One very important aspect of building a photography portfolio is to make the best of your surroundings, and this means getting to know your locality, its beauty spots and vantage points.
I live mid way between downtown Fort Lauderdale and the beach, so I know all the picturesque spots, from little-known waterside parks to tall parking garages. I’ve photographed them many times from many different vantage points, and its been fun getting to know our city’s best features.
But what if I’m away on work assignments or holidays, or visiting frends and relatives? Where do I go to get a good sunrise or a street vista? How do I find good photo spots before I’ve ever set foot in the neighborhood?
My friends and family are used to me leaving the house well before dawn, heading out to in the wind and the weather on a photo hunt. Morning walks are a long-held habit anyway, regardless of the photography opportunities. When visiting a new part of the world I can’t wait to get out to explore and find out when the neighborhood has to offer.
Our son’s family lives in rural Shropshire, way up in the hills, and they move around quite often. These moves have meant that I would be wandering on new rows and paths, with a whole set of locations and obstacles to learn. All part of a photographic adventure, and with me being a sunrise hunter it can sometimes mean I can cover quite a few miles.
So here are my tips to help you on your travels.
The lie of the land.
The first step towards getting to know your location from a photographic point of view is to use an online map to take in the sights. Google Maps makes it so easy to move from Map view to Earth view to Street view allowing a full reccy of the most obscure parts of the planet.
Here’s an example, looking at Attingham Hall in Shropshire, England, where the River Severn meets the River Tern. A first look on the map suggest that it might be a good spot for a sunset; particularly as the house faces west. But how is the view, and how easy is the terrain? And would another time of day be best?
A quick hop to the street view shows a excellent views from the paths around the house. Widening the map I find a lovely coaching inn. Things are looking promising, as the inn’s listing is accompanied by a dozen snapshots from the location. Already I’m thinking about a lunchtime visit, and perhaps a picturesque meal.
Such is the detail online these days you can find specific trails, buildings, roads, etc and really begin to plot your photographic journey. I’ve even used this virtual scouting technique to check our vantage points on road trips. Can I easily park close to this bridge, or that view? This way I can take a detour on a sunny day and in just ten minutes have some wonderful images to work on.
The picture sharing website Panoramio supplies many of the photos on Google Maps, and hundreds of geo-located photographs so this is a good next step in your research. Google Maps can only take you so far, as most of the streetview maps stick to the roads. For a good photo it’s always best to get off the beaten track.
The eyes of beholders
When I have identified a few possible places for my Attingham Hall sunrise, I now turn to the well-established photography website Flickr.com. If there’s a good location then, chances are that others, mostly locals have been filing great shots from this location and close by. Flickr has been at the heart of serious photo sharing for over a decade, and has a fabulous search facility.
Simply posting a search for Attingham Hall gives me not only some great ideas for angles and points of view but also the opportunity see something unexpected too. Attingham sits in the center of a large and open deer park, and has twelve listed structures as well as the main house.
Keeping an eye on the work of other photographers alerts us to all kinds of photo possibilities, not least how to make the best of different weather situations. It’s not always sunny, so being aware of creative shots of familiar landmarks can help turn a damp squib into a firework display.
Clearly Attingham Hall is a place full of photographic possibilities, but you can use this virtual scouting technique to take a look at all kinds of locations, to check access and angles. In advance of trips I go on virtual strolls in all kinds of locations just to see what’s there. Google Maps is certainly not to be trusted in terms of actual conditions, after all during the 2012 London Olympic Games Google Maps was still showing a huge building site, but it will certainly show all kinds of unexpected vistas and access points.
Whatever the Weather
I have now scoped a few walks around Attingham Park, which is close to a place I’ll be staying regularly over the next few years. But even the best plans can be ruined by the weather, Luckily there are some tremendous apps that will help plan closer to the visit. Back home in the States I use #Radarscope which taps into the local weather radar. Thanks to a cool animation feature you can predict cloud cover and rain storms to the minute. In the UK I use #gRadarLite or Metdesk’s #HomeandDry to keep an eye on weather patterns.
If you’re really into this kind of thing, try #DarkSky which has a super cool UI and is as accurate as it gets.
Follow The Sun
Working out the best time in terms of sunlight used to be tricky, but there are now some very handy apps that will work out most of this in advance. TPE – The Photographers Ephemeris – is just perfect for working out the lie of the land, not only giving you the opportunity to work out sun position but it will do this taking into account elevations too. You can see sunny areas as well as shade, and thus time your arrival to take advantage of the best light.
Another app that does this to great effect is #Sunseeker, which has a super cool ‘augmented reality’ section, which is great for on-the-spot predictions of sun positions. I never have much luck with weather, so using apps like these are perfect for making notes on where the sun might be at a given time.
Where these apps really work for me is when I’m working out good sunrise locations. On road trips I’ll frequently alter the stop off places because of a good potential sunrise point. It was TPE that alerted me to the beach at St George Island in the Florida panhandle, one of the few places along the State road 98 coast road to offer an uninterrupted view of the dawn.
The Day of the Shoot
The day of my walk to Attingham was a wet and chilly one. Back home, one of the reasons I walk out every day to take a picture or two is practice. I set myself the challenge of taking a decent picture whatever the weather, and on days like this the practice pays off.
The walk to Attingham took me alongside the River Severn and past the hotel I’d spotted earlier. The bridge – or rather bridges – over the river at the house’s Atcham entrance were themselves fabulous subjects. The oldest of the two dates from 1774. The nearby St Eata church, right there on the river bank, dates back to the 11th century. Being gloomy and damp this just made for more moody and atmospheric contrasts to make the most of the light. A walk into the park grounds found gnarly trees and a herd of deer. The house emerged at the top of the drive looking majestic and regal just as the sun began to emerge.
How did I do? Well here’s three different images from the day and as you can see the blue skies smiled on me for once! I spent a lesiurely hour looking for the vantage points I’d noted before my trip, and, having captured a good set of images I zipped up my jacket and headed back into the wind and a brisk walk home.
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