Finding unique and original images is no easy task! As any pro photographer will tell you, it requires a serious amount time and skill, and is much more difficult then shooting iconic locations. While there is nothing wrong with taking iconic shots, it is so much more satisfying creating original work that is the product of your own planning and scouting. Original images are also much more powerful and effective then images people have seen many, many times. While I am not suggesting that you stop taking well known images, hopefully these tips will help you to start adding your own “found” shots as well.
Every photographer has their own method for finding images, and I encourage you to use these tips along with other methods and ideas to find what works well for you. Keep in mind that there is no exact science to finding a great original landscape, but more so a combination of tools and ideas that will help put you in the right place. There will be times when you fail terribly and others when you make drastic improvements. Practice often and you will train your eye to identify the elements that make a great image!
Where to start and what to look for
For me, scouting generally comes down to two separate phases, pre-scouting (researching new locations online before you leave for trip) and scouting in the field. Most of the time the two are combined as I typically start off by searching online then finish in the field. But sometimes I find myself scouting in an area without any prior knowledge of the place.
In both cases, I am looking for roughly the same elements — a combination of a beautiful background mixed with an intriguing foreground in a setting that is very clean and simple with great lighting. This topic alone (what exactly makes for a great image) could be discussed extensively (I’ve given entire presentations on it) but the very simple idea of finding a great background, then a great foreground, that is very clean and simple, is extremely effective and will give you a great place to start. We will break this down further below.
The easiest way I begin image scouting, before I book a flight or make travel plans, is by looking up hiker or travelers’ snapshots to get some ideas of a place I have in mind. This can help you narrow down the best areas that have plenty of opportunity for unique compositions. The snapshots might not be the best images you’ve ever seen, (usually taken in harsh mid-day light) but they will give you some insight into the surrounding landscape and conditions. Are there nearby rivers? Waterfalls? Sharp peaks? Open plains?
Once you have a general area/region picked out, you can use digital tools to find a more precise location. Technology has gotten so good you can identify extraordinary features embedded in the landscape. I use a combination of Google Earth and topography maps to get a closer idea of where I want to shoot and how it will be to get there. Topo maps will give you a large scale visual using contour lines and show trails if hiking is required. With Google Earth you can explore a 3D representation and view the landscape through high-resolution graphics and satellite images. These tools are both impressive and effective and will help you maximize your time when planning a trip.
As an example, before my recent trip to Kyrgyzstan I was able to find a deep valley and a river surrounded by peaks using a typography map, then referred to Google Earth (with 3D visuals) to see if any of the peaks stood out as especially jagged and photogenic. I found one massive peak with the river leading straight to it. This gave me a good idea that we would definitely want to spend some time in this part of the country, so we planned the trip accordingly. Once we got to the nearby city, we geared up and hiked out to the exact location found online and camped for a couple nights. I ended up creating a solid image out of it, along with discovering other shots along the way!
Scouting in the field
As mentioned, it’s always a good idea to do as much research beforehand as possible, especially when it comes to an international trip. However, a lot of your scouting will still be done in person by driving and hiking around for the exact composition. Again, Kyrgyzstan was a great example of this, while I found several possible shots ahead of time using online tools — I also found many more by scouting for images after we were already there.
If I am improvising a scene, the first thing I always do is explore the area in search of a dominate landscape feature. This can be something like a really jagged peak, sea stacks or a unique rock formation. I will usually drive down dirt roads or side streets that seemingly to lead to nowhere. Sometimes your subject will not not look as appealing until you get the right angle. In other words, don’t give up on your background too quickly.
After I’ve picked out a main focus point (background), then I am on the lookout for a great foreground such as a river, waterfall, flowers or leading lines that give the image depth and pull the eye towards the main subject. Cracks in the mud or ice for example. After you have a great background and a solid foreground to go with it you need to be extremely aware of how simple the area is. Is it busy and distracting? Does it pull attention away from your subjects? You want things like smooth grass, sand or water that let they eye move from your foreground to the background freely. You can use a wide angle lens to get really close up to an element to see how it can have an effect on the image. Sometimes this means getting in obscure positions (shooting on top of truck) or some challenging moving around!
After finding the landscape I am shooting, my next steps are focused on light, composition and camera settings — topics for another blog post!
Minding the environment
This is an aspect of landscape photography that is growing in importance as each day goes by. When scouting for images we need to be incredibly mindful of the impact our actions have on the environment. A great example of this is the biological soil you see around the Moab area. This soil is actually alive and is made of many tiny organisms that can be killed by a footprint, taking five to seven years to regenerate. I can’t tell you how many times this soil has been in my direct path when scouting and shooting in an area. But it’s incredibly important to be aware and find a way around it not through it! This soil plays a vital role in desert health.
When shooting and sharing a location you found yourself, consider if it is an area that can sustain a many people walking and shooting in the area. If people will have a negative impact, I would highly advise you not to share the location online.
I hope that sharing my method for finding original landscapes can give you a good starting place or provide some new ideas for creating original work. If you’re interested in learning more about image scouting in the field, consider signing-up for one of my photography workshops! (2019 schedule coming soon).