshops in June too. A big part of a Cherish workshop is dedicated to shooting with continuous light. This is definitely a way forward as what you see is what you get and it works with a DSLR camera’s video functions too.

      Cheers, Damien

      Reply
  6. Alan Reid

    Great shots Damien, thanks for the info. I was just thinking about how difficult it is to create stunning pictures at an uninspiring location this week. I shot a wedding last Friday at a location that I had shot a wedding last August, only this time we had very strong winds and heavy rain. I managed to get the large group shot before the rain came pouring down. I had to shoot indoors, not the most exciting option. I had decided there and then to plan my shots for the worst weather that could happen on the day, and if the weather was good, it would be a bonus.
    One question… Any chance we could see you shooting some Street Portraits in Belfast?

    Reply
    • damien

      Hi Alan,

      You are spot on with your ‘the weather changes everything’ point. I’d love to come to Belfast. I’m planning on shooting on the street and at the Harland and Wolff shipyard. I’ll prob stay at the Culloden while I’m over with you. I’d like to do an evening talk too or maybe a 1 day hotel based seminar. Email Blaise to get put on our NI interested in a workshop list.

      Thanks, Damien.

      Reply

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