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!

Gem Lake, Emigrant Wilderness

Last weekend I took a quick two night backpacking trip with some friends, in hopes of hitting the high country of the Sierra Nevada in peak wildflower season. I set my sights on Gem Lake in Emigrant Wilderness – just about the right elevation for flowers this time of year. Having been there before, I knew that even if the place wasn’t in bloom, we’d have a great time and see some amazing scenery.

I like Emigrant Wilderness because there are no trail quotas and it is very easy to get a wilderness permit with short planning. We set out from the Bay Area early Friday morning, stopping at the Mi Wuk Ranger Station on the way up Highway 108. Even though we were taking our time, we still hit the trail by 10AM, plenty of time to reach our 10 mile destination of Gem Lake.

A backpacker hikes along the trail from Crabtree Camp trailhead to Gem Lake, Emigrant Wilderness, CA.

The trail meanders between thick forest and open granite-filled vistas. Most of Emigrant Wilderness is easily accessible cross country due to many gently-sloping wide open granite bowls and domes. This time we stuck to the trail, and made easy progress. Every so often we were rewarded with a scenic vista. If you are not already a lover of granite, after a few hikes in this part of the Sierra you soon will be!

Cliffs to the north of Gem Lake reflect in the still water at sunset, Emigrant Wilderness, CA.

The elevation changes were just enough to tire our bodies by the time we reached Gem Lake. This lake certainly lives up to its name. However, it is very popular and can get quite crowded on the weekend. As it was Friday night, we were able to relax lakeside in relative peace. As the sun set, the wind settled and we got some nice reflections on the water.

Cliffs to the north of Gem Lake reflect in the still water at sunset, Emigrant Wilderness, CA.

The next day we went further up trail and explored Jewelry Lake and Deer Lake. Deer Lake is much larger and Gem or Jewelry, and it was hot enough to warrant a midday dip in its cool waters. This is a great area to take your time and not hurry along the trail. One more night, and it was time to head back.

A winding stream flows into Jewelry Lake, Emigrant Wilderness, CA.

Luckily there were plenty of wildflowers along the trail to keep us entertained. We had perfect weather for our 26 mile journey and everyone enjoyed the change in scenery.

A backpacker hikes along the trail from Crabtree Camp trailhead to Gem Lake, Emigrant Wilderness, CA.

With its easy access and lack of quotas, this is the perfect place for an impromptu night or two in the wilderness.

How To Win a Photo Contest (including a sneaky bonus tip)

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

Recently I was asked to judge a photo contest for a small camera club. The skill levels of the participants ranged from beginner to advanced, and after viewing the wide variety of entries, I began to think about simple ways to increase anyone’s chance of winning. Follow some or all of the tips below to maximize your chances of your photos rising to the top of the heap. I’ve sprinkled in some photos that I’ve entered in previous photo contests.

Barrel cactus is just starting to bloom in the Alabama Hills, Lone Pine, CA
Barrel cactus is just starting to bloom in the Alabama Hills, Lone Pine, CA

Follow the theme

Got an absolutely amazing photo of the setting sun over the ocean? If the contest theme is fall colors, then its probably best to save that great shot for a more appropriate contest. Good judges will disqualify even stunning photographs if they don’t suit the theme of the contest. Along the same lines, make sure you pay attention to all the criteria. You don’t want to waste your time or the judge’s by submitting photos that will be technically disqualified.

The Mesquite Dunes stretch across the valley just north of Stovepipe Wells, Death Valley National Park
The Mesquite Dunes stretch across the valley just north of Stovepipe Wells, Death Valley National Park

Tell a story

Some contests provide an opportunity to fill in information about the photograph. If there is a description field, use it! But don’t just describe what the photo already shows visually. Rather, tell the story of how you captured the photo and what you were thinking when you clicked the shutter. This is your opportunity to “sell” the photograph to the judge, so use the space wisely. Any details you can provide about motivation, technique, or even processing can help cement the image in the judge’s mind so that it is remembered later.

A male ring-necked pheasant cranes his neck in between bits of grass
A male ring-necked pheasant cranes his neck in between bits of grass

Get independent opinions

It is always a good idea to ask your peers what they think about the photos you are considering for a contest. Gather a selection and ask your photo friends to act as judge. You might be surprised by their choices. In the past, I’ve gravitated toward photographs that I’ve spent a lot of effort taking and processing, and that has influenced too much what I thought of it, regardless of whether it was actually a good photograph or not. Asking for others’ opinions can help prevent your personal skewing of a photograph’s merit based on the effort it took to produce it.

Silken water reflects the gold colors of fall, South Fork Bishop Creek, Inyo National Forest, CA
Silken water reflects the gold colors of fall, South Fork Bishop Creek, Inyo National Forest, CA

Point your subject into your frame (not out of it)

Whether your photograph is of a person, animal, or even mountain, it is always more aesthetically pleasing to have the subject face into the frame. That means there is more space in front of the head than behind it. The same is true for direction of motion – if an animal is walking or running, put more space in front of it than behind. So what about the mountain? Most mountains (or trees, or clouds, or …) seem to point in one direction or another. Put more space in front of the direction it is pointing than behind it. Of course, many rules are made to be broken, and sometime going counter to the rule can add a lot of tension to the photograph. But make sure that the judge will recognize and receive that tension well.

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

Avoid converging lines

Find plenty of separation between your photograph’s main elements and avoid converging lines. Space between major subjects helps the photo breath, and convergence can create unintended tension points and generally looks sloppy. Usually converging lines can be solved in the field by moving your camera forward, backward, side to side, or up or down. Try to find the right perspective that when flattened into a two dimensional photograph, leads the viewer easily through the frame.

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

And now for the sneaky bonus tip….

Get to know your judges

If possible, try to find out who is judging the contest. Some contests will publish this information outright; others you might have to dig around a bit. Spend a little bit of internet time finding out more about the judges and what style of photography they gravitate toward. Have they judged a contest before? Which images did they choose previously? Chances are they will judge the current contest based on similar criteria. If the contest is judged by a panel, try to contribute at least one photo that matches each judge’s personal style and tastes. This may seem like cheating, but any leg you can get up on the competition is a worthy pursuit.

Dawn begins to light Lone Pine Peak and the wild rock formations of the Alabama Hills
Dawn begins to light Lone Pine Peak and the wild rock formations of the Alabama Hills

Hopefully these tips get you thinking about photo selection and photo taking for the next contest that you consider entering. This can help you maximize you time, effort, and money!

2014 Round-up – Top 40 Photos Of The Year

After a bit of thought, I have compiled my top 40 picks from the last 12 months. I selected from a variety of outings and types of photography, ranging from landscape, to wildlife, to pet photography. Unfortunately, 2014 was not the year I caught up on my backlog of photos waiting to be processed, so this list was not selected from all of my 2014 photographs (you’ll have to wait till next year’s round-up for those!)

This year included a fantastic fall color photo trip to the San Juan mountains in Colorado, as well as visits to the Sierra Nevada and of course many bird photographs, 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:

Gem lies on the floor, fast asleep
Gem lies on the floor, fast asleep

Or, just enjoy the gallery here on the page. To view larger photos in the embedded gallery below, click here to enter full screen mode.


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