Have you ever spent time behind the camera working on that image you’ve got in your mind only to think (or mutter) to yourself some version of “this just isn’t working”? Have you ever been in front of one of those scenes or subjects about which someone has said, “You just can’t make a bad picture of this” only to look at the pictures you’ve just made and thought, “Want to bet?”
Yeah. Me too.
Ansel Adams made much of the idea of pre-visualization and we all work differently, so I imagine it was important to him, especially working with larger format film the way he did. But for many—perhaps even most—of us, we work with a different medium, and for those of us using digital cameras, our creative process has a little more direct feedback built into it now. Unlike the venerable Saint Ansel (who likely took hours or days before he saw what he was making), for us, the time between pressing the shutter and recognizing that our approach isn’t working has been mercifully reduced to seconds.
That means we can do something about it. We can pivot. Adjust. And tweak.
I like the idea of pre-visualizing, though I prefer to back up a step and ask myself not what it looks like, but what I want the photograph to feel like. What I want it to be about, and how I can give the subject its best expression. My concern with pre-visualization (the way I understand it) is that once we get an idea in our heads, it’s especially difficult to get past it and see things differently. We get blinded by expectations, by images we’ve seen from others, and by images we’ve made in the past. Or blinded by the picture in our mind that might bear little resemblance to what’s actually possible here and now.
I wonder how often do we try something and get stuck because of our first pre-visualization just isn’t working? How often does that mental picture lead us to an approach—composition, choice of focal length, choice of settings, even the way we deal with an image in development—that gets us stuck and unwilling to try new approaches or re-imagine that first idea?
The key to becoming a confident and creative photographer is in how we think. If we believe this one image is going to look a certain way—perhaps tack sharp and very literal—will we even consider the possibility that this particular scene or subject might be better expressed as an abstract?
How Can I Work This?
“This just isn’t working” is only as frustrating as the gap between reality and your expectations—and your willingness to turn it from a gripe into a question: how can I work this?
Maybe your favourite point of view (POV) is ultra-low using wide-angle lenses, so that’s your first instinct. It is for me. But it’s not always going to work, and “how can I work this?” is much more helpful if it leads to trying a different focal length, different POV, or both.
Maybe the scene just isn’t working in colour. I’m currently in Kenya, and two weeks ago, I was photographing lions in Nairobi National Park. The scene in front of me was great, but it “just wasn’t working.” Why? Well, it wasn’t the scene. The lions were amazing. They couldn’t have performed better if the whole thing had been scripted. But I was thinking in colour, and it wasn’t working in colour. “How can I work this?” or perhaps “What are the other possibilities?” led me to realize that what I was looking at was a wonderful monochrome image. In colour, the lions were on a mound of red soil (dirt and rocks that were very unappealing to me) under a blue sky (relentlessly cheerful—gross). It just “wasn’t working.” Not for me. But I started thinking in monochrome, focusing on the shapes, and the composition, and the image below is what came out of it. From “this isn’t working” to one of my favourite photographs from the trip.
Photographers spend a lot of energy thinking about technique. We sometimes (not you, of course, but others—you know the ones) get stuck on favourites. Favourite POVs. Favourite lenses. Favourite light. Favourite shutter speeds, apertures, and post-production techniques. None of them work for everything. What might help is thinking, instead, about finding the best expression of our chosen subject. Thinking about possibilities. And perhaps getting less hung up on the frustration of “this isn’t working” and more proactive about finding creative answers to “how can I work this?” It works for me, though it seems to be a question I re-learn almost every time I get behind the camera.
Postcards from the Maasai Mara
As this lands in your inbox, I’m three weeks into my month in Kenya. It’s my happiest place, and I’d like to share it with you. I’d normally send you a PDF monograph (and I will), but bandwidth here makes that difficult. So for now, I’ve posted a dozen images here (below). Feel free to leave comments or questions if you like. I’ll reply once I’m home after the 7th of February. Enjoy!
For the Love of the Photograph,
PS – Want more like this? I send these articles out every two weeks to photographers around the world who want to improve their craft and explore their creativity and I’d love to include you. Tell me where to send it and I’ll send you a copy of my best-selling eBook Make Better Photographs, as well bi-weekly articles, first-glimpse monographs of my new work, and very occasional news of resources to help you keep moving forward in this craft we love.
“Each and every one of your emails inspire and motivate me to want to jump right out of my chair away from my computer and shoot for the love of it . Thank you David.” – Millie Brown