How and Why to Keep a Location Catalog

I have never been much of a studio shooter. It'll do in a pinch (my garage, usually) but I much prefer the variety of shooting on location.

If you don't have a location scout on the payroll, good spaces and backdrops don't magically appear by themselves. You need to always be on the lookout, filing your ideas away for future use.

Fortunately, that's fun, free and easy. Here's how I approach it.

If you happen to live in Howard County, MD in the USA, that map just made it a lot easier for you. It contains locations and descriptions of some of my favorite backdrops for portraits, including every spot mentioned below. This is how I keep track of some of my locations—along with a folder of snapshots on my desktop and my iPhone.

Shooting mostly people, I naturally collect backdrops suitable for portraiture. I am attracted to organic backdrops, concrete (with a good patina) and vast expanses of sky—even better if there is water to reflect it.

Take this massive tree trunk, for instance:

I love this texture as a backdrop. Used in focus or out of focus (by varying the f/stop, of course) you'll get a different look for each choice. If I have a "real" camera with me, I'll shoot it both ways for reference.

It's on a path that I have walked literally hundreds of times in Ellicott City, and that tree is wider than a half roll of seamless. (And way more interesting, to my eye.)

I walk about 75 miles a week. Or at least I did, until I broke my toe yesterday in an epic stub on a Profoto AcuteB 600 generator pack. (Scissors may beat paper, which in turn will beat stone. But lead-acid battery most definitely trumps little toe bone.)

Hope I am not hobbled for too long. Because walking every day is an awesome way to scout for locations, among many other things.

Here's an ivy-covered fence I haven't used yet, having just found it last week. It's east-facing (great for afternoon/evening shoots) faces a public road and will be appearing in the back of a portrait very soon. Being public is very important, as a backdrop is not worth much without accessibility.

It's funny how you can walk past something dozens of times before you one day see it as a location. The literal qualities will usually hit you pretty quickly. But the symbolic nuances can take a while to percolate to the top. Which is a good reason to let that location file just sit there and steep.

Not owning a cherry picker, I also like bridges as elevated vantage points:

This stream works by itself, but it would be stronger as a location for a portrait. Putting someone on the banks would be an obvious choice. But I am leaning toward putting someone in the water and shooting at a slow speed for movement and time.

It's funny, I tend to find far more locations while on foot than while driving. The scale of what you are seeing is very different when you are walking. You get a sense of the space. Ever driven by a place, thought it would make a great location and then had it totally fall apart under close inspection?

That's happened to me so often I rarely trust locations seen from a moving car. But walking down a road, you'll see opportunities left and right.

You say bridge abutment, I say awesome textured backdrop. Absolutely kills paper. Or canvas, for that matter. Plus, the concrete has physical texture in addition to tonal texture, so it responds great to a light being scraped across it.

Interestingly, I had used it several times before I took a moment to back up and see it as a geometric form rather than a 2-D backdrop. And right around the corner (literally, it's the same abutment) is this U-channel alcove:

I love this spot. One day, it is gonna get a down-firing gridded key with some gelled, edgy fill. It's a friggin' movie set, but only big enough for a portrait. There is a poet I am supposed to shoot soon, but he says he's gotta lose ten pounds first. When the time comes, we'll be right here.

My favorite backdrop of all has to be sky. It is endlessly variable, especially at the margins of the day. So I always have several go-to places where I can see a wide expanse of sunset throughout the year. The sun sets in very different places in winter and summer. As a result, some sunset locations are seasonal.

The best spots are good year-round. My favorite, behind Dunloggin Middle School, has served me for literally dozens of shoots—all different thanks to the sky. And best of all, I can use a natural floor (grass) or move to the parking lot for a more concrete vibe.

Expansive sky rocks as a backdrop. But the very best sunset locations also include water along with their year-round visibility.

Centennial Lake is my go-to spot for water and sunset. You've seen it many times if you are a long-time reader. (Most recently, for Shelly Guy.)

The important thing is to always be thinking about your locations, not just in the few days before a shoot when time is crunched. Take photos. Make maps. Note directions for the sun. (Google maps is great for that.)

Then keep all of that in the slow-cooker portion of your brain and see what comes to you over time. You'll soon find that you have picture ideas ready and waiting for the people and subjects that will populate them.

So, back to you. What are your favorite techniques for finding and keeping track of your locations?

Which of the ones above would grab your attention if you walked by?


Brand new to Strobist? Start here | Or jump right to Lighting 101
Connect w/Strobist readers via: Words | Photos

Comments are closed. Question? Hit me on Twitter: @Strobist


Blogger Luthman Photography said...

Of the ones you showed in the post, the last concrete one would be my choice. If it's for portraits I spot alot of locations either on my way to work or when walking around town.

I shoot a lot of mountinbike as well and those locations are mostly found when I'm out riding myself, or through tips from other riders.

But I have also used google earth streetview to find good spots for shooting. It's great to be able to "walk around" in the streets from your compouter. It can save a lot of time.

June 01, 2012 8:20 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

The iPhone application Sun Seeker is very good to plan the sun anytime of day on any date

June 01, 2012 8:31 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

I've been playing around with using the Evernote app on the iphone. You can take a quick snap and automatically record the gps location to place it on the map. You can record notes here too and have it synced across all your devices. . . pretty cool.

June 01, 2012 9:20 AM  
OpenID michaelmarten said...

The best tool (free for desktop, but also for smartphones) is which precisely gives all sorts of detail about the ambient light, with sunrise/sunset etc. I use it all the time for landscapes, but have also used it for a new-baby shoot in someone's house, when I wanted to see when the sunlight would come through her windows and therefore what lights I should have with me.

June 01, 2012 9:28 AM  
OpenID richard said...

Hey David, not sure I've ever commented on your blog before.

I'm a fairly fresh photographer (1 year in the making now) making some progress on my own, mostly by following a number of blogs (yours, notably) and trying things on my own.

I just recently started thinking about locations and trying to find good places... and have found a few around Stockholm. For the moment, it seems like I'm focused on concrete, stone as well as dirty and gritty (old dirty abandoned buildings, yummmm!). I take pictures of everyone (except one, that's only been in the back of my mind, but I haven't had the opportunity to go there yet). Using Google Maps was something I hadn't thought of (thank you for the idea!).

Looking at your examples, I think the ivy-covered fence would grab me strongest (it's the image that grabs my attention the fastest ;-)).

Looking to expand my own horizons, I gotta say that your images with the bridge in the forest and the river helped quite a bit! For some reason, I haven't really seen that kind of milieu as a backdrop/portrait environment, and much more as a subject of its own. It feels evident NOW that you've shown it ;-)

Thank you!

June 01, 2012 9:36 AM  
Blogger Brian said...

Google maps is indeed great for location-scouting, especially combined with Street View (if you can't get there easily in-person).

Google Maps + sunrise / sunset predictions overlayed on top? Even better!

June 01, 2012 9:38 AM  
Blogger kwyjibo said...

Yes, great advice. I started using the GPS geotagging capabilities in Lightroom 4, and started building a map of locations where I've shot before. It's definitely helpful.

June 01, 2012 9:42 AM  
Blogger David said...

There's an iPhone app for location scouting called ShootLocal. In addition to allowing you to keep track of your favorite shoot spots, it uses social features to let you share cool spots, discover cool spots, and request ideas for spots you may not have known about (and help other people hunting for good spots).

I don't know how widely used it is, and the app's usefulness probably depends on having lots of users. But it might be worth checking out:

June 01, 2012 9:54 AM  
Blogger slawson said...

I hope you studio "garage" isn't one of the data points on the Google map above. If you expect lots of visitors. Thanks for sharing your world with us.

June 01, 2012 10:28 AM  
Blogger Ian said...

My choice would be the concrete. Water over time leaves interesting staining and the texture is nice too. For a portrait, I suppose concrete conveys a sense of strength (plus it offers contrast between subject and background).

I think the locations speak differently depending on your intent. How do you consider the way you'd use each background? Do you jot down notes to yourself about why you chose the location?

June 01, 2012 10:31 AM  
Blogger Eric S. said...

Do you ever have to get permits/permissions in the spaces you find?

June 01, 2012 10:43 AM  
Blogger David Hobby said...


HoCo is not a permit-heavy place. So no, I really do not have to do that. But there are some places (not on this particular map) which are private and in which I have gotten permission to shoot. Same approach as above, with a layer of letter-writing (and/or picture-sharing) involved.

June 01, 2012 10:54 AM  
Blogger Kevin Halliburton said...

I shoot a lot of my work on a green screen in the studio and composite my backgrounds in later so I'm always scouting for backdrops like this. I can take a couple of battery powered strip lights and a body guard sized assistant into some pretty interesting locations to get perfectly lit backdrops without endangering or inconveniencing my models. Given the right circumstances though, I much prefer shooting on location. It doesn't really save me any work, it's just a different kind of work with a different set of tools.

June 01, 2012 11:16 AM  
Blogger Alex Gauthier said...

As noted by Unknown, Sun Seeker is a great ap that I use. I can't gush enough about it actually. It's really, awesome in it's augmented reality view. You can point the iPhone camera at a horizon and determine at what hour sun will no longer break over the scene directly. I usually use that with another ap called Pocket Scout which is simply a database of geotagged photos with notes. I actually prefer Evernote since it syncs with my mac and iPad but Pocket Scout is something I'm playing with lately.

Depending on the shoot, I use a combination of tools in addition. I use Google Maps heavily, especially the satellite view when I'm shooting in a strange location. Great post, David, this is something that is on my mind all the time and I'm trying to get more in the habit of cataloging great locations I run accross when moving around town.

June 01, 2012 11:29 AM  
Blogger Mark said...

Just started doing this last week, funny. I'm loving the bridge abutments, found some ornate alcoves on my walk. Using google maps too, anyone using the map module in lightroom 4, just curious. Thanks David lets me know I'm on the right track.

June 01, 2012 11:30 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Great article! I also use the iPhone app iEphemeris for the time and location of sunsets/sunrise, moonset/moonrise, and the phase of the moon for my scouted locataions.

June 01, 2012 11:38 AM  
Blogger Best Light Images Photography said...

I have a file of backgrounds that I run across. I just started using the iPhone app mapapic to document my locations.

June 01, 2012 1:12 PM  
Blogger James said...

I am sad to say that I am a new reader here even though I've been hearing about you for years. Over the past week I've been combing through the site and lessons and you have given me a ton of inspiration and ideas.
One of the main things I always looked at for location backgrounds is how I can control the light and how the light is going to work when I plan to shoot there. I have in the past only used reflectors (this is going to change abruptly) so I've always looked for shade with near direct light or with a good directional but diffused light.
Being on the west side of Lake Michigan, I've actually found the beach to be very good late afternoon and evening. Much of the shore has a high cliff that shades much of the area leaving a nice light from the sky and lake as a key. I can't wait to start adding flash to the mix now.

June 01, 2012 1:44 PM  
Blogger As Seen by Janine said...

Great post David! Given my strong preference for outdoor location portrait shooting, these insights are very helpful to me. Love all the samples you gave but I'm especially in love with the bridge abutment ~ dreamy textured backdrop indeed, the kind you'd pay BIG money to buy as a canvas background. Great ideas - thanks. Janine

June 01, 2012 1:51 PM  
Blogger David Sanwald said...

The limitations of the human memory are a good instrument of selection.

June 01, 2012 2:28 PM  
Blogger David Sanwald said...

The limitations of the human memory are a good instrument of selection.

June 01, 2012 2:29 PM  
Blogger sulayman said...

For the Android users, I love 8Footprints ( as my location scouting app. It lets me store the location information with a photo, note, or audio recording.

I do a lot of shoots in my neighborhood, so I like to wander around sometimes and log locations for future reference.

June 01, 2012 2:37 PM  
Blogger Jason Lykins said...

Hey David, I reviewed my favorite method over at Terry White's Best App Site not too long ago. You can check it out here:

The best thing about this App is that you get a geo tag for the location and you can also take reference images etc. It's a great App. Jason

June 01, 2012 3:27 PM  
Blogger Per Rutquist said...

Google Maps is good, but Google Earth is much better. Just dial in the time of your shoot, and it shows correct positions of sun, moon and stars.

June 01, 2012 3:50 PM  
Blogger Ron Nabity said...

Sorry to hear about the little toe. I guess you'll be known as "David Hobbly" for a while.

June 01, 2012 4:17 PM  
Blogger Nathan said...

I have been using evernote for doing just this. When I find a location I snap a shot in evernote and add some basic info (general name of location, or special info about spot). This intern is synced to the web/desktop app and so on. When I need to recall or find a location I simply open the app and used the built in GPS info to give me a map.

I would love to also have weather info included too since depending on when the shot was taken it might play a role as to sunset, general weather for a shoot, foliage, etc. Since that is not in there, I just have to do a little bit of extra leg work.

If you go this route, MAKE SURE you shoot the photo in evernote. Importing a photo into the app will not carry over the GPS data. At least it never used to. The photo + GPS data is really the key to the whole thing working.

June 01, 2012 4:23 PM  
Blogger chase said...

Which of the ones you posted - I'd say most all - a fav or two would be the bridge or walkway - and the stream.

Keping trac - I just got into databases recently - and found a old program that logs travel. Caculates distances etc etc.

I think it would be advantagous to have a pic as a plus to a local in a data base.

Google maps allows this if you wish to keep it online.

I'm just starting with the travel db builder - and so far I really like it - though it could use some features more geared for photography. Like sunrise/sunset times calculated for that locale to set up future shoots. etc etc.

just my two cents...

June 01, 2012 5:32 PM  
Blogger chase said...

Evernote sounds pretty cool - as I just recently picked up an older app - which tracks travel - caculates trip distance etc etc.

I've been getting into database builders lately for other things. This might make for a great phone app - especially if fine tuned more for photographers. Such things as a schedualler - sunrise sunset times for the local - weather forcast for the area etc etc. would prove a plus.

Google Maps if it hasn't been mentioned already, would be good for simple maping of locals but - you'd have to have online access.

June 01, 2012 5:40 PM  
Blogger MaleficOsx said...

Sorry for your toe! :(

June 01, 2012 7:25 PM  
Blogger Taylor said...

you are a wise one David. I really like this idea. Will attempt to implement.

June 02, 2012 12:23 AM  
OpenID 24hourmoon said...

Like another commenter has mentioned, I also use Map-A-Pic on the iPhone to record my locations. Good stuff!

June 02, 2012 12:54 PM  
Blogger Karen Bobotas said...

David, Great post are so right walking the locations makes all the difference. Driving by you just don't see things the same way. Love the idea of the map and photo combination for easy future reference. Thanks!

June 02, 2012 1:17 PM  
Blogger Karen Bobotas said...

Great true about walking a location rather than the drive by. Having that selection of natural backdrops not only makes for great photos but such fun walkabouts as well.

June 02, 2012 1:21 PM  
Blogger Michael Blum said...

I must be your neighbor. I'm just an enthusaist Dad-photographer. But, seeing your vision of the surrounding area has really opened my eyes. Thanks! Perhaps I'll see you at Covenant Park next season.

June 02, 2012 2:47 PM  
Blogger Yasin Hamid said...

this is a good idea, i mean for keeping a location catalog, never really thought of it, but since i have been struggling to find outdoor locations and am **ALWAYS** scouting before hand,
However for nature, tree trunks/ greenery do not think i would scout for such areas like that as in the UK and am sure most places around the world your'e never short of finding that, + for back drops and so, one could be just as inventive in their back garden or local park. I Do see this locating thing a good idea though but mostly for those iconic visual wide viewed gems or areas depicting hard to find places, textures and so on.
Love the map and am liking this to an extent.

June 02, 2012 3:41 PM  
Blogger Stephen Caissie said...

I dig the concrete thing, David. There's an old Olympic pool down the road from my house that I've been wanting to use as a backdrop for years, and finally got the chance to do so last Wednesday. What's most interesting about it is that it's not just concrete, but concrete with a pattern of vertical lines, which seems perfectly suited for portraiture. Here's the shot I got:

June 02, 2012 4:00 PM  
Blogger Scott Free said...

+1 for pocket scout. Reason being is that it catalogs geographic co-ordinates along with the taken photo so you can navigate back using that, regardless of whether its on an actual street address or not.

Evernote is an amazing tool for photography and a million other things, but the geo co-ordinates i think are huge!

June 02, 2012 8:15 PM  
Blogger Debbi_in_California said...

Wow, you walk over 10 miles everyday? I'm in shock! You don't strike me as an exerciser. Congrats on being in good shape! Sorry to hear about your toe!

June 03, 2012 12:09 AM  
Blogger Lorenzo Herrera said...

Hey! Here's an online tool that will allow you to maintain your own database of photo locations or backdrops, tagged and organised in an easy-to-use map:

You can also find locations shared by others!

June 04, 2012 2:47 PM  
Blogger Redskull said...

Nice tips, even if already use it for urbex (abanonned places) and like you for keeping location .

June 04, 2012 4:08 PM  
Blogger AdvRdr said...


June 09, 2012 11:08 AM  
Blogger Myron said...

Zen Wandering location finder because when I go back Nature had changed itself Naturally. Cement changes less

June 25, 2012 2:52 PM  
Blogger Morton Visuals said...

How about the best way of getting the GPS info on to the map? If you shoot with a camera you wouldn't have GPS info (unless you have a GPS adapter attached, or shoot all with a specific P&S model that has GPS). If you use an iPhone, what's the best way of getting that info to the map?

October 07, 2014 1:16 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home