Business essentials: Location, location, location

Joanne Thom running at dawn near the summit of Sgurr an Fhidhleir in the North-West Highlands of Scotland

Joanne Thom running at dawn near the summit of Sgurr an Fhidhleir in the North-West Highlands of Scotland

I wrote this post when I was preparing for an upcoming mountain biking photo shoot. With no budget assigned to that project for location scouting, I needed to be creative and call on all my experience from past photo shoots and scouting trips before I felt comfortable enough to suggest what I felt was a viable location to the client.

For a commercial shoot, I'd always recommend that budget is included for a location scout. Being able to scope out a location well in advance enables us to properly assess the environment against the brief, view the light in real time and work out solutions to any potential problems (e.g. logistics or health and safety). Allowing time for the proper research of a location can also save a client money as it helps to remove uncertainty and reduce risk. It enables everyone on the team to concentrate on capturing the images the client requires, rather than wondering if the location is going to cause us problems. 

A case in point. For a personal photo shoot with Scottish multi-sports athlete, Joanne Thom, we headed to a prominent hill north of Ullapool called Ben Mor Coigach with a duffel bag packed full of new-season Compressport clothing. I’ve climbed Ben Mor Coigach before, in 2010, and I'd earmarked its narrow south-west ridge, Garbh Choireachan, with its wide-ranging views of Scotland’s north-west coast, as an ideal location for a future photo shoot. Nearby is another peak Sgurr an Fhidhleir, which has spectacular views north to the iconic Inverpolly hills, Stac Pollaidh, Cul Mor and Suilven. I rationalised that, with a wild camp on the 700m high bealach between the two peaks, we’d be ideally placed for a sunset and sunrise shoot on both peaks.

In reality, my memory isn't great enough to recall things entirely from 6 years ago and I wasn’t 100% sure the terrain on Sgurr an Fhidlheir was entirely suitable for running (the summit’s atop a steep prow, there’s a band of cliffs immediately north of the summit and I knew the ground was going to be icy underfoot). I also didn’t know if I would be able to position myself where I wanted to be to get the best composition in relation to the background and the sun. I was however confident enough in my experience and creative skills that I could react appropriately so, after a lot of research (utilising my old photographs and tools such as Google, OS maps, Sunseeker app and, more recently, Fatmap), I decided to trust my judgement and go for it. This generated its own risks as Joanne was investing 2-days of her time and a lot of effort - it’s a 4-hour drive from Edinburgh and a 2-hour, 700m high hike from Blughasary to reach the Garbh Choireachan ridge. I needed to get things right. 

Standing in the pre-dawn light on Sgurr an Fhidlheir, as we waited for the sun to rise and warm us up, my reservations looked to be proved right. Sgurr an Fhidhleir is an excellent hill to stand there and take in the view. For a photographer capturing a runner at dawn, it's not the best location. It was clear to me that the terrain of the mountain, its backdrop in relation to the rising sun and my concerns around health and safety if Joanne ran too close to the cliffs was going to severely limit my shot options. 

Despite this, we did manage to come away with a number of shots, like the one above, that we're able to use to promote Joanne to potential sponsors. It proved to me though that, despite all the modern tools available to us, online researching is not infallible. Which is why, for a commercial shoot, I'll always request that there is a budget in place so we can pay a visit beforehand to see a location in real time.