One of the hardest things about photography is making that crucial decision that this is the place you definitely want to shoot. The difficulty of it is probably the reason that so many photographers gravitate toward studio work — it takes a lot of that stress away. With studio work, you’re always facing forward and everything can adjust to you. It’s a whole different beast finding a great angle and a well-lit shot out in the big wide scary world with a few billion options on every street corner. To me, navigating the real world and finding a spot to shoot in is a far greater photography skill set than learning studio lighting or even camera settings — and far less discussed. Even with a great location scout, it’s still on the photographer to figure out the right angle, composition and light.
So, for this little journey, I’m going to discuss the five ways I’ve learned to recognize a great scene when I come across it. Or to find it in just about any scenario. Later I’m going to cover how to make a great scene from a not-so-great spot — but for now, here’s how you know you’ve found yourself a great place to shoot:
You See Light Reflected Into A Shadow
It might surprise you to learn that this photo on the left was taken with no external flash. This was all natural light. It’s an extreme version of a technique that happens all over, but most non-photographers never notice it — with light being reflected from a different surface into a shadow.
This photograph is a great way to illustrate the phenomenon because you can see the environment and how light is bouncing around and creating very different light scenarios within that one little area.
First, you can see the darker shadow behind the subject, this is because the sun is behind me and to the left of this scene. The large wall on the left is blocking it, creating that shadowy area.
But look underneath the subject and you can see how there’s a wedge of light on the ground. That is light being reflected from the bright part of the walls on both sides. That light is being thrown into the shadow area and lighting it up, creating a near-perfect lighting scenario for a photographer. Reflected light is usually diffused, making it nicer and more even lighting all around, but it also happens in a shadow area which enables you to expose for that shadow and the subject pops off of it.
This scenario, which is a bit harder to find, adds a little something extra because that light not only bounces off the wall on the right, it also hits that wall on the left as it’s very close, creating — essentially, a two light set-up of very diffused light. But you can do very well simply by finding the light reflected by a nearby building or window where it lights up an otherwise shadowed area and placing your subject in it. I have used this technique for many years and in nearly every shoot I do outdoors. It never fails — you just have to start seeing the light.
Secondarily to this, but semi-related, is shooting in open shade. This is the light that happens just as you enter into a shadowy area, but before it gets really dark. Here, the surrounding light enters in both from reflective surfaces, like the ground and surrounding walls, but also just by being closer to the source. Shooting in open shade (and into the darkness) is one of the most common ways to get a nice light on someone, keep them from squinting and have them pop off the background.
Here’s a good example of a subject moving from shade to open shade. As you can see, the exposure and settings don’t change, and she’s only moved a few inches in — but the open shade lighting on the right provides a huge difference in the quality of light on her face.
Your Background Complements Your Subject
In the shoot for this beautiful choreography, we had a typical situation — a great subject and a defined color palette for the wardrobe, and even a general location. But no specific location. We were on a campus with a lot of options, but the first question everyone wanted to know was “where should we go?” As a photographer, you get this a lot.
With such a monochromatic wardrobe, I could do one of two things: find something in contrast to it, or something more related to it. As we looked around the campus, there were a few options with walls of flat color, or even graffiti, but the monochromatic wall you see here won out as it felt the most complimentary.
I think this is one of the more typical methods that photographers seek out good scenes for photos — through color blocking and textures and environments that feel like they were tailor made for the subject. It adds purposefulness to the photo and tends to make the whole image feel intentional.
But it doesn’t always have to be about color. Complementary backgrounds can also be ones that capture the energy or concept of your subject. Placing something by a pool creates a whole different vibe than putting someone in a dark and dirty alleyway, which is much different than out on an open road. Sometimes you find your best spot by thinking about how it sells a narrative or captures what your subject is trying to convey.
Something Sparks Your Own Creativity
My favorite method of finding a spot to shoot in is to walk around and be very open and connected to my own imagination. It usually starts with something that stops me in my tracks. I will rarely know exactly how I want to shoot it at first, only that it appeals to me for some reason. It could be a shape, some odd juxtaposition or even just an energy. There are a few street corners that are like fishing holes for me — every time I go, just standing there fills me with an energy. And then some places, like Los Angeles’ City Hall, have historic meaning or importance to me (this building was used as the Daily Planet building in The Adventures of Superman, which I loved to watch when I was a kid), and dictate how I might shoot it.
Once I know I’m in a location with a bunch of creative potential, I like to play around in it. I will start some place a little further out and shoot it kind of wide. And then I’ll move in. More often than not, I’ll find my spot within a few minutes — a shot will jump out to me as having a very nice compositional feel and then I’ll quickly commit to it.
Personally, I find having my 24–70mm lens with me during this exploration to be a great way to play around. But once I find my location, I will sometimes switch to a prime (I like 21mm and 35mm primes most of all) or a 70–200mm, if I’m doing a tighter portrait. Here’s a quick little snippet to illustrate how I framed up that Superman shot.’
The best thing about a creative element in a location is that it sparks both your and your subject’s imagination with ideas. “What if I did this?” gets said a lot — and that creates a great creative energy between photographer and subject. Most people I shoot tend to know a bit about the creative process and photography, so if we’re working with something interesting in an environment, they will often have ideas.
In this image on the left, I had really liked a wall with some large shrubs that created some interesting shadows. The model here, who is very tall, threw out the idea of hiding his head in the bushes. Also being a photographer, he had a sense of how interesting that might look and brought an idea to the table that I might never have thought of. All because we had chosen a spot that had a lot of creative potential
When you’re out walking around trying to figure out where to point your camera, be open to objects and environments that make you curious and grab your attention. Then let the process flow with your subject and 9 times out of ten, you’ll end up somewhere you never would have imagined. It’s really my favorite part of photography, and the zone where most of my best ideas emanate out of.
You Found A Frame
I was hired this year to shoot the L.A. Marathon — they gave a few different photographers different areas to cover, and asked us each to shoot in our own styles. But there were some requirements. Of course we needed shots of people running, we also needed iconic images of the part of the city we were in — in my case, Beverly Hills.
I struggled to find a shot that didn’t look too cliché — like with a Rodeo Drive sign or shop windows. That didn’t feel like my shot, but like a shot that anyone might do. So, I set off to find a location that would be artistically interesting. I found it laying on the ground, looking up at the corner of Wilshire Blvd and Rodeo Drive. On the one side, the Beverly Wilshire Hotel (AKA, the “Pretty Woman Hotel”) and on the other side, Tiffany’s at 1 Rodeo. At this corner, runners took a tight turn as they turned onto the street I was on and from down way low with a wide angle lens, the buildings formed a V shape around the runners, framing them.
Finding a frame is sometimes very hard work, but it’s a great exercise when you’re looking for a spot to shoot in and having difficulty. Again, like a complementary background, a frame creates a purposeful narrative to an image and, as a viewer, you feel the hand and eye of the photographer at work. It has the benefit of drawing attention to the subject and often dictates precisely where you need to be — which can be very reassuring to a photographer.
You’ve Seen Shots Taken Here Before
You don’t always have to invent a spot to shoot in. Sure, it’s a crucial skill to be able to make a shot happen anyplace you go, but there are also places in just about any city that are tried and true. And there’s usually a very good reason you see it in a lot of shots. And you might not even realize it until you get there and start playing around.
Where I live, in Los Angeles, there’s almost too many places to choose from, but one of the many popular spots you’ll see in photos is at this handball court in Venice Beach. Look at any Los Angeles portrait photographer’s work and eventually you’ll see a shot taken here. What’s interesting about this spot is that it does nearly everything I’ve already talked about: it has a ton of open shade lighting, the background is neutral, helping subjects pop off of it, it’s creative with a lot of options and it creates natural frames at just about every angle. So long as you can get your shot off before someone comes and kicks you out, I can head to this location with great confidence that I’m going to get solid images. (And just because it’s up, that light from behind the subject is an off-camera light, being held by an assistant. The key light is from the sun. The giveaway is the shadow which seems to be heading the wrong direction, given that the strongest light is clearly on the left.)
When I’m going to a shoot, no matter where it is, I’ll look up shots from that area and see if anything pops out to me, or if there seems to be a lot of shots from one place. I’m not looking to copy a frame, but if a lot of good shots come from a single location, it’s a good indicator that it’s a place with a lot of options and that can save me a ton of time scouting.
Hope you enjoyed the article. As always, hit me up with any questions in the comments section, or in an email. I always love talking about photography! And you can see more of my work on Instagram, here.