When shooting on-location, you have a lot less control as a photographer than in a studio. Here’s how I organise and plan my on-location shoots so that I can work to a location’s strengths and ensure a successful shoot, as well as some example locations that are publicly accessible around Sydney. Note that this advice is not for large commercial teams or projects - those will usually need permits. But if you’re shooting light for creative projects and portfolio development, this advice may be right up your alley.
I have to be quite flexible with the location for my shoots. I select a location based on one or more of the following factors: Shoot Style, Time of Day & Geographical Area.
The style of shoot can be your biggest factor when selecting a location. This can include shooting for swim, street, etc. or simply knowing you have to shoot at a particular location by request. If you’re lucky though, you have creative control to influence this in some way. For example, swimwear may look just as good at a garden, beach house or pool and doesn’t technically require a beach in sight. The more creative you are with your locations, the more interesting and novel your shoots will be.
Recognise the strengths of different location types and adjust your shoot to take advantage of them. Keep a shortlist of locations that have worked for you so you’re not starting from scratch for every shoot, which can be hard. I save my locations on Google Maps so I can review them when looking at the area I might look to shoot in.
Time of Day
This to me is the factor with the biggest impact on the look of your photos. When you don’t have time to scout locations (and I don’t), you can instead rely on a couple of great tools: Google Maps and Suncalc. Suncalc overlays a Google Maps location and shows you the arc of the sun throughout a calendar day. It will give you a pretty good idea of where the sun will be, and based on the type of location you can use this to decide whether it’s appropriate for your aesthetic.
For example, shooting a late afternoon session on an east-facing beach will probably see you plunged into darkness well before sunset as the buildings cast a shadow over the whole beach. Using suncalc can instead help you find locations that might be facing more towards the sun and therefore get you more time to shoot (I use Vaucluse a lot for late afternoon shoots).
Personally my favourite times of day are during sunrise and sunset so that I can get more interesting natural light punching through the shot. When it comes to shooting inland, streetview and community-submitted photos are also your friend because buildings and elevation can limit the type of light you’ll have and viewing the street imagery will help you see what you’re in for.
There’s also a case to be made about shooting indoors - if you’re lucky enough to have a place offered. I’ve done a number of shoots in an apartment and used the furnishings and decorations to modify the light and create some really great scenes.
If I’m shooting when the sun is high in the sky, I look for man-made structures that can give me more interesting backgrounds, but can also shield myself and the model from the sun - or even act as a reflector to provide more even light. Fortunately the more limited you are the more creative you have to be.
If the sun is high and you are struggling to find structures to help you, instead adjust poses to make use of the light. Embrace the harsh lighting! Focus instead on the leading lines, the shadows and the overall mood of the day that you and your model have control of.
You’ll also have to address the location types available to you. If you live on the coast, you may have access to heaps of great beaches. If you live inland, not so much - but perhaps you can find a lake, lagoon, or pool if you need water. If you live in mountains and pick your time of day appropriately, you’ll get some stunning images. I am fortunate to live in Sydney and have access to some of the greatest beach locations, but you’ll find a lot of my work is shot all over Sydney or a few hours out.
Sometimes the geographical area doesn’t matter so much, if you nail your styling and pick a time of day with great lighting. Sometimes I just shoot down an alley.
Check out your local tennis/basketball courts and book a slot when it’s not busy. Use the colours and lines to your advantage.
It’s easy to think you’re limited by only having access to public spaces for shoots. But then I remember how I wouldn’t have come up with a lot of the lighting, backdrops and poses without being challenged in the first place. Think critically about your surroundings - what types of public spaces are there? What about alleyways, or interesting homes? Rooftops, backyards, even carparks can all allow you to be creative and produce something amazing. Locations that I’ve struggled with the most have yielded some of my favourite photos due to the unusual angles, lighting and backdrops that resulted from it.