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Scouting Locations

Lesson 12 from: Photographing America's National Parks

Ian Shive

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Lesson Info

12. Scouting Locations

Lesson Info

Scouting Locations

Every trick, every tip, every thought that I've ever had about photographing in nature I'm sharing over the course of these three days and yesterday was absolutely a killer start to that what you're about to see is scouting, and when people talk about photography and they talk about tips and tricks, they really tend to focus on the technical aspects f said enough stops and aperture settings, shutter speeds and all of that kind of thing, but what they don't often talk about is scouting it's like one of the most overlooked things, in my opinion, for teaching how to get incredible photographs. And so this next segment that you're about to see really will take you behind the lens and behind the thought process of what I go through when I try to make great images it's not about just always getting out there and having a camera in your hand and trying different things, but actually getting out of the car and checking out around the next bend going down into the water, sometimes taking off yo...

ur shoes and getting into the water and going around the next bend and figuring out is this a place I want to be? And it also really gives you something to do when you maybe aren't taking photographs like that mid day light where everyone is like, well, do we really want to be shooting this or you know, not really well yeah, you could you could make that mid midday light work for you by paying attention to it, see where it's going and visiting places over and over again and as you're about to see in this next segment, we didn't just visit the same places over again when we went a nine, ten times and finally after six days did the scouting actually finally pay off and give me what I thought was the best shot of the day, so he will cut away go to this segment and you could see how the scouting went when mount rainier national park so well most people don't realize is that scouting is a fundamental part of great photography and it's a great way to fill up the middle of the day when the light is not the best. Um most of my time is a photographer is spent driving around honestly driving around in circles uh pulling in two different stops getting out, walking around for a few minutes, getting back in the car, driving another hundred feet, getting out, walking around for a few minutes of getting back in the car it's a very unglamorous side of nature photography but it's also a lot of fun a lot of times you khun sneak in a quick hike, you could check out things but really it's the opportunity to find places find your greater long term opportunity you know the magic hour later in the night those shots that you are gonna love for years to come they're usually discovered in the middle of the day on the scouting trip there's not a photo assignment that I do that I don't go out and spend every daylight hour driving, walking, hiking, crawling under logs, stepping out into bridges and the water up to my knees you name it anything I can do to go and find what I consider the perfect location. So as I said, a lot of my day spent driving behind the wheel way here at the gates of mount rainier national park and I'm all about capturing every step along the way on every trip, so I want to figure out how to capture this and of course we'll scouting and checking things out is you got to get out of the car and you've got to walk around a little bit, so I'm going to get up to here and instead of just shooting from the back or getting a long lens, I'm gonna actually get right up on top of it with a wide angle lens I'm using a sixteen to thirty five millimetre and I'm thinking about the shot and I'm looking if you notice there's two different sides to the road there's the shady your side and then there's the sunny side I'm not going to shoot in this shady side because everything on here will be really, really hot and this would be a little bit too dark and so for me to actually get the shot that I'm picturing in my head, I'm probably going across the street not probably I am going across the street and I'm going to try and get the sun actually coming towards the lens, so everything is backward, it'll give it kind of more of a magical look to it, you know? It'll it'll kind of let you bring up, especially in post production, and when I get this in a photo shop and let me take the blacks and the contrast and boost them up and give it a little bit more of a feel and I'm going after that summer vacation type of imagery, and so a soon as I can safely cross the street, I'm going to do so. All right, so I cross the street and you could see how bright it is, everything super, super bright, the sun's coming down and I'm looking at the shadows down on the ground and I know that I don't want the sun to hit my lands and all the all the dust and everything that's on there's give you super accentuated, I won't have to clean it up later, so by standing in the shade making sure that the front of the lens is actually in the shade, which is actually right about here that's when I'll go and I'll get my angle and I can see the other thing I like about being on the on the right side of the road versus the left side is not only the fact that it's backlit, but the national park service sign is up here on the pole, and so that becomes a good element on the right. I've got the mount rainier national park sign in the middle, and then I've got the road kind of running through and those with lines I'm looking for that I'm going to go, and I'm gonna make a slow of a shutter speed as possible so that when a car drives by, I can slow it down and make it kind of blurry, and it shows people entering the park, and then I get a little bit of motion blur, and I can see the cars that passes through the gate, and it gives it that idea of entering in your national park and so it's. A simple is that in order to get that slow, shutter speed was achieved in bright daylight by making sure my eyes so the sensitivity of the cameras down at one hundred. That the aperture was all the way at its smallest setting, which is also the largest number f twenty two wide angle and then just a lot of patients and a steady hand, and as the cars come through, just push the shutter everything leading up to this moment when I first get into a national park and driving in and start scouting, start looking for locations, everything leading up to that moment is is just a cz important as being here to take photos. Um, last couple weeks, I've been going online and just putting a ton of research into every detail, every corner of the park sphere out where doe I want to go? What am I looking for? What should I expect? Um, and that goes on for a lot of different levels. So for instance, I know this time of year is peak wildflower season, so I want to know, where am I going to see those great fields of wildflowers? And where will they be with the mountain behind them? And, you know, rainfall plays a huge role in well, kind of wildflower season, we're gonna have also plays a huge role in what's gonna happen while I'm here today and over the next few days, so, you know, I've got a look at the weather look at the different conditions. And then I'm thinking about it the entire time how am I going to compose and what am I going to do differently? Uh, one of the things that's been really important to me is a national park photographer has been too not just go into a national park and photograph the same stereotypical shots but to go and do something completely different to take it a step beyond and go another layer forward in your composition in the style and you know you're already in this extraordinary place how do you make it eve? How do you capture that and how do you get it even more extraordinary uh through creating great images so preparation lets talk about weather a little bit so weather is one of the most unpredictable aspects of photographing as a nature photographer is probably the most unpredictable aspect of it um and it is also the most critical aspect because it defines what your images are gonna look like the first time I came to re international park I thought, ok, I've got a couple of days it's gonna be awesome and photographed the mountain and in fact I got here and everything will shrouded in fog so thick that I couldn't see the front hood of my car today we get here and they're just a couple of white puffy clouds in the sky and nice blue deep blue skies and it's perfect for photographing so you have always an unpredictable aspect of it, so following what the weather is going to do, making sure you know what's going on is on is very critical. Um the weather for this couple days for this particular shoot looked ideal. I'm always looking for something where it's a little bit partly cloudy I'm not ever looking for those crystal clear days they're great, but they're really hard to make dynamic photos because you don't get any texture, you know, getting shape in the skies, so the second I see partly cloudy that's a window of time that I know I want to go to this park, I want to go on maker a landscape photographs because I know I've got that texture that I'm looking for. If it's going to rain, it doesn't mean I have to rule out my shoot, it just means I need to change my approach to everything. Thankfully on this trip, we're not anticipating any rain, but then again we are in washington state's you never know what we're going to see if you notice I just stopped on the side of the road because the weather has changed in the last ten minutes it's no longer that perfect bluebird day I was talking about, but instead the cloud that started to roll in and initially it looked pretty cool there is a mountain up here that was sticking out above the tree line, and I thought I'd make a great shot is going to change my lens see if I can kind of hone in on these clouds swirling around the peaks, and by the time I got out of the car, got the lens on and looked up, the mountain is completely gone, so classic example of, uh, changing weather changing the day of what you're gonna photograph way stopped here on the side of the road, you'll notice that the weather has changed again five minutes later, it's now getting more overcast this time, a bit windy and then the sun every now and then end up suddenly coming out, but I stopped because we crossed a bridge over there that looked like it had some potential. There was a little bit of a waterfall, some rock formations and that's classic scouting. This is what this is for. I'm gonna stop see what's going on out there and you'll notice that brought all my gear got the camera, I got the tripod and I've got my backpack and bringing everything because you don't know if when you go and check something out, it could be a great place to stop and actually take pictures, or maybe it's going to be great place later, I don't know. But either way, I wouldn't be prepared for everything, so I bring all my gear and go and check it out so that's what we're gonna do, we're gonna now take a walk down this trail, make sure we don't get lost on the way and see what we see so I've cleared all the cobwebs off the trail it's always a good thing for scatting kind of all over me, but either way is I keep going and I keep looking around every band it's changing and I'm still not really sure if if this is, you know, a place that's gonna work out. So the thing I'm looking at as I see the sun on one side of a creek down here and a lot of spotty light, which doesn't really work that well for landscaping looking for really balanced like that could happen because we have clouds going overhead so that you never know the clouds come in everything and all the white will get nice and even in which case getting details such as this water could work out really well, so I'm gonna go check it out uh keep following this trail around and see if there's any good compositions that I like and we'll see what happens all right? So the trail led us down a here and here being panther creek waste, according to the sign up on the road and it looks pretty cool. So the best thing for me on a scouting trip is to actually start taking pictures, sure making compositions and see, are they working? They might work right now, they might not work at all, and I might want to come back later or at night in the evening under different conditions. Maybe when the sun's out, maybe when there's no sun out, I don't know, but in order to find out, I'm actually going to use my camera, actually take pictures and take pictures that could end up being great pictures could be keepers or might be total garbage, but either way, I know that I'll be able to reference them later as a spot teo comeback teo or if I've got it, then I'm good to go, uh, first thing I'd like to do on a scouting trip to once I get comfortable and I finished the hiking trail or whatever it is I'm on this set up a little base camp for myself, get my tripod down, get my backpack that way, I'm not carrying everything, especially if I'm working your water don't have to carry everything down there and then slip and fall, because I tend to be a little clumsy, so I'm gonna leave everything here that I need I'm gonna probably just bring a wide angle I'm gonna bring my tripod I'm actually go down and try and make some compositions that I think will work really well and from from there we'll see what we get way alright, so an initial glance everything about this spot is pretty awesome clouds come in, the light is nice and even and there's a ton of areas teo really working and get great angles so for me this is like an ideal water place to get compositions this particular scouting trip worked out perfectly if I say this is a good stop. All right, so now that I've hiked all the way up to sort of the exit of this waterfall here panther creek I'm looking around, I see the rocks, I see the patterns I also see a ledge over on the other side and I'm thinking to myself, I'm not exactly prepared for this I probably could have been more prepared for water but more prepared for cooler kind of temperatures. But that's a good point of scouting is what geared actually bring with you so you know, maybe you're just a pair of swim trunks to go and actually get out there and some flipflops like a walk on the rocks for you know, maybe I'm going to just cross over here and perched myself up on that ledge either way, by visiting the area, scouting it out, making mental notes maybe even writing down some these things like hey next time come back when the conditions were perfect for the pair of swim trunks and some flip flops there's some sort of a sandal and I'll be able to walk out there and actually get the shot that I'm visualizing in my head so again this gives me a great opportunity to sort of pre visualized and not only figure out what I want to do as a composition but also what year do I need to bring with me when I get out here? What about scouting? I am also not just looking at color and light and what I need in gear, but I'm also looking for a patterns in nature some sort of a center of focus things that will draw your eye line through the frame. And so as I walked down a trail like this I'm looking at the water of looking at the branches I'm looking under the leaves under the branches will get the mushrooms growing on a log I'm looking at how the water and the leaves in front of the water might look when compared to each other and to see what the with the colors look like they blend too much is there a good sort of contrast between the two? So I'm constantly looking and constantly trying to find that perfect shot so scouting is is again just about getting out, taking a walk down a trail and looking for what that critical element is like to call the centre of focus and every photograph I saw this beach from up in the woods and when you're looking through trees looks kind of cool for the big opening and I saw the water in the rocks and some formations but then when I got down here I didn't really see that center of focus I'm I'm talking about I look at it it's just a pool of water and it looks pretty and looks like a great spot to go for a swim but reality is for me photographically I'm not really seeing anything when I look up this direction I see sticks and branch is kind of a car and there's some white water but again I don't really have the centre of focus and all of the stuff that's piled up along the river there's not much you can ever do to really make that look super pretty and I'm going after those epic landscape shots that counter worthy it's not to say that this isn't beautiful because any time you get out in a national park uh very lucky and of course it's beautiful but photographically this isn't something that we catch my eye this is something that look great from a distance but when I got close didn't really pan out to anything so while hiking along the trail we came across this gigantic tree right here and immediately caught my eye because the light's coming in on the side and is very contrast in the contrast creates these lines and for me just kind of checking things out and scouting it you know it's attractive because it gives you that clear center of focus that I keep talking about which is sort of something to draw your eye through a frame so when I think of maybe a vertical photo or or even a horizontal photo of this tree I know I've got thes lines at your eye when you actually look at the final photo will be drawn to the downside is it's very very contrast it to the point where it also kind of doesn't work so when I look up and see how the light changes and shifts then this is a place that would work but not right now wait just pulled into reflection lakes and we got mount rainier in the background sort of you can see the clouds really blown in and you could tell that we have a parking lot running along the whole side of this and so the idea is you pull into reflection lake you want to capture a shop for the reflection so this is a great opportunity for me tio sort of use the whole conceptualization pre visualization idea which is think about something in your mind what do you want to be and they get to the location and find out where is the best place to get to that that idea that visual idea that you have in your head that pre visualization of that concept so when we get here I wanna be able to walk around we're gonna take a little walk around a loop trail see if there's any good spots where I can get low to the water my concept of course is to get the reflection of the mountain in reflection lakes and combine them ideally I'd like to do since sunset it's still really pretty right now with the clouds so we'll check it out on our scout but my idea is to find a spot that we'll come back later at sunset when the light is really gorgeous and with all these clouds it could actually turn out really good so we'll see what we come up with. So for me one of the key elements of scouting a location is tio actually take pictures I'm not necessarily taking pictures that I think will be keepers later but again they're just pictures that will help me remember the place later I might come back not tonight but I might come back to three four days from now so this is kind of aa journal entry of stops along the way that I like and so I look at those leading lines these grasses go ahead and actually take a few shots and then bank them, maybe load them on my laptop wall mounted a campground at night or something like that, but either way, I'm always gonna try and shoot and get an idea of what compositions I like. The other thing is, by shooting some frames now, I'll be able to compare their those to all of the other locations that I visited throughout the course of the day or, you know, a week, depending on how long I'm in the national park. And so I might like this right now, but when I get other shots later and I look at them side by side, I might not like it like it as much, or I can identify this as the place that I want to be for sunset because you only get one shot at sunset in that magic hour light don't make sure it's right? So scouting is really critical. Finding the elements of the composition is really critical, and going and actually taking photos is very critical to successful scouting actually it's kind of cool, too, so they're not necessarily great photographs, but they give me an idea and I will remember the place. And I'll get a good sense of what those leading lines and what this place looks like and we'll see what happens with the light we'll see what happens with the clouds may well come back and have a lot of luck here or maybe not all right, so we here it's a little bit of a dramatic day because we're looking around in paradise we're looking at reflection lakes and the mountain has been completely in the clouds and now we're here along a viewpoint road trying to to find the mountain and also the mountain is completely clear with only a little bit of cloud the unfortunate part is it's not quite right for sunset yet so I'm still more lessons and scouting mode trying to get a sense of where I'm going to actually end up but this is a great great spot to know because what could be really happening is there's more direct sun hitting this side and it's keeping the cloud cover from really obscuring the mountain um but we're going to go back up to paradise and see if we can get the shot we really want either reflection lakes or maybe something else with wildflowers so this is the game just kind of going around cycle the cycle and trying to find a clear shot of mount rainier which is a hard thing to do because we should uh we should get going chasing the light all right, so my idea is actually potentially shooting on this slope, even, um and you got all these wild flowers here in the foreground that mountain out in the distance. So one ideas to kind of just find her spot kind of wedge myself in there. Um, the other issue that I have is if the sun is going down over there, that means I'm going to be completely in the shade over there on my mountain, so I ideally want the light to hit my mountain right now. It's way mountain attending is the one covered in clouds. So it's, this game of kind of moving around chasing the light keeps circling around till we figure out what composition is going to work for the end of the day. So this is good proof that even this season pros have an immense amount of problems on every trip, including even the most well planned national parks like mount rainier. Ultimately, we decided not to go down to the valley with the creek and all the wildflowers because the shadows and the shade, as well as the fact that the valley was so much lower um then the point that we were at looking over the view, we're afraid that the hole I was afraid that the whole feud would be obscured, so I completely decided against going down in the valley and we are instead going teo try and get around the mountain to where it looks like maybe there is no cloud cover back towards reflection lakes, which is where we originally started looking at a composition and see if we can find some sort of a break so here we go again in circles um trying to figure out the best of you that we could possibly find. All right, so we just got back to reflection like and there is zero mountain there's even less mountain down here and there was upon the other side, so I'm going to continue driving, see if we get any kind of a break and, uh and make a call from there and whether we go back to that other spot where we try to make something work here so once again roll the dice with the weather and what seems to be a single cloud screwing up our shoot yes, I'm doing my thing taking pictures china remember the different spot see how they look, see all the camera understands it but still figuring it out looks like those clouds might completely blow right off. I'd be the only window tonight in which they completely blow off we'll see I really like the way the water's rippling across the stuff in the pretty cool with the clouds never really moved from reflection like so once again we are on our way back through the park to see if there's any other spots way might have a clear shot come out and it seems like every time you move a little bit I mean even sometimes a few hundred feet down a road and you get out you look, it seems like there's a different perspective in a different clearing on the mountain so moving around is obviously takes a lot of time throws a little risk into well, we're going to see but it also could be the thing that helps us get our shot tonight because, uh, who wants to go home empty handed? So we're gonna see what we see head back to appoint we'd scouted earlier where there were less clouds morva clearing and see what that looks like a yes no let's look at the creek. Yeah, this could be good, right? Well, the mountain is stuck in the clouds check this out. This isn't bad could be a good option since the mountains stuck in the clouds will work without any sort of big plans scape and focus on water and wildflowers and thie color that's in here in the evening light way just quickly pulled over to the side of the road because we thought we saw fox hang out on the road instead it was just one of the exceptionally well fed marmots of rainier national park and managed to change my lens is incredibly fast got my seventy two hundred on with a to x extender allows me to turn that seventy two hundred into a four hundred millimeter lens and I'm lucky in the sense that I got at least ah one decent shot off before ah before the moment ran away good morning it's day two and I got a good night's sleep in the tent here it's always a good thing that you can't smell on video that's why we do this this way and uh sup well last night but woke up this morning at sunrise and looked up and continues to be really really cloudy which is never ideal some clouds is good a lot of clouds is not not great so thinking we're going to continue scouting out finding new locations today um we're also going to try and hit some waterfalls anytime there's overcast skies it's great to focus on the details whether that's something small in the ground like mushrooms or wildflowers um that kind of thing always works but there's a tremendous amount of opportunities to really photograph water features here in rainier national park so the plan is to go and tackle all of the best spots we confined and give you all of the knowledge that I have about photographing water and we'll see how we do today and if the weather breaks and we get some sun near the end of the day maybe we'll get something even more magical than that I'm a huge fan of getting off the trail um down a comet falls you could kind of see that obviously the river and they're waterfalls keeps kind of going off on working their way through the woods, so he always want to be safe, keep a good sense of where you are and not lose track of wandering around in the woods, but also really good to get away from the typical tourist spots and find places that are completely unique and that's how you take classic national parks and find new ways uh, photographing them and bringing them out through your photographs it's pretty easy to walk through here, it opens up a pair keep going up river a little bit, it opens up, I could see some really great cascading waterfall, so let's, go up, see what we see it that way back to you dr time photography talk way um, so we just got it out, christine falls and it worked out really well started with sort of ah good spot, a little bit of a road and man made features in the shop, which isn't always bad I mean, it is what it is number one rule, which is a lot of those on this trip he's don't make something be something it is not and so realizing that the falls of cool and I can't seem to keep going up, we saw a bridge up there way, continue checking it out, continued scouting it out and hiked into the woods and found just a siri's of great stops along the way to make good photograph. So this is a really good example of a scouting trip that turned into a full on photo shoot. Just why you wanna bring your bag, you want to bring your tripod and everything, and because you never know when you're gonna get in there and it turns out, uh, absolutely awesome like it did today, we got some great photos of the waterfalls got some really good water skills while we're in there polarizer is andy filters, and we're gonna continue looking around tio we confined assed farrah some other options, maybe some still water, maybe some other quieter water pools where we can really focus on composition and learn more skills photographing water. We're also keeping our eye on the sky and see if the light and the conditions changed. You get some good shots of mount rainier itself, all right, some checking out these five, which looked pretty cool, and yesterday they weren't hitting them out and they were just above it, so it just looked like a white sky, now we have clouds moving down onto the mountain into the trees still not quite there not interesting enough, especially as the light's kind of approaching at midday light but it's something to keep an eye on for sure is we today I'm gonna head back up the mountain here and we're heading into paradise, which is where you, uh, at the foot of mount rainier itself, and this will be our eighth time uh, at least that we've entered the paradise area, but that's what? This is about that's the national park photography's about especially when you're still trying to figure out where you want to be, you just keep going around in circles over and over, and I imagine we'll probably hit paradise two or three more times before the day is up, so two days, eight times I keep my hands on the wheel. No way try a pair let's get moving, it's just really great because we covered a lot of mileage on foot and you even if you don't get a lot of great photographs out of it or maybe only got one shot that you really like, but it took you three or four hours to do that that's never wasted time in my mind, you know, that's the kind of opportunity that you should be filing wait notes taking those scouting pictures that you can reference later and says the mountain didn't really show up, but the lighting wasn't that great or the cloud cover, which is kind of ruining everything or rain or whatever the case may be. The fact is, you put three, four hours in and that's still valuable time because you've learned what the elevation gain is like, what the wilde flowers look like, what views and vistas and what mountains might be in the distance, and you might not see mount rainier or whatever amount it is you're looking for, but you know, it's there, and this is a place that you could return to sometime in the future. So any time you spend on the trail and my opinion is really a great way to start making mental notes or sometimes physical notes or notes in the form of just photos of places that one day you can return to and that might be in the summer, it might be the same season it could be in the fall when the colors change or it could be in the winter, when there's snow on the ground, each chance will be a different chance and tunnel. All right, so we're back and, uh, I don't know about seeing me scout that's kind of a painful process, I think. One thing I really want to reiterate about this whole thing. You know, I talk a lot about trails and hiking, and certainly, you know, working mount rainier. I just want to add the caveat about wild flowers in the wildflower meadows because it's super important that well, I say, well, it's, not photographer friendly, and I'm having fun with it because ultimately, when I was actually doing my research for this, I found a lot of really great shots from that standpoint. And obviously, when I got there, I realized that people had completely left the trail to get those shots, and so ultimately was a photographer friendly. But it was very meadow friendly, and those meadows are incredibly fragile, and those signs and those ropes and things are there for a reason. So I certainly want to just get that caveat out there that when you do any kind of photography, you want to do it responsibly and certainly responsibly for the environment, which as a conservation photographer is very important to me.

Class Materials

bonus material with purchase

Field Guide to Photographing the American Wilderness
Icons of Nature Keynote
National Park Photography Intro and Setup
Photo Editing Keynote
10 Steps to Processing Perfect Star Trail Images
Business of Photography Keynote
Gear Guide

Ratings and Reviews


I have taken quite a few courses with createlive and this was by far one of the best. Ian is a fantastic teacher and remarkable at describing what he is doing and his thought process clearly. There is so much good information in this course, I definitely plan on buying this class. Not only is Ian a great teacher, but he also seems to genuinely want to help other photographers and see them succeed. You can tell he cares more about seeing good pictures of nature than anything else. I cannot recommend this course enough. Whether you are a beginner who shoots landscape photography as a hobby or a professional who already specializes in landscape photography, this class has something to offer and will expand your skill set. Can't thank Ian enough and I hope he does another course soon.


Ian is a great teacher and it is great when some one who "can do", can also explain how he does it. Clearly, his experience and commitment are why he is good at what he does. There is a lot more to a great photo than getting the camera settings and filters right. Ian did his best to help us understand what to look for when "working the scene" and finding a good composition without distractions. A great course. Thank you, Creative Live and Ian Shive.


Amazing course. Ian Shive is a wonderful teacher, as well as photographer, and it all comes across. I was glued to my computer for the entire 3 days when the class was live, and just had to purchase it so I don't lose any of it. The bonus materials alone are worth the purchase price. I've got a trip coming up soon and will have the opportunity to put some of what Ian said into practice; and love that I can have it with me on my portable devices so I can refresh my memory and reinforce it all. Great to have on a long plane ride. If you are on the fence, get off that fence and go purchase this great course!!! You won't be sorry. My thanks to CreativeLive, and Ian Shive for giving us this wonderful opportunity to not only learn, but to actually be in the field with Ian.

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