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Pre-visualization in Photography

The Smoking Man

There are numerous articles out there about visualization and pre-visualization in photography. I take some of these methods into consideration while constructing a photograph and wanted to share my views on the topic with you.

I often use a more general method of visualization when I go out to shoot. I think of it as the “let’s go see what we can find” method. Photography is a way for me to clear my thoughts, de-stress and most of all, to get out and enjoy my natural surroundings. So I tend to take things as they come when I shoot. I quite enjoy this method especially when traveling because you truly never know what might happen when you’re out there with a camera.

But where does pre-visualization come in for this style of photography?
Pre-visualization can happen days or in some cases weeks before a shoot, but it can also happen just moments before everything falls into place for that perfect photograph and for that you must be aware of your surroundings. When I’m out shooting and my mind clears I am able to sit and wait for things to happen. It’s amazing what you will find when you’re focused on what’s in front of you and the interactions of the people around you.

Observe the people around you in a street scene

Spend 10 minutes to sit and watch peoples interactions in a street location. Look for personal interactions and ask yourself how does this person know the person they are engaged with. Are they friends, colleagues or perhaps lovers? When you are creating a street scene many of these factors come into play. They will change the mood and style of your final image. The more you know about your subject, the better your image will be. Even though you might not know the subject on a first name basis, a few minutes of observation can certainly help to tell their story.

The Smoking Man
The Smoking Man – Thailand

Pay close attention to body language and gestures. Do they share a handshake or a simple wave? Maybe they know each other very well and there is an embrace or perhaps a kiss. It’s these moments that happen so quickly that can make a great photo and tell a story.

Morocco Street Market
Street Market in Morocco

Composing your shot

Once you’ve taken some time to observe what’s going in your surroundings you’ll start to compose images in your mind. When certain interactions happen between people your natural instinct automatically wants to freeze that moment. It’s up to you as the photographer wait for that moment, compose it through your camera and utilize the photographic elements that make a photograph visually appealing.

Look for the Rule of Thirds, or some kind of framing for the subject. Is there any kind of symmetry in the scene that you could utilize or perhaps scale to show the subjects size comparison. All of these elements will come to you naturally with practice and eventually you don’t even think about them. You just capture them.

Showing Emotion in photographs

Aside from the standard photographic elements there is also the possibility of showing emotion in a photograph. Based on the scene and interactions that happen it is very likely you will be able to portray an emotion such as love, joy, despair or even fear. It really depends on what is happening, the available colors and light, the weather, etc. You also have to take into consideration what the emotion is during post processing. A simple edit can alter the emotion in a photo entirely. It’s up to you as the photographer to show what you feel works best.

Pre-Visualization in Landscape and Nature Photography

When you’re all alone deep in the woods, at the edge of the ocean or at the top of a mountain, pre-visualization is a lot different than a street scene. For one thing, there’s no human interactions to observe. You will also find that things can take a lot longer to happen. However, just like humans, nature can be like clockwork too.

Sunrise and Sunset
Taking photos at sunrise and sunset is popular as it is the time when some of the best light is available to make a photo really pop. If you take into consideration what time the sun will rise or set before your shoot then you can pre-visualize your shot when you reach the scene. Just make sure you leave plenty of time to setup and observe how the scene will behave with the light as it comes into the scene.

Sunshine Coast Sunset
Sunshine Coast Sunset

Reviewing the weather forecast before you shoot is also very important. There could be an extreme storm brewing in the distance and it can move quick. This may be exactly what you’re hoping to capture and that’s great but use caution and be prepared for the worst. A flash rainstorm could ruin your gear very quickly.

Scouting Your Shoot
Scouting is a very important part of photography. I’m sure you’ll find that you’re always scouting when you’re out wandering around the city or the forest. Scouting doesn’t necessarily involve taking pictures, it’s more a mental note to return to that same location so you can photograph it at a certain time of day. This is a huge part of pre-visualization. You can predict where the sun will rise or set on the scene and what areas you feel would make the best photograph. This makes the shoot a lot smoother when you return as you’re ready to capture what you had envisioned beforehand.

Sea to Sky
Sea to Sky – Sunshine Coast, BC

In the photo above I was traveling back from the Sunshine Coast and had scouted the scene a couple of days before on the trip there. The light wasn’t the same when I first saw the location but I saw the mountains line up in the background and decided to try it again on the way back as I would be riding the ferry close to sunset. I waited for the scene to appear and out of the corner of my eye I could see the water taxi moving quickly into the scene. It lined up beautifully and added a great foreground element that helped to set the scale for the image.

In a perfect world we would be able to pre-visualize every photograph we take, but sometimes it doesn’t happen that way. It could be your first time at a location and your only chance to photograph it. When it comes to that, research the location before you arrive. If possible, look at other photographs taken at the same location. This isn’t to copy other photographers images but to learn about your possible surroundings. This way you can begin to pre-visualize your shoot and prepare for what type of photograph you hope to capture.

Great Photographers Tools for Pre-Visualization

The Photographers Ephemeris
This handy app provides you times for sunrise, sunset, moonrise, moonset and more. There is also a map that shows which direction all of these daily events will occur and also the direction of shadows.

Google Image Search
I use this all the time to scout locations when I travel. Especially if I’m only able to visit it once.

Google Earth
This gives you a great overhead view of the terrain at a location. I often use it to find hidden coves on the beach that may be accessible with a little bushwhacking.

1 thought on “Pre-visualization in Photography

  1. Jaden,

    This is a great post. I need to be more aware of the moment I’m surrounded by than just having a set goal when going out shooting. I’m not a street or travel photographer but what you said can be applied in many ways into my photography journey.

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