Location scouting is an important step in preparing for any field shoot, even if it’s just a timelapse. It’s especially key if you’re planning to use the sun as your main light. But how do you location scout if you can’t make it to the actual location before the shoot?
In the first episode of Visual Storytelling by SNL Director of Photography Alex Buono, he gives us a quick peek into some of the simplest tools for determining sunlight placement, direction, and intensity in advance of your shoot day.
Surprisingly, the most useful tool out there is free: Google Earth.
Remote Location Scouting
If you have the time and resources, nothing beats going to the physical location of your shoot and scoping out the area. You can visualize your framing, listen for potential audio hurdles, and most of all, you can see what kind of light you’ll be working with.
But in some situations, you simply can’t afford to go to a location before your shoot. For a quick and dirty preview of your location, you could turn to Google Maps and Street View, or ask a production assistant to visit the potential location and take photos, notes, and give you their best judgment.
Even with those photos in hand, you still can’t be sure of how the sunlight will help or hinder your shoot throughout the production schedule.
Thankfully, you have a few standbys that hardly ever change, like the sun placement at a given time during the year. And for a long time, filmmakers would turn to tools like the Farmer’s Almanac, or a chart of the sun data, or a compass and clinometer to guide their location decisions.
But these days you can get away with using your smartphone to do the heavy lifting. Alex Buono’s favorite apps include Sun Seeker and Helios, which provide accurate sun data for your future shoot, based on your planned GPS coordinates.
Location Scouting with Google Earth
While these sun apps are useful and affordable, Google Earth provides a lot more information for a cinematographer or photographer looking to work with sunlight at a location. And best of all, it’s free.
As Alex demonstrates in his pre-production overview, he was tasked with finding a timelapse location in Detroit, without the benefit of an assistant on the ground, or ever having been to the city himself. In Google Earth, he could fly around downtown Detroit, with 3D depictions of its buildings, and find an angle that seemed perfect for a timelapse of the city along the riverfront.
Now for the magical part. In Google Earth, you can select a day and time, and Google will not only show you the placement and intensity of the sun, but it will also simulate the light cast on your 3D scene.
In a matter of seconds, you can choose your shooting location, frame your shot, determine how it will look like throughout your shoot schedule, and do it all virtually on any computer.
For Alex’s timelapse, he found a rooftop spot that looked out onto the city and riverfront, and Google Earth previewed how the sun would reveal itself from behind a silhouette of Detroit’s downtown buildings. The side by side of the preview image - generated long before the actual shoot - and the resulting image is pretty mind blowing.
In addition to giving you a virtual preview of your shot, Google Earth can also help you with pre-production. You can click on the location of your planned shot, and you’ll get a rundown of the building information, including contact info.
Now you can track down the building manager and acquire permission and access to your shooting location, without ever having to be there on the ground. That’s a pretty amazing tool for photographers and filmmakers.
Uncertainties with Location Scouting
While lights are staples of any field production, there’s no replacement for the sun on any outdoors shoot. It’s intense, quick to setup, and afterall, it’s free to use.
With Google Earth as a visual preview of your shoot, you can now simulate location scouting fairly accurately, or times where you or an assistant just can’t visit your shooting location in advance.
That’s even more true for timelapses, where a thorough pre-production visit would require being on location for the full duration of your planned shoot. The moving sun can drastically change your image throughout the day.
So, Google Earth is a magical (and free) tool for any filmmaker or photographer. But one thing Google Earth can’t do is predict uncertainties, like the weather. Or smog. Or a leaf blower and lawn mower that turn on the second you begin filming. Or space invaders destroying the sun.
Want to read another helpful guide? Learn about the role of a cinematographer in film production.