Pre-visualize and prepare

November 3, 2009

Photo Tips

It is often said that great photos are made, not taken. This can be interpreted in many ways, but to me this means that great images are the result of some fore-thought, planing and skill. Yes we all get lucky from time to time and “take” a great image without much thought, but in order to consistently create great images you have to be disciplined, prepare, plan and pre-visualize.

Pre-visualization is a simple and effective technique that can help in providing direction and focus to your photography, whether that is wildlife, portrait, lifestyle or whatever other type of photography you are into.

All of us, wildlife photographers, have those destinations we dream about going to, whether it is Africa, Madagascar, Costa Rica, Yellowstone, Alaska, or wherever. Naturally we want to make the best of the time we are there, and be productive and effective at making pictures. This is were pre-visualization can help.

Pre-visualization is nothing more than creating, ahead of time, in your minds eye the images you want to create. In other words creating a mental list of those images that for you will constitute a successful shoot. This will provide you with focus and purpose when at your destination and hopefully ensures that your time is spent as efficiently as possible.

Let me give you an example; Before my first trip to Yellowstone in the winter, I studied the environment, the weather forecast, the animals and the features of Yellowstone in the winter. I read a few books about Yellowstone, about wolves, thermal features, and what winter is like in Yellowstone. I also perused a number of photo books and online photo albums from others with images of winter in Yellowstone. With this inspiration and knowledge of the environment, I created a mental list of shots I wanted to make. Some of these pre-visualizations were pretty specific, some more vague, meaning they may have included some elements together, to exemplify some aspect of my experience there, but I may not have had a strong visual arrangement of the shot, just an idea.

One of those “vague” pre-visualizations included the following elements, wildlife (preferably bison), snow, a thermal feature and maybe some dead vegetation. As I was walking around the Old Faithful basin area I kept these elements in mind to try to compose an image that included these elements. I found a few situations that contained some of these elements and attempted to get a good composition for each of those to see how they would work. Here is one of my first attempts.

Bison at thermal feature, Yellowstone NP, WY

Nice image, and it contains some of the elements I had identified in my “pre-visualization” but I was still not satisfied, again this was a pretty vague idea. Not content with this particular arrangement, I decided to press on and keep looking for the right composition to satisfy the vague shot concept I had. Some time later I came across another arrangement of elements that I think worked better, I had to work the area to get my elements lined up right, pacing back and forth, up and down until I got the right composition.

Bison at thermal feature, Yellowstone NP, WY

In this image I captured the elements I was looking for in a composition that works well for me. Had I not pre-visualized what I was aiming for, and actively worked toward “making” this image, I would have easily missed this scene.

If you want to consistently be making good images you should be practicing pre-visualization consistently, not just when traveling to “exotic” locations, but even when closer to home.

In this next example, I had a very concrete idea of what I was looking to shoot, and in this case the location was not so much a factor. I have been fascinated by Luna moths since I first laid my eyes on one when I was about 12 years old at summer camp in New Hampshire. I learned about their behavior, their life cycles, their preferred foods (they only eat while in their caterpillar stage, as the moths do not have any functioning mouth parts), etc. Typically, Luna moths have 2 or 3 generations in a year, with one of those generations overwinter in their protective cocoons. I had noticed that those generations that overwinter had much more vibrant colors than those that only lived through the summer; and that in some cases the Luna moths around my home had a very vibrant purple band around the bottom edges of their wings, a vibrant purple that matched almost exactly the color of the blooming Redbud trees that are so prevalent around my home.

With that information I then pre-visualized this image of an overwintering Luna moth with the purple color resting on a Redbud branch. Without going into too much detail I had to get very lucky to find a newly emerged Luna moth with the right colors during the brief period of time in the spring when the Redbud are blooming (the flowers last approximately 3 weeks). With this pre-visualization in my head I worked hard to find the right Luna at the right time for 3 consecutive springs. One year I got exceptionally lucky and got the image I had in my head all that time.

Luna Moth, Chatham County, NC

Where was this image taken? In my front yard! The only reason I was able to get this image was because I was prepared, I had studied this two species (Luna moth and Redbud tree), and pre-visualized the image I wanted to capture. This pre-visualization helped me persevere for more than 3 years to get the image I was looking for.

Having said all that, don’t be a slave to those images you have in your head. When working intensely in getting the image you want, we can become so focused that an elephant can walk right in front of us and we can miss it; well at least I can.

As an example, knowing the apparent playfulness behavior of Carolina Chickadees I knew that they had a propensity to hanging upside down on some thin smooth branches, so I had pre-visualized this image of a chickadee hanging from a small flowering branch. As I worked hard to make this image, I was totally consumed in making it happen.

Carolina Chickadee, Chatham County, NC

Well, I have made it a point to catch myself when I am too intensely focused on a given task to, from time to time, take a breather and look around me for other possibilities or unexpected images that may present themselves.

In this case I was lucky I did because I saw this Fence Lizard on a nearby log, and took the happy opportunity to make this other image, one that I had not expected to make, and again one that I would have missed had I not made it a point to take that breather from time to time and look around my environment.

Fence Lizard, Chatham County, NC

In summary, pre-visualization can help you in focusing your efforts, and make sure you make the most out of any shoot. Study your subjects, the location, and environment in order to help you conceive of compelling images.

As they say “Luck favors the prepared”

As always, if you have any questions or comments use the comments section below or you can reach me via twitter at


, , , , , , ,

This post was written by:

- who has written 347 posts on The Digital Photo Experience.

Juan is a wildlife photographer who currently lives in Maine. Juan lives and breathes photography and travels around the country making images, teaching and leading photo workshops. Juan’s favorite destination is Yellowstone in winter.

You can follow Juan on twitter at

Contact the author

Leave a Reply