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Anticipating Great Images

A contribution by Dan Bailey – author of the eBook Zen Photographer (currently 13% off at SnapnDeals here).

What if you could predict the future? Wouldn’t that make you a much better photographer?

Think about it: Photography is largely about capturing the moment. Not just any moment, though. We’re talking that singular instant when light, expression, movement and environment all converge in one significant fraction of a second. That’s when the dirt’s flying, the action’s peaking and that ray of golden sunlight is turning your subject into a hero. If you knew exactly when that moment of truth was going to happen, you’d be a true camera master.


Of course, most of us don’t have psychic abilities, but we do possess a minor form of clairvoyance that allows us to see into the future. It’s called anticipation.

In photography, looking into the future involves imagining with high probability how the scene will play out in a time that’s later than “right now.” It’s seeing a convergence of light, moment and subject in your mind that might happen, and then working backwards to make it happen.

Most great images some form of of anticipation, whether it’s noticing how the light will hit your subject in a few minutes, paying attention to how your subject and background will look when lined up as a two-dimensional image, or recognizing when and where the height of action of expression might occur.

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You may not be able to predict exactly how the future will play out, but by gauging the scene and all of the elements in your immediate surroundings, you can get a pretty good idea of what’s likely to happen, and in the world of image making, that’s as good as gold.

Once you have that information, you can then put yourself in the optimum location, direct your subjects as needed, and set your gear accordingly in order to nail the shot that you now have in your mind. This is active image making, and it’s almost always more effective than trying to grab a shot that’s already started to unfold.

Let’s say you’re shooting a trail runner. With one eye, you watch the runner follow a certain path through the landscape. With the other, you’re, you’re looking for something that might make for a compelling background, all the while, checking the position of the sun.

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When you see a potential convergence, you move to the ideal vantage point that will let you capture the scene in the most powerful way, figure out the technical details, such as lens choice, exposure mode, EV compensation, and then wait for the right moment. When the runner reaches the right spot, you press the shutter and nail the shot.

You didn’t just stand there and snap away, hoping for something good, though. That would be passive. You got the shot because you used your imagination and anticipated a potentially great image before it actually came together. You took an active part in the image making process. You looked. You imagined. You reacted, and maybe even sprinted with your backpack full of camera gear over rough terrain so that you could get to the right vantage point. Active image making.

I call this thinking and acting geometrically, and it’s a process that’s hard wired into our brains. We use these skills whenever we get behind the wheel of a car, or when navigating a stressful situation. In traffic, they keep you alive. In photography, they keep you tuned into all the elements of your scene.

So the next time you’re out shooting, look into the future. Imagine a great image, anticipate how your scene might play out, and then work geometrically and bring the shot to life.

For more creative insight like this, be sure and check out my brand new ebook, ZEN PHOTOGRAPHER: Turning Your Passion into Focus (13% off for the next few days at SnapnDeals).

Dan Bailey is a full time professional outdoor, adventure and travel photographer based in Alaska. When he’s not off exploring in the mountains, writing about photography, or flying his little yellow bush plane, he can sometimes be found lurking in the forums right here at DPS. Check out his blog and find him on Facebook and Google+.

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