Photo Location Scouting with Google Maps and Street View

In a perfect world, before shooting in a location for the first time, I’d have time to go and have a good look round.  Ideally this would be at the same time of day as when I’ll be shooting so that I can get an accurate feel for the place, and find any suitable spots, as well as highlight any potential problems.

All too often, a location visit isn’t possible due to time, distance, and money constraints.  Now, if I’m going to be shooting at an established venue – say a gym, stadium or the like, I can usually go to their website, and simply browse through picture of what the place looks like.  I can also usually email them directly and ask useful questions about how much light there is, what the parking’s like and so on.

Now, this isn’t generally an option if I’m being sent to take someone’s portrait, and meeting them at home.  Most people don’t have an “about me” page that contains helpful images of the surrounding area, and I still need to have a good idea of where I’m going before I start shooting!

Location Scouting with Google Maps
Battersea Park, an area I’ve shot in dozens of times. Remember to use both map and earth view to get a good feel for a place.

Enter the wonders of google maps, and google street view.  I stumbled upon streetview the day it went live, as I was in the process of working out my route for the day on google maps, and this little icon of a man had suddenly appeared in the bottom of the screen.  I dropped him onto the map, and lo and behold, the view from the street appeared in front of me.  Amazeballs.  Ever since then I’ve used it hundreds of times, often as a navigational aid (I’m not a big fan of satnav) but also to do some basic location scouting if I’m just being sent to someone’s home in an area I’ve never been before.

The first stage of “google scouting” is to bring up the map of the area, zoom in and out a bit, and drag things around to see what’s in the immediate area.  If I’m tasked with shooting someone’s portrait, I’ll be looking for areas of interest that I can use.  These can include, but are by no means limited to:

  • Parks
  • Woods
  • Bridges
  • Viewpoints/hills
  • Water features – lakes, rivers, canals etc
  • Buildings of interest – good walls/graffiti/patterns/brickwork/steel/glass
  • Tunnels

Generally I’m looking for places that will be visually interesting, and if needs be will give my subject something to do.  Often of course I’m asked to shoot people doing something fitness related, such as running, and some open space is called for, so parks, canal tow-paths, footpaths, playing fields and the like are all high on my shopping list.

Earth View
Google Earth view. To bring up StreetView you’re looking for the little man icon bottom right, in case you’ve never done this before. Click, drag, and drop him onto the map.

Using google streetview to get a feel for a place couldn’t be simpler.  Once you’re over the right area on the map, drag and drop the little man onto the spot you want to look at, then drag the screen around as you please – zoom in and out, move up and down the roads where you want to go, and so on.  You may find you get can a very good view of some locations, although of course, the streetview is limited overwhelmingly to roads, so you generally won’t be able to see too far into a park or field.  You may well find that the picture bar that appears on the bottom may be useful, as it will contain pictures submitted by users of features in the area.  Always make a note of when the main imagery on street view was taken.  The project went live in Spring 2009, and some sections haven’t been updated since.  Needless to say, just because something was there in 2009, doesn’t mean it’s there now!  The text along the bottom of the screen in streetview will tell you when the image was taken, down to the month and the year.

Location Scouting with Street View
The view of the entrance to the Lemonade Factory – note this was taken in May 2015, which is pretty recent (I’m writing this in September 2015) but even so, the studio and the whole block has now been demolished!

Just as with location scouting in person, there are several factors to bear in mind when scouting from the comfort of the office, and choosing a suitable shoot location.  Some things I always try and bear in mind are:

  • Accessibility.  Think about how easy it will be to get to.  If I’m taking lots of gear with me, can I park nearby?  The view from the top of the hill I’d love to shoot from may be spectacular, but if it’s going to take 1/2 an hour to walk up there, and my subject has mobility issues, I’ll need to find somewhere else.
  • Aspect.  My posh way of saying “which way is it facing?”  Given that the sun moves from East to West throughout the day, it’s worth making a note that the perfect angle may be directly into the sun at the time I’m planning on shooting.  This may suit the image, or it may not!
  • Cover.  Shooting outdoors always carries the risk of inclement weather with it. Always assess whether a location has areas that are under cover in case it starts lashing it down.
  • Security/publicity.  Is the area likely to be very busy, or very secluded?  Do you want to be shooting in a darkened alleyway, with all your kit set up, with no extra pair of eyes around to keep a watch on things?  Counter to this, will you be OK shooting in a busy city centre, or is that likely to cause your subject issues and/or have the police and security down on you pretty quickly?

These days I tend to do “google scouting” as a matter of course before any shoot where I don’t already know the location by heart.  It’s no substitute for being there in person, but it’s still a very effective tool, and I’d rather head off on a shoot with at least some idea of what to expect than go in completely blind.

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