Laptop and Book by David Joyce

3 Research Tools to Find Great Photo Locations

There’s a lot of good reasons to research your photography trip, so I’m going to tell you about some tools that make it a little easier to find the right photo locations.

[Title image of laptop and mug by David Joyce]

Why Research

I love to shoot when I travel, so I have to research photo locations before I go, especially since I don’t have a lot of time or second chances.

If I go to a location and it’s closed or I can’t take my camera in for some reason, it can kind of ruin my day. So I like to be prepared beforehand.

And some places are just a touristy nightmare. I’m talking about you, Pier 39!

I really can’t find anything to like about that area, much as I usually try to find something to enjoy.

I’d hate to have spent a day trying to shoot in that mass of crowds and tourist trap shops.

Mostly, I just want to give every trip my best shot, and come home with some great photos. Researching the location makes this that much more likely.

Take Notes

The first thing I do is open a Google Keep note or a Google Doc in which to collect my information. I find this easier to track on the go, than saving a bunch of bookmarks.

Then I do a couple of searches on the usual suspects like TripAdvisor, Yelp, Lonely Planet’s ThornTree forums.

For example, let’s say I’m going to San Diego and want to figure out what would be a great spot for some travel photography.

San Diego is beautiful so this should be easy, right?

1. TripAdvisor, Yelp, Travel Guides

These are the usual suspects, and I would hesitate to put them here but they are a good first step to start familiarizing yourself with the lay of the land.

TripAdvisor and Yelp are not photography specific, but they have some pictures so you can try to guess whether something is going to be scenic.

In this case, TripAdvisor suggests:

  1. USS Midway Museum – I think this one is meh on the photography, unless you’re especially keen on Naval photos. Otherwise, it’s a lot of grey.
  2. San Diego Zoo – Okay, not bad. Can be fun if you like wildlife photography, I enjoyed it.
  3. Balboa Park – Actually very fun to shoot – here’s my post on Balboa Park. However, you wouldn’t know it from the picture they have on TripAdvisor’s site so you might actually miss it.

And so it goes, some are actually good photo locations, some not and it’s quite hard to tell from the photos themselves.

Some like 13. Coronado bridge, are beautiful and would make for a great shot. But you certainly aren’t going to be able to shoot it while driving on the bridge and there’s no information on where you might get a good view of it.

This sort of information is really not available on those sites so do your best and just note the locations down for further research.

On Yelp, I suggest checking out the Local Flavor and Arts and Entertainment categories which will pull up some interesting options that don’t fall into the traditional business categories.

2. Google Maps

Next up, Google Maps. What you are looking for here is the imagery embedded into the map.

Go to google maps and type in the city, “San Diego”.

In the bottom right corner, as shown below, you can click on the little image thumbnails to explore user’s photos of San Diego.

Search Imagery San Diego


They’re a bit ad-hoc as I think anyone can submit so the quality is variable.

But they do show you the spot where they were taken and it’s a good way to explore out of the TripAdvisor realm. You might find some off-the-beaten-path ideas.

Google Maps San Diego Search

If you do find some unusual photo locations, I would double-check with Google Earth if the location is right before heading out.

Just looking at San Diego, I saw a great skyline shot that said it was taken at Cabrillo National Monument. It surprised me because Cabrillo is not that close to the downtown skyline. Sure enough, Google Earth proved that it really couldn’t have been taken there!

So, note down some more locations, and also note down which ones coincide with your TripAdvisor and Yelp locations.

3. Flickr Maps

One of my favorite secrets is actually Flickr maps.

Flickr used to be a thriving community and a lot of people upload great photography there. These days, it’s not as popular and it’s quite hard to find great content.

Still, they have a lot of content already and they built out some great tools at some point, one of which is the Flickr Map.

Flickr Map of San Diego

The Flickr map lets you browse a map somewhat similar to google maps, with a carousel of user’s photos.

However, there are a couple great features to the Flickr map that make it so much more useful to photographers.

  1. You can search by a keyword, which means you can look for shots that interest you, such as fall color, or birch forests, or even urban architecture.
    Don’t get too specific, since this is relying on the photog tagging their photos. But many photographers do keyword their Flickr photos so you might get lucky.
  2. The photos in the carousel are sorted by interestingness.
    This is Flickr’s proprietary algorithm and it doesn’t always correlate to greatness, but at least you will get to see some quality photos. This makes it easier to evaluate whether a location is good for a photoshoot.
  3. Finally if you decide on a location, you can click through the shots for EXIF and GPS information.
    If the photographer enabled it, EXIF will give you the camera type and settings. You can read the caption, comments and even interact with the photographer to ask questions.

These features make the Flickr Map very useful for our research.

Double Check Your List

I also use the Flickr Map to investigate locations already on my list and see if they really are good spots for photos.

First zoom in to a location, say the Coronado bridge, and then clear all keywords and clear the map location.

If you clear the map location, it will search the currently visible map or “This Map”.

This is the best way I’ve found to just see what other people are shooting in the area. It can also give you a good idea of where might be a good spot to get a shot of a particular landmark.

Don’t Forget to Just Google It!

The above three tools are the ones that I start with to see actual photos but you definitely want to just google web search as well.

The best results can be articles and blog posts from other photographers, hopefully with useful information like settings or GPS locations.

In my search for “san diego photography locations”, I found the following blog posts or articles that listed some good spots, some with Google Map links.

Frankie Foto » 15 Best Spots to Photograph San Diego

Lumoid Blog » Ten Epic Photography Locations in San Diego You’ve Never Heard Of

Ordinary Traveler » Best Places to Photograph in San Diego

Keep Your Photo Locations List Handy

The one last tip I have is to make sure you collect the information in a way that’s accessible on the go.

There have been times where I wrote up my list in a word document only to realize what a pain it was to pull up on my phone.

One trick I have is simply to go to Google Maps and hit save on any locations I thought sounded good. Then when I’m out and about using my map to navigate, it’s easy to notice which spots are nearby or on the way to somewhere else.

Here’s my recent map of Nashville.

Nashville Photo Locations

Some of those are restaurants and venues, but you get the picture. It becomes easy to visualize what spots you could hit on the same daytrip.

So, when’s your next trip?  Have you done your research? Do you have a list of great photo locations?

I hope the above tools come in handy and please share if you have some tips of your own!

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