Why I Don't Scout Locations as a Landscape Photographer

Why I Don't Scout Locations as a Landscape Photographer

Most landscape photographers argue that scouting locations ahead of time creates the best final product. I beg to differ.

Scouting a location — often done by researching online or exploring in the middle of the day — gives the photographer an idea of how a future scene might play out, the best place to position oneself, essential lenses to bring, and more. A landscape photographer might be able to efficiently capture the best photograph possible by understanding the location ahead of time. I disagree.

It was my first time in Grand Teton National Park. My friends and I wanted to see a sunrise over the snow-capped mountains, so I googled "beautiful vistas Tetons." After scrolling through countless search results, I found a lake that was close to our campsite. A little over a mile of walking in the woods would bring us to a pond with a beautiful view of the mountains. After little sleep (due to pure excitement), we stumbled out of our sleeping bags and made our way to the pond.

We ran into a fellow landscape photographer on the approach. Apparently he sold thousands of dollars worth of prints, just on the weekends, to high-end home and office owners. He had thoroughly scouted this location ahead of time through online research and by visiting the location during the day. He claimed to have never really seen sunrise images from this location before. This landscape photographer wanted to make the location popular for photographers.

I was completely blown away when we arrived at the pond. The Tetons towered above the water as bird calls I've never heard before echoed across the lake. The sky was overcast but with much perseverance, the sun briefly illuminated the mountains in a soft glow. I couldn't help but stand in awe while clicking the shutter on my camera.

The other photographer, however, was truly disappointed. That morning didn't meet his expectations; the sun rise wasn't good enough for him. It almost seemed like waking up early was a waste of time because he wouldn't be going home with an image worthy of thousands of dollars. The experience of simply witnessing a beautiful sunrise didn't seem to phase him. 

A few months later I was standing on Glacier Point while watching the sun rise over Yosemite Valley. It was my very first time seeing the view. My mind was blown as I watched a golden orb crest over Half Dome, spilling a pool of soft, golden light into the Valley. A similar situation occurred: I stood in awe of the beauty in front of me while a fellow landscape photographer by my side was severely disappointed. He said he scouted the location the day before in order to find the best composition possible. But for him, the morning light didn't line up with the composition he had in mind.

If I had thought the same as this other photographer and walked away from a beautiful vista because the pre-planned "composition didn't work out," I wouldn't have gotten this shot. I know it's not the world's best image, but it's one that I'm personally proud of and happy with. Rather than give up on the location, I explored the area a bit further and found a new composition I could work with. I think if I had scouted the location ahead of time, I might've walked right by. 

In my opinion, one of the most beautiful aspects of photographing landscapes is being fortunate enough to capture serendipity. I don't photograph in a studio for this very reason. I enjoy stumbling upon magical moments and locations that would have been impossible to plan for. There's a certain magic that comes with personally discovering a place for the first time. Mountains seem larger and light almost appears brighter.

I think "imperfections" in expectations can add to a landscape's beauty, if you choose to see it that way. Clouds, "imperfect" weather, and high-contrasting scenes could make a final image moodier than a classic postcard-perfect photograph. But it's rare to come by a "perfect" scene. Foregrounds could see more light, compositions could be better, the sky could be clear, the list goes on and on. 

That morning in the Tetons my friends and I hiked to the pond because it offered the closest vista of the mountains from our campsite. That morning in the Tetons, the other photographer hiked to the pond with an idea in his head he hoped to make reality. Visualization is important, but it shouldn't ruin the beauty and unpredictability of the natural world.  

I find that images I create from locations visited with virgin eyes are more true to my emotions than if I had created expectations through scouting. I think it's fun to feel under pressure; quickly searching for the "perfect" composition while trying to outrun the "perfect" light. The race to quickly line up every element in a landscape adds a bit of excitement to a style of photography that's often slower than say, sports. There's a certain magic in viewing a place for the first time — a magic that can translate into inspiring images.

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48 Comments

I try to plan for the vision in my mind but accept whatever God gives me instead. He's a much better artist than me. :-)

Kawika Lopez's picture

Sheesh. It really bums me out that this is the comment that’s dividing people and causing the most offense. What if it read like this:

“I plan for everything I can, and accept what I get for the rest. Ultimately, I know I’m not in control.”

Would this have been met with so much negativity?

The way I look at it, if everyone agrees with me, I'm doing something wrong. I'm clearly doing something right! :-)
If I'm ashamed of God, He'll be ashamed of me.

Timothy Turner's picture

The earth declares GOD's glory, our best work is inferior.

I'm not too sure that's a point in disfavour of scouting, or one in disfavour of rigid thinking. I think it's more of a point against rigidity. I think it's important to scout, but it's equally important to go with the flow and do the best out of the moment. I noticed the same thing a month ago or so. I got dropped at a mountain lookout with my camera in hopes of getting a good shot of fog covering the city. All the other guys had their cameras pointed at the city, but that's not where the action was. There was more interesting things going on in the suburbs. But everyone else was fixed on the downtown view, waiting for the fog to show up there. Meanwhile, I was getting an awesome shot.

Tim Behuniak's picture

I agree! I think also that having seen a picture from a popular spot on social media or the internet puts the idea of getting the same photo in photographers' minds - which could stop them from seeing something different like you did. I suppose that yes, this article goes against rigidity, but my main point is definitely against scouting. I understand that for a commercial shoot, or maybe for someone hosting workshops, this is necessary, but if I'm out shooting for myself, I prefer to stumble upon a location or beautiful scene by chance, not because I have a pre-conceived idea of how a place should look beforehand.

Usually, I do not scout looking to copy someone else's shot, but always try to find different ways of shooting a location. But I do use a lot of different means, including physical scouting when possible, to have an idea what a place looks like. Especially when I use Google Maps in remote places to find interesting terrains, then try to compare that terrain to various images I can find of the area (often not taken by other "photographers", but taken at noon by normal people with phones or compact cameras that were walking by), then try to evaluate where I should place myself according to what I would like to see. Then I come early - like, way early, and if I can, I stick around for a while. I found a really cool place I would never have gone to that way, and I really want to go back there some day, but it's a lot more time than I have (8+ hours car ride one way, last 2 hours on a dirt path on the edge of a canyon, then stay there many days in a desert area. If it rains, the roads become impracticable, and during the summer I have to avoid forest fires).

Anyway, I think it's good to both go and walk without specific plans, but also good to plan well but remain flexible in order to not miss good shots.

Tim Behuniak's picture

Well said. I agree. I think there's a time and place for everything. In the end, do what works best for you! In my mind though, I enjoy the child-like sense of personal discovery and exploration of a new place, rather than planning a specific shot and look. I do agree that keeping an open mind and remaining flexible is key, no matter how you approach a scene. Thanks for commenting, I enjoy your perspective :)

And thanks for the article! It is indeed enjoyable to discover something beautiful without having planned it.

Allan Savage's picture

A landscape photographer who scouts a location, then walks away because it doesn't match their preconceived notion of what the scene should look like is either a fool or a perfectionist, and quite possibly both.

A landscape photographer who maximises their chances of getting a great shot by scouting the location first is a smart photographer, especially if they then are willing to work with whatever nature throws at them when they arrive for the proposed shoot. Look behind you!

Your article suggests it's better to not scout beforehand. I don't agree, but that's OK.

BTW: scout in person if possible, otherwise do as much virtual scouting as you can - Google Earth, TPE, social media, Fstoppers forums, a guide, or word of mouth from someone who knows the location.

Tim Behuniak's picture

I agree, to a degree! ;)

I think that researching a place is important: know how much extra food/water to bring (if any), how many miles you're traveling, etc. I also think that if you're assigned to a commercial shoot/production, or you're a workshop instructor, then it's definitely important to go to a familiar location or scout an area ahead of time. But I do think that scouting a location beforehand - if you're shooting for yourself/to sell prints - can often create unrealistic expectations and ideas of how a place SHOULD look rather than actually look.

The most planning I do is trying to find an area to go to. After I get there and see what I get to work with. Some of my favorite shots are done like this on small business trips where I work overnight and only get a brief window of daylight (generally early morning just after sunrise)

Tim Behuniak's picture

I totally agree!! Would love to see some of those in the comments section here! ;)

Matthew Saville's picture

Hmm, an interesting opinion. Out of curiosity, Tim, how long have you been into landscape photography?

Tim Behuniak's picture

I've been a landscape photographer for about four or five years now. Why do you ask?

Matthew Saville's picture

I was just interested to see if you might have been a landscape photographer for many decades, or for less than a year or something. As you might imagine, either of those extremes would be telling.

At the ~5 year mark, I think I felt similarly to this in many ways. I found it odd that others I met might arrive to a location and literally not take a photo if the light wasn't good enough. Neither did I put much energy into "chasing" other people's images that I found online. (I still don't...)

However, at about the 15 year point now, I do find myself at least shrugging and not taking pictures when the light isn't perfect, at least at locations that I've been to a hundred times already. If a location was completely fresh to me, though, I'm sure I'd take pictures no matter what, even if conditions were horrible. I'm just wired that way; when I get to a new place I gotta explore it and take at least a few images, if only for my own record of the adventure, and the lure to revisit the place again someday.

Tim Behuniak's picture

I definitely have arrived to a scene and not taken a photo because the light wasn't good enough, but I also enjoyed the moment simply to be in nature. The fact that I didn't capture an image didn't ruin my day. I understand your point, and think that it's very possible my viewpoint on this might change in a few years, or even a few months!

Matthew Saville's picture

I also have spent the last ~5 years putting MASSIVE amounts of scouting energy into each of my big adventures. In fact since 2014, I've had at least one adventure per year which I idealized specific images for over a year before the actual adventure. Sure, a lot of the best photos that resulted were "bonus" photos that were completely un-planned, from new locations I'd never been to before, but it was still the catalyst of planning that one shot that kept me excited about the adventure, that got me there in the first place.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l-UOryF4J1Q

https://fstoppers.com/photo/199943

(of course a solar eclipse might be seen as an exception, since it's a once-in-a-lifetime event for many people, but I believe we took our scouting to another level, using google Earth to scour the entire path totality for months, to find the perfect vantage point for the desired image. I dreamt up the exact shot I wanted, and it only happened because of countless hours spent "scouting".)

http://yourshot.nationalgeographic.com/photos/8177763/
http://yourshot.nationalgeographic.com/photos/5758939/

Tim Behuniak's picture

Great work- truly remarkable! And yes, I agree. There are definitely exceptions to my viewpoint. I think the eclipse is definitely one exception, as you're right, that is a once-in-a-lifetime event ... I wouldn't want to miss that shot! (You captured it beautifully!). If I were going on a HUGE trip, I'd likely research a few places ahead of time, but I also don't think I'd scour maps to make sure I get super specific shots. Again, I truly think this can create unrealistic expectations that would leave me disappointed with something I can't control in the first place. For example, going to Yosemite, for me, was a dream come true. Upon arriving, I knew there were places I wanted to photograph (such as Glacier Point), but I didn't even check the weather or research previous shots before I went. This might've been silly, but I wanted my experience going to a place I've always dreamt of to not have any unrealistic expectations or ideas of how it should or could look. That morning I went to Glacier Point could've been foggy, smoky from wildfires, or socked in with rain. If that were the case, any pre-planned compositions or shots I would've wanted to capture ahead of time essentially would've been invalid.

Awesome time lapse and reward for your planning (scouting) Matthew :-)

Matthew Saville's picture

It was a load of fun to plan! After having planned five or six lunar eclipse photo shoots, I didn't know what to expect. But both visually and emotionally, I was blown away. I could barely operate my camera, and lots of the photos didn't even turn out. Good thing we brought something like 12 cameras, and used them ALL!

Bill Peppas's picture

Serious landscape photography means visiting a location for multiple days, multiple times.
Scouting is a SERIOUS part of the "game".
If you are ok with swapping skies, you can do the work with just 2-3 days per location ( unless you are very unlucky and get very cloudy or foggy days ).
If you aren't ok with swapping skies... a week per location might not even cut it. Especially if you are dead serious and very demanding.

I usually go 2 days before the shot and see the places around it and scout for angles, unique angles, other interesting subjects.
Then I schedule them based on priority, source of light angle, time of the day, and work through them the next 5-7 days.

Most of the gorgeous shots you've seen from the likes of Ryan Dyar, Ted Gore, Michael Shainblum, Max Rive, etc, aren't the product of a single day visit nor a 2 day visit.
Most of them have been to most places more than a dozen times.

Tim Behuniak's picture

I can understand your point, but I disagree slightly. I don't necessarily think it's a terrible idea to scout, I'm just personally not all for it. I think that scouting can create ideas in one's mind of how a scene should look, rather than accept the way it actually looks when you go to photograph it. Weather forecasts and scouting a scene ahead of time can only do so much.

I've also re-visited many locations I've been to for the first time. Some of my strongest images are from places where I've been more than once. I still think, however, that most of my best images are from times when I first personally discovered a location. And if I didn't get the best photo, or even one photo, at least I had a solid experience in nature, rather than one filled with disappointment and a lack of appreciation for the moment.

Timothy Turner's picture

When I see a beautiful photo of a location, I can't help but wonder how much post production work was done to get that photo where it is from the original image. I also have an astronomy app on my android that tells me what time rise and set times are for the sun and moon, however that does not factor in things like fog or clouds.

Tim Behuniak's picture

Totally agree! I use PhotoPills from time to time, I highly recommend it! You can use it to check cloud coverage, too. I'd say that in most high-end/professional photography landscape work, at least some degree of post-production is done on the final image.

Don Risi's picture

The reason a photographer would walk away from a scene such as you describe is because s/he wants the perfect shot, and is not capable of working with what they get. A truly good photographer will see the scene in front of them, and know with confidence that they can make it work, somehow, some way. A truly good photographer will go with the flow. S/he'll deal with what they have. On a trip to the Grand Tetons (as a matter of fact), I wanted to photograph one of the Mormon barns (just like everyone else). Unfortunately, I was delayed in getting there, and by the time I arrived, all the "best" spots were taken by other photographers. I ended up in the only spot available -- with my back literally against a tree. Still got what I have been told is a great shot. Go with the flow.

Tim Behuniak's picture

Well said! Would love to see the shot in the comments section here! ;)

Don Risi's picture

Here you go, Tim!

Tim Behuniak's picture

I really like this BW image of Half Dome - great work! Can I ask how you went about scouting for this one, and why you chose to?

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