Outside of our wedding photo editing services, we connect with industry leaders to bring you valuable information to use in your photography business. To help us out with finding the best shooting locations, we brought in Melissa Jill Photography, an established Arizona wedding photographer. She is going to break down a ton of tips and tricks for finding great photography locations.
Melissa Jill is an internationally recognized Phoenix-based wedding photographer who has been shooting weddings for 14 years. She photographs 10-15 high-end weddings a year and also has 4 associate photographers. She has developed an extensive database of free information for photographers on her blog. She also mentors photographers one-on-one. She started an album design company called Align Album Design that helps photographers streamline their album workflow. She is passionate about business, has worked hard to maximize the efficiency and profitability of her studio, and loves helping other photographers do the same.
Part 1: Make it Personal
I know I get bored and uninspired when I shoot at the same location over and over. And it can be VERY challenging as a photographer to come up with new locations, especially when you are in business in the same city for YEARS. So, photographers, I feel your pain.
The best tip I can offer you for finding great photography locations for your engagement and family portrait shoots is to MAKE IT PERSONAL. Base your location off of who your client is. But don’t necessarily rely on your client to come up with it themselves. Clients don’t often realize what makes them unique or what resources they have available to them. It’s up to you to find these things out and help get the ball rolling by brainstorming for them.
Here’s what I do. I have 2 separate .pdf questionnaires. One is for engagement shoots and one is for family portraits. I send these to clients to help me get to know them better. I ask questions about how they met, what they enjoy doing together, what their favorite local hang-outs are, and if they have access to any fun locations (giving them plenty of examples to get them thinking outside the box).
When I receive that back from them, I highlight anything that is location or activity specific. Then I email them with a list of photography spots near me. By using this process, my clients and I have collectively come up with some really fun shoot locations over the years! Below are a handful of my favorites.
Good Places to Take Pictures Near Me
Chrissy and Anthony mentioned they enjoy taking cooking classes together. I knew it would be logistically challenging to do a shoot in a public cooking class, but I loved the idea of incorporating cooking into their shoot in some way. I asked if they had access to any great kitchens with natural light. Low and behold, they had friends with the most amazing kitchen built in a separate building in their backyard for commercial photo shoots. We did the whole shoot in the kitchen, complete with fun colorful aprons and cookie baking. Click here to see the full shoot!
Katina and Robert mentioned they love doing home improvement projects together and that Home Depot is their “home away from home.” I went out on a limb and suggested that we shoot in Home Depot and they were game! I did this shoot way back in 2007 and it was a huge hit!
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Places to Take Pictures Outdoors Near Me
Scott and Megan met in Boston and live in Baltimore. They were having a destination wedding in Arizona and also came out for their engagement shoot. It was clear from their questionnaire that they love city life. So, I suggested that we do their engagement shoot on the Phoenix light rail. I love how this shoot turned out!
Locations don’t have to be super-unique or public. They just need to be personal. I’ve done numerous engagement shoots in homes. If a couple loves hanging out on the sofa, snuggling and watching movies, I often suggest we do the shoot in their home. Every home is unique and offers opportunities for creativity. Click here to see a great example in Matthew and Jamie’s engagement shoot!
Photography Locations Near Me
Jay is a local DJ at a nightclub and I was thrilled when he and Kiera were up for doing part of their engagement shoot there. What a unique location! Click here to see more photos from this fun out-of-the-box shoot!
Sometimes what the client cherishes, or something they enjoy doing, can inspire the location for their shoot. In the case of Jay and Lisa, their love for travel, old cars and their golden retriever, Mason, led us to incorporate these things into their shoot in a random neighborhood in central Phoenix. I had SO much to work with that really made the shoot fun and unique. Click here to see more!
When I found out Dave and Ann loved riding his motorcycle together, I thought it would be fun to incorporate it into their engagement shoot. Not only did it work out great to shoot with it on a dead-end road in a nearby Indian reservation, but I’ve never had a groom be happier to do an engagement shoot. 🙂
I don’t do family portraits often, but when I do, I love it when my clients are up for doing something to make their shoot personal. So often, clients default to a park location. If you can encourage them to do something they love to do as a family for their shoot, they will end up loving the photos all the more. This cute family loves to read together, and their little girl really enjoys hanging out at bookstores. The shoot turned out so fun and special. Click here to see more!
Photography Spots Near Me
I recently got the chance to shoot my sister’s family on one of their regular lake day outings. I’m in love with the photos we got.
If you’re feeling bored and uninspired with your local shooting locations, try working with your clients to personalize their shoot. It will breathe new life into your work and will allow you to produce something truly unique for each client.
Next, I’ll be sharing about my main concern when selecting a location for each photo during a shoot. This applies whether it be a wedding day, engagement shoot, or portrait session.
Part 2: Light Trumps Background
In the last section, I talked about choosing locations based on who your client is. This helps to make each shoot personal and unique.
Whether you’re shooting portraits on a wedding day, engagement photos, or family portraits, you as a photographer are the one your clients trust to guide the shoot and place them in great locations. Often times, clients think we’re just looking for great backgrounds to use for the photos. We’ve all grown up taking our family portraits in front of the fireplace, taking vacation photos posing next to statues, and taking outdoor portraits in front of fountains, right?
Because everyone knows the best spots for photos are by fireplaces, statues, and fountains. 🙂 We laugh about this as professional photographers, but we have our very own equivalents to fireplaces, statues, and fountains. They are brightly colored walls, fields, and alleys. We’re on the lookout during shoots for anything we think will serve as a great background for our portraits.
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How to Find Photography Locations
Backgrounds are important to pay attention to, but my second tip for how to find photography locations is that light trumps backgrounds. If you find a great background for a portrait, but the sun is directly in your clients’ eyes, they have dappled sun and shade spots on them, or they are in the shade with a bright background, your photo is not going to be stellar. It doesn’t matter how fabulous the background is.
But if you have a simple or nondescript background with fabulous lighting, you will likely end up with a high-impact image. Light trumps background. Stop looking for great backgrounds and start looking for amazing light.
Finding amazing light is a huge key when you are scouting out your location! Good lighting will make up for a multitude of other mistakes or misfortunes on the shoot.
Places to Take Pictures Near Me
All of the following images were taken in the locations they were because I was looking for the light. The backgrounds played little to no part in the location decision. I made sure the backgrounds weren’t distracting, but beyond that, there was nothing appealing about what ended up behind my subjects in the viewfinder.
My favorite light in which to photograph people generally falls into 2 categories: full shade or backlighting. Backlighting has to be my favorite. Click here to read an entire post about it. This first image above is an example of how perfect backlighting can separate your subject from its background in a gorgeous way. Don’t they just look like they’re glowing? Notice there is nothing special about the background. The whole reason I picked this spot was the light.
Working with the Sun
If you find yourself in a situation where the location presents few options because the sun is directly overhead, rather than battling with the harsh sun to capture portraits with interesting backgrounds, opt instead for full shade in a spot with a nondescript background. You’ll love your images so much more.
This next image was shot on an overcast day. Generally, you can shoot anywhere on an overcast day and have nice soft, light. But note I still opted for a simple background. Simple backgrounds allow your subjects to shine.
These next 2 images were taken on a residential street corner and are more examples of gorgeous backlighting:
Often times, if a couple chooses to see each other before the ceremony, this means you are doing their first look mid-day. When the sun is directly overhead and harsh, I opt for a simple background with good lighting for the first look. It’s all about capturing the emotion. The image doesn’t have an interesting background, but I still think it’s better than if I would have chosen a beautiful location with harsh lighting.
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This next first look also happened mid-day at a venue that has gotten awards for its gorgeous ceremony view. Instead of opting to stage the first look in front of the view in the harsh sunlight, I chose this walkway out of the way, in front of a blank wall so I could put the subjects in their best light. And I love the intimate result it created:
This image was taken under a gazebo, what would widely be considered a prime photo opp location. But instead of shooting with the gazebo in mind, I positioned myself and the couple with the light in mind.
Avoiding Dark Locations
This final example was taken during a wedding at a particularly challenging location. The hotel had an inner courtyard that was very dark and didn’t provide a lot of interest. Other than that, the entire hotel was surrounded by a parking lot. We wanted to include the groom’s yellow Corvette in the photos, so we drove around to the side of the parking lot that offered the best light and shot there. You can’t tell because of the low depth of field, but the background is a busy intersection and an Embassy Suites sign. It’s all about the light.
If you’ve been selecting your locations based on backgrounds, I would suggest you change your approach and look for the light. Because light trumps background.
Next, I will continue this series on places to take pictures near me by sharing how I use inspiration to guide my location choices.
Part 3: Compositional Elements
As I mentioned in the previous section, my main source of inspiration for good places to take pictures near me while shooting an engagement session or portraits during a wedding is light. I look for great light and let that direct my choices. Light is always my first concern, but often other things that help guide me are inspirational found objects and the opportunity to employ compositional elements.
Using inspiring objects to help guide location choices is a “no duh” for photographers. Everyone does this. But I thought I’d mention it for the sake of being thorough. 🙂 Shadows aren’t objects per-se but they can function as such. I saw the shadow of this tree on the wall and it inspired me to create this image:
In addition to discovering inspiration through found objects, I try to look for and use compositional elements in my images. There are countless compositional elements to choose from but I thought I’d share examples of a few common ones I like to use.
Lines can be found everywhere. And they can be used in multiple ways in your images. They can help to lead your eye to the subject, as well as frame your subject. I love to use this next alley. It’s the strongest example I’ve found for leading lines:
The image on the left above also utilizes my second compositional element in photography locations near me: reflection. There are so many reflective surfaces in the places to take pictures near me. You just have to be on the lookout for them if you want to incorporate them into your images. When you’re out shooting, puddles or lakes are often the easiest to find.
This next image was shot during an engagement shoot with the groom’s motorcycle. Its shiny parts caught my attention and led me to this:
Depth of Field and Foreground Elements
One of my favorite compositional elements is something I call “sandwiching.” It combines the use of a shallow depth of field and foreground elements. Often times, a shallow depth of field is used to isolate a subject from the background of an image. But if you as a photographer move so there are foreground elements between you and the subject, you can create a sandwiching effect which serves to put your subject in a 3-dimensional space and also create a sense of intimacy. When you’re out on a portrait shoot, “sandwiching” can be as easy as squatting down or moving so that there is some vegetation between you and the subject:
This image isn’t a portrait, but I shot it during a wedding when a bride was getting ready. It’s my favorite image I’ve shot that incorporates the use of “sandwiching” because the foreground element really contributes to telling the story:
And finally, another compositional element you can be on the lookout for when choosing locations is the opportunity to change your shooting perspective. Often times, we shoot our subject from a horizontal perspective at eye-level. But if you have the opportunity to get above or below your subject, this change of perspective can really serve your images. These photos show a typical angle at a location in a ballpark:
When choosing locations during a shoot, make sure to first look for good light. But beyond that, looking for inspirational found objects and opportunities to employ compositional elements can be great ways to further guide you.
Next, I’ll be talking about what to do to keep yourself fresh and creative when you are asked to shoot in the same location time and time again.
Part 4: Change It Up
In the first section, I shared my strategy for places to take pictures near me for engagement or portrait shoots. I LOVE shooting at new, unfamiliar, and unique locations. That’s when my creativity flourishes most. But, no matter how hard we try as photographers, we all end up having to shoot at familiar locations time and time again. I know you have that location in your head. The one that causes you to inwardly groan when a client asks to have their photos taken there.
For me, that location is Old Town Scottsdale. It really is an excellent place to shoot. It has great textures, buildings with character, and an adjacent park that has green grass year-round. It’s a great choice for a portrait location. I’ve shot there hundreds of times. I’m SO over it. But it’s convenient and popular. So clients often request it.
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Here are a few images from shoots I’ve done that were all taken in Old Town Scottsdale:
Note, as you look through the images, that no 2 sessions look the same. One of my favorite spots that I allow myself to go back to nearly every shoot though is this alley:
So how do you stay inspired shooting in the same location time and time again? How do you make sure you don’t get stuck in a rut using the same spots at the same location session after session? I have 2 tips.
1. Take a Different Route
For each session, walk around the location in a different way. Venture into areas not yet explored. Resist the urge to go to the familiar spots that you know have worked in the past. This will help you learn how to find photography locations that work best for you.
2. Look for Good Light
Rather than allowing backgrounds that have worked in the past to determine your location choices, look with fresh eyes as you walk around. Light changes frequently based on the season of the year, time of day, and weather. So a spot that may have worked in the past may not have great light at your next session. Conversely, a spot that you never noticed during past shoots may suddenly offer amazing light. Finding great photography locations by looking for the light always keeps me fresh and on my toes.[ninja-inline id=19506]
While I don’t have time to focus on it in this post, make sure you spend time focusing on your posing. Though your posing does not necessarily influence your shooting location, good posing accentuates your location.
For my Phoenix MJ2DAY workshops, I take attendees on a shoot with me around my neighborhood. I want to make sure I give them an experience true to how I normally shoot, so I never plan out the places to take pictures near me ahead of time (besides asking my neighbors if I can use their backyard). These next 2 links are from two shoots done at my workshops in my neighborhood. Both were shot largely in the same backyard. But you might not be able to tell from the photos.
I hope this helps! Next, I will be sharing my final tip to wrap up this post on finding great photography locations!
Part 5: No More Excuses
This post about good places to take pictures near me was born in answer to photographers who have frustration with finding great photography locations. I’ve been there, so I can easily relate. My tips throughout this post, including basing the shoot location on who your clients are, looking for light, inspirational found objects and compositional elements, as well as how to deal with shooting in familiar locations time and time again, will hopefully help. But when it comes down to it, maybe we all need to stop relying so heavily on great locations in order to make great images. My final tip is this: No more excuses. You can make a great image ANYWHERE.
Related: 24 Detail Shots to Capture from Every Wedding – get the list here!
Make Each Wedding Look Amazing
One of the marks of an exceptional photographer is they always make whatever event or subject they’re shooting look better than it actually is. Whatever you’re given to shoot, if you can make it look better than it actually is, you are doing your job.
If you’re a wedding photographer who is just starting out, and you’re frustrated with low-end venues that do not inspire you, don’t get hung up on envying photographers who get to shoot in amazing locations. Instead, make it your singular goal to make each wedding look more amazing than it was. I can’t always find places to take pictures outdoors near me that are inspirational. So as Tim Gunn would say, we’ve got to “Make it work!” and figure out how to make great images anywhere.
By way of example, here are some of my most favorite images. All of these images were shot in the most ordinary of places. I wish I had a wide shot of each of these spots to show you what I was working with, but unfortunately, I didn’t have the foresight to take those shots. I’ll just have to do my best to paint the picture for you.
Now I am sharing this image of the dress on the left from Eric and Kari’s wedding was taken in a VERY small, cluttered, ordinary hotel room. We rearranged furniture, moved pillows and made a bed to make this location work. (50mm, ISO 800, f2.0, 1/80)
Next, this portrait from Kindra’s family session was taken at the end of a typical driveway (the whole session was done on a residential street in their neighborhood while it drizzled). (50mm, ISO 400, f1.8, 1/320)
These next images that I love from another session with Kindra’s cute family, were taken in the middle of the street in her neighborhood. (L: 50mm, ISO 200, f2.2, 1/400; R: 70-200mm, ISO 200, f2.8, 1/200)
And finally, this next photo on the left from Brian and Veronica’s engagement shoot was taken in the middle of a parking lot. You can’t see them, but just beyond the curbs to the right and left are rows of cars. (50mm, ISO 500, f2.0, 1/6400)
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So no more excuses! Get out there and make some extraordinary photos in ordinary locations!
That wraps up all my thoughts on finding great shooting locations! Please let me know if you have any questions. And if you find this series helpful, please do one or more of the following:
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- Click here to find out about other resources I offer photographers!
And as always, don’t forget that ShootDotEdit is here to handle all of your color correction. Spend your time bettering your craft or improving your images. Anything other than hours and hours behind a computer!
Melissa did an excellent job of showcasing how she captures amazing images for her wedding clients and answers the question of where to take pictures near me. What’s 1 thing you will do based on Melissa’s insights? Let us know in the comments!
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