Posted by: kerryl29 | April 3, 2017

Scouting: The Nuts and Bolts

So, having gotten your attention about scouting–and the importance of doing it–I’m now going to talk about the actual process of scouting:  how I go about it and what I actually do.

Mangroves, West Lake,, Everglades National Park, Florida

Pre-Scouting (a.k.a. Research)

It’s not actually scouting per se, but it’s related, sometimes directly, sometimes indirectly; I’m talking about research.  Prior to making a photo trip I gather information–from a variety of sources including but not necessarily limited to guide books, ebooks, websites and direct contact with people with direct experience–which I use to inform my decision about which places to scout when I’m on the ground at the given locale.

Long Pine Lake Black & White, Long Pine Key, Everglades National Park, Florida

For example, I mentioned that the park road in the southern section of Everglades National Park runs 40-odd miles.  My research highlighted a number of specific spots along that road to investigate.  That doesn’t necessarily mean that I won’t expand that list of spots; it also doesn’t mean that I will necessarily visit every highlighted spot.  But it provides a welcome starting point for further investigation.

Long Pine Key Trail, Long Pine Key, Everglades National Park, Florida

Scouting:  A Definition

So what is scouting, broadly speaking?  In a nutshell, it’s visiting a location to see if it’s worthy of photographing and if it is, precisely when and how.  Note that this implies that it’s possible that a location may be judged not worthy of photo treatment.  In fact, this happens more frequently than I’d like.

Thatch Palm Intimate, Mahogany Hammock, Everglades National Park, Florida

On the Ground

So what exactly constitutes the act of scouting, at least as I carry it out?  It varies, depending on the specific location.  The variance is ordinarily a function of how much I already know about the spot in question before I arrive on the scene.

Long Pine Key Trail in Morning Fog, Long Pine Key, Everglades National Park, Florida

Specific Spots

For instance, if I’m scouting a specific location that I learned about during the research phase of the process, I will (usually) drive myself to that location and then conduct the scouting session entirely on foot.  What exactly do I do?  It depends to some degree on the location itself, but there’s a general rule of thumb.  Allow me to use the example of Pine Glades Lake in the Everglades to illustrate.

Pine Glades Lake, Everglades National Park, Florida

Pine Glades Lake, a spot I learned about from Paul Marcellin’s ebook on photographing the Everglades, is located about 3/4 of a mile down an unpaved, unsigned road off the main park road.  Since this was a spot I’d discovered during the research phase I arrived with some sense of what the location had to offer.  But–and this is a key point–there’s “knowing something” about a place based on a written description and there’s actually scouting a location, in three dimensions and real time, with the opportunity to look at specifics.  The first part–the background information–is valuable.  The second part–the in-person scout–is critical.

Mangrove Intimate Black & White, West Lake, Everglades National Park, Florida

I arrived at the lake, got out of the car and started looking around.  What was I looking for?  First, a holistic sense of the location.  What kind of access is there to the lake shore?  What directions could I face?  The parking area is on the east side of the lake but there’s a trail (of sorts) that provides access to both the north and south sides as well.  What’s the background like in these various locations?  What kind of foreground and mid-ground options are there in different spots?  Are there rocks or grasses or other elements that make for good choices?  What about reflections?  Is the location sheltered enough for reflections to be present in a light breeze or is dead calm required?  How will directional light at different times of day impact the scene?  These are the kinds of questions I asked myself when I scouted Pine Glades Lake on my first full day in the Everglades.

Pine Glades Lake Reflection Abstract, Everglades National Park, Florida

Of course, if there are different elements present at least some of the specific questions will be different.  For instance, when I was on the Oregon Coast a couple of years ago I was dealing with far different topography and issues involving things like tides and their impact on the scene, prevalence of wind, the relative positioning of seastacks, and so forth.  But the fundamental questions are largely, if not entirely, the same:  backgrounds, foregrounds, light, access, etc.

Long Pine Lake Sunrise Reflections, Long Pine Key, Everglades National Park, Florida

The “notes” I make when scouting are of the mental variety with the exception of marking the spot on a GPS unit I take with me wherever I go so that I can easily find the location, particularly if I think I might want to arrive there again in the dark (thing a would-be sunrise location).  My visual memory is such that I’ll remember the details for future reference…as long as it’s the near future.

Slash Pine Bark Abstract, Pinewood Trail, Everglades National Park, Florida

So what did I actually learn from my scouting session at Pine Glades Lake?

  1. The best time to shoot at the location would be at sunset
  2. There were several specific spots that were worth photographing from, but the best spot (to my eyes) was a location with a series of foreground rocks
  3. The reflections were potentially nice but even a slight breeze would cause all kinds of rippling in the water as the location isn’t sheltered at all

Near Long Pine Lake, Long Pine Key, Everglades National Park, Florida

You can see how helpful this would be going forward.  I knew that this location would only be under consideration for a late afternoon/sunset shoot when there was little or no wind.  For other times of day, I could focus on other locations.  Ditto for late afternoon/evening when there was a breeze.  Knowing where not to go can be as important and as actionable as knowing where to go.

Long Pine Key Trail in Morning Fog Black & White, Long Pine Key, Everglades National Park, Florida

General Locations

My modus operandi is, superficially, a bit different when I’m more generally exploring an area–hiking a trail, say, with the intention of photographing along the way.  In such an instance–my hiking of the Long Pine Key Trail in the Everglades,  I’m not exploring a specific spot; I’m moving, on foot, which makes the experience a dynamic one.  In this case, I’m looking for something that catches my eye as I move along.  If I find something interesting, then I essentially replicate the process above:  I’ve found a subject that I think is photo worthy; how do I go about best capturing it?  That’s the broad question which is operationalized by going through the process outlined earlier.  Included in that expansive question is the implicit possibility that it might be best captured at a different time of day and/or under different weather conditions.

Rock Reef Pass, Everglades National Park, Florida

Serendipitous Locations

And then there are the spots I’m not actively seeking out.  This is a kind of variation of the “general locations” approach.  The primary difference is that it’s typically something I see from the car that gains my attention.  When this happens–as it did repeatedly during my time in the Everglades, be it from the main park road, the Pa-hay-okee Road, the Mahogany Hammock Road or any of the other spots along the way–the one thing I always do is stop the car, get out and scout the location on foot.  It’s impossible to properly scout a location from a vehicle; you have to get out and move around.  When I do that, I follow the process outlined in the first section above.

Long Pine Lake Black & White, Long Pine Key, Everglades National Park, Florida

 

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Responses

  1. You’re absolutely right about getting out of the car. The only time I stay in the car is in the presence of birds. I often can get much closer to them from my “mobile blind” than if I make a single move to open the door and get out.

    One example of what you’re talking about comes to mind. There is a local bayou that runs north and south. On the west side, it’s filled with trees and bushes that serve as a roost for hundreds of egrets and herons. I finally figured out that only sunrise photos would do there. In late afternoon, the west bank simply is too dark for any kind of decent photo. Learning how to evaluate such things is the trick, and it’s the intentionality you advise that’s key.

    • To really investigate landscape opportunities, you really must explore on foot. For example, one of the biggest mistakes I see people make is seeing reflections from the car…not realizing that moving into a viable shooting position can (often will) completely change what is (and is not) reflected in a body of water. There are many other comparable instances, of course.

      Your description of your bayou experience is a perfect example of the kind of critically important information scouting can reveal. Thanks for sharing it.

  2. This is a great primer on location scouting and the thought processes involved. I am thinking of practicing the mental note taking when I’m out and about around home so I will be better prepared to do it when time is more of a consideration.
    Oh, and the images are beautiful. I like all of them in this set, but the pine bark abstract is particularly appealing.

    • Thanks, Ellen.

      Re note taking, I just want to make a point that I overlooked in the post: if taking actual, physical notes is better for you (and by “you” I’m using the word impersonally–that is, if anyone finds taking physical notes better, etc.) and how you work, by all means, go that route. There are no hard and fast rules covering procedural specifics.

      • When I wrote my comment, I almost said, “Written notes might work better for me than trying to keep mental notes.” Having read a number of photographic field guides, including yours on the UP, I can see commonalities in the scouting checklists. It would help me to create a template for recording that information to be consistent and eventually have it become more of a mental process than a written one.

        • Whatever works. I think the basic guide to assembling a set of formal or informal scouting questions is to implicitly ask yourself “what would I be thinking about implementing if this was a perfect time to photograph this locale?” In other words, how would I be photographing this spot under (essentially) ideal conditions? It can be a bit tricky to imagine a place under such circumstances when the reality is different, but with a bit of practice it will become more and more of a natural exercise. Answering that basic question will give you entree to the literal or mental notes that will form a useful scouting compendium.


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