Finally, I had the time to sit down and start writing on the next chapter in Creating Great Photo. This time, I’m going to share about Visualization.
Before a photographer is able to capture that jaw dropping picture, he must first be able to visualize. Visualization is the first step to creating a picture. One must be able to see photographically, and then put it down in the form of a photograph. Seeing photographically is not merely looking around aimlessly for something interesting to photograph, seeing photographically requires you to see intensely, thoroughly and analyse every element, from lighting, composition, the subject, etc. When you combined these intensely analysed elements into a picture, it must be able to draw viewers to want and stop and look at it. As Bruce Barnbaum said “if your photograph is as easily overlooked as the items itself, you’ve accomplished nothing.”
Being able to visualize better can be enhanced by the photographer’s understanding of the subject. It is important that the photographer understands his subject in order to bring out the essence of it. A wildlife photographer needs to know the behaviour of the animals to get the awesome behavioural moment of the animal, a landscape photographer needs to know the geology of the location to be able to photograph the essence of the landscape. A portrait photographer needs to understand facial and body expressions to be able to photograph the feelings of the human body. In addition, the photographer himself must be an expressive and emotional person, who feels the sadness of a homeless child, the joy of winning a sports competition, the pain of seeing earth’s forest being destroyed, the peacefulness of the temple in Bhutan, or the terror of war in Afghanistan. A sense of humour would also create interesting pictures. An engineer, accountant, librarian, taxi driver, chemist etc, can still do their work well without having to be emotional, expressive or humorous, but an emotionless, expressionless or humourless photographer will never produce consistently great work as the photographs itself will be as emotionless, expressionless and dull.
Good visualization does not only consist on seeing the actual scene itself. It also consist of envisioning your final image. Being able to visualize your final image would allow you to know how to approach on taking the picture. Say you are into HDR processing, you would already had envisioned the final image which you aim to create. Thus you would know how much bracketing you need to create the different exposures to get enough dynamic range for the final image. Or you have already envisioned the smooth water effect which you intend to produce, you would have prepared a tripod, a cable release and a ND filter to create the smooth water effect. Convey the mood of the scene that captures your heart, and not just merely capturing the scene. What I meant about this is using all your five senses to visualize the picture. When you look at the scene, what are you feeling? What do you see, hear, or smell? How do you react to all these senses? Convey it into your photo, be it adjusting your saturation, contrast, tones, white balance etc. All these senses will help in conveying the mood of the final image.
Below are a few examples of photos which are taken by me visualizing the final photo:
The original scene of this picture was very unflattering. It was a beautiful day with beautiful clouds, but it was a backlit situation and dynamic range was very poor. If I expose the sky, the granite rock formation will be underexposed. If I expose the rock formation, the sky would be overexposed. What I had in mind was to have both the sky and rock formation to be equally exposed. So the solution was to take several photos with at different exposures, then merge them together in post processing, to get the desired result. I admit that the picture might lost its realism, but it opens to another form of art which is a surreal world that we could never see with our naked eye.
I was at Punggol Beach photographing the rocks on the beach. I knew all along that I wanted the slow water movement, so I brought along my tripod, and cable release. For the whole of 2 hours plus I walk around the beach looking for the best area and angle to create my photo. I was a little frustrated at the beginning when the desired water effect was not how I had visualized, even when I placed a ND8 filter on my lens. But I just kept shooting, hoping to get the desired result. It wasn’t until when dusk was approaching when my shutter speed was slow enough to go below a second. Just then I also found a perfect spot with the rocks in the foreground and the trees at the back. The waves were coming in quite strongly, so I placed my tripod and my camera slightly above the water line, waited for the wave to come in, before releasing the shutter for a 1 sec exposure. The results created a nice soft water movement with the rock acting as a barrier, thus diverting the water movement in all directions.
It was break time at the groom’s penthouse. I was walking around the house when I saw a corridor with an antique clock beside the window. The light was falling in beautifully from a narrow window. I knew at once this was a good place to take a photograph. I went to get the bride to pose for me looking at the time. The backlit light casted a nice shadow around her and the corridor. When I showed her the photo, she loved it.
I was at Chinese Garden, looking around for an interesting shot. I found one at the main gateway. The sun was setting, casting a beautiful glow of light through the gateway. I was positioning myself when a lady walked past me and through to the gateway. My initial visualization was just the structure and the sunlight, with no people in it. However, as the lady walked past, my thoughts changed as the sunlight casted a beautiful shadow behind the lady, and somehow, the lady became the subject of focus all of a sudden, so I thought, “why not? She could make the picture more interesting.” I never regretted including her in it after I saw the final edited version.
It is always difficult to visualize in wildlife photography, as things are so unpredictable. Almost every shot I had in mind would never happen, because of the non-compliance of the subject. However, there are still times when you are able to visualize your shot and make that intended shot. It is always through long observation of the animal and knowing their behaviour before being able to execute the shot. Here I was photographing the Black-winged Kite family flying around the area. One thing I realised was a particular perch where the kites love to land on. So with this knowledge, I planned my shot. I wanted to capture the landing of the kite with its legs outstretch. I know the kite is going to come back to this branch, so I got my lens aimed at it. When the kites do return, I burst away and hopeful of capturing that split second moment. After a couple of attempts, I got my shot.
I was walking along the nature path of Tampines Eco Park when I stumbled upon this scene. Most people would not have notice this at all. Its actually just a patch of forested area just like anywhere else. But somehow my passion and love for nature made me stop to appreciate it. What attracted me was the tree on the left, with its branch spreading across. Also, this place looks like an entrance leading to a mysterious and enchanted place, like to a lost world, as the trees right at back seems to stretch for miles and miles (at least it is to me!). These were the thoughts that came to my mind when I was standing looking at. Passer-by wonder what was I looking at, because they never saw the beauty that I did. Lighting was good that day, creating a wide range of tones from deep black to white. I decided to create it in a B&W version to further create the mysterious feel to the photo.
As mentioned previously, it is still possible to plan your desired shot in wildlife photography if you are able to predict the animal’s movement and behaviour. Over the years, I had taken many pictures of the white tigers at the zoo and had all sorts of shots taken. I was thinking of how I could still find new angles to photograph. I was at the zoo one day and was observing this particular white tiger who seemed to be pacing around the enclosure using the same route. One of the route requires her to come out from the thick foliage. Bingo! That will be my shot for that day, capturing her walking out of the foliage with only her head sticking out. I was ready for her to come out, but there was one real problem. The light was really low that day to freeze a moving subject. I did not want to bump my ISO higher either. So stubbornly, I continue to trigger every time she comes out but the photos show signs of motion blur. But one occasion, as she was coming out, a male white tiger walked past. That made her paused for a couple to seconds. Without hesitation, I burst away like there is no tomorrow. After reviewing the photo, I managed to get what I wanted, the tiger sticking her head out of the foliage, but in addition, the male tiger captured her attention and she looked up and gave a stare with her sparkling blue eyes, which made her more expressive than just walking out and looking downwards.
It was my dear cousin’s wedding. While she was preparing with her makeup, I had some time to look around. I love how the window always cast beautiful light into the room. I took her gown and placed it on the door. I then ask my cousin to go and pick up the gown. I had already positioned myself before asking her as I wanted to capture the shot in a backlit situation. As she went to retrieve the gown, I asked her to smile, and snap! snap! snap!
Don’t just shoot at where you are standing…move around and see…
Good visualization requires understanding the natural elements (eg lighting, background) to composition and photographic equipment, just to name a few. Do not just see things from one perspective, see it from everywhere. Get low and you will see a whole new world unfolds. Get high and you see interesting stuffs popping out. See where does the light comes from, how the light would affect the feel of your image. At this moment, you should also be thinking what camera settings should be done. Which lens, ISO, white balance should be used. Different focal length creates different feel to the picture. For example, if you want to show a tiger in its forested habitat, you will need to use a wider lens and compose it so that the tiger could be seen wandering in its natural habitat. But if you want to capture the intense stare of the tiger hunting, or a closeup portrait of the tiger, a longer focal length would be needed. When composing, see whether the photo is in balance overall, such as space usage, colour, tones etc. The composition of the photo must be pleasing to the eye. As a well known American painter Robert Henri said ‘the eye should not be lead to where there is nothing to see’. Always know what you want so you can prepare the right lens and settings.
Some examples of photographing from a low angle:
Examples of how different types of light can create the look and feel of the photo (I will cover more on lighting in another chapter):
Examples of shots using different focal length, I’m using a camera with 1.5x crop factor (will cover more on lenses and focal length in another chapter):
300mm + 1.4x TC
– Great photos start from one being able to visualize photographically, if you cannot visualize, you cannot create a great photograph.
– When visualizing, envision your final image, because what you see might not always be the perfect scene you had in mind, especially lighting condition. You will also be more prepared of what equipment to bring to achieve what you visualize.
– Visualize using all your five senses, and not just the eye.
– Good understanding of subject, natural elements, composition, equipment etc will help in visualizing your image.
– Move around, don’t just stand at where you are. If you have to lie on the floor, lie. If you have to climb a ladder, climb. If you need to change your lens, change quickly before the scene disappear.
– Just a tip, when you are going to snap a photo, stop and think, is this angle common? will most average photographer get the same shot? Yes? Move to find another better angle. Remember, if everyone takes the same shot, the shot is nothing special anymore. The best photos have to stand out from the rest.
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Creating great photo chapter 1: Camera and photographer, which matters more?
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