Researching photo locations is one of those things that is important but also needs to be taken with a pinch of salt. I often scout ahead for places to photograph, but I make sure to keep my plans flexible. You never know what the weather will do, or what interesting thing you’ll find unexpectedly. Do some research before your trip but be prepared to ignore your list if something better comes along.
With that in mind, here are some ways I scout out photo locations both before and during my photography trips.
Ask a Local
Locals always know the best places to visit. They’ll have inside info on locations that the rest of the tourists won’t have heard about. If you’re keen to visit the obvious tourist hotspots, they’ll be able to tell you the best time to go, and which times to avoid.
The key here is to not be shy! Ask the person in the shop, a waiter, the barista in the cafe. Pop into a pub and ask the bartender. Also ask around on social media – we’re all so well connected these days that a question with the right hashtag can have helpful strangers offering tips and advice.
I’ve used Google Maps for years. If you were to look at my map you’d notice it is full of little stars! I tend to bookmark places on Google maps that look interesting or that I want to remind myself of for future trips. This is the main place I store recommendations of photo spots.
If you do use Google Maps, a big advantage is that you can save your maps offline. If you’re off adventuring somewhere remote, you’ll most likely lose phone signal and your map won’t be that useful without its data! Save your maps offline, and if possible, have a paper map for backup if you don’t know the area well.
To find places of interest on Google Maps, you can search for the word “attractions” to bring up the most obvious (read: touristy) results. This is useful, but even better is the photo search tool. If you bring up the photo overlay for the area, you can mouse over any of the photos to see its point on the map. Just bear in mind that if people have manually tagged their locations, the GPS tag may not be completely accurate.
My final tip for Google Maps is to use Satellite mode and Street View to scope out routes and paths. This can be particularly useful for finding parking and lay-bys as well as geographic features like beaches. I also used this recently to see what someone referred to as “land rover tracks” up a mountain that weren’t marked on the standard map. Hooray for satellites!
Tourist information offices may seem old fashioned but they’re a must if you’re new to an area. I recently spent a couple of weeks in Scotland and despite doing my research beforehand, I still wasn’t sure where was best to visit.
I popped into the local tourist office run by Visit Scotland and a lovely girl there gave me fantastic advice on what was best to see. She then gave me a paper map on which she drew various circles to highlight the places she’d mentioned. I kept that map with me at and thanks to her I saw places I would otherwise have not known about.
Ahead of time, remember you can always check out the tourism offices online for the place you’re visiting. If you’re ever in Scotland, I recommend checking out the Visit Scotland website. Their Facebook feed is also a good source of location inspiration.
Beware Seasonal Opening Hours
This one recently caught me out. In remote places, you may find things in the smaller towns shut down in winter. Even larger tourist attractions may shut down for refurbishment in the quieter months.
If you’re travelling out of season, double check your locations are actually open and accessible. This is again something that the local tourist information will be able to advise on.
Good Old Fashioned Paper Maps
Paper maps might seem old fashioned but they are fantastic for a number of reasons.
I have an AA Road Map that I keep in my car for emergencies and research purposes. One thing I love about these maps is that I can quickly look at the area around my location and lots of things are clearly marked: buildings, ruins, mountains, lakes…you don’t need to apply filters or zoom to a certain level like on apps. They’re also not reliant on a phone signal, which is useful when you’re exploring off-grid.
A step further than road maps are ordnance survey maps. I love the detail of these maps as they show you fantastic information such as footpaths and trails. If you like the outdoors and hiking, it’s worth picking up a local OS map for the area. There are many public footpaths running through rural areas in the UK which might not be obvious at first. A quick check of an OS Map or on Open Street Map will soon tell you if there’s a path nearby.
Of course, if you don’t have either of these available, this is where the local tourist information will come in useful. They nearly always have free maps covering the local area.
Photo sharing apps like Instagram & Flickr
If you use apps or sites like Instagram and Flickr, you’ll notice when you upload images that it will try place your photo on the map or ask for a location. Luckily for us, we can make use of this data and search through other people’s photos for a specific location.
Not only will this show you cool places to go, it will show you various photographic angles of the place, providing inspiration and also an idea of what shots to avoid. After all, we don’t want everyone’s images to look identical! Use this data to help you find a cool place but a new perspective.
An important side note: These tools can be super helpful but unfortunately you may need to wade through an increasing number of selfies or photos of cats! This tip tends to work best for more remote places rather than towns/cities or tourist hotspots.
It’s always worth keeping up with other photographers’ work. It’s nice to support each other and to see their beautiful images and editing trends forming. Friendly, fluffy stuff aside, you can also learn a lot from your peers. If I see a great photographer who specialises in an area I’m visiting, I’ll be sure to look through their portfolio for inspiration. Again, if you refer to other people’s photos for research, try not to be lazy and simply copy their shots – see if you can find an interesting new view!
Magazines are a goldmine of information and inspiration. It’s worth noting that this doesn’t mean you need to pop to your local newsagent for a paper copy. Most offer an alternative app or web subscription these days.
A recent example of how magazines have helped me is when I recently read a copy of Outdoor Photography magazine. If you like the outdoors and are planning a photo trip in the UK, pick up a copy of their magazine. Each month they have a list of suggested places to visit. Thanks to a recent issue, I found out you could hike up a mountain called The Cairnwell in Scotland which is where I got the below photo of a hare. Had I not bought and read that magazine, I would not have got this shot:
About 6 months ago I discovered a website called Shot Hotspot. [Try saying that ten times quickly without getting tongue tied!]
Shot Hotspot is a fantastic website built upon data from Flickr and Panoramio. It lets you search not only places, but filter your search using a wide variety of terms. Want to know where’s a popular sunrise spot nearby? Or perhaps you’re keen on architecture? Or maybe you just want a nice landscape location. Shot Hotspot can help you find that. It overcomes the aforementioned GPS-tagged-selfie problem by seemingly only showing places with a large number of high quality photos. There’s also a rating system in place although I’m not sure how many people use the site or how the ratings are generated.
I’ve used this app on many occasions. When out with other photographers, we’ve often been sure we’re in the “right spot”, but I’ve checked on Shot Hotspot and we’ve ended up moving at the last minute to find a better view.
Unfortunately there isn’t a mobile app for Shot Hotspot just yet, but you can sign up to their mailing list to be notified when one’s released. I’ll definitely be grabbing a copy when it’s out!
Go for a hike/walk/run WITHOUT your camera
This might seem like a weird suggestion from a photographer, but go out without your camera! Scout out a location in-person and really look around before you take hundreds of shots. I usually like to go for a run around new places before I do a shoot. I’ll take my phone so I can snap a quick shot with GPS tag (so I don’t forget). Then I’ll work out the best time to return to that spot and go back another day with my photography gear.
By planning shoots in advance like this, it removes a lot of wasted time and guesswork. One of my most popular images from this year (below) was planned when I ran around Lake Wanaka in New Zealand and saw that famous tree. Rather than photographing it there-and-then or on a day trip, I researched sunrise times and went back the next morning. Sure, I had to wait on a freezing cold lakeside in the dark to take the shot, but it meant I ended up with the image below instead of a generic daytime shot:
So That’s How I Find My Photo Locations!
I’m sure there are plenty of other tips I’ve missed. What are your secrets for scouting photo locations? Do you have any favourite apps, books or advice to add to the list? Do share them with us in the comments below!