10 Tips for Planning your Photography Location

ten tips for planning your photography session location

So you've booked with the bride and groom and now you are working on where you will go for their engagement or bridal session. Or you are working with a mom on the perfect location for their family pictures.

la caille bridals

Or perhaps you are a bride or groom reading this.  It will give you some of the insight of what goes into planning a photography session.

Anything might come at you when you are out on a shoot, Mother Nature herself!  But if you plan in advance you will be a little more prepared.  Snakes, ant hills, mushy mud, too many BUGS, are the flowers going to be in bloom at that elevation?  Will the snow be melted by then?  Your client EXPECTS you to know these things and to be on top of this kind of information.  Unless it might be the bride's families private property or a friends in which she does the arranging, then you will be responsible for it.

Here are some tips to help you from getting into a snag.

Research and Planning:

Consider the fact that... a great deal of planning will be necessary, especially if you have not yet photographed at a specific location!  So be prepared! The boy scout motto should be yours too.

I will go into each of these more specifically, but you will need to research: Cost, distance, conditions, conflicts or possible complications.

1. Fees and Permits

Unless the bride is getting married at the venue, if you are just coming for a bridal or formal session, then is is pretty much a guarantee there will be a fee.

Most any other private run land will also have fees.  So for starters head to the website.  Sometimes it is made clear, as it is a popular venue for bridal portraits, such as the beautiful Thanksgiving Point Gardens lists on their website.  Other venues will not have it listed in which case you will just need to email or call in person to inquire as to what their fee is.

Permits.  This is a hidden one!  And you may not even be aware that you need one in making the assumption that it is public space etc.  Nature preserves and national parks for example often require special permits and a heads up of when you will be there and how many cars are coming with you.  Part of this is for safety and part of it insurance. Some permits will be per session, ranging from $20-200+, others will be for that network of parks for the year somewhere around $100+.

Other fees are those that you should also inform your client of.  For example, a fee to get into a nature preserve or pay for parking etc. 

2. Reservations

If your bride can only do a specific Saturday, in the evening, and wishes to have her bridals done at a specific venue... then you might be out of luck!  Most venues will have a week day only, or morning only availability as they will already have an event going on. Check their website first, then call, or in some cases you may have to physically go there and see if a number is posted.  This may be the case of a private owned land that allows photography in a smaller way.

3. Policies

Read through, be aware of and informed of any specific locations policies!  They are there for a reason.  For example, the Utah State Capitol, does not allow light stands anymore or allow you to stand or sit on the outside stone structures.  This is for safety, insurance, damage, etc.

4. Conflicting Events

Make it a rule to NEVER assume that just because your location, such as a park or nature area will be available!  Check in advance! And always have a backup location in mind in case for whatever reason it might not work out.

salt lake engagement photography

In the past 8+ years I have had sporting events conflict with either the location itself, or sometimes, getting to a location.  One that really snuck up on me for years was the Salt Lake Marathon.  I would be on my way to an brides session and be stuck again and again because I did not plan for this delay!  Had I planned, and eventually did, I learned to take a route around.  It might sound silly, but so worth it to not have that unprofessional moment on you. A rally, protest, art show, craft show, parade, concert, expo, marathon. food truck event etc could be going on in these local places that are usually empty and catch you be surprise with a lot of difficulty with parking, too many people, unexpected traffic (which could interfere with when you planned for the good light) etc.

If this is what you plan on though and the event is going on, you can always make the most out of it too.  For example, the couple can kiss as craziness of a crowd rushes in front of them with a slow shutter speed, the world can be a blur around them, as they and their love stand still.  It is always a moving shot. (no pun intended:)

5. Be Prepared to get your Indiana Jones On!

This really comes down to good shoes!  STURDY!  Photography is dirty work, sweaty hard core work sometimes!  In the years that I have done this, I have traveled over just about every terrain you can imagine!  And for some of those, I have learned the hard way!

the great salt lake

When I was first starting out, I went to a park session in flip flops.  I was standing on a small hill.  Like very small, but somewhat slippery and steep.  And guess what... my flip flop broke and I slipped and fell and acquired a nasty bruise.  And while I could finish the session, I ended up having to replace the camera too! Lesson learned!  Wear the shoes and clothes that get the job done.

engagements in utah

Let me put this idea of being Nature Ready in a little perspective for you...

Years ago I had a bride that wanted to have that Salt Flats look, but not go the distance, and so we went out to the great salt lake to an area that looked out into the flat zone.  But guess what.... I did NOT consider how much is had rained recently and what that meant for the water level and the condition of the sand/ mud!  IT WAS AWFUL!  And embarrassing.  What I did not do, what come to the location in advance and test it out.  It was feet stuck in the mud bad.  Fortunately my bride has a sense of humor and we quickly.... slowly retreated and found a spot at higher ground.

In the future I made note of the challenges of this location and to be more cognizant of when it was best to photograph out at the Salt Lake.


And other creepy crawly things. You can see more of this engagement session at Antelope Island here.

One of the things you don't think of when you see a elegant bride standing in a beautiful green long grassy field with the wild flowers surrounding her in this most elegant beauty... is.... I wonder if she saw any snakes, had to walk past a few ant hills to find a good spot.  Or, I wonder if bugs got in the dress and were snagged in the netting of her veil.

It is at out best interest to prepare our clients for the possibilities and generally see if they are up for the outdoors or would be better off at another location!  Bug Spray!  GOOD shoes, a sheet for standing or sitting on.  Those elegant laying in the grass shots are best to be on a white sheet that is tucked away just so, so that this beautiful expensive dress does not get muddy or wet!

But OH I haven't even gotten to the creepy and crawlies part yet.

One time I arrived at a location with my client, and while they were getting situated, I walked out into the field to scout out the best ground.  Ant hill free, hole free etc.  If I want to have my couple "frolick", I want to be aware of where I am having them walk and what obstacles might be in their way!

Well... lo and behold what am I to come across but a slithering snake before my feet!  EKKKK... So guess what.  I went away from the snake and found a better spot.  I gave my clients a heads up to be aware, but in a way that didn't stress them out too much. When you are in nature.. guess what, you have to deal with nature!  No surprise there.  I guess we just often don't mentally prepare ourselves for it.

ut wedding photography

And it is moments like this that you think... am I insured!??  Which I am.  Be cautious of your surroundings and be safe!

Second Indiana Jones story.

I loved to get out with my family, and my hubby is big on hiking, so we were hiking in the hills by the Bay.  It was October.  Dry grounds. But beautiful rolling hills, the occasional sun filled tree and overlook.  Naturally, I was taking pictures.  Pretty much every where I am traveling I am thinking about a possible future photography session to plan there.

My husband had the kids a ways up the trail and suddenly.... I almost stepped on a TARANTULA!  EEEKKKK.  I shrieked, jumped back... regained my Indiana Jones... and... took pictures and video.  Haha.  As long as it wasn't going to lunge or jump anywhere I was good.  As this little furry friend made its way in stealth like fashion across the dirt (serious camouflage) I thought... hmmm, I don't think I want to have a couple standing out in the field this time of year at this location. 

Talking to a local friend later, they mentioned that those hills are crawling with those creatures that time of year.  Yikes a bee!

And last Indiana Jones story.

So I was on my way to Antelope Island for an engagement session several years ago.  And running late due to traffic and another consultation running much longer than I anticipated.  On the way out there I looked to my right and saw a pretty park and thought a brief, oh that looks pretty... And that was it (as I mentioned, I am always scouting in the back of my head) we will get to that later. 

I arrive, meet my couple and we get out to do pictures.  Having photographed at Antelope Island before I was aware that it could get a little buggy.  So I did mention this to my client in previous communicating.

And keep in mind as I tell this story, I very adamantly make it clear to my clients, that if at any time they are feeling too uncomfortable, too cold, too anything, we can make adjustments and take a break etc however needed.  My more adventurous clients will choose specific locations and be up for the challenges, mess, bugs etc.

That being said... we got out of our cars... and it was really buggy!  But they were ok with it and we still went for it.  We started on one side of the island and moved fast, from pose to pose to location....

In between we were swatting and shoeing bugs away almost constantly!  These two were so cute and in love they laughed through it all.


Then we drove to the other side of the island parked and got out.  Because of the way the wind was and I guess the other side of the island was protecting or something, the way the wind went around... the bugs on this side of the island were AWFUL!  Thousands of little terrible gnats!

The couple laughed but I could tell were loosing patience. We seriously could not stop moving or our arms would be covered.  IT WAS SO INDIANA JONES!

We saw another photographer there with her couple and they were running too.

We were probably out of the car for a total of 10 minutes and then ran back to the car and headed to the less buggy part of the island.

We did a few more pictures on the beach area there and then headed off the island completely to that other park (remember my back of my mind location scouting?)

This was a cute park and within a short distance so we could get there and catch the sunset in time.

So what is the moral of that story!  Plan, prepare, have a back up location, brace yourself.

What could I have done differently?  Study up on that location better, call and ask the park attendant how the bugs are lately.... See, I am not a bug expert.  Kudos to you if you are... so learning that as it gets warmer and has been wetter recently, that the bugs start hatching like crazy and come out.... GOOD to know!  If I was more aware of that I could have given my clients a better heads up and either come with bug spray ( but believe me, even with all the bug spray those bugs were CRAZY) anyway, being in the know and giving the heads up will better add to your professionalism.  I could have offered some suggestions of the time of year that is better for that location or offer similar alternatives.

6. Be Safe

This should be a no brainer but accidents do happen. When planning the spot, always consider the risks and any ways to avoid those risks.

If someone is placed too close to a drop off, don't assume they will have the best control.  Perhaps the ground will be slippery or the rocks loose.  While the shot may be great don't ever put someone at risk.

This may be applied in nature settings.  I once read of a photographer who posed his bride and groom on the edge of a cliff. Yes, you can imagine it.  Those green rolling hills of beautiful Ireland, or those vibrant red cliffs of southern Utah.  Well in the saddest of accidents, the bride slipped and fell to her death.

  1. Test out the spot for yourself first. 2. NEVER place someone in a dangerous situation and 3. ALWAYS be sure your client is comfortable.

A professionally done setup, for example, such as a baby on a tree swing.... is a composite shot made up of different images, safely done with the help of an assistant, a beanbag and no risk.  A couple can just as well be far back from danger in the same lighting and moved digitally if you are going for a specific edgy look.

Also ask yourself if the location you have chosen will make you and your client feel safe?  Graffiti walls in a shady part of town near sundown.... errr maybe not.  Always use your instincts.

7. Be Insured

Those topics we discussed earlier, bugs, snakes, a twisted ankle. You name it! Personally I am insured with HISCOX insurance. Be covered!

This also applies to sometimes even being able to photograph at certain locations.  While it is an important business decision to carry insurance in the first place, you may find you get the breaks before getting to photograph at places, like the beach, national parks, venues, a hotel lobby etc.

8. Elevation and Terrain

Say what now?  We aren't climbing Everest!  Yes.... but you are planning pictures.  High elevations will take longer to have the snow melt, for it to get greener, warmer, AND for flowers and trees to blossom.  AND this will tend to vary a little depending on how the season has gone with the snow/ rain etc.

engagements at tibble fork reservoir at sunset

Regarding seasonal locations at higher elevations, picnic grounds or parks up the canyon for example do not open until the warmer season, so be aware of when that is so you will be able to access it!

And as I mentioned with the flowers, it changes quickly.  I had photographed at a particular field and came back to that same field for a bridal session 2 weeks later... and with the weather, rain etc, guess what.. the wild flowers were gone!  So we had to creatively go on the hunt for flowers.

On this note, I should say, your pricing should reflect the TIME it takes you to scout out locations regularly.  Either you should be well informed of a select set of locations, or charge an additional fee for further custom locations (especially those that are far out of your way.) OR invite your client to scout out their own location.... but be cautious of that... they are likely not to think these things through the way you do and therefore you might end up in a pickle, so it is best to take the reigns on this one.  And with that, also note that this is exactly the reason you should not do a custom location for the less expensive mini sessions!

And then there is the terrain.

Prepare your clients for what shoes to wear, perhaps a bottle of water and a towel to wash off sticky sand feet at the beach (or be prepared yourself by bringing that along)... Closed shoes in a field (their feet hide in the grass anyway)

And be prepared for the grade of the terrain.  That amount of up or down and distance.  While the bride may be adventurous, her mom or sister tagging along may not be.  So communicate with those who will attend so they are aware.  I once scouted out a very specific beautiful location for a bride and didn't think enough of the distance.  It wasn't that far for me, maybe 12 minutes of walking.... but ended up taking 3x as long. Traveling with a crew is much different. Simply discuss this all with your crew in person and you are less likely to have any hiccups.  You can always recommend another location.

For families, choose locations that are both convenient and safe with the terrain.  A while ago I photographed a small family with a baby in arms (under 1) near the cliffs in Santa Cruz.  THIS WOULD NOT BE GOOD CHOICE FOR TODDLERS!  I just kept thinking how stressed I would be with a little one running about there. That much should be obvious, but  as beautiful as a location might be, always consider the people first.

For a large party portrait session, the location should be VERY convenient.  Especially concerning the terrain and weather conditions.   The larger the group the larger the variations will be in ages too.

For example, years ago I photographed a family who really wanted snow and aspen tree's.  I suggested a few locations and came back to my client with them.  We decided on this beautiful snowy location with mountain backdrops and aspens.  It was during Thanksgiving time, the perfect time of year when all the family was together.  I was very glad of the convenience of the parking lot within feet of where we were posing everyone for pictures.  It was CHILLY!  We did our large group shot of 20+ in some spots where the snow had previously be trodden down (though we still tromped through some snow to get there)  Then for doing the variation of smaller immediate families, the rest of the families could enjoy the warm comfort of their cars!  We still moved quickly with the session, but I was SO glad of the convenience of the parking lot.

9. Parking

Seems a funny question, but you should do everything you can to prepare your client for the location so that you can start the session and have things run smoothly.

Parking should of course be legal, safe, may require a fee, only have certain hours etc.  Be informed of these and how it may effect you.  If you are in a busy downtown area, give them a few options for parking and an estimate of what it will cost.  If they only accept cash, help your clients be prepared for that.... fortunately things are changing and most parking garages accept credit cards... but remember any stresses or frustrations related to the locations that YOU suggest will reflect on you.  Help inform your client how much time you recommend they come early to allow for parking etc.

One example of this, is the mini sessions I did at Temple Square in Salt Lake City one year with the Christmas lights.  THIS was an adventure.  I did portrait sessions back to back about 10 minutes each.  A great way to bond families for the holiday season.  Some were not prepared for how much time it would take to park and 2 ended up missing their sessions entirely as I had not helped them prepare enough.  So I waited and waited and moved onto the next client. Squeezed some in later... did what I could.

On that note be sure to help inform your client how long it will take to get to the location, with the estimate of traffic etc.  As well as a link with directions to get there.  Even digital maps can mess it up sometimes.  I once had a client take a completely different pass over the other side of the mountain but I could communicate with her because the location was out of cell service.  The perfect light I had planned on went down.  Do everything you can to prepare your client so things can go smoothly.

10. Lighting

It's funny, as a photographer, whenever we walk into possible new places to live, whenever we have moved, the very first thing I am looking at and thinking about is the quality of natural light.

As photographers we just learn to see light.  So should you when location scouting.

While it is important to be educated in working with all types of light, planning to work with the best kind of light is even better.  While this more so has to do with the time of day you plan a session

or wedding portraits (which we will discuss in another post), such as planning for the magic hour, it also applies to your location at that time of day.

However, a client may not have as much flexibility, but you can encourage a location that will have a more desired light.

Some examples will be the direction of light.  One mountain backdrop location I love for example, is only ideal for morning sessions.  Any other time of day the light would be too harsh and direct and of course the last thing you want it to have you subject squinting into the sun.

This canyon location is lovely with the light bending around the curve of the mountain. 2 hours later and the location falls in shadow.  Not quite the same rich and romantic vibe.  Planning is everything!

This may also apply at a church or temple grounds.  Tour the area in advance and take note of when and where the shades hit etc.

If your client is wanting a sunkissed look with light in the hair, be informed of when the light in the canyon you are photographing in may all fall in shadow, even though sunset is not for a few more hours.  You may have to plan a portion of the session up in the hills instead.

In conclusion, know where you are going before you get there, have a back out option (which you may plan and plan and sometimes there is just something less foreseeable). Inform your client and be prepared to roll with it should something about a location not work out.

If you are located in Utah, check out this amazing list of photography locations in Utah and be sure to purchase our Complete Photography Locations Resource Guide UTAH by emailing Rebecca at effervescentmediaworks@gmail.com

Included in the guide is:

Hundreds of collective hours of research, scouting and personal experience, 500+ pages of info, 200+ utah photography locations, A map complete with exact coordinate of locations, descriptions and details, pictures, tips for best times to shoot there, policies, pricing, availability, lighting notes, parking notes, season examples, ability to search by various categories including location type, by city, by county, by price, pro’s and con’s of each location, bug/ smell/ wind notes, recommendations of what types of session would it best fit and seasonal/ terrain notes.  Phew! If that is not worth the bang for your buck and essentially hundreds of hours of the planning it has taken me over the past 8 years of wedding and portrait photography, I don’t know what is!

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