How to Plan Photography Trips – Part 1 of 3

by Rob Higdon on April 15, 2012


Planning Photography Trips


One of the things that inspired me to start writing this blog and making podcasts is to share how to plan photography trips.  I have learned over the years that planning photography trips tend to make great photographs.  Don’t get me wrong, you can simply drive around and randomly come across places to photograph.  Sometimes this produces great photos, and I advocate random exploration.  However, if you are going to make a photography trip (or “photo trip”),  it is good to have somewhat of an idea as to what you may expect to see along the way.  Luckily, we have modern technology to help us look down the road to see what’s out there.

I am a strong advocate of utilizing all of the technology at our disposal to help with planning trips specifically to take photographs.  This includes Internet searches, iPhone and iPad apps, and GPS units.  By having pre-planned spots chosen to photograph and knowing when to be in these spots, you are more likely to get the photo that you are looking for without wasting a lot of time trying to find the place.  Additionally, knowing when to be there and where to position yourself will help you to prepare other aspects of your trip.

In my opinion, having a solid and well prepared plan, itinerary, and route is key to getting great photos.  If you aren’t in the right place at the right time, your photos will not be as good as they otherwise could be.

As obvious as it may seem, the first step in this process is to determine where you  go on your trip.  Believe it or not, this is not always an easy thing to do and is affected by a variety of different factors.

Where to Go on your Photography Trip can be influenced by a variety of factors. Where to Go on your Photography Trip can be influenced by a variety of factors.

These include:

    • Available Time – If you are like me, you have regular jobs that only allow for a limited amount of time away from work.  Knowing how much time you have for your trip will determine the scope of your available choices.
    • Distance – If a location is too far to travel to and return from in your allotted amount of time, it can be eliminated from your list of viable options.  It is also important to account for rest and recovery time when dealing with long distance trips.
    • Cost -Budget is another factor in planning a photo trip.   All costs need to be factored into your decision equation, including transportation, lodging, food, and other miscellaneous expenses.
    • Time of Year and the Weather – The time of year you are available to take your trip can have an impact on where to go.  At some times of the year, your destination may be very crowded if it is a popular tourist hotspot.  It may also be closed up completely if it is the locals’ vacation season, (as in parts of Europe), religious or cultural holidays going on, (such as Holy Week, Chinese New Year, Ramadan), or sporting events such as the Super Bowl or The Kentucky Derby (Derby Week).  At certain times of the year, weather may also influence your decision as to where to go.  The rainy season, cold weather and inaccessible roads, or blistering heat may make your trip a waste of time and money.  Additionally, natural features or events can influence your decision to go to a location.  Examples would be fall foliage, spring flowers, snowfall, etc.
    • Miscellaneous Factors – Other miscellaneous factors should also be investigated before you make a decision as to where to venture.  Find out if there are any special events or photographic opportunities in your list of choices that may accentuate your trip and your photography, for example, the moon-bow at Yosemite.  Some others can detract from it, such as a the National Hog Farmers Convention, the Girl Scout Jamboree, Comicon, Bike Week, A Tea Party gathering, Freaknik, etc. that may make certain locations crowded, difficult to reach your intended site, and/or restrict available lodging options.  Check with local tourism commissions, the Chamber of Commerce, or local periodicals and newspapers to find out if an event is scheduled during your visit.
Planning photography trips helps to avoid surprises By planning your photography trip, you can avoid surprises – Taken on a trip to the Griffith’s Observatory – West Hollywood, CA.

All of these can be great opportunities for great photos and a chance to meet new and exciting people, but can also drive up the costs of going to that location and crowd out your intended subject matter.

Finding Locations


Once you have a general area chosen, it is necessary to discover what photographic opportunities are available in that region.

Most of us know a few well known spots in the area that has made the cut, like Yosemite in California or Machu Picchu in Peru. But what else is there to shoot outside of what is commonly known about a location?

This is where research comes into the process.  There are a few sources that I use when I’m in the early stages of planning a photography trip.


I first start by looking at books about how to photograph a particular region.

With the Internet at our disposal, books may seem a little old fashioned.

Books can be invaluable!  This is my first  stop in the planning process after choosing a particular region.

A little money spent on a book focused on nothing but photographing your chosen area cuts right to the chase, saves time,  and will generally includes a list of locations as well as advice on how to get to them.  Tips on photographing these places is also provided.

I find that trying to gather the quantity and quality of information that is found in a book by searching the Internet can be time consuming and may not provide a comprehensive overview of the area.  Generally one has o wade through dozens of web-sites to find the same amount of information that is presented in a book on the subject.

I highly recommend books by “PhototripUSA” (no affiliation with if you are going anywhere in Oregon, or the Southwest (Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, or Arizona).  There are many great resources on their site for photographers as well.  However, there are many good books available for other regions from other publishers.

If you can’t find a book specific to photographing your chosen region,general guidebooks may be useful.

The Internet

The Internet is my second resource for finding locations and assessing how and if they will be incorporated into my photo trip.

Flickr is a great site to see what others have photographed at a given spot and provides a better feel for a location.   Not only is Flickr a great place to see other’s photographs, but you can also to contact the photographers and ask questions about the location as well as how they photographed the spot.  Additionally, some photographers provide the EXIF metadata for their photographs, giving greater insight as to when and how the shot was taken.

Google Earth Google Earth

Google Earth and Google Maps – Once you identify locations within your region, you can check out Google Maps and Google Earth to see photos that are posted using Panoramio.  This gives a better idea as to what you can expect to see and where your best photographic opportunities may be.

Mobile Device Apps – Another place to check out is the iTunes Store or Android Marketplace for apps that are specific to the place that you are photographing. There are excellent apps available that can provide an exhausting list of places to shoot.  Some of my location-specific favorites are the “California Photo Scout Premium” app and the “Photographing New York City Digital Field Guide” app, but there are many others.  These apps are well worth the money because not only do they give you a list of locations, but also provide advice on how to photograph the locations featured in the apps.  Other apps that I recommend are  “Roadside America” and “Abandoned“.  These apps are great for finding quirky places or those that offer unique photographic opportunities.

Rating Locations


Once you have a list of possible locations within your chosen area, it is time to determine which ones you would like to photograph.  You want to research each location and give each one a value based on various criteria that you have established for your perfect spot.  I have “borrowed” the four criteria that are in the “PhototripUSA” books.  These are:

  • Scenic Value
  • Photographic Interest
  • Road Difficulty
  • Travel Difficulty

One of reason I strongly recommend the “PhototripUSA” books is they provide a matrix in the back of their books that gives a ranking of each of the locations covered using these criteria.  If you are using one of their books to do your research, this is great because they have done all of the work for you.

If your area is not available in a “PhototripUSA” book, you can still use this methodology.  However, you will have to research your spots and assess a ranking for each spot yourself.

With each location ranked on the four criteria (Scenic Value, Photographic Interest, Road Difficulty, and Trail Difficulty) I then sort the listing in Microsoft Excel or Access to display only those with the best rankings.  I sort for locations that score high on Scenic Value and Photographic Interest that also score low for Road Difficulty and Trail Difficulty.

Based on what your interests are, like off-roading or extreme hiking, you may sort the list differently.

This should produce your refined list of photo locations.  With this list in hand, it is now time to place those locations onto a map.

Mapping Locations – First Pass


With a list of tentative locations narrowed down, I plot them on a map.  Most of the time, I am uncertain as to the exact locations of the sites I have chosen.  By placing all of the locations onto a map, it is possible to get a better idea as to where the locations are distributed through the chosen area.

Google Earth is a quick and easy way to do this.  In Google Earth, it is possible to “fly to” a particular spot by typing the name of the location in the “Search” area of the application.  Once the location is found, insert a placemark on the location.  By doing this for all of locations on your list, you’ve made the framework for your trip route.  Also, when assigning the placemark, GPS coordinates are given for the location that can be used to better navigate to the location.

Using Google Earth to Set Placemarks Using Google Earth to Set Placemarks
After the locations are on the map, this completes the first stage of planning your photography trip.
My next post will continue to discuss this subject.  Part 2 of How to Plan a Photography Trip will include how to determine the best times to photograph a spot, what direction to photograph a location, and how to tie your locations together into a route map.


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