Finding a great location for a photo shoot is one of the skills that sets photographers apart. The choice of where to shoot can evoke much of the atmosphere of an image. One’s ability to network and shmooze those with access to exceptional places is key to getting a great shot rather than a mediocre one.
In this blog post, I’m going to share some of my favorite locations where I’ve done repeat shoots as well as giving photographers some tips on finding their own collection of photo-oasis.
Tip #1 – Start where you are with what you have.
Ideally, your own space is optimized for doing a photo shoot. If you’re a business, you can deduct at least part of the cost of making your home, apartment or studio look awesome. Plus it cuts down on confusion and is simply more convenient to have your HQ as a starting point for shoots. For one thing, you don’t risk leaving important pieces of equipment behind in a strange place.
Tip #2 – On paid shoots, always have a Plan B.
It’s one thing to “wing it” if you’re shooting for shits and giggles, but if you have a client’s dollars at stake, you probably don’t want to gamble that it won’t rain or your location won’t fall through. While it is great to find spots you can use for free, there’s a certain comfort in putting down a deposit and knowing you are locked in. Always have a second choice on standby in case your best laid plans go to hell and you must improvise on short-notice. If you’re shooting in a studio on white seamless, it’s easy enough to suggest a “mutual aid” agreement with a fellow photographer to help each other out if your original space becomes unavailable.
Tip #3 – Get out there and explore new places.
In the above photo, I REALLY got out there and explored. This was along the beach in Cancun, Mexico during a shoot there. I found a really big Mexican flag in the background and turned this image into a statement of national pride. On the same beach, we found this bright blue boat.
During a shoot in downtown Birmingham, I noticed a construction crew nearby and asked the model, Channing, to stand seductively in this alley, thus turning two totally unrelated ingredients into a story. This is also unique by virtue of the location appearing completely different now with a high-rise standing where the crew was before. Although the concept can be duplicated elsewhere, this image is truly unique by virtue of not being recreate-able.
Tip #4 – Ask your models, family and friends for places with promise.
I would not have gotten this amazing photo if not for the model, Tara Lynn, who also came up with the outfits and did their makeup styling.
Above, another instance where my model, Kourtney, worked as a cocktail server in this nightclub. She asked her boss if we could shoot there.
Above, Laura’s company works in the aviation industry. She was able to get access to an aircraft hangar where we shot her around several jets and even a fighter plane.
Tip #5 – Choose locations that have character or atmosphere. That means stuff that is interesting to look at for some reason and an appealing quality of light.
I noticed these delivery trucks had bright colors. So did her bikini. Bam! A unified concept, even if the story of exactly what’s going on here isn’t totally clear. This model, by the way, wasn’t quite sure what I was thinking either.
This place was another Tara Lynn discovery, a warehouse for storing eclectic items for parades or displays. The clutter made for a difficult shot, but with some Photoshop added, a computer-generated wonderland.
Tip #6 – Let a setting dictate the theme.
I love shooting at the carnival when it comes to town. The concept was paying homage to the final scene in “Grease”. Destin did her best to recreate Olivia Newton-John’s wardrobe within the limitations of her own closet choices. This was a shoot for fun that we threw together in a matter of minutes. Sometimes the concept forms even as we explore the setting.
Tip #7 – Take advantage of special opportunities as they present themselves.
With the photo below, a young man just happened to pull up in a sexy car that was very similar in color to her outfit. He was happy to let us use it for the shoot.
Tip #8 – It is easier to ask forgiveness than permission. But don’t push it.
For Bhea’s portfolio shoot, we walked around downtown Atlanta, using the buildings and public art as locations. We got this image right outside the Georgia Dome. Eventually someone did come and ask us to leave, but by that point, we’d gotten some awesome pics and happily apologized and immediately moved on. You accomplish this by not making a big production with lots of lights that draw attention. Pre-visualize and move fast. You can argue that you’re just a couple out sight-seeing who decided to stop for a moment and get some visual souvenirs of your trip to their fair city, which they encourage. Arguably, you have a right to be there if it is a public space, but they likely don’t want productions congesting walkways, etc. Don’t attempt this on a paid shoot for a client or you’ll risk looking like an amateur idiot. You can make the proper arrangements, getting permission and letting them accommodate you with security or other needs. Be prepared to face the consequences of your attempts to be clever and squeeze in a stealth shoot in a premium place, which include being embarrassed. I still cringe thinking about the time, in Los Angeles, when I was berated by a hotel manager for trying to sneak in a shoot by the hotel pool. Ouch.
Tip #9 – Make sure the location accommodates the needs of your models (if any).
Sufficient parking. A clean, safe space for him or her to change outfits. A toilet for what comes naturally. Warmth and dryness. These are basic considerations. You may want to pre-determine how many people your model plans to bring along for a photo shoot. I once had a girl bring an entourage of big, beefy guys with her. Perhaps they made her feel safe, but I could hardly concentrate on the shoot with her friends snooping around my place and touching my stuff. It made the space unnecessarily cramped and I obviously wanted to get all of them out of there as quickly as possible. The same goes for bringing small children to a shooting location. The potential for catastrophe is great.
Tip #10 – Barter and negotiate to get access to places where you normally wouldn’t get to shoot.
You can always rent places, but I like getting things for cheap or free if possible. If you can barter what you have of value (your time and talent), you can actually get away with spending little actual cash. You can suggest trading access for photos of a space for insurance or promotional purposes. I’ve talked to nightclub owners about shooting in clubs before opening hours. I’ve traded family photo shoots with homeowners for access to their homes. And yachts are a favorite of mine to borrow for shoots. Can’t hurt to ask, and all someone can say is no. You might be surprised how eager someone is to be a part of your adventure so they can tell their friends, “Guess what we did today…”
The above photo of Jessica was displayed in Birmingham Tin Roof for years. The original purpose for the shoot was a submission to an American Honey model search, but the bar owner, Jessica’s college friend, loved it.
Tip #11 – Avoid visual cliches.
Train tracks? Really? Surely you can be more creative than that.
Tip #12 – If you must shoot in a chain hotel, try to make it at least look non-cheesy and non-sleazy.
Renting a room to shoot in has always felt a little sleazy to me, maybe because I am self-conscious that the model is going to get the idea that I have ulterior motives for wanting to shoot there. If you’re in a town and have to pay for lodging anyway, you might as well leave it open as a consideration. I did this image of Kristen while we were staying in Panama City Beach during Spring Break Week shooting a calendar. It was freezing cold outside and night-time, so we simply shot around the spaces and tried to tell a story. Sure, we had people walk up on us and look at us like we were crazy, but who cares? We were never going to see them again.
I did shots below of Roxy in the same hotel. In my shower. Tried to make it look like she was submerged in a lake. This was goofing at the end of the shoot.
Tip #13 – People suck. Deal with it. Adjust.
If I had a dime for every time I did a photo shoot that some clown came along and joked that he’s available to pose with the beautiful girl if I need him… Move along, creep. When you’re sharing a public space, you pretty much have to deal with the same people who troll the comments section of YouTube. They WILL keep getting in the background of your shot. They WILL drool over your models and try to hit on them. They WILL do what they can to be a pain in your ass. I actually found the fire to get started in this biz after coming upon a photographer and her model at Little River Falls. It was so cool to watch them at work. I am sure she was annoyed by my watching, but that day had a long lasting impact on me. Be empathetic, even if they aren’t, and remember that you are doing something exciting and provocative from their perspective.
Tip #14 – Don’t forget the property release.
How tragic if you got the best photo shoot of all time but neglected to get the property owner to give you a right to be there taking photos. Cross your Ts and dot your I’s. It just takes a minute. If you explain it properly, it won’t be a big deal.
Tip #15 – Choose locations that give the model the ability to do things.
Are there activities that the model can riff off of?
I hope these tips can help your photography. Although some of the most colorful places may be in seedy neighborhoods, I encourage you to be selective and careful. Don’t place your models in situations where they face a higher likelihood of being harassed, assaulted or getting in trouble. The same goes for cliffs or rooftops where you could be tempted to pose them close to the edge. A cool shot isn’t worth someone dying or becoming seriously injured. For your own protection, take precautions to protect yourself and others.
If you are a non-photographer reading this, please keep me in mind if you know of any locations that would be great for my own shoots.
Images and text by Steven Stiefel – All of Steven Stiefel’s content is made available to you for free, with no subscription fees or paywalls. If you’re a regular reader, feel free to contribute: