3 Ways to Find the Best Places for Photography While Traveling

The #1 reason I love travel is to seek out the best places for photography. I mean I love the food, and culture and people too but photography is a really big part of why I travel.

[Title image of laptop and mug by David Joyce]

Research for Travel Photography

I love to shoot when I travel, so I have to research photo locations before I go, especially since I often 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, San Francisco! 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.

Best Places for Photography

So what are the “best places”? How do I define that?

Well, to start with, the kind of photography I like to shoot is a bit different than what’s currently popular on instagram. I want to capture the place, how it felt to be there, the architecture and nature. I don’t appear in most of my photos and prefer to stay behind the camera.

I don’t want to use the places I travel to as a backdrop for a picture of me (or anyone else really). I know people like to connect to a person or whatever but I just really like photography for what it is.

Great compositions, lighting, expressing the sense of awe, thrill or even coziness one feels to be there, that’s more my jam.

So when I decide to write about a location, it’s usually because it was visually interesting and compelling and not because it’s a spot that everyone visits to take the same picture. In fact, the more rich in potential a place is, the better I like it.

So for me the best places for photography require some patience and creativity, a place to explore for a while and find great photos. Like the Bahia Palace in Marrakesh. From time to time, I post a spot that happens to be a great place to take a picture of a famous landmark, like shooting the Golden Gate Bridge from Baker Beach.

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 enjoy 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 Image Search

Next up, Google Image Search. I used to use Google Maps which allowed you to look at photography submitted by people but they seem to have changed that feature and it’s harder to use.

Go to Google Image Search and type in the city, “San Diego Photography”.

You’ll see a number of different sights in the city and if they interest you, you can look them up further.

You should also go through the spots you picked in Tripadvisor and enter them in to get a rough idea of whether they’d be good candidates. You can see pretty quickly that Balboa Park is beautiful and would be fun to shoot at.

Best Places for Photography research

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 when researching the best places for photography. The only sad thing is that on and off this tool stops working because I think it’s just not a priority for Flickr.

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.

Google Other Travelers’ Blogs

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 fact, for San Diego in particular, I’ve written up a post with some of my favorite locations.

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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