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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:(
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.
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 :)