How To Scout A Location For Landscape Photography

Hang around a group of landscape photographers long enough, and you’ll undoubtedly hear them talking about location scouting. As the old saying goes, understanding your subject better will improve your photographs of the subject. This is true for all kinds of photography (wildlife, architectural, portrait), and landscapes are no exception. Location scouting is the process of getting to know a particular landscape better, and is an important aspect of improving your landscape photography.

Before we talk about the nuts and bolts of how to conduct a proper location scout, let’s talk about various types of scouting and how each might bring a new perspective on an imperfect landscape.

Seasonal scouting

Location scouting can be done long before the final photo is taken, sometimes even years. Anytime I visit an area for landscape photography, I not only try to create the best photograph I can at the time, but I also imagine what the scene might look like during different times of the year. Would that alpine meadow make the perfect foreground if only it were covered in wild flowers? Would those high mountain slopes pop if the aspen groves were in peak fall colors? Or if the tree line was blanketed with fresh snow?

Sometimes certain areas don’t look very good when I first visit, but in a different season, it would shine. In those cases, I make a mental note to come back in the season I think will show the area at its best, and do research to find out optimal timing for those seasonal elements. But while I’m there, I can spend the time finding some of the shots that I will eventually take, even if it ends up being years later.

Ponytail Falls shoots outward from a cleft in a rock cliff, and cascades over large stones below, Columbia River Gorge, Oregon
Ponytail Falls shoots outward from a cleft in a rock cliff, and cascades over large stones below, Columbia River Gorge, Oregon

In this example, I first visited Ponytail Falls in Oregon’s Columbia Gorge in late fall. The trees were bare and the moss on the river’s rocks was brown. It was still a pretty scene, but I knew that by visiting the same area in the spring, I would green up the scene, and catch the falls at peak water flow. I returned in spring a couple years later to capture the photo above. Having already scouted the area and set up my shot made the return trip easy, as I had already formulated my target compositions in my mind.

Scouting for a different time of day

Scouting an area for a future season is an extreme example of the practice. More often, we’re scouting in anticipation of different light on the scene. Examples include visiting an area in the evening in anticipation of sunrise light, visiting midday while waiting for a beautiful sunset, or even waiting for a passing squall to reveal the full glory of its post-storm light show.

The tetons rise behind a stand of fall aspen, Grand Teton National Park
The tetons rise behind a stand of fall aspen, Grand Teton National Park

The photo above was taken on a trip to Grand Teton National Park with some friends. We scouted out a beautiful aspen grove in full fall foliage with the Tetons rising behind. However, the sunset we were hoping for failed to materialize with heavy cloud cover all the way to the western horizon. One of my friends suggested that although we had been targeting this location for a sunset, it might actually look spectacular at sunrise, as both the Tetons and the aspen grove would be front lit, slightly from the left. This would give definition to both the mountain and trees, and hopefully the sunrise would reveal some of that nice fall color throughout the grove. With another visit in mind, I spent some time composing the shot above, in anticipation of sunrise light.

The sun just lights the top of the Tetons as it rises behind a grove of aspen in their fall colors, Grand Teton National Park
The sun just lights the top of the Tetons as it rises behind a grove of aspen in their fall colors, Grand Teton National Park

A couple of days later, I was rewarded by the preparation. We arrived just before dawn, and because of my earlier visit, I knew exactly what my composition would look like. I quickly reset the shot based on GPS coordinates I took the previous visit. Using the exact spot I had set up in previously, as well as my reference shot from two days earlier, I took all the guesswork and stress of finding a shot that morning. Now it was just a matter of waiting for that beautiful light to brush through the aspen grove and make those yellows and oranges glow.

The on-site scout

The last type of scouting (and often the most frantic) that I do is what I call the “on-site”. This stems from me showing up unprepared, but still needing to quickly assess the area and find those great compositions that convey the essence of the area to the viewer. This is much easier done when showing up for a sunset shoot, because you typically have a few hours of daylight in which to scout and set up your shot for the magic hour. On-sight scouting for a sunrise shoot is much more difficult, because even if you show up early, you have to wait until pre-dawn light before you can see the scene well enough. It is very hard to create compositions in the pitch black of night!

Sunlight moves down the mountains to the west of Salt Creek, now a dried salt flat, Death Valley National Park
Sunlight moves down the mountains to the west of Salt Creek, now a dried salt flat, Death Valley National Park

The photo above was the result of one of those rare pre-sunrise on-sight scouts. This shot was taken on my first trip to Death Valley National Park in the salt pan near Salt Creek. As I walked out onto the dried salt bed, I was surrounded by a thick salt crust. While this could make for an interesting foreground, it felt a little too overbearing to balance out the distant mountains. However, I had never been here before, and I didn’t quite know where to go. As I saw the sunlight start creeping down the mountain face, a composition suddenly came to me. I wanted to contrast the bright red of the sunlit mountains with the blues of the still-shaded salt. However, this thick crust of salt wasn’t working for me – I needed a much more delicate salt ridge pattern that gave more emphasis to the structure of the salt in between the ridges.

I quickly scanned the ground to the north and south, looking for a ground pattern that would help fulfill that vision. In the distance to the south I saw something that might work, but I had only a few minutes to get there and set up before the light would flood the salt pan itself, ruining the color contrast effect. I heaved my tripod (camera still attached) over one of my shoulders and ran as fast as I could across the pan. As I got close, I could see that this foreground would work out perfectly. Down went my tripod, already set up to the right height with the right, wide angle lens attached. Less than a minute later, the sun was just touching the lower slopes of the mountains, creating the beautiful color separation I was hoping for.

Scouting techniques

Now that we’ve gone over the various types of location scouting, how does one actually go about doing this? You’ve arrived to a spot with several hours to spare, but now what? For landscapes, there are three major elements I’m thinking about combining to create my composition – background, mid-ground and foreground. The goal of scouting is to essentially find each of these elements that you want to add together to create a potential composition. If the lighting is great while you’re there, wonderful. You may luck out and get your ideal photo of that location. But more often than not, it helps to think about other times or seasons in which to capture the scene.

1. Find your background:

The sun rises over Thousand Island Lake and Banner Peak, Ansel Adams Wilderness
The sun rises over Thousand Island Lake and Banner Peak, Ansel Adams Wilderness

Backgrounds are easy. These are the huge dominant aspects of a landscape that typically draws you to the area in the first place. In my typical compositions, this is usually a mountain, ocean, or waterfall. In the photo above, I was backpacking at Thousand Island Lake in the Ansel Adams Wilderness of the Sierra Nevada. Banner Peak is a dominant feature of that area and hard to ignore. I knew well before my trip that I wanted to capture this massif at sunrise. One element down.

2. Find your middle ground:

The sun rises over Thousand Island Lake and Banner Peak, Ansel Adams Wilderness
The sun rises over Thousand Island Lake and Banner Peak, Ansel Adams Wilderness

A middle ground typically ties your foreground and background together. Every landscape doesn’t need a middle ground, but I’m always assessing the area around me to find some element that will compliment, or draw the viewers’ eyes toward the background. In this case, Thousand Island Lake itself was a no-brainer. It was a calm morning and Banner Peak cast a strong reflection, doubling the impact of the mountain. Now just to find a proper foreground to lead the viewers eye into the frame, and balance the strength of the mountain.

3. Construct your composition with proper foreground elements:

Banner Peak is reflected in Thousand Island Lake at dawn, Ansel Adams Wilderness
Banner Peak is reflected in Thousand Island Lake at dawn, Ansel Adams Wilderness

The perfect foreground usually takes some searching to find. If you see a photographer wandering around looking at their feet, this is likely what they are doing. If the angle of the lens is very wide, these foreground elements can sometimes be very small. You can often find several good options for foregrounds using the same middle and background elements. If so, shoot them all! In this case, walking along the shoreline of the lake led me to a line of rocks breaking the reflection of the deep blue sky. Perfect elements to draw the viewers eye toward the reflection and up to the peak itself. With my shot in the bag, I headed back to camp for my morning coffee.

A final word – virtual scouting

Today’s information age brings us many advantages in learning about far away places. Although I think nothing beats learning about a location like visiting it yourself, I often utilize digital exploration techniques before I go somewhere to photograph it. This helps me get my bearings and start to think about what kinds of photographs I’m going to attempt. While I won’t go into detail here, tools such as the Photographers Ephemeris, Google Maps 3D and Google Maps photo overlay help in seeing what others have captured in the area, as well as planning your own trip.

Sun lights the tip of Mt. Davis at dawn, Ansel Adams Wilderness
Sun lights the tip of Mt. Davis at dawn, Ansel Adams Wilderness

I often shoot remote mountain locations while backpacking. Every time I pull into a new campsite, I drop my pack and start scouting the surrounding area, thinking about sunset that night, and also sunrise the next morning. As I had never been to Davis Lakes in the Sierra Nevada before, I spent a good deal of time researching the area using the tools above. Based on the time of year and angle of the sunrise, I knew that sunrise light on the peak of Mt. Davis reflected in the lake would look fantastic. When I arrived at my predetermined campsite, I set about finding a composition that would lead the viewer’s eye right up to that beacon of light in the frame. In order to do this, I had to pre-visualize what it might look like the following morning. The next morning, I emerged from my tent and set up in the exact spot I had scouted the previous evening. Now I just had to wait for the light until it was perfect.

Next time you think of a new area you’d like to photograph, spend time beforehand learning about that location. Give yourself plenty of time to explore the area on foot, setting up several potential shots that might work well in the right lighting conditions. Above all, if mother nature does not cooperate with your photo endeavor, don’t despair! Just chalk it up to a valuable scouting trip!

2015 Round-up – Top 40 Photos Of The Year

The sun sets behind the western horizon, casting the offshore sea stacks into shadow, Bandon, Oregon

I recently finished compiling my top 40 picks from the last 12 months. The gallery is an assortment of my various trips and outings, including trips to India, Mexico and Canada. As always, there is a mixture of bird, wildlife and landscape, including some previously unpublished.

Please enjoy the gallery below. For best viewing (especially if viewing on a mobile device), please click on the following photo:

The sun sets behind the western horizon, casting the offshore sea stacks into shadow, Bandon, Oregon
The sun sets behind the western horizon, casting the offshore sea stacks into shadow, Bandon, Oregon

To view the gallery, click here to see individual photos.


If you are interested in compilations from previous years, please see the 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, and 2014 lists.

Recent Publication – Travel Oregon Top Fall Hikes

This image of Eagle Cap Wilderness in eastern Oregon was published by Travel Oregon in an  article about the hiking area.
This image of Eagle Cap Wilderness in eastern Oregon was published by Travel Oregon in an article about the hiking area.

This image of Eagle Cap Wilderness was used in a recent article on Oregon’s top fall hikes by Travel Oregon. You can find the full article by clicking through to their website. I took this photo five years ago on a fall backpacking trip with my brother and father. You can read about the epic trip here and of course see many more photos.

Bandon Moody Mornings

A moody sky breaks in early morning over Bandon Beach, Oregon
A moody sky breaks in early morning over Bandon Beach, Oregon

Recently I published a post about my trip to Bandon Oregon and some of the sunset conditions I faced. Here is a counterpart to that article about the mornings I spent on the beach. Due to the weather, most mornings were overcast and very moody. It was a perfect opportunity to capture a quiet beach in somber lighting.

A moody sky breaks in early morning over Bandon Beach, Oregon
A moody sky breaks in early morning over Bandon Beach, Oregon

Most mornings had a very low tide, offering more compositional opportunities than sunset. For the photo above I spent some time studying the interplay of shapes between the sand, water, rocks, and their reflections. It is important to separate out the graphical elements in your image to prevent strong lines from overlapping. I had to carefully balance the space in between the large rock reflection and the sand bar jutting into the tide pool, with the spacing between the mid-frame rock and the sea stacks out on the horizon.

Low tide uncovers clusters of mussels, Bandon, Oregon
Low tide uncovers clusters of mussels, Bandon, Oregon

On another part of the beach, I found a large group of exposed mussels and decided to use them as leading lines out to the large sea stacks in the water. Getting down low with a wide angle lens helped emphasize the mussels in the foreground. Here I used focus stacking to ensure sharp focus throughout the frame.

A low tide exposes large stones and carved sand along Bandon Beach, Oregon
A low tide exposes large stones and carved sand along Bandon Beach, Oregon

The flat light of the morning lent itself well to black and white conversions. What attracted my eye to this area were the deep lines in the sand cut by the receding water. By converting to black and white, I was able to emphasize these lines by increasing the contrast and bringing out the drama of the image. I also liked the randomness of the rocks strewn about the background of the image. Compositionally, it is a nice juxtaposition of the round shapes of the rocks with the jagged straight lines cut through the sand.

The sun rises on a blue, dreary day along Bandon Beach Oregon
The sun rises on a blue, dreary day along Bandon Beach Oregon

Sometimes instead of adding contrast to an image (as in the black and white image seen above), it is better to showcase the low contrast qualities of the scene. Many mornings there was a foggy mist that settled around the rock formations, and here I wanted to show that atmosphere as well as the blue light cast of the morning.

The sun rises on a blue, dreary day along Bandon Beach Oregon
The sun rises on a blue, dreary day along Bandon Beach Oregon

Finally, this image was shot on the same day as the image above, but I increased the contrast to show off the sharpness of the foreground rocks leading to the rock spire.

It was a lot of fun to really think about why I was attracted to each of these images and use the processing stage to convey those thoughts to the viewer. It is also a reminder that taking the photos is only half of the story. A lot of communication comes through in the processing itself.