Location scouting

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.

Trail and mountain running ideas: Chamonix and nearby

In August 2017, I had the opportunity to photograph husband and wife Donnie Campbell and Rachael Campbell in Chamonix, France. Donnie Campbell is one of Britain's top ultra runners, sponsored by Salomon. Rachael is a nurse and a talented mountain runner, running for Team GB in 2018 and placing 5th female in the 2018 Marathon du Mont-Blanc 90km series. 

One of my first tasks was to decide where I would take elite athletes for a mountain running shoot near Chamonix that would help me to produce images I hadn't seen before.

Location 1 - Désert de Platé

Donnie Campbell running on Desert de Plate with Mont Blanc in the background

Donnie Campbell running on Desert de Plate with Mont Blanc in the background

On the day Donnie and Rachael welcomed us to the Argentière campsite they'd been calling home for the Summer, my assistant Alex remarked how we appeared to have brought the Scottish weather with us (a temperature of 3 degrees C was reported for the following day). Although the Chamonix valley was socked in with low cloud and drizzle, we had done our research and the weather was looking better a few days ahead so we headed north in the rain to Plaine Joux and followed the route of Le Dérochoir (a fun, if initially sketchy-looking 'via ferrata' that follows a weak point up the dramatic cliffs of Rochers des Fiz and leads to Col de la Portette). Our plan was to stay overnight at Refuge de Platé and shoot sunrise shots of Donnie and Rachael playing on the amazing limestone rock landscape of Désert de Platé, with Mont Blanc in the background.

Désert de Platé was an area that had immediately sprung out when I did some location scouting online. I definitely did want to shoot running images in the Chamonix valley but, when I googled possible locations, the south side of Chamonix (the Lac Blanc side) was clearly the running photographer's location of choice. For good reason. The views are awesome. But I also wanted to find a location that no-one else had. So my plan for our 4-day shoot was to shoot on the balcony paths of Chamonix but also find another location that I hadn't seen any running shots of. Désert de Platé, as it transpired, wasn't an entirely unique location for running (whilst we were in Chamonix, Kilian Jornet posted a video of Seb Montaz and himself playing around between the rock crevasses) but I think we made a good choice. The cracked limestone rock offers huge potential for foreground interest in a photo shoot and the views of Mont Blanc are immense. We only had the time and the weather for one shoot before we headed back to Chamonix but I'd love to return and explore more.

Location 2 - Lac Blanc

Rachael Campbell running at lower Lac Blanc with the Chamonix Aiguilles in the background

Rachael Campbell running at lower Lac Blanc with the Chamonix Aiguilles in the background

When the sun became too bright for photographs at Désert de Platé, we descended via Le Dérochoir and returned to Chamonix for lunch. Two hours later, Alex and I were on our way to 2,352m high Lac Blanc, taking advantage of the chairlifts from Les Praz to Flégère to L'Index to help alleviate some of the weight of our camera and lighting gear. Donnie and Rachael chose to run up from Argentière. The location of Lac Blanc (the 'White Lake’) is, arguably, home to the most famous views in the Alps, with thousands of photos on the internet of the scenic lake and its mountain refuge, nestled beneath the Aiguilles Rouge, with its expansive views over the Chamonix valley to famous peaks such as Aiguille du Tour, Aiguille du Chardonnet, Aiguille Verte, Aiguille du Dru, Grandes Jorasses, the Chamonix Aiguilles and Mont Blanc.

Donnie and Rachael met us at Refuge Lac Blanc. By the time they'd arrived, I’d already decided that a Saturday night in August wasn’t the best time for a photo shoot at this busy location. There was an awful lot of people around the lake. It was too crowded for the shots I had in mind so we descended to lower Lac Blanc and prepared to shoot there. There were already photographers set up (it's a popular lake for reflections) so I took the time to check they didn’t mind if we took some running shots and received a positive response (though in the morning I learnt there was a photographer I had missed and we had spoiled their time lapse. If this was you, I do regret it). After we wrapped up our shoot, I chatted to Salomon's social media manager, Jeremy. Donnie and Rachael returned to Argentière and Alex and I bivvied out so we could shoot some mountain landscape images at dawn. We arranged to meet up with Donnie and Rachael later that day.

Location 3 - Le Brévent

Donnie Campbell running nearby Le Brévent with the summit of Mont Blanc in the background

Donnie Campbell running nearby Le Brévent with the summit of Mont Blanc in the background

Donnie and Rachael’s base in the Alps was their camper van at Camping du Glacier d’Argentière (www.campingchamonix.com). After Alex and I had descended from Lac Blanc (pleasingly, the trail popped out at a bakery in Argentière), it was nice to sit in the mid-day sun at the campsite with fresh bread and a chilled drink as we prepared for our last shoot of the trip. We had two locations in mind. A visit to Tête de Balme or Aiguillette des Posettes for a sunset view down the whole Chamonix valley or to head south-west to Brévent for a closer view of the Chamonix Aiguilles and the summit of Mont Blanc. The latter won, not least because I love looking at the Chamonix Aiguilles (and Les Drus - oh, Les Drus - along with Cerro Torre and Torre Egger in Patagonia, two peaks I could photograph simply every day).

Le Brévent is a popular destination in the Alps for Chamonix’s aerial specialists. Paragliders take off very close to the Plan Praz mid-station, taking advantage of thermals above the town, and BASE jumpers plunge from a pedestal not far from Le Brévent’s 2,525m high summit. We didn't see any BASE jumpers but we did see plenty of paragliders as we left the summit of Le Brévent and headed into a magnificent rocky playground that stretches out like one great, big, broken ridge into the distance towards the Aiguilles Rouges. I'm confident there's huge potential for capturing adventure sports images beneath the peaks that rise above the Grand Balcon Sud, including running, hiking and scrambling photos, all with stunning views across to the big alpine peaks. I made a note to discuss it with clients on my return.

All that was left was for us was to descend the 1,500m to Chamonix, first on an easy trail and then down the initially scrambly but fun Chamonix VK route steeply downhill to arrive in town well after dark. I knew my quads would burn from the 3,000m descent I’d had that day but it was a good feeling and I was sad to be leaving. Three days shooting running in Chamonix simply isn't enough. I'll look forward to going back.