On a recent TFP shoot with a dozen other photographers and selection of models, I received an important lesson about location scouting: Don’t over-think it.
We were all milling around with the models and I walked down the block to start getting an idea of what kind of locations we had to pick from. I was only away for a couple minutes. When I got back everyone else was already out shooting. They had ducked down a back alley behind some remodeled apartments and found a perfect location: Public access, a mix of sun and shade, bold colors, interesting shapes, and a eclectic mix of old and new architecture.
Those are all good qualities to keep in mind when scouting locations, but not the only ones.
Like many things in photography, there is more than one school of thought on this subject. There’s the “get permission” crowd and, on the other side of the coin, the “seek forgiveness” types.
For most streets, sidewalks, parks, beaches, and other public places, you don’t usually need permission, provided you’re not hauling a ton of gear or blocking sidewalks or building access. If it’s just you, your subject, and a flash on a bracket, I’ve never had a problem. I can usually get my shots and move on to the next location before anyone even bothers to notice. If you’re constantly changing locations, there’s rarely a problem.
If you’re hauling a lot of gear, need to set up lights and need a power supply, you might want to look into whether you need a permit. Most photographers don’t do this, but if you’re doing a big shoot, it’s worth asking. Start setting up floor lights and a generator on a sidewalk or in a park and you’re going to attract a lot of attention.
This is where it gets sticky. Some of the best locations are abandoned buildings, rail yards, junk yards, and other semi-industrial areas. For abandoned buildings it’s frequently difficult to find the owners or the original company may be out of business.
The get permission types will find a the perfect location and seek permission to shoot there from the owners or owner’s representatives. I’ve been pretty successful getting permission. The usual point of contact will be a realtor and I’ve been able to work out using industrial buildings and luxury rental properties in exchange for pictures and video. I’ve also had success working with nightclubs during off hours, yacht rental companies, resort companies and others in constant need of promotional pictures.
If the shots are for use in a commercial context or microstock images and the building is at all identifiable, you’ll need a signed property release anyway. It also helps if you can show the property owners you carry your own liability insurance and offer them a liability waiver.
The seek forgiveness types will sneak in, shoot like crazy, and hope they don’t get caught. Apologetic ignorance is their shield and, to be fair, the vast majority of the time pleading ignorance, apologizing profusely, while offering to immediately pack up and leave works. The cops really don’t want to write trespassing citations, especially if the area is not well marked with signage. Most of the time they just want to make sure you’re not tagging the property or wrecking anything and if you’re polite and right on your way, they’re content to let it go.
Sometimes you can’t really tell and, in those cases, I’m with the seek forgiveness crowd.
Keeping Track of Locations
The best time to scout locations is as you’re about other business. Use your cell phone camera to make notes about locations you happen across. I also carry a bound notebook in my car all the time for making notes.
A spreadsheet is a great way to keep track of your location finds because you can add notes, pictures, contact information, and owner information in one place and keep it all organized.