One of the joys of doing outdoor fashion and portraiture is finding new places to shoot. Finding a good location is often like an Easter egg hunt; sometimes it’s right in front of your face and you don’t even notice it.
There are different schools of thought when it comes to finding the perfect location to shoot. Some photographers go with the “exotic” approach: find a secret fabulous location with beautiful scenery, lighting, and of course, no other photographer has ever shot at before. To those photographers, I wish them the best of luck. The Bay Area is full of great exotic locations, but one could spend days, even weeks trying to find one. And with so many local photographers, it’s doubtful you would be the first to ever shoot there.
Other photographers go for the scenic approach: shoot in a beautiful location that is well known for its beauty, such as the Hagiwara Japanese Tea Garden in Golden Gate Park or at the foot of Coit Tower. True, these are lovely places to shoot, but the problem is everyone, including the tourists, know that. Therefore, a lot of time is spent maneuvering yourself and your model for an angle that doesn’t include tour groups from Asia or Uncle George from Kansas in the background.
I prioritize my locations based on one main criteria: privacy. Not in the sense of “My project team are the only people in a 10 mile radius”, but rather one of low traffic, low interest from onlookers, and definitely low security.
Low traffic is key for me for a number of reasons. First, is that I simply don’t want to have to deal with the interruptions of people walking through my shoot. Stopping to let someone pass by can break a rhythm with your model and cost you some good shots. Also, heavy traffic can make a model feel uncomfortable, especially when dealing with non-professionals. And finally, there’s the issue of theft. I bring a lot of equipment to my shoots, much of it unsupervised while I am shooting. I don’t need someone walking off with lenses, cameras or makeup kits.
Low interest is important for non-professional models or people having their portraits taken who are not used to being the center of attention. Being in front of a camera can be nerve-wracking enough without strangers standing around gawking at you. For this reason, as I have mentioned, I like to shoot on college campuses. College students are too cool (or like to act it) to pay much attention to something like a photoshoot. Even if they’re interested, they’ll be very low key about their interest. Another factor in keeping your shoot low key is to try not to make your shoot bigger than it needs to be. If you come in with your 10 person entourage and set up a bunch of strobes, reflectors, and directors chairs, prepare to be surrounded by lookie-loos. Keep your team to a minimum and set up only the equipment you absolutely need and you’ll be fine.
Low security means shooting in places where I know I will not be hassled by security, either law enforcement or hired help. Back in the day, I used to walk onto construction sites or into abandoned buildings and shoot for hours without being bothered. In this day and age, it is nearly impossible to shoot on or near private property without being hassled by private security.
So now, I do a little research to figure out what, if any regulations there are about photography and how well they are enforced. For example, you may shoot upstairs in the Ferry Building but for whatever reason, you cannot point your camera downward at the shops or into the windows of the businesses that are located there. If you stay friendly and abide by the rules, no problem with the security people who work there.
At East Bay Regional Parks, favorite outdoor locations for many Bay Area photographers, there is a $100 annual photography fee for photographers who shoot portraits. And San Francisco Parks and Recreation, bless their money grubbing souls, charge $231 per DAY of commerical shooting! Wha what? You didn’t know that? Well, it isn’t common knowledge and for good reason: it isn’t a well enforced regulation. But it’s good to know for two reasons. One, if you are shooting without a permit, park employees have every right to ask you to leave and technically, delete every photo you’ve shot. Doubtful they would ask you to do this unless you’ve been a complete turd to them, so this is a good reason (if you need one) to mind your manners.
Two, if you’re shooting a paid project where that particular location is important to you, you might just want to pay for the permit. Why risk having your whole shoot cancelled to save the cash? After all, now that you are aware of the permit cost and requirements, you can build that into your fees if a client requests a specific location.
To be honest, however, this is rarely a problem. At one park, which shall go unnamed, the park employee noticed my equipment and model and asked if I was shooting commercial photography or a project for school. He noted if I was shooting commercial photography, I would need a permit but if it was just a student project, he’d let me slide. Then he gave me a look like “So what do you think your answer should be?” I told him it was a student project and he waved me by with a wink and a smile.
For those who prefer ignorance on the subject of photography regulations at specific sites, I believe this is a huge mistake. You should always know the rules for shooting at a location, even if you want to pretend you don’t if you are confronted by the authorities. Then you know, as Kenny Rogers once sang, “when to hold ‘em, when to fold ‘em, when to walk away and when to run.”
Hi, I'm Todd, a professional freelance photographer based in the San Francisco Bay Area available for all kinds of image creation including portraiture, events and fashion. This blog is where I share my about latest projects and thoughts on the creative process in general.