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Scouting Locations Is Made Easier By Online Tools

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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 [2]. 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” [3] 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 [4] 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 [5]. 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 [6] 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 [7] site, for example, has 30,000-plus global travel shots [8] online organized by location with a nice drill-down navigation.

(Flickr image by Gideon Jones [9].)

[tags]Jeff Wignall, location shooting, photography advice[/tags]

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