News and Views from Dave Wilson

Remote Location Scouting Tools

by on Feb.19, 2012, under Photography

I’m heading to Yosemite at the end of April for a week of photography led by Raul Touzon. The trip starts on a Sunday and we’re all meeting in the vicinity of San Francisco International Airport that afternoon. In booking flights from Austin, however, I couldn’t get anything useful that day so ended up booking a Saturday morning flight leaving me a day to wander around San Francisco and take pictures before joining the group.

Although I love San Francisco, it’s not a city that I know large areas of particularly well since most of my visits have been brief evenings after driving up from San Jose while on business trips. This time, however, I’ll have 24 hours to see and shoot the sights but the question is which sights do I want to see and where should I stay to ensure I’m best placed to get as many of them in as possible in the short time I have available?

In a perfect world, you would have enough time to scout locations in person but, on a brief trip like this, that’s obviously not feasible. These days, however, that needn’t be a problem. Here are a few of the great tools I use in situations like this to help decide where I’ll visit and what I’ll shoot.

San Francisco Skyline at Dusk

Social Media

This is probably the least obvious of the suggestions here but, frankly, it’s by far the best resource for me. When visiting a new city, especially if I’ll be on my own, I typically drop a line to any photographers I follow on Twitter, Facebook or Google+ and ask if they would like to get together either to shoot or just for a coffee or beer. Aside from the fact that this can give you a chance to meet folks you’ve been interacting with remotely for quite some time, local photographers obviously know the area a lot better than I do and can offer great suggests on locations to shoot. Another great benefit is that, assuming folks are able to meet, you end up with some company on your visit – personally, I very much prefer having someone to bounce ideas off while on a shoot.

This approach has been very helpful to me and I’ve had a chance to meet many online buddies face-to-face while on brief visits to their home cities. The list includes Brian Matiash and Bob Lussier in Boston, Charles Dastodd and Matty Wolin in Chicago, Jim Goldstein in San Francisco, Scott Wyden, Mark Garbowski and Jesse Pafundi in New York and Karl Williams in Glasgow (even though I knew Glasgow well, it was great to have an excuse to say “Hello”).

As far as the upcoming San Francisco visit is concerned, I put out a plea on Google+ and Jesse Nichols came to the rescue. It looks like we may even have a fully fledged downtown photowalk on the afternoon of April 21st!

The other side of this coin, of course, is that you should strongly consider offering your services to remote photo buddies who are visiting your city. I love doing this in Austin even if it means reshooting locations I’ve been to tens of times before since, very often, the visitors’ shots of those locations show something new that you’ve missed in all the years you’ve been there.

Flickr Places

A more obvious location that is enormously useful when looking into locations in a new city is Flickr Places. This section of the Flickr site acts as a geographic portal, grouping together photos, photographers and groups related to particular towns and cities. You can see the most popular images for each location and, clicking on the map, you can find where each of those shots were taken. For example, here’s the main San Francisco entry and the most interesting image map for the city.

The only warning here is to note that some of the geotagging on the photos can be rather inaccurate. Again, using San Francisco as an example, a great image of the Bay Bridge is noted as having been taken from the middle of Van Ness Avenue which even I know is not at all possible!

The main places page for a given city also includes links to any groups that relate to the same location and these groups can also be great places to post questions and have locals provide you helpful advice in advance of your trip.

Stuck on Earth

This is a new resource that I’ve come to very much enjoy over the last few months. Stuck on Earth is a free iPad application produced by Trey Ratcliff of Stuck in Customs. It’s beautifully put together and provides a wonderful, map-based browsing capability. The basic idea is somewhat similar to Flickr Places (it actually uses the Flickr API to show images pulled from the service) but the result is very much more polished. Another distinct advantage it has is that it contains many, many curated galleries of excellent images chosen by local photographers. In my planning for the San Francisco trip (using my son’s iPad. I may have to treat myself to one some time soon purely for this application!), I spent a lot of time trawling through Thomas Hawk’s “Top 50 Secret Spots in San Francisco” (you can see some of the images here) and will definitely be visiting some of the great locations he describes.

The Photographer’s Ephemeris

After deciding on specific locations, another tool I like is The Photographer’s Ephemeris (TPE). This tool uses maps and tables to show you exactly where the sun and moon will be from anywhere on earth at any date or time. It’s especially useful when planning sunrise or sunset shoots since one of its views overlays the sunset/sunrise/moonset/moonrise directions on top of your map to show exactly where these will occur relative to your camera position. It all sounds a bit geeky but it really is enormously helpful.

The application is available for iOS (iPhone and iPad), Android and Mac and Windows desktops. The desktop version is free and the mobile versions are very cheap at around $5.


Another app I have on my iPhone provides a quick sun and moon angle calculator. FocalWare integrates with the phone’s compass and rotates its view to match the direction you are pointing. You can enter any longtitude/latitude, time and date, and it will show you where both sun and moon will appear in the sky. You can drag the sun or moon icon around the compass star and the app will update the time and elevation to show exactly when the sun or moon will appear at a given position. Again, it sounds rather geeky but I find this a very easy application to use when trying to figure out when, for example, I can expect a full moon 10 degrees above the horizon in a given direction.

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