How to Pre-visualize Your Photographs


Kav Dadfar_revisualisation_Scotland

“If only it was sunny”. How often have you said that when looking at the scene? This is your brain working out an ideal scene with the elements that you feel will make a good composition, and this is essentially what pre-visualization is all about. It could be influences from anything you have seen, like photographs or movies, to things you’ve read, to things that you sense or just a feeling you get. All of these elements are aspects that you can try to incorporate into a photograph for a pleasing end result. Here are a few tips to help you on your way to pre-visualize you photographs:

Do your research

It’s pretty rare in this day and age to go anywhere that hasn’t already been photographed, or written about, so your first task should always be to research what already exists. The last thing that picture editors (if you shoot commercially or for stock) want to see, is another standard photograph of the Eiffel Tower. By doing research, you get a sense of what has already been done, but also how you may potentially be able to create something different. This could be anything from composition, to lighting, or even just how the image is cropped.

I have seen the Albert Memorial in London hundreds of times, but have rarely seen it reflected in the glass panels of Albert Hall.

I have seen the Albert Memorial in London hundreds of times, but have rarely seen it reflected in the glass panels of Albert Hall.

Scamp ideas

Scamp is a term that is used in advertising. It is basically a drawing that an Art Director presents to clients or photographer,s to show what an idea for an advertisement will look like. Scamps are a great way to get you thinking about a scene and potential photo ideas. You don’t need to be a great artist, or draw an amazing picture, often just a rough sketch will get your brain thinking about the composition and lighting.

Think about the message

It’s no good photographing a scene where you want to depict tranquility and calmness, during the hustle and bustle of rush hour. That’s why thinking about the message or story you want to portray is so important ,and can help you pre-visualize your image. When you are researching a potential photograph or even when you are at your location, always keep in mind the message that the photo needs to deliver. More often than not this will automatically get you thinking and pre-visualzsing the image the way you want it to be.

This scene wouldn't be that interesting without the quad bike.

This scene wouldn’t be that interesting without the quad bike.

Look and wait

Often the difference between a good photo and a great photo is just a few simple elements added, or removed from the scene. This could be points or interest, lighting, or simply a different time of the day. When you arrive at a scene the first thing you should do is really look, and critique it in your mind. How can the scene be improved? Once you have begun to really observe, and think about what is in front of you, you will begin to see in your mind the image that you want to capture. It is then a matter of waiting, or returning when the elements are right, to capture that photograph.

I waited almost 45 minutes for this couple to appear. It was worth the wait as this image has sold multiple times since.

I waited almost 45 minutes for this couple to appear. It was worth the wait as this image has sold multiple times since.

The final product

One of the techniques I use to pre-visualize a scene is to imagine it in its final place. Start off by thinking about the message that you want to portray, then try to imagine it in a magazine or newspaper. This should help you be more critical of the photo, but also to think about the technical elements such as orientation and crop. Remember that you can always take a few more risks as well with your photos, after all that is one of the great benefits of digital photography.

Pre-visualization is as much about being spontaneous, as it is planning in advance. Every single time you lift your camera you are already pre-visualizing a photo – sometimes you may not even realize that you’re doing it. Over time, and with practice, this will become more second nature to you and will take less effort to do.

What techniques do you use for pre-visualization? Share your tips below.

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Kav Dadfar is a professional travel photographer based in the UK. His images are represented by stock agencies such as 4Corners Images and Robert Harding World Imagery and they have been used by clients such as Condé Nast, National Geographic, Lonely Planet, Rough Guides, American Express, and many others. Kav also leads photo tours around the world teaching people how to improve their photography. Join him on his 11 day epic photo tour of Scotland. Find out more at Scotland Photo Tour

  • J Public

    Nice article Kav. Can I ask you a question on a tangent? You say the mountain picture sold many times, and that waiting the arrival of the couple made all the difference. When the figures are small like that do you need a model release for Stock Agencies?

  • Gabriel Alin Voicu

    I asked myself the same question after reading the picture description! So, how is it?

  • G. Allan Carver

    Same thought as well. Generally the rule I use is, can the subject(s) or somebody who knows them readily recognize their identity. If I think yes, then pull out the release pad. If not, likely not. This one looks to me like it should have a release based on the knowledge gained from an attorney’s article I read.

  • Kav Dadfar

    Hi all, basically a photo can be used for editorial purposes (i.e. an article about the destination, or a topic like walking in this instance, a guide book, news story etc) without model release. However for commercial purposes (i.e. for example an advert selling a product) it requires model release regardless of how big the people are. In this instance the image would require a model release for commercial purposes. I always try to get a model release however sometimes it isn’t possible as for example you don’t speak their language, or they are in a rush, or they prefer not to. The image can still then be used for editorial purposes. Hope this helps.

  • Daniel Loudenback

    Thanks for the advice Kav! You mention shooting for stock and commercially a few times in the article. This may be a completely separate topic altogether, but what would be a good way to get started doing that and making a bit of money off my photography hobby? I’ve signed up for websites like ViewBug, Shutterstock, Coinaphoto, etc, but these seem to require a large amount of work for very little return.

  • Bob Bevan Smith

    That’s a great explanation about thinking before doing. I teach photography the the Scouts in New Zealand, and we are always talking about the difference between a snapshot and a photograph. In particular to look at a scene, and then visualise the end result. I also agree that waiting until the elements are right can improve a shot tremendously – the first picture, of ‘The Old Man of Hoy’, is a good example of waiting for the right lighting. Sometimes, though, you just have to take the shot as it is, but a bit of pre-planning can help you be in the right place at the right time. Taking pictures of steam trains is a good example. There is a big curve at the bottom of a steep climb out of Otaki, where the engine has to be working at full power (plenty of smoke and steam!) so knowing that, one can be there in advance of the train and set up, then wait.

  • Hannah Christine Govan

    I really enjoyed reading this article. Another one of the great things about waiting for a long time (apart from getting ‘the shot’) is the perfect excuse to look beyond the lens and just enjoy what you’re actually looking at. The only problem with this if you’re with someone who doesn’t have a camera and is impatient!

  • Kav Dadfar

    Great point Hannah! I can never understand why people make all that effort to get somewhere, snap a few photos and then go off. One thing I learned very early in my career is to keep holidays with family and friends separate to my work as a photographer. You may find my previous article on this interesting. Kav

  • Kav Dadfar

    Hi Daniel

    Yes, this probably is a good topic for another article, but as a summary I would say that stock agencies is a good way to start making money. Getting commissioned work is becoming more difficult especially as more and more magazines are now using stock agencies. And yes unfortunately stock images come down to numbers. You could explore managed stock agencies (rather than Micro Stock agencies). These are agencies that actually edit a submission and only choose what they like rather than accept everything. Average prices tend to be higher on these but more difficult to get in as they are selective about photographers they work with. Have a look at BAPLA which have a list of UK stock agencies.

    Good luck

  • Kav Dadfar

    Hi Bob, absolutely right. Over time with practice people can train themselves to actually begin to see the picture before they even get there, but planning can be a huge help. Thanks for commenting.

  • Chris Sutton

    Another tip I picked up recently whilst attending one of Gary Friedmann’s seminars is to sketch out your idea for a composition in a small notebook that you take with you when going to get the photograph. You don’t need to be Picasso – it only needs to mean something to you?!

  • Kav Dadfar

    Yeah absolutely, I have sketched out ideas lots of times. This is common practice in the world of advertising where art directors would sketch ads and story boards to present to clients and give direction to photographers and directors. Thanks for posting Chris. All the best.

  • Jacqueline Derrick

    I’m so happy you mentioned family holidays. So many times I have been so caught up in taking pictures, that I miss out on the memories of just being still and enjoying my family. After asking my son why he didn’t have his camera out during a family holiday, he told me this, “I will let you take the pictures because I want to enjoy the day, you seem to be able to do both.”

    What he doesn’t know, is that I’m not able to do both. When I look at the pictures I realize that I missed much.

    So, how do you capture moments and enjoy the day?

  • Kav Dadfar

    Hi Jacqueline

    I try to give myself a decent amount of time at every location so that I do have time to just sit and watch/enjoy the scene. I also, tend to get to a location and just wait and watch for a while to get a sense of the place, the mood and the composition before I begin taking photos. This allows me not only to enjoy the scene but also experience it more.


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