Shooting In The Field

I have been doing quite a lot of location scouting recently so I thought I would do a blog post on the subject. It is something every location photographer has to do and is a good way to get out from behind the computer for a day. I usually put on some walking boots and have a good hunt. I like to start early so I can see where the sun starts out and usually carry on till it sets so I can get a good idea of where that is too. Obviously, a leisurely stop for lunch breaks up the day nicely and invariably another pit stop for coffee keeps me going for what usually ends being a 10 or 11 hour day on my feet. Sure its work but there is no need to be uncivilised. Hit the jump for instagram snaps of a recent day out, the thinking behind choosing a location and some rambling about focal length…


What always boggles my mind when i get my explore on, is how unfamiliar I am with some very familiar places. Being on foot and actually LOOKING at my surroundings yields impressive fruit considering some of these places I’ve driven past hundreds of times. The scenes below and at the top were raised from the road so not visable to drivers – again I have driven past it loads of times.

I usually have a shoot in mind when I am scouting, this is useful because, with all that fresh air, coffee, and sense of discovery, pretty soon every vaguely interesting corner becomes a possible shoot unto itself. The point being, it is helpful for me, to start with some sort of concept, so the locations fall under the guidlines set out in my head. I have always found if I use a location, a model or a piece of gear because it seemed like a good location, model or piece of gear the shots are all about the said location, model or piece of gear. That may be fine but a having a concept or idea that all the elements (location, model gear) have to contribute towards seems like a loftier goal. A client will certainly expect that way of thinking I’d say.

The iphone is my location scouters tool of choice. Its nice to not be loaded down with gear and I maintain everything needed is in the iphone. If I’m not that familiar with the area, I put a flag on maps with some reminder notes. Also I find it helpful to have geotaging switched on so when I go into photos on my iphone and  hit places I can see where I have taken pictures and view them by pressing on the pin. This is useful when you are wondering as you often forget to make location notes but if you have taken a quick snap geotaging will help you find the location again.

Another note on the iphone while im on the subject. The iphone has a digital zoom which is useful to use to take photographs of locations with a focal length you might use on the day of the shoot. At its standard setting the iphone shoots at about 35mm. I have found it useful to be familiar with where 50mm and 85mm are on its digital slider. This way I can see roughly how much of my location will be in frame at those focal lengths without having to actually look thought my DSLR with that size lens on.

My final thought is a bit more conceptual. If I am location scouting it is because I am shooting a person first and foremost and looking for a location to shoot this person. The final picture will not be all about the location – the location is just there to contextualise the model (and the clothes if it is fashion). I think of the location almost as a backdrop. In most of my location scouting snap shots there is a sort of blank space where you could write ‘insert model’. I mentioned using the iphone to help visualise the backdrop at a certain focal length; of course you may have preconceived ideas about what focal length you would like to use on your model but it is interesting that with focal length you can also choose how much of your location you decide to keep in or take out. I suppose this is a bit of a basic concept so if you are well versed with this type of thing maybe skip this part. 

It’s just that I have spent some time, thinking about how the lens length would effect my model. 24mm has a comical note, 100mm is flattering, 50mm is honest, 85mm is flattering but still honest and on and on – you get my drift, but when it comes to actually shooting in the field another factor comes into play. Composition. It is interesting to note that after (slightly obsessive) studying of Annie Liebovitz shooting on location it turns out she often uses a ZOOM lens. The Canon 24-70 f2.8. Yes the same lens you probably have. To shoot movie stars. And Rhiana. I’m going on a bit of a tangent here but lets think about this for a minute. Presumably only the most expensive and well researched skin treatment touches RiRi’s face. And presumably she has only the most highly paid sucessful nutritionist advising her what to eat to ensure she radiates a healthy glow. Her make up artist will undoubtably be at the height of his or her career using products concocted by actual wizards. And Annie Liebovitz, not best known for her budget shoots, would probably shoot through the fuselage of America’s latest fighter jet the F-22 Raptor if she thought it would look cool. But she isn’t. She’s not even got 10 different cameras sporting Canons entire prime lens range, with an assistant waiting to hand her the one she needs. Why isn’t she? Well I don’t know. But there only seems to be one logical explanation. Composition. I will stop talking about Annie Liebovitz and Rihana soon but indulge me for a minute. Let say she is shooting a full length landscape shot of Rihana at 70mm. She pops off some nice shots and then thinks, what the hell, I’ll get the helicopter or Caribbean island in the shot. She wants RiRi to be the same size in the frame so she takes two good steps forward and Zooms back to 50mm. Or four steps forward and zooms back to 35mm. She has got closer to the subject so the subject stays the same size but the lens angle is loads wider so it gets a lot more background in. If this is a new concept to you, here is how that would work. I did some test shots at one of the locations I found that can explain this better than my words.

Here is my friend Ryan in front of my newly found backdrop. My lens is at 70mm and you can see some background and whatever you can see, is actually a bit magnified (appears closer) due to the lens being a bit telefocal.

Now in this shot I have taken a few steps forward and Zoomed back to 35mm. Here Ryan is roughly the same size in the frame but much more background is in frame.

I know this is basic stuff but I thought I would talk it out for those to whom this is new. The interesting point going back to Annie is, she clearly values this ability to quickly control the composition over any sharpness or other benefit a prime would bring. Whether its more because she REALLY wants that control or more that she thinks the difference between a professional zoom and a prime is insignificant, I’ll leave up to you to decide. But it is interesting.

In any case when it comes to location I like to think of it as an elaborate 3d backdrop. Sometimes I find a spot and I can turn standing still and see three different backdrops without even having to move. Its interesting to think what each backdrop will provide in mood and ambience. What it will say when matched with a model and a brand. Or a singer. Or a Bride and Groom if thats your bag. What does it contribute? Do I just need a snipet of stone wall, or an entire cityscape to make the image speak the right language? Thought provoking stuff.
So thats it for now. No geeky lighting section in this post I hear the photogeeks cry? Well what about all that prime versus zoom talk? C’mon. Don’t pretend you didn’t have your moment.
And for any doubters about my last point here is a screen grab from a behind the scenes video of Annie shooting Rihana on location somewhere tropical. There it is. 24mm to 70mm f2.8 zoom. Boom.

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