UPDATE, JUNE 2024: Strobist was archived in 2021. Here is what I am up to now. -DH


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?


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