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Scouting for Shots

Exploring an area before a shoot can give your photography an edge.

By Earl Nottingham


As outdoor photographers in search of prize-winning photos, we often come back disappointed in the lackluster images we’ve obtained, whether shooting landscapes, portraits, nature close-ups or wildlife. For some reason, the final photos often don’t live up to the expectations of the images we saw in the viewfinder, and it’s difficult to put a finger on what could have made the scene better. It all seems like a gamble — win some, lose some! However, you can put the odds in your favor and turn a ho-hum shot into one with “wow” by employing the practice of scouting. While scouting does take time and effort, the payoff is well worth it.

A little scouting can put the photographer in the right place at the right time for the best possible shot.

Regardless of your desired photo subject, the primary reason for scouting is to find the optimal location and time in which the subject will show its best “face” and can be best composed in context with its surroundings and in the best light. For instance, scouting for wildlife would involve finding promising locations such as water holes, feeders or natural trails with the best chances of encountering animals, and then determining the times of day when the animals typically show up and ways to obtain the best lighting. Scouting for landscapes might involve exploring trails or climbing hills to find the best viewpoints, and determining sun direction and optimal times for shooting.

In practice, a good time to scout is during the midday hours when the light is generally too harsh for good photography. This allows you plenty of time to explore all the options and then come back later when the light is best.

When scouting any locations, try to visualize how various types of light and various directions will best show off the subject, whether it is an overcast day or bright morning or evening sunlight. Try to imagine the subject in all creative variations of light, including golden evening light, blue post-sunset light and foggy, diffused light. You might arrive at your shooting location expecting a brilliant sunrise or sunset only to find the sun hidden behind a cloud bank. Many times, these serendipitous lighting situations can lead to better shots than we had visualized.

While this type of physical activity (i.e. hiking and climbing) can be an enjoyable part of outdoor photography, there is another method of scouting that can supplement (or, in some cases, replace) traditional scouting.

Virtual scouting is a way (actually many ways) of researching a location without actually being there. Use online applications such as Google Earth, Maps or other geospatial products to “see” a location in 3D space from any angle and at any time of day or season — from the comfort of home.

Additionally, social media platforms and photo hosting sites such as Instagram and Flickr now contain enough images to be considered a searchable database of just about any location in the world, and allow you to gain insight and inspiration from the work of other outdoor photographers. A search of photographer websites in the area you want to visit can also turn up a wealth of creative images for all types of outdoor photography.

Finally, scouting apps such as Photographer’s Ephemeris and Sun Seeker for smartphones make it a breeze to see the times and directions of sunrises, sunsets and moon phases. They are invaluable in determining camera placement that will result in the moon or sun rising or setting in the perfect spot. For night sky photography, celestial object movement such as the Milky Way can also be previewed.

The Sun Seeker app uses augmented reality to show the path that the sun will take throughout the day, allowing the photographer to determine the best locations and times for sunrises and sunsets.

Please send questions and comments to Earl at earl.nottingham@tpwd.texas.gov. For more tips on outdoor photography, visit the magazine’s photography page at tpwmagazine.com/photography.

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