Virtual Photo Scouting

Float Plane

Float Plane | Beebower Productions

The Valdez oil spill made a challenging situation even more so.  The year—1989.  Dad had landed the Red Man Chewing Tobacco ad campaign.  He needed to find the perfect lake for his photo and to make the advertising director a happy camper.  Dad’s research led him to Alaska and a red float plane.  He jetted off to “The Last Frontier” in search of picturesque lakes, tools and props for his photo.

Upon arrival, Dad discovered the oil spill made acquiring some of that necessary equipment difficult.  He not only needed a great location, his scouting trip also provided the opportunity to lock in the float plane, pilot and tools like a hale pump that would be used to create a rain storm.  Unfortunately all of the pumps were being used to clean up Prince William Sound.  Dad spent a lot more time and money tracking down the pump he’d use on this multi-photo expedition.

Location scouting used to be an expensive and time-consuming event for photographers.  How did a photographer even begin to find the perfect spot for his photo much less the props and tools for the shoot?

Back in the old days, Dad started by looking at coffee table books on travel photography.  In the case of the Red Man ad, Dad knew Alaska would have the lake plus the mountains necessary to make the float plane photo pop.  The photo books gave him ideas of where to start looking for the lake in Alaska. 

From there Dad would make oodles of phone calls trying to determine if the area was accessible to the public, if permits were needed and how to reach the lake.  He would talk to national park rangers, the state’s film commission, float plane companies and hotels.  He would try to nail down as much information as he could before leaving Dallas.

Sometimes those phone calls worked, assuming the recipients answered and knew enough to help Dad.  Eventually, though, he’d have to fly to Alaska.  He needed to look through the lens at the location and make sure it would work.  He also had to find that pesky Hale pump in person because phone calls weren’t cutting it.

Today the Internet and other technology make virtual photo scouting much more successful, cheaper and easier.  Let’s take a look at some of the tools Dad uses now.

Today’s Tools

Magazine websites

Dad doesn’t do corporate advertising photography any longer.  He’s into the Western, wildlife and landscape photos.  He’s found great information about bird locations at Bird Watching magazine’s website.  Outdoor Photographer’s site has a whole section titled “locations” complete with pictures and detailed information on landscape locations.  Surfing magazines on the web can provide some excellent leads for locations.

Industry websites

If you want expertise, go to the experts.  Dad uses websites like because it’s put together by photographers for photographers.  Under the “articles” section you can choose “travel”.  A plethora of wildlife and landscape articles appear, each containing photographs and reports on that location.

In addition to organizations, photographers today usually have blogs on their websites, many with detailed information on shooting locations.  Often their images also have captions that give the locations.  If professional photographers are spending time in a certain area it’s a pretty good bet there’s something really exciting there.  Dad can quickly get a visual of the location and information about the area from his fellow photographers.


You can purchase and instantly download all sorts of e-books written by photographers, outdoor adventurers, travel writers, etc. These books give you photographs and information about locations around the world.  Often they give you the nitty gritty of visiting the area, too.  Simply use Google to search for key words on the type of location you’re looking for and all sorts of e-book possibilities pop up.

Keyhole Arch

Keyhole Arch | Beebower Productions

An e-book about photographing Big Sur actually saved our bacon this spring.  We’d heard about the fabled Keyhole Arch in California.  Dad and I wanted to check it out, but after two fruitless trips down the coast we came up empty.  We had directions from a website, but many roads in the area weren’t marked with a sign.  We had zero success until we got the GPS coordinates from the aforementioned e-book.


Google’s powerful search engine can provide a plethora of tips for location scouting.  For example, if you search for Mendoza Canyon, Arizona you’ll quickly learn about the landscape from rock climbing and hiking websites, YouTube videos and Bureau of Land Management websites.  Google even pulls up photos of the area under the “images” section.

Duck Hunt | Beebower Productions

Duck Hunt | Beebower Productions

Dad’s photograph of a duck hunter at Lake Pontchartrain would have been much easier if he’d had Google at his disposal, but he had to location scout the 630 square miles of lake old-school style.  It turned out to be quite an adventure.  (You can read about that photo shoot here.)

Google Maps

Another great feature of Google that helps Dad is the map.  He can calculate drive time from his hotel to the photo set, determine the best way to reach the set and even get a satellite view of the area.  All of this helps him plan a successful photo shoot by clearly showing him how to allot his time for driving, what hotels are closest, and what the area looks like.

GPS coordinates

No matter how much research you do on a location, eventually you have to actually visit the spot to see if it will really work for your photo.  Dad’s found that even with the best directions, there’s one piece of modern equipment that can save you hours of frustration—a GPS unit.

Some locations can be buggers to find.  Take for example, the Keyhole Arch adventure I mentioned earlier.  We didn’t find Pfeiffer Beach in Big Sur, CA until we returned with GPS coordinates.  We wasted a lot of time and gas driving back and forth.  This little piece of technology can save photographers some major headaches when location scouting.  


We have one other piece of technology that gives Dad an advantage when trying to find the perfect setting for a photograph.  While Dad fully embraces the Internet for location scouting, Photoshop allows Dad to take images in multiple locations and merge them together into one image.  That means Dad doesn’t have to find the perfect location, he can make it in Photoshop.  That gives him great freedom compared to the old days where one photo had to have all the elements the advertising director wanted.

These tools have provided great information to Dad and allowed him to spend more time taking the photo rather than scouting the photo. 

What modern tools have helped you find the perfect location for your photos?