What I love most about photography is all the places I get to visit while pursuing my passion. There’s so much beauty in this world and I love to see, experience, and photograph that beauty. The most daunting task is narrowing down all the amazing places to photograph.
Once I’ve decided on a location – if I want my photos to stand out – it is important to plan ahead. In this post I will go through how I plan photography trips. I will share resources I use to familiarize myself with new places so I can make the most of my time and get some great shots.
Getting To Know The Area
When I’ve decided on a place I want to visit I like to have a working familiarity with the area before I get there. I want to know of course where the photo opportunities are, but also where I can find hotels, shopping, restaurants, and even hospitals. When I visit somewhere new, I have usually done enough research that I almost feel like I’ve been there before.
This doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy exploring, I don’t usually make time-rigid itineraries that I am stuck following. If I see something interesting or a photo location that I hadn’t planned for, I will adjust if I feel it would be more exciting that what I had planned. So the moral, I guess, is that I want to know what is around me while remaining open minded.
In order to gain that familiarity with a place, a simple travel book does the trick. There are many options out there for most places. I am partial to Lonely Planet books but Moon is a close second. I’ve read many books from all the other popular publishers such as Fodor’s, Frommor’s, etc. and I always end up using Lonely Planet and Moon the most. I like the layout and the easy-to-read style that is common among their writers. They are also very honest.
Finding Photography Locations
When I leave for a trip I want to have a shot list in mind about locations I’d like to visit and photographs I want to get and when to get them. I want to know where to go for sunset and sunrise photoshoots.
There are a few main resources I use to get an idea of what I will want to photograph.
The most obvious resource is Google and simply search for something along the lines of “best photography locations in…” Just about any place you will travel to has been visited by photographers before and many of them will blog or write articles about their experience. It is worth while to read about their experience and use their lists and photos to help you in your planning.
Photography Guide Books
A little old fashioned, perhaps, but still very useful. Many places have many books written about them that serve similar purposes as regular travel books, but are written by photographers for photographers. I never hesitate to buy and read through these guides before and during my trips. A good space saving option is to purchase digital versions of the books and load them on to a tablet. Regular books won’t run out of battery juice though! 😉
Though they aren’t photography guides per se, don’t overlook books published by master photographers for inspiration. Ansel Adams spent a great deal of time in National Parks – Yosemite in particular. So I am definitely going to page through his books before I go to Yosemite.
Local Visitor Centers
One of the first thing I’ll do when I decide to go on a trip is follow the local visitor centers on Facebook and Instagram. These organizations are always posting and reposting pictures of the area they are promoting. Simply browsing their social media pages and having their posts show up on my own timeline can give me good ideas for photos.
Visiting their websites is, along with travel books, a great way to learn about the area.
Instagram is a great resource for finding photo locations for obvious reasons. Many images posted here will have their locations tagged, which will make it really easy to find. I will use the search function to search for towns (such as Estes Park, Colorado), regions (Rocky Mountain National Park), or specific locations within a region (Sprague Lake).
In addition to searching tagged locations, I also search for hashtags. Many people who post use hashtags to make their images more visible. For example, if I am travelling to Rocky Mountain National Park, I’ll search for #RockyMountainNationalPark or #EstesPark and see all the images that have been tagged there. The same goes for just about any location.
Using searches like this can give me a great idea of nice locations to look for when I am there.
Similarly to Instagram, I will search 500px for images. I don’t personally use this site to find new spots as much as I use it to see how a location has been photographed before. 500px seems to have higher quality photographs taken by professional quality photographers. It goes without saying that I’m not out to copy other photographers, but some of the very best photographs ever taken will be posted here so its a great site to get inspired for my visit. I like to see how others approach photographing a location and see what I can do to make unique images to call my own.
I will usually make a gallery that I’ll use for inspiration.
Flickr is a mess of a website. I rarely visit this site and almost never post to it. However there is a wonderful search feature that should be used by everyone. I will search photos of a place and filter them by the date they were taken. This way I can see what a place might look like during the season during which I’ll be visiting. For example, let’s say I want to visit Rocky Mountain National Park in April but I’m not sure what it will look like that time of year. Will it be green, snowy, picturesque at all?
To find out, I’ll head over to Flickr and type Rocky Mountain National Park in the search bar. When the results pop up I can click on “Advanced” in the upper right. One of the options that shows up is “Date Taken.” So I will enter my travel dates from the past year to see what it looked like the previous year on the dates I’ll be there. Let’s say I will be visiting April 21-23, 2018. Entering the dates April 21-23, 2017 will allow me to see what it looked like the year before.
It is important to remember that every year is different so I will also search for dates in 2016, 2015, 2014, etc. to see what the trends seem to be. This way I’ll have general idea of what a place will look like weather wise.
YouTube is also a great place for useful information. Searching for where I am going will most likely result with plenty of videos. These can range from full production landscape photography videos make by some of the top photographers, to something as simple as someone’s phone video. Watching a video from a place will give me a great perspective that I can’t get from reading about places and looking at still images.
I will use Google Maps to help plan every single trip I go on. I can browse around a location and see where the roads, parks, towns, and anything else is located. It’s a map. I think we all know why maps are useful. 🙂
Parks and public lands are usually shaded green so I tend to look for areas of that color.
The thing that makes Google Maps especially useful is the images and street view features. While browsing the map, look towards the bottom right for the Show Imagery option indicated by two arrows pointed upwards. This will pop up a bar along the bottom with all the images that have been added to maps for the location. I will casually scroll through these for anything that looks interesting or photogenic to me. If I find something I like, hovering my mouse over the image (without clicking) will show me exactly on the map where that photo was taken.
Many of these images are regular 2D images, but many of them are 360 degree/street view images as well. These are incredibly useful because I can click them and actually look around a spot in any direction I wish. This is pretty much the best way to get a feel of what I will actually see when I am standing in a location. It’s almost like being there. Check out my 360 image of Zion Canyon in Utah.
Below is an example of a 360 Image from Dream Lake, a popular photo location in Rocky Mountain National Park. I did not take this image, but it is very useful for becoming familiar with the lay of the land around the lake. I can even preplan compositions using this type of image.
Really Good Photo Spots (rGPS)
I’ve tried many location finder apps in the past but rGPS is probably the very best one out there. It is very well populated with locations and getting better all the time. The locations are crowed sourced by users so as more people use it, the better it will get. This app is brought to you by Improve Photography so check out their site for more info on this app.
This app has a free version which works very well but I recommend the paid upgrade for only $10 per year. You’ll get more features and it will help with the development and maintenance of the app and server.
After Your Research: Putting It All Together
The resources above will give me plenty of great ideas for locations to visit. Now that I have locations in mind I will keep them organized by keeping them all in one spot.
Not only does Google Maps help me find locations, the My Maps feature is invaluable for keeping track of all my locations that I want to visit so I make a custom map whenever I go on a trip. As I am researching locations, I am also simultaneously adding them to their own map.
I organize my own My Maps using layers and I’ll add a separate layer for categories of places. For example, all the photo locations will have their own layer, other points of interest such as trail-heads and visitor centers will have another layer, and I will also make a layer containing important locations such as the airport, car rental, hotels I’ve booked, and the like. I may also make another layer of interesting places I might visit that aren’t photography related.
Each location on the map has an icon indicating what they are. I will can change the icon to easily determine what it is. For example, I’ll use a tree to indicate a park or a bed to indicate my hotel. Icons can also be color coded. I change the icon color to yellow when there is a must-visit place that I will prioritize over others.
I will even add images to each icon so when I click on them I can see what the location looks like.
Here is a sample map I made for Rocky Mountain National Park. I made this when I visited in 2017 and have been updating it as I learn of new places. Therefore, the next time I go back I will have this to look at and much of my planning work will be done.
Choosing A Hotel
Now that I have a map with locations all in front of me it’s time to choose where I will make my home base. This is more of a preference thing than a science but basically I will look for a town that is a reasonable distance from most of my locations. Since by now I have read through my travel books I know towns and lodging options in the area so it’s usually not difficult to find something that’s centrally located.
After reading the travel books and looking at my map, I knew a good home base for visiting Rocky Mountain National Park would be Estes Park. From here I could make day trips and have access to many of the locations in the eastern portion of the park.
If my trip is longer or I’m exploring a larger area I might choose more than one place to stay. For example, when I was in Southwest Utah in 2017 I stayed a few nights in Springdale which was perfect for exploring Zion National Park. Then I moved to spend a few nights in Bryce which was great for exploring Bryce Canyon National Park.
Now I’m Ready!
This is the process I go through when learning about a new place and plan photography trips. I use all the resources above to learn about new places, find photo opportunities, and organize the locations I want to visit.
When I’m on on my trip, I use these tips to plan out specifics of my shots like weather and lighting.
Do you have any location finding tips? Let me know in the comments below!