I’ve always been a fanatic about researching the destinations I’m going to photograph, and by the time I get off a plane in a new city, I probably know more about the hidden parks and historic streets and buildings than most of the people living there.
And like most photographers, I learn faster and better from looking at photos (and videos) of a place than I do from reading about it.
In the past, this usually meant sitting on the floor of the local Barnes & Noble and poring over books like the Insight or Compass guides to “see” what a place really looked like.
These days, though, the Internet provides an extraordinary wealth of visual research and without leaving my desk I can view everything from satellite photos of topographic features to snapshots of the local Dairy Queen — even if it’s half a world away. More importantly, online research provides more depth, freshness and quirkiness than print guides provide. The value of this kind of research for me is twofold: it saves me time on the ground and it helps me to find hidden treasures like the odd bits of “old” Florida that I like to shoot.
One of my favorite research sites is Flickr . While the photos tend toward snapshot quality, members often shoot (and describe) aspects of a location few travel guides touch. For example, while researching a book idea, I did a search on “hot dog stand” and got 1,500 hits. I narrowed the search down to “New York hot dog stand”  and still got nearly 150 hits. Flickr photos are uninhibited, unedited and provide exactly the kind of “on the ground” look I’m searching for.
Google Images  is another good visual resource, but because Google crawls millions of sites, you must constantly flip to new sites to find the occasional helpful photo. An alternative I discovered recently is the Google Blog search . By looking at blogs dedicated to specific places I often find interesting personal travel journals and vacation galleries. While planning a recent trip to shoot wildflowers in the Texas Hill Country, for example, I found several personal blogs with up-to-the-minute reports on flower hot spots — and specific directions for finding them.
And don’t ignore Google Maps  when it comes to visualizing the geography of a place, or mapping the route between various locations. In the “satellite” mode you can see local terrain at an almost bug’s-eye level. In the “hybrid” mode, you’ll get a street map overlaid on the satellite images. Before going to Paris last September, for example, I mapped out the Eiffel Tower and then was able to request directions from my hotel on Montparnasse Blvd. The result was a bird’s-eye view of the tower (you can zoom in close enough to see people on the observation deck) with a street map to the hotel. Amazing.
YouTube and Google Video are both good sources of short travel and “through-the-windshield” videos that provide an incredibly intimate sense of place. The quality is often abysmal, but while researching the drive up Mt. Lemmon near Tucson on YouTube, I found several high-res videos of skateboarders descending the entire drive shot from the riders’ perspective — talk about an up-close and personal viewpoint.
Finally, don’t ignore other photographers’ sites for takes on what others are shooting. Travel shooter Dan Heller’s  site, for example, has 30,000-plus global travel shots  online organized by location with a nice drill-down navigation.
(Flickr image by Gideon Jones .)
[tags]Jeff Wignall, location shooting, photography advice[/tags]