How to Scout Locations for Photo & Video: Part 3 – Gear & Planning

Scouting Gear

[Howdy, Scott here again.  This is the third of a three part series on the steps I take when location scouting as Chase's lead assistant.  In the first two posts we discussed virtual scouting and weather. Now we've done everything that we can do from a desk and it's time to put the rubber to the road.  Good old fashioned Location Scouting.]

Let’s assume we have decided on a region we think will have the right physical characteristics and weather to meet the client’s needs.  Kate and the rest of the production team have kicked into high gear and booked flights, lodging and ground transportation for the crew.  We’ve said goodbye to the spouses and pets and have hopped in planes, trains and automobiles.  Now after a weary day or two of travel we’ve arrived.  It’s time to check in, hang up the shirts, grab a nap, head down to the pool for a refreshing swim and a cocktail, gotta energize, there’ll be work to be done tomorrow.  Oh, were it only so easy…. The fact of the matter is, every room night, every meal, every travel day, scout day and shoot day cost the client significant money.  So if the sun is still in the sky, we’re scouting, working, prepping etc…cocktails and naps be damned.  Lemme run you through the who, what, where, when and why.

First, a quick meeting. Everybody’s got their necessary paperwork, reference photos, design layouts, maps, etc., which are used to determine what locations we want to spend the time actually scouting in person.  Much of this is determined before the travel, but there is still generally a whittling process that goes down when everyone is in the same room.  This is a quick process and then it’s time to roll.  The most common mode of travel is cars, but we’ve scouted with helicopters, boats, bikes and skis.  Best tool for the job and all that.

Who’s going? Chase as photographer or director, myself as the technical half of his brain, our director of photography if we’re shooting video, the executive producer who will be looking at things from a logistics standpoint, the location scout (this is the local person we’ve been working with remotely before our arrival), the creative director and/or art director from the client.  Other key players such as drivers, athletes, grips, gaffers, technical advisors, etc. may all be involved in the scout.  The rule of thumb is that if the person has a lead role in any part of the execution they’ll be on the scout.  Something that looks great from an aesthetic standpoint might be impossible to permit or be too dangerous for the talent.  It’s best to get everyone’s sign off as early as possible.

What to bring? Many years of experience have brought us to a point where we take the same kit out every day of scouting.  It’s a tapered down kit that covers three bases; it needs to record the information we see on the scout, it needs to fit in the carry-on luggage since we frequently scout upon arrival, and it needs to work as a bare minimum shooting kit in case our equipment is held up for a day or two in transit and we have to start the job without it.  Here’s what it looks like:

Nikon D3S
Nikon 14-24 2.8 Lens
Nikon 24-70 2.8 Lens
3 Camera Batteries
48 GB of CF Cards
Battery Charger
17″ Mac Book Pro
256 GB G-Drive Mini Hard Drive
Card Reader
Lens Cloth
Air Blower
Compass
iPhone (Compass, MotionX GPS and Sun Seeker Apps are super helpful)
Notebook and Pen

Chase Scouting in Chile

Chase and Arturo, our Chilean Producer on a scout.

When scouting the locations, the job is to get as much information as possible in as little time as possible. Generally Chase and I are working closely to get images and take note of any and all photographic considerations.  It is absolutely key to have an understanding of how the sun will move across the sky.  If we’re going to be working indoors we’ll be looking at how we can meet our lighting and power needs.  For each location we visit we’ll have found our primary angles, logistical considerations, and optimal time to shoot.  We’ll do this at as many locations as we can fit into the day unless we decide that we’ve got everything we could possibly need, then it’s back to the base camp for more planning.

Having returned from scouting, it’s time for cocktails…almost.  First, all of the key players split up for a little bit in order to digest and prepare the information that they gathered while out on the scout.  For me this means getting all of the photos into Aperture, grouping them by location and geo-tagging them on a map.  I’ll also add pertinent information from my notes such as “direct sun from 8-11am”.  The producers, location scouts and art team are all going through a similar process with their own assets.

Pre-shoot meeting, New Zealand

Pre-shoot meeting, New Zealand

And now it’s finally time to relax.  The whole scouting team usually gets together over a beer, each bringing their thoughts and visual aides to the table.  Generally we’ll grab a white board or a large pad of paper and start to sketch out the best way to sync the location(s) with the requirements of the shoot.  If the project encompasses multiple days and locations it requires that we take into consideration each location, available talent, travel times, optimal shooting times, production logistics, weather, etc.  Each of these moving parts has to be considered in order to make the most efficient and effective use of the limited time.

This is where working with a pro crew becomes a huge luxury. If everyone has a great grasp on their part of the project and a global perspective on the shoot, this can be a fantastically organic and painless process.  Once all of the location decisions have been made and shot order determined it’s time to pass the information along to everyone in the crew.  The producers and scouts can get going on permits, the stylists can start prepping wardrobe, the art directors can tighten their shot lists, and we can get all of the gear ready for an early start in the morning.

There you have it.  The nuts and bolts of photo assisting in the days leading up to the project.  I hope this has been helpful.  Please feel free to use the comments section of this post to bring up any other questions or discussions you’d like to see.

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73 Responses to How to Scout Locations for Photo & Video: Part 3 – Gear & Planning

  1. Jeff Boyus February 17, 2011 at 10:37 am #

    Wow. You guys have literally one of the best jobs ever! It’s good to see all the hard work paying off as well.

  2. Chris February 17, 2011 at 10:44 am #

    Great, its really cool to see behind the scenes of a shoot :) Have fun!

  3. Carlo Parducho February 17, 2011 at 10:45 am #

    Thanks for these posts. Very helpful. Really. It’s nice to be able to compare what I’m doing with what the big guys do =)

  4. Isaac February 17, 2011 at 10:56 am #

    Great series Scott! It is great to be able to see the methods behind the madness…..the videos are always great but I think it is easy to forget how much work you guys put into the final product.
    Cheers!

  5. DanielKphoto February 17, 2011 at 11:07 am #

    Really helpful Scott :) Thanks

  6. vernography February 17, 2011 at 11:50 am #

    Sounds like fun.

  7. Grunge February 17, 2011 at 12:01 pm #

    Great rundown full of good information. For a rank amateur like me, I often think I wish I would have been “there” before so I could be way more productive when I do get somewhere.

  8. James February 17, 2011 at 12:22 pm #

    I may be getting old… but… is it just me or is the font on this site really small? I’m on a 27″ mac… so it may be a resolution thing… but it seems really tiny.

    • nuts_muc February 17, 2011 at 1:18 pm #

      @james: you wanna hold ‘cmd’ and press ‘+’ once or twice to get your eyes some rest :)

      and scott – thanks for the post and for pointing to motionX. I never heard of it before and it really looks the bomb!

  9. Mario Giancini February 17, 2011 at 12:57 pm #

    Great post! Thanks for the overview of your process. It’s very helpful to see what others do on a larger scale. Really admire the work you guys do.

  10. O'nev February 17, 2011 at 1:10 pm #

    Scott you seem to have read my mind this morning, answered what I wanted to know. Helicopter based scouting must be fun :-) thanks.

  11. Trent Light February 17, 2011 at 1:12 pm #

    Hi Scott

    Really love the posts you have been doing

    one question I have is what types of contracts and paper work do you you’s on your commercial photo shoots

    • Scott Rinckenberger February 17, 2011 at 1:25 pm #

      Trent, we always have an estimate, a contract and model releases that govern the shoots we do. Our producer Kate will be penning some guest blogs in the future which will likely cover these elements in more detail. Stay tuned!

  12. David Robertson February 17, 2011 at 1:37 pm #

    awesome post guys, great tips!

  13. J Rainey February 17, 2011 at 1:55 pm #

    An excellent finish to your three part write up! It’s great information to store in my brain for later in life as it comes into use..thanks!

    As far as contracts/release forms go, would something like the iPhone’s Photographers Contract Maker app be something of use to you and your team (in terms of a more paperless way of doing things)? In any case, i very much look forward to the future blog posting by Kate on this topic!

    • Scott Rinckenberger February 17, 2011 at 2:02 pm #

      J, great suggestion. A paperless form could be a great fit for model releases. As to the contracts, they generally go through a number of iterations and some legal review during the back and forth with the client, so they need to still exist in their traditional form. Thanks for the idea!

      • J Rainey February 22, 2011 at 12:00 pm #

        Excellent point. Having never reached that level where contracts are going through multiple revisions that thought had escaped me!

      • Mike February 23, 2011 at 5:28 pm #

        Easy release for the iPhone/iPad looks to be pretty good for electronic model/property releases. You can put in your own release wording and also save many variations of the release. Then the photographer and model sign the iPad itself and it emails a PDF copy to both parties.
        I’ve only been playing with it and haven’t put it to use yet, but it looks like a good way to digitize your releases.
        - Cheers!

  14. Stefan February 17, 2011 at 1:55 pm #

    Great series of posts Scott. Really enjoyed reading them and it gives me great food for thought.

  15. Russ February 17, 2011 at 2:00 pm #

    Not even drinking New Zealand beer in New Zealand!

  16. Dan February 17, 2011 at 2:01 pm #

    Thanks for the great series/info Scott!

    Question if you’re scouting multiple location how are you able to track the sun, determine the best time of day, etc. (basically anything that would change after you’ve moved onto the next location)?

    • Scott Rinckenberger February 17, 2011 at 2:19 pm #

      Dan, good question. There are three things that we find helpful in order to make an educated guess about the lighting conditions.

      1- The local scout, generally a quick inquiry about the path of the sun or the prevailing weather patterns will garner a great deal of information.

      2 – A compass. By figuring out which direction we’re facing, where we want light, and understanding the general path of the sun, we can get pretty close to guessing when and where we will have light.

      3 – The Sun Seeker App on the iPhone. This has made this part of the job infinitely easier as you can just hold your iphone up to the sky and the app will draw the path of the sun right across the image your phone’s camera is seeing. It’s amazing.

  17. Bill Millios February 17, 2011 at 4:13 pm #

    Scott – great series!

    I hope you’ll also do an article or two on “what has gone wrong, and how we fixed it.”

  18. Jo King February 17, 2011 at 4:19 pm #

    Thought Id mention you forgot to include in your gear list the black bomb bulb syringe anal douche thats on your gear photo. They also make for good dust airblowers ;)

    • Soctt February 17, 2011 at 4:37 pm #

      JoKing, ummm, thanks? The dust air blower (for sensor cleaning) is there now.

  19. John P. Dunnigan February 17, 2011 at 6:25 pm #

    Wow! Tons of great/useful information as always! Thanks.

  20. Sam February 17, 2011 at 6:50 pm #

    dang i liked this series

  21. Will February 17, 2011 at 7:59 pm #

    Thanks for taking the time to put together this 3 part post. Great stuff!

    Have you used a program called TPE or The Photographers Ephemeris? I assume Sun Seeker does the same thing. But if you have not looked at TPE check it out. Might help with Virtual Scouting.

    My other question is on the arrival day scouting shoot do you use a stand-in/model to try and nail down your exact shot for the next day or is it a bit more relaxed and you are mainly just focusing on the background elements?

    • Scott Rinckenberger February 17, 2011 at 8:07 pm #

      Will,

      Just checked out TPE, count me in!

      As to the stand in model, generally this is unnecessary as it’s more about making sure the environment will work. I tend to be the default stand in. In fact, at some point we’re going to publish a collection of test shots of me acting oddly in crazy locations all over the world. There are extenuating circumstances when you need the model on set for the scout, but this is not the norm.

  22. Ben February 17, 2011 at 8:09 pm #

    I want to help you lighten your load. The iPhone 4 has a compass app built in. No need to lug a compass around anymore.

    • Scott Rinckenberger February 17, 2011 at 8:25 pm #

      Ben, gotta represent the boyscout’s motto on this one – “always be prepared.” The iPhone does the trick unless you run into trouble with digital interference or you have battery issues, then there’s nothing like a magnetic needle floating in liquid to quickly solve your problem.

  23. ramene February 17, 2011 at 8:44 pm #

    Greats post Scott. Curious about the need for another producer (besides your own Kate); what are their responsibilities? Are there always multiple producers on your team during a given shoot?

    • Scott Rinckenberger February 17, 2011 at 9:49 pm #

      Ramene,

      The producer may be Kate, it could also be a producer from the ad agency or client side. Each contract is different in terms of how the production responsibilities are split. Sometimes multiple producers will share the workload – perhaps one concentrates on crew logistics while another works with casting and permitting. It all depends on the scope of the shoot.

      • ramene February 18, 2011 at 6:11 am #

        Thanks for the reply.

  24. Christopher Harrison February 17, 2011 at 8:45 pm #

    Really great post Scott. As a single shooter who tries to plan for all eventualities your prep overview as well as gear guide is invaluable to me. I have recently become acutely aware of just how important the scouting process is. I have become dependent on quick relationship building with locals in order to find a starting point for my shot list. Your post serves to drive home the fact that the prep is really a very huge part of the entire game. Perhaps someday I will have the luxury of working with a team such as yours; until then I will continue to triple check my gear and shot list and scout as intelligently and efficiently as possible. Keep living the dream and thanks again.

  25. 007_checker February 18, 2011 at 12:37 am #

    This is an awsome post! As if I were in the middle. Thanks! Kay.

  26. Todd February 18, 2011 at 1:39 am #

    Hey Scott, forgive me for the nerd-question here….but what kind of card reader do y’all use?

    And thank you, by the way, for these amazing posts…you and the rest of the CJ team are the best instructors/guides out there….it’s appreciated!

  27. Brandt Steinhauser February 18, 2011 at 6:39 am #

    Hi Scott,

    Just wanted to say that I am benefiting from these posts. You are shedding light on some things I never would have thought.

    Thanks.

  28. 5D Mark II TEAM February 18, 2011 at 11:42 am #

    Hi Scott,

    Don’t you carry any LCD Viewfinder with your gear?

    Like the “LCDVF” or something to check images (and videos in case you shoot them) much better than just looking at the 3″ camera’s LCD screen with “naked” eyes? (especially considering you might be in a bright sunlit situation, etc).

    Best regards,

    Pablo
    5D Mark II Team

  29. Stephen Dickson February 18, 2011 at 9:25 pm #

    Really enjoyed this series. Thanks for taking the time Scott.

  30. Adam Haworth February 19, 2011 at 9:26 am #

    I would kill for my day to be like this, your truly inspiring Chase

  31. Vincent February 20, 2011 at 1:49 pm #

    Great, thanks for sharing! Interesting work flow. Also like the fact that you guys share the results together while drinking a cocktail and some beers :)

    Cheers!

  32. mirko February 21, 2011 at 2:58 am #

    WOW Scott!!

    First, huge pleasure to see Chase with Chilean pilot, since i’m from Chile as well! This information is very, very helpful… it’s never about copying someone else’s style or similar, but getting to know different (and effective) ways of getting the job done.

    Thank you, and all the people there in Seattle for making huge images and be free enough to share it with us. Abrazos!

  33. Rajesh Warlekar December 16, 2011 at 8:21 pm #

    hi chase jarvis………………bro u r the best

  34. Weston Neuschafer March 21, 2012 at 8:26 am #

    Wow, this is great info. Thank You. The Sun Seeker app looks awesome!

  35. Travis Alex December 25, 2012 at 2:26 pm #

    What would you suggest for a photographer location scouting who is just starting out? Gear and thoughts? Contrary to belief, not all of us start of working with or having an all star crew. ;)

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    [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Chase Jarvis, Jorge Roques, Denis Bondioli, Adrian St. Onge, Greg Jordan and others. Greg Jordan said: RT @chasejarvis: How to find locations for photo & video shoots: gear & planning http://bit.ly/i0z3Vw [...]

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