Tips for Planning Landscape Shooting Locations

I often get asked the question: how do you find your landscape photography locations? Typically, a lot of planning goes into my choice of locations and compositions, sometimes even months ahead of time. I start with research at home, which helps me narrow down potential spots. When I arrive on location, the hard work begins, as I further explore my options. With some persistence and luck, I’ll end up getting the shots as planned (although sometimes I end up with something completely different). With landscape photography, a little bit of curiosity goes a long way—especially when combined with obsessive planning and dogged persistence!

In this article, I am going to share my most important techniques for planning landscape locations, illustrated by some recent photographs taken while exploring the Lake Superior area of the United States.

I spend many hours—even days or weeks—researching, planning, and executing my landscape photos. North Shore of Lake Superior, Minnesota, USA. Canon 5DSR, Canon 11-24mm f/4 lens, ISO 50, f/16, 0.5 seconds.

Planning Makes Perfect

Whenever I return home from a photo trip, I spend a lot of time thinking about what I want to shoot next. I find that the Internet is a good starting point, and an invaluable tool when planning future photo trips. I occasionally monitor Pinterest boards, looking for random inspiring areas to catch my eye. Once a destination captures my attention, I’ll do some more focused research. Google Images can be particularly useful when pre-planning locations and compositions. It is important to note, however, that I’m not looking to copy other people’s photos; I review photos online just to get a sense of the potential an area has to offer.

Although research and planning might expose me to the work of other photographers, I’m not looking to take copies of their photos. Instead, I strive to find unique compositions that fit my personal artistic style. Cascade River State Park, USA. Canon 5DSR, Canon 16-35mm f/2.8 lens, polarizer filter, ISO 100, f/5.6, 1.3 seconds.

Sometimes I will also review hiking or paddling guides for a location, especially when I am hoping to find something off the beaten path (and therefore off the radar screen of other photographers). Often, a reference in a guide will arouse my curiosity, causing me to inquire further—and sometimes this leads me to finding great scenery that hasn’t been photographed much (or at all) before.

Sometimes, a reference in a guide book will jump out at me and capture my attention. This can lead to great photos!

If I find a reference to a potentially interesting landscape feature in a printed or online guide, it can often be a simple matter of doing some quick online research to find out what the landscape feature actually looks like, and exactly where it is. Once I have a good idea of what I am in for, I pack up my equipment and head out into the field.

After finding a reference to a sea cave along Lake Superior in a paddling guide, some more research allowed me to determine the cave’s appearance and location—and more importantly, the fact that it hadn’t been seriously photographed before. All I needed to do next was drive to the location and kayak out to this amazing spot! Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, USA. Canon 5DSR, Canon 8-15mm f/4 fisheye lens, ISO 100, f/11, 1.3 seconds, focus stack blend for optimized depth of field. To learn more about focus stacking, check out my Focusing for Landscape Photography Course.

Take in the View From 6,336,000 Feet

Once I’ve zeroed in on some possible locations, I like to consult satellite maps, which give me a better idea of the terrain. Almost all of the major map websites and apps offer a satellite view, which for many areas around the world can be surprisingly detailed. My hunt for interesting landscape locations usually also takes me to Google Earth, where I can study detailed satellite maps and even review user-posted photos.

I look for landscape features that stand out in some way and that seem like they might offer a lot of compositional raw material, such as rocky headland jutting out from the surrounding shore.

I’ll also use The Photographer’s Ephemeris phone app, which not only gives me satellite imagery, but also shows me where sunrise and sunset will be. This is an invaluable tool both for my landscape pre-planning, and for determining which compositions will work—and which won’t—when in the field.

Knowing where the sun will be at sunrise and sunset is invaluable when planning photos. Keweenaw Peninsula, USA. Canon 5DSR, Canon 11-24mm f/4 lens, ISO 50, f/16, 2.5 seconds.

Nothing Beats Your Ground Game

Once all of the research and planning is done, I leave for my chosen landscape destination, armed with a list of potential locations and compositions. I usually have a few of the nearby famous photo icons on the list as backup locations should things go awry, but for the most part, I strive to get off the beaten path and find original compositions. Once I arrive, the scouting begins. I spend hours every day exploring my chosen area. Online research and satellite previews can only tell you so much; your will need to put your feet to work if you really want to find the best compositions. Often, my planned shots turn out to be unrealistic, so I quickly need to come up with some alternatives.

This interesting rock swirl wasn’t on any satellite map or in any photo I found on the web. Instead, I discovered it by thoroughly exploring my chosen location. Canon 5DSR, Canon 11-24mm f/4 lens, ISO 100, f/8, 0.3 seconds, focus stack blend for optimized depth of field.

Wait for the Right Weather

After researching, exploring, and finding the best compositions, it is then simply a matter of being on location when the light is going to be best. But the research doesn’t end yet: once I have settled on a composition, I next research the weather. I voraciously review hour-by-hour forecasts and real-time satellite imagery using a weather app on my phone. That way, I know when and where I have the best chances to get amazing skies at sunrise and sunset. Many photographers also use a computer and phone app called Skyfire, which offers a predictive algorithm for photographers looking to optimize their chances of capturing stunning light.

I scouted this scene on a sunny day, but checked my weather app before leaving, which revealed a line of clouds approaching—so I stayed on location for sunset and was rewarded with this amazing sky. Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park, USA. Canon 5DSR, Canon 11-24mm f/4 lens, ISO 100, f/11, 3.2 seconds.

Cross Your Fingers!

Weeks or even months of planning, hours of scouting, days of waiting for the right light and weather conditions—you’ve already done all the hard work, now comes the easy part: triggering the shutter. Hopefully, everything will come together for that perfect photo. If not, you might need to try again. If the shot works, then it is time to start all over and move on to the next location!

Want to learn more?

Related video: Planning for Your Spring Photography Shoot
Related video: Architectural Photography Location Scouting Tips
Related video: Photo Scouting in Landscape Photography
Related article: How to Prepare for a Photography Trip: Europe Edition

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About the author: Whether hanging over the rim of an active volcano, braving the elements to photograph critically-endangered species, or trekking deep into the wilderness to places most people will never see, world-renowned professional photographer Ian Plant travels the globe seeking out amazing places and subjects in his never-ending quest to capture the beauty of our world with his camera. Ian is a frequent contributor to many leading photo magazines, Managing Editor of Outdoor Photography Guide, a Tamron Image Master, and the author of numerous books and instructional videos. Known for his inspiring images and single-minded dedication to creating the perfect photo, Ian has reached hundreds of thousands of people around the world in his mission to inspire and educate others in the art of photography. You can see more of his work at www.ianplant.com.

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Discussion
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5 Responses to “Tips for Planning Landscape Shooting Locations”
  1. Claude Hamel

    Outstanding article and brilliant photography (few would think of “inserting” tentacles in the water the third one from the bottom)! Mes hommages!!

    Reply
  2. Cliff

    In your bundle “focusing on landscapes” you also write about focus stacking, is this using photoshop or lightroom, as I only have LR? Do you also address the use of filters? Regards Cliff

    Reply
    • Ian Plant

      Hi Cliff, Lightroom does not currently allow focus stacking, but in the course I discuss focus stacking using Helicon Focus, which can focus stack raw files (or other format files exported from Lightroom). So, if you are a Lightroom user, you can focus stack using Helicon Focus. The Landscape Focusing course is focused entirely on focusing (pardon the pun) and does not discuss filters. Thanks!

      Reply
  3. Philip Tyrrell

    What weather app(s) do you use? Great article and beautiful shots. Thanks.

    Reply