Methods for visualizing a photograph

Photo of author

Words/photographs: Tony Eveling

Once you have worked out why and how the  ‘rule of thirds’ works, the next thing to do is to find something to compose.

That is where visualization comes in…

In photography as in life, there is a yin and a yang to the way things tend to work out

So when I am told one thing, I think the other, or at least I ask why.

When I am told to plan my photographic compositions ahead of time, like a day or a week or a month or a year in advance, I start to ask questions.

Public art on the beach, the north coast of Belgium.
Public art on the beach, the north coast of Belgium.

I start asking questions, because I see now, and I tend to photograph now

Then, all those years ago, when I was learning and being told stuff,  I read about Ansel Adams, and I read about his version of visualizing an image.

I quite liked his interpretation and then I realised that I had my own version of the visualization technique.

That is what this article is about, so it’s a reminder of something fundamental to the photography of Ansel Adams, and I think it’s also fundamental to every creative photographers photography.

Before we get to the details

To me, visualization is similar to the ‘rule of thirds’ in that for intuitive photographers, these techniques are applied subconsciously.  For those who do not employ these techniques intuitively then they can be learnt.  For others, a lot of people have no idea they are employing these techniques.

So here is my take on this very important aspect of photography, so that you can check out someone elses methodology and maybe adapt it for your own use.

This article is just one of a whole series of articles on creative composition. You can click here to go to an index page of all these posts in the order that they were written.

Methods for visualizing a photograph

When I am out taking photographs I usually have the final image in my minds eye before I press the shutter, and I use that to help me compose the image.

And that is what is generally called visualization.

Of course, every photographer is different, but for me visualisation can be used in two simple ways.

Visualization for pre-planned photography

Firstly there is the method employed by someone who is knowledgeable in some way of a specific location such as mountains or beaches.

The photographer will scout the location during the day, and they will find in their minds eye a composition for a very specific set of pre-determined lighting conditions, which will often be dawn or dusk.

The position of the rising sun will be known beforehand.

All that is required is to go out to the location at the correct time so that the Sun is in the correct position, and hope that the lighting conditions and cloud cover etc are right for the pre determined composition.

This is how a lot of those dawn and dusk wow factor images are created.

If you buy photography magazines you will be familiar with these stunning photographs.

If you look at them from a technical, compositional point of view (including my own) the compositions are similar or have some strong similarities.

To achieve these results the photographer often has to keep going back to the same spot if they can’t get the right conditions first or second time.

For this photography you have to be in-situ pre-dawn or pre-dusk sometimes in difficult to get to places.

The rewards however, can be very satisfying.

This method means that the composition is fixed before the photograph is taken and the photographer has to wait for the appropriate light that suits the fixed visualised composition.

Visualization for spontaneous, un-planned photography

Secondly, there is a more opportunistic, spontaneous method for visualizing an image where the photographer will be on location, camera in hand sometimes with tripod, sometimes without.

The trick here is to see a composition in the minds eye – on the fly- and instantly compose a shot, which for an experienced or intuitive photographer will be a unique composition that works for the specific environmental conditions (lighting/subject etc).

Street photographers are like this, they have to search the streets for situations and very quickly create compositions that suit the lighting conditions whether the skies are dull, bright, or dawn,dusk or midday.

Although, some people will call this something like anticipation of the moment rather than visualisation. I think it’s all part of the same process.

Part of this process is instantly knowing – or visualizing – what the final image will look like after you have got it home and you have it post processed on your computer.

It’s not just street photography, or sports photography that is suitable for this.  Landscape photographs can be spontaneous too, and I would wholeheartedly encourage creating instantly visualised compositions to add originality and personalisation to the standard, classic compositions of dawn and dusk.

Preparing for pre-planned landscape photography

With the first method you have to plan ahead, and often you need time to dedicate totally to photography.

You may even plane months in advance, and all the while you have that final finished photograph in your minds eye.  Even if the reality doesn’t end up matching the imagination, it doesn’t matter, visualisation is a part of human perception, that once you understand it, you can manipulate it to your advantage.

Preparing for spontaneous, un-planned photography

The latter method can be more informal and relaxed.

You don’t have to commit to being somewhere pre-dawn with fingers crossed that the light will be right.

You can be walking the dog, or out on a cloudy Sunday afternoon with the family.

You could also be out in the middle of the day with camera and tripod.

With this method there is never a bad/wrong time to take photographs because the photographer will create compositions to suit whatever environmental conditions nature throws at him/her.

What I do is to wander around an area until I have a ‘moment of inspiration’, regardless of whether the subject is spectacular or ‘mundane’, and then I see the final finished image in my minds eye.  Then I compose the shot.

Visualization is just a process in a chain of processes to capture an image

Both methods require honed technical/craft skills to get good results, visualization is the marrying of an inspirational moment, regardless of whether the inspiration comes from the spectacular or mundane, combined with imagination – the ability to see the final finished image, or visualization

So, it’s really simple and The father of American landscape photography, Ansel Adams, is the one who called it visualisation, the ability to see the final image in your minds eye before pressing the shutter and before getting back to the darkroom/computer.

I like his description of visualisation because in my view it can be applied to pre-conceived, pre-planned compositions as well as more spontaneous photography.

How do I use visualization in my photography?

As for my photography, I like to be spontaneous and create original compositions in a kind of visualise-as-I-go kind of way.

That attitude allows me to take original compositions throughout the day of urban and rural landscapes, rather than concentrating solely on dawn/dusk landscape photos.

But at the same time I do have a mental collection of visualised compositions of places that I want to take at dawn or dusk, and occasionally I’ll have a go at creating them.

For me, visualisation makes me stop and think about the photo opportunity in front of me, what is it that I can see? Wide angle? Telephoto? What is the photo of? Is it the sky, the land, or those stick figures in the distance?

That is how visualisation helps me. It makes me stop and apply the discipline of composition when taking photos.

Visualisation doesn’t have to be about visualising a photograph before you even go out to take photography, which is how some landscape photographers interpret it.  Once you know the principle, you can employ it as you wish.

Visualisation is simply visualising the final print or screen version before you take the photo. And that can be two weeks before you press the shutter, or two seconds.

Be unique at all times

We are all unique and see the world differently.

You need to find your own way and methods that suit your photographic style and your lifestyle.

Not everyone can get up at three in the morning to get somewhere very high and cold, before waiting for the sky to turn red for thirty seconds.

But right now outside your front door is a captivating photographic composition that, with your personal creative vision, only you have the ability to see.

In both of the photographs below, the locations were scouted at least a day before the photos were taken.

Swanage Bay in Dorset just before the Sun rises
Swanage Bay in Dorset just before the Sun rises
Narrow path at dawn in the Chiltern Hiulls, near Ivinghoe, Buckinghamshire, england, UK
Narrow path at dawn in the Chiltern Hiulls, near Ivinghoe, Buckinghamshire, england, UK

Both compositions require a certain light quality only available at certain times of day.

In this case they were both taken at dawn, and both these photographs use the exact same composition.

The differences between the two are the subject, location and colour of the light.  The compositions are the same.  Both these photographs were visualised the day before in the middle of the day.

Pre prepared, off the shelf compositions

I have my own ‘off the shelf’ compositions that I will employ in specific conditions, and it’s just practise that has allowed me to build up that ‘collection’.

The above two photos, in terms of composition, are probably the most commonly occurring compositions in the whole of landscape photography.

They are common because photographers like taking them and people like looking at them!

It’s a composition that is perfect for dawn or dusk light.

If you are a beginner you can use a composition like this to practice your technical skills, you will still have to find the right location and you still need the correct light, but it is a good way to practice the visualization process.

Try and imagine the final finished image in your minds eye.

There are thousands if not millions of wow factor landscape photographs on the web that employ the same composition.

They are used in photography magazines to teach photography and they are employed by professional photographers for publication in thousands of publications around the world.

I suppose you could say that this composition is a design classic.

How to re-create this design classic of a composition

To construct this composition there has to be a foreground object, in my coastal scene it’s the beach and the ‘groyne’ (UK sea defence system), but it could be a rock pool reflecting light, or exposed bedrock.

In my landscape photograph its the track leading into the frame.

Then there must be a horizon in the far distance. And an interesting sky that lights up in dawn/dusk light.

Ideally You need a minimum 30mm lens on a full frame sensor to capture a scene like this, although to really emphasise the foreground leading into background use a 20mm or even 15mm lens.

The previous two images used a classic pre-determined composition that I knew would suit this very specific landscape and very specific set of lighting conditions, both of which I saw in my minds eye the day before.

One more example.

The photo below  employs a more spontaneous and unique compositional style where photographs are seen and created on the spot with no pre planning.

I was just passing this field late afternoon, and the contrast between yellow and blue instantly caught my attention.

Hay bales, norfolk,england,uk
Hay bales, norfolk,england,uk

I had a version of this image that appeared in my minds eye immediately after having that moment of inspiration, where I knew that there was a photo somewhere.

I noticed the spacing between the hay bales, so I ‘moved’ them by moving myself left and right, backwards and forwards, and ‘placing’ them in the order that you see them to create this composition.

This was a spontaneous shot that I just chanced upon by casually exploring the area in search of photo opportunities.

It only took a minute or so to see and then create this photo.

You don’t need to be out purely to take photographs in order to take compelling photographs.

You can be out with the family or walking the dog, this is a photographic style that you can adopt whilst doing other things.

Just be spontaneous and flexible!


Thanks for reading this article I hope you enjoyed it. This is the fifth part of a whole series of articles that I have published.  You can find the whole series in one place here

You can read about the subject of composition in more detail and at your own pace by downloading this ebook.  

Don’t forget to share this post with anyone that you may benefit.

I would love for you to share your thoughts too in the comments below.  What are your experiences with composition generally, and what do you struggle with.  Also, how do you implement techniques like visualization.  Share your thoughts below!

  • Bonjour,
    merci de ton passage.
    Tes photos sont magnifiques et vibrantes !
    Beaucoup de profondeur dans la réflexion
    et une intensité palpable.
    Bonne journée,

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