Seeing before Seeing


I often ponder about how we see a photograph before we actually push the button. How do we see in our mind what could potentially become a photo? What triggers us to take the photo before we even think in photographic terms? In some cases – well probably in most cases – we are obviously triggered by the desire to keep the moment as a memory without necessarily being too concerned about whether the subject is photogenic or not. We want to capture the big moments in our kids’ lives, our grandmother’s 90 birthday, holidays with our family, the big party with friends and acquaintances, and the day we bought a new house. These moments we will capture no matter how bad the light might be, how impossible it will be to compose the subject well, or how technically terrible the final result will be.

I am not saying we won’t use our photographic skills in these situations. Of course we will. But we won’t drop the camera and let go of taking the photo even when we know it’s going to be far from a perfect snapshot. The question I raise is related to the more creative act of photographing, when we look for aesthetics or subjects or content that expresses a broader and more universal connection. How do our minds first see the image that could potentially turn into a captivating photograph?

Many times I have tried to formulate my own processes of seeing and discovering images – or the commencement of the process before I start to transform those first inner visions into photographs. But words come hard to describe the process and so far I have not found a way to translate it into a sound, written description. Of course many other photographs have done so, and transformed their knowledge into valuable understanding of the photographic process. Some of these statements have become classical quotes for the photographic community. Still I feel there is some kind of detachment between my own reactive initiation and most of the rational explanations.

One thing I have become more and more certain about is that there are many ways which lead to that initial activation of our photographic vision. Take myself as an example: Many times I have captured a photo before I am even aware I did – while in other cases I am working around the subject until I find a way to capture it in a most compelling way. Right there I guess, I mentioned one element that may trigger the whole photographic vision: The subject itself. In these cases I don’t necessarily see a photo for my inner eye before I start shooting, but I work the subject and use my photographic skills to twist and turn something out of what is an interesting subject for me – interesting not necessarily as a photograph but more for political, social or cultural reasons. The before mentioned family snapshots are a variation of this approach. A lot of my journalistic work could be placed into this category, too. Often these photos are contrived and less fluid than images I have a more intuitive approach to. They don’t necessarily have that emotional connection that is so important in a photograph.

However, sometimes I manage to transcend this rational approach and instead I will enter a more unconscious flow. That happens when I get more emotionally attached to whatever I am photographing and lose myself in the process. This I described in the previous post Tunnel Vision I posted a couple of weeks ago. For me this is a much more interesting process. The question still remains: When I let go of the rational mind, what does it instead look for? How does it see the photo when I decide to press the shutter button?

I know from my own experience that I often don’t see whatever I photograph as the picture will appear finally processed. I still see in terms of pictures, but in a more abstract way, seeing relations, seeing light, seeing the potential more than in terms of a finished photo. The classical understanding is one that the renowned landscape photographer Ansell Adams described. He was very adamant about the necessity of pre-visualizing. As part of the so-called zone-system he developed for black and white photography, he thought it was required for a photographer to be able to see how the final photo would appear – and already during the capturing make adjustments for that final expression. If are able to see any of Ansell Adams’ photo as real photographic prints, you would be amazed about the richness and tonal depth of his photos. To obtain that technical superiority with the analogue process of those days I think it was indeed necessary to be able to pre-visualize.

Maybe I am not so concern about a technical perfect photo, but am more interested in capturing emotional content and connections in a photo. And maybe I process my photos in different ways depending on what my intentions are – even after the fact. I am definitely more trusting intuition than using pre-visualization as a tool. However I still think my brain has learned how to see in terms of pictures. After a lifetime of capturing and seeing pictures (I don’t know how many hundred thousands it will be by now) I have a certain understanding of what works and I think I see that in a glimpse of moment before I trigger the shutter. I clearly see a subject in terms of compositional placement – unconsciously – and move myself around without thinking in order to arrange the elements in an as strong as possible relationship. I think that accounts for one of my strengths as a photographer; to be able to capture compelling photos in situations when a lot goes on at the same time. And then I really see – and look for – the emotional or connecting moment.

A variation of pre-visualization is the contemplative approach with I described in my posts Different Perspective and Learning to See – Again a couple of years ago. In essence contemplative photography is about how to fully connect with the visual richness of our ordinary, daily experience. You slow down and try to connect with the subject matter with your whole being. Or as I wrote back then: «Slowing ourselves and our minds down allows us to observe the world more deeply, and to shift our brains to examine more clearly those depths. It makes us see really what it is we’re trying to photograph.»

Finally I think that the way we see photos before we actually capture them, depends on what kind of photography we do. Landscape and nature photograph I believe will recognize Ansel Adams’ process with pre-visualisation, simple because they have time for a slower and more conscious approach than for instance a street photographer. I photograph on the street a lot and I know that in order to capture anything interesting I need to work fast and intuitive.

How do you “see” a photo before taking it? What is your mind looking for? Do you recognize for your eye previous seen images? Do you approach the subject with an open mind such as I describe the contemplative approach? Do you use pre-visualization more than intuition – or the other way around? I would love to hear more about how your mind see the images you take – before you take them.


79 thoughts on “Seeing before Seeing

  1. These subjects look angry for having their photos made and distrustful of the camera. Can a photograph be stolen if someone doesn’t want it taken? It often happens to me when I work in Uganda. My staff there explains they don’t trust big cameras because we will “sell” their picture and get rich from it while they stay poor. I usually don’t take the picture I often feel bad for making them uncomfortable.

    1. You touch onto an important issue when photographing in third world countries. I think the answer is yes, a photo can be stolen. In this case I think the kids were more curious than anything else. I did not detect any anger, but more curiosity combined with uncertainty. The photo, by the way, was taken for a story I did on child labour.

  2. Clearly this seems like more of a question for true photographers and not someone like me who just randomly takes shots when I’m in a moment, but, for me when I try to ‘set up a shot’ — like my seven year old God-daughter posing in a new outfit or something, what I really want to capture is something natural and freeing — which, defeats the purpose. The best pictures I take, tend to be the random or “intuitive” shots that I take. There is never much thought into them — I don’t believe in luck, so, the times I do capture something of my God-daughter that’s brilliant I chalk it up to intuitiveness for sure. Great thought provoking post!

    1. You are probably right that this more concerns the dedicated photographer. But I still think it’s interesting to know how different people using cameras (included cell phone photography for that matter) see the subject for their eyes before they capture it. So thank you for sharing your experience, Carmen.

  3. Great thoughts – When I go out with friends I’m always curious as to why they may take a picture of one moment while I’ll take a picture of another. What inspires each of us to take those pictures? What do they see that I don’t? I’m drawn towards lines, so it’s always interesting to see someone who’s more drawn by color or emotion because we’ll find very different moments.

    1. What you point to here is what I find so interesting about photographing with other photographers. Even when we capture the same subject the end result is always different. Thanks for the comment, Alex.

  4. I’m not sure I can put it into words. Whether it’s landscape or street photography, something catches my eye and I try to translate it into a photograph. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes it takes three or four angles or compositions before I get what I’m trying to show. Great question!

  5. This really gives us something to think about. For me,I seem to happen upon something or someone, and I know intuitively that I must take this photo. I see beauty in my mind and want to have a photo to remember it. Or to share with others.

  6. Very though provoking post as always Otto. I’ve been driving a lot through our countryside these last 3 weeks and have found that my eye is caught by a flash of light and shadow as I pass by at 100km p.h. I have been thinking about what it is that a momentary glimpse makes it worth turning around and back tracking to capture what I thought I saw. There are 2 things that keep re-occurring; one is the light (it’s placement across the subject – illumination or shadow) in a special way; and the other is line (the curve of the road or a row of trees or even one tree). But sometimes that glimpse was only special because of the speed I past by which gave a different life to whatever I saw that is lost once I stop to make the photo. It has been a great learning experience and your post has made me clarify what was happening even more. Thank you, again.

  7. It’s mostly colours that attract me. Before I know I have the camera in my hand and push the button 🙂 Or beautiful sunrays coming through dark clouds or a beautiful arrangement of the landscape, done by nature. But it really is mostly colours I go for 🙂

    Have a beautiful day!
    Tinna ✐

    PS: I hate family pictures 😉

    1. I used to hate family pictures, but not any more. As for colours triggering our visual seeing, I think that goes for a lot of people. Thank you for sharing your vision, Tinna.

  8. As ever, a thought-provoking post, Otto….. I, personally, think I have always wanted to show emotional connections, but not had the understanding or the technique to do this. But in recent ŷears, I think I am beginning to succeed in this (most recently with still life). With the Still Life, I do previsualise to a degree. However, with street photography I am instinctive, reacting to a moment as I see it. so a definite mix for me!

  9. This was wonderful, Otto. Sometimes I don’t see what I saw until I look at what I have captured with my camera. Does that make sense? I mean, after I look at a photo, sometimes I am surprised either that the person I photographed looked different than I though or the scenery was prettier. Should things be a surprise or should I know exactly what I am looking for before I press the button?

    1. I personally believe there is no right answer to that question. We all see differently and your approach is just as fine as any others. In the end it’s the final result that matters. Thank you for your comment, Lois.

  10. Great question. I’m a lot like leecleland above. When I’m driving I see photos everywhere but often am not in a place that will allow me to stop. I’m drawn to repetitive shapes, and of course light. Patterns and shadows. I have begun to notice that I see much of what is around me in terms of photos.

    1. I think the more we photograph, the more we start to see our surroundings in terms of photos. That’s good for the photographer, but sometimes it can distance us from the actually event in that we don’t really experience it. At least I have caught myself doing so. Thanks for the comment, Dawn.

      1. Reading your reply here Otto, this is an interesting comment on that “we maybe distancing ourselves from the actual event and not truly experiencing it” and may be one reason I’ve found it hard to bring an emotional connection into my images. Thanks for this.

    1. Yes, emotions are important in photography. And if we can make us become aware of it in the initial stage of the photographic process, our images well become much stronger. Thank you for making a good point, Lesley.

  11. strong light and shadow always inspired me, and many times what i see just does not appear in the camera, and i don’t take the photo… then there are amazing moments when i am not ‘ready’ and a great moment happens and passes, like yesterday while waiting on the bus, i was sitting on a bench inside the bus station, and a mother and three precious children walked by.. all three children were wearing colorful little hats, and the sun on the colors and the dense shade was amazing.. i reached for my camera, tucked deep in my bag, and of course they moved out of the light and the effect was gone.

    i’ll blame my slow recovery on my slow reflexes! am much better, and thanks for your great support.

    1. I am glad to hear that you are much better, Lisa. Good news! As for missing the moment, I think that is something all photographers experience. We are simply not ready when things happen very fast. I always carry a small camera easily accessible on my hip, but still I can’t always get it up in time. Sometimes what I see is gone at the same time I see it. Thank you for a thoughtful comment.

  12. I am finding the more I shoot, the more attention I am paying to what will be the final outcome. In the past, I would just take a bunch of photos and hope that a few would be good. Now i am taking time to frame, check my surroundings, and make a good shot instead. This is easier with landscapes, not so much when shooting wildlife. I have decided that plowing through too many photos, even digital, is not how i want to spend my time. I would rather have a few good ones, and work with them instead.

    1. That is a sound approach. And, yes, I think the more we shoot the more we start to understand what we see in the first place will look like in the final photo – and make adjustments accordingly. Thank you for the comment, Mary.

  13. You pose an interesting question which on one level comes back to the question of why we all see differently and are attracted by different things, and then we go back a further step to the concept of seeing being a product of our creative self – a topic that you have written so well about, Otto. To come back to the original question I have myself formulated an attempt at an answer which I use when I speak to camera clubs: I think that overtime, as we cultivate the ability to see, we store a series of visual characteristics that appeal to us (depending on where we are). To take a very simple example familiar to me: a street in London – I look for a modern building with reflective glass and distortion. Those are the criteria behind my eye, call them a Bar code if you like. I’m looking for some thing that matches up with a strand in my creative self. That’s perhaps a facile way of describing it but when I spot something it makes me want to say ‘Gotcha’ or ‘Snap’ or ‘Bingo’. There’s an instant recognition. It won’t work everywhere, and that won’t make sense to a lot of folk, but I feel that’s how my shutter finger is driven.

    1. What you say does make sense to me. I like the idea of visual characteristics as trigger points for our initial engagement with a potential subject. I really think you are right, and these visual characteristics can be simply or complex, like responding to only certain colour combinations to a whole array of variables. But if we accept this learning process of establishing visual characteristics we look for, the question then is how do we develop our vision in totally new directions? Anyway thank you for a very interesting comment, Andy.

  14. Another thoughtful and thought-provoking post, Otto. So is the image you put with it.

    I think I lean toward the contemplative approach since most of my photography involves the everyday (some would say ordinary, although I would say magic) of nature and life. I do not have great vision, and even with my glasses on I often don’t really see what I’ve photographed until I upload the images and can look at them on a big screen. Light grabs me first, followed by shadows, shapes, and colors, and if it all feels right or comes together right, I take the photo. There are times, too, when I just shoot and hope for the best because I know conditions aren’t good and it’s an important event that I want to capture and save, or the weather is too hot, too cold, too stormy, too something and I want to get back indoors. I have been practicing “not seeing in frames” lately because I want to be sure my attention is on the moment, and/or on the people I’m with, rather than always framing a photograph.

    1. In another comment I wrote something about what you address at the end. That we who photograph often tend to miss the actually experience because we are always looking for a way to capture it by a camera. Practicing “not seeing in frames” is a good idea. Thank you for sharing the way you visually approach photography, Robin.

  15. I know with myself I might happen to see something unique to my experiences, shoot it quickly, and– if time permits the setting to continue– I’ll focus on getting several more composed shots. But sometimes that quick-grab-your-camera photo will have to do.

  16. Here’s how it happened for me on the night of July 4th. I was staying down the coast, along the Gulf of Mexico. At dusk, I was walking to the beach to take photos of the fireworks. On the way, I happened to glance up, and I saw a nice American flag flying on a porch railing. In the same glance, I saw the conjunction of the planets, Venus and Jupiter. I stoppe, and thought to myself that getting those planets in the same photo with the flag would make a marvelous image. Everyone does fireworks, but not everyone could do that.

    I took about 50 photos — maybe more — moving around, trying to find the best way to capture the image. When I got home, 3/4 of the photos went out at once, as they just weren’t “right.” Finally, I found one arrangment that suited me.

    The point is, what I set out to do and what I ended up doing were completely different. Not only that, the subject itself compelled my attention — and that’s how I usually approach photography. I don’t so much set out to record with my camera, as to explore — to use it as a tool to “get deeper” into whatever has attracted me.

    1. You have made a very accurate description of how you see and start the photographic process. Quite a sharp observation of yourself, I would say – and fun to read. There are so many doors that lead into photography and using it as a tool to “get deeper” is a great way. Thanks for the thoughtful comment, Linda. It’s always so interesting to read what you write.

  17. Good questions that you asked at the end.. Hmm. I think my answers are probably along the same line as the paragraph before the question paragraph (the last). It depends on subject that I see. For people (which I do not do much), I think in that case personal connection to the subject makes final pictures more than just beauty they captured. They have emotional connection included at least to me. The street photos are the ones that I have not done much as well but I think it is much harder as they involve others people in many different ways, finding initial glimpse is hard but nevertheless it is essential in my opinion. For other subjects such as landscape, architecture, nature or ordinary objects, I think I put more thoughts into it than the previous categories i.e. more thinking of how I want picture to come out. I think in all cases, I can’t reject that for quick moment that I have a pre-vision of what I want to come out. I think it could be more of which factors are predominant depending on situation.

  18. Interesting. My experience is a little bit odd. I do not take photos just for having a memory of that moment but for seeing, later at home, those things that my eyes have probably missed. Very effective as far as I’m concerned.

  19. Great post Otto. Although I am not a professional photographer, I have asked myself similar questions about the conception of a painting….. in finding that subject. I am at a loss of words in how to describe it for me, and I think in different circumstances I follow different routes. Interesting words to ponder. Thanks for sharing this, I really enjoyed it. ~Rita

  20. Hi Otto,
    I find this question very interesting. I don’t honestly know what attracts me to a picture. My pictures taking process starts with putting myself in an area that I find beautiful. Be it a spot on a clifftop in Cornwall or beside a waterfall in Iceland. What happens next is I sit and watch, listen, study and absorb my surroundings. only then will I think about composition. What I want to include, what I want to leave out. I’ll think about line and shape, foreground interest and backdrop, colours, tones and textures. It’s then easy, I’m waiting for the light. That’s why I have the remote. I can sit back and click the shutter when I feel the moment is right. The reason for taking my time in considering my shot is I can’t go rushing round collecting all sorts of different compositions and deciding on what works later. I have to choose my a fairly narrow area, of course I can move a little but I can’t go running around a whole big area.
    Sometimes, as was the case with the Seljalandsfoss photo I posted a few days ago, I know the picture I want to take from previous visits, I’m just waiting for the right conditions in which to take the picture I have in my mind’s eye. Sometimes this works, as with the seljalandsfoss image, and I get the picture I’ve been seeing long before I get to my location. Other times, I end up with a very different picture to the one I’d thought I was going to get but that’s how it goes.
    I don’t do a whole lot of spontaneous photography however, since I invested in the Sony A7R, I’ve always got a light camera around my neck and this is opening up creative opportunities that I find very exciting.
    An excellent article Otto! 🙂

    1. You seem to have a very meditative or contemplative approach to photography – and I believe a lot of other photographers (included myself) can learn a lot by your approach, taking the time, just sit and watch, listen, study and absorb the surroundings. As those who follow your work know, the result is amazing. Thanks for sharing how you see the world around you and approach the photographic process, Andrew.

  21. I like to take pictures
    -for the sheer pleasure of doing it;
    – I want to have certain beautiful moments “fastended”, so as to have them always with me. Of course most important is to have them in my heart!;
    – I also take pictures of interesting places in order to show them on my blog, but I must admit that I don’t bother to much about the outcome.
    It was a great pleasure to read your post and I will ponder again your question about pre-visualization as a tool.
    PS. I was lucky enough to see the pictures of Ansel Adams in USA.
    Very best regards Martina

  22. Very often, in film days, i FAILED miserably at making the photo that i saw in my mind… but yet, often a photo shines out of reality, begging me to shoot it… it really kind of shines, hard to explain, but also, with moving targets, it is easier with a digital cam to take a ton of pics and find one that shines LATER.

    1. I agree, that is one of the advantages with digital technologies. Besides I like your description, that a photo shines out of reality. Beautifully said. Thank you for your comment, Elaine.

  23. This is a very good topic, and one I think every photographer should discuss within themselves every time they go out to shoot. One thing I find very helpful is creating time to think about perspective…and this is difficult as if I am with another or a group I have to shut-them-out and see the scene & lighting and just get lost. Find what it is I want to do, and then I can relax and enjoy the process. Visualization a key…in just about everything in life (sports, business, hobbies…see the outcome so to speak).

    1. What you are really taking about is what I often write about as intent: Find out what you want with the photo you shoot and, yes, use time to find the best way to visualize it. Thank you for the comment, Randall. Always appreciate when you come by.

      1. Agree, but before intent there is that moment of just stepping back and seeing the scene for what it is. Many times I go to a place with one intent/one thought in mind, but when I get there and ‘see’ the place, my plan is tossed out the window and I find a whole new path. This talk makes me want to get out and shoot 🙂 I always enjoy the moment when plans change because I see something new or interesting that can work. Cheers!

  24. Your subject is one of my favorites that you’ve discussed. The human mind and its abilities is a limitless fascination. Often we cannot answer such questions, because there are so many ways to “see.” Each nanosecond defines itself for us. Or we grab that “moment” and savor it through a frozen frame of time and space. You’ve entered interdisciplinary fields of art, philosophy, and science.

    1. I have always been interested in all three fields, so I am happy if you think I am mixing thoughts from all three of them. And yes, you are right about the human mind. It’s hard to translate what happens into rational words. Thank you for your comment, Sally.

  25. Hello! on my side, I no longer think the picture rules, they are anchored what matters to me is the issue, the attitude , the situation, the instant emotion of composition with light and topic!
    Have a great summer picture

  26. As ever, Otto, this is a very enjoyable and thought-provoking post. In response to your question, I am guided more by my feeling for or about a subject rather than pre-visualizing the finished photograph. For me, the craft and technique of photography provide the means for me to capture and express that feeling, but technique must be the servant and not the master. If, when I view a photo, I find myself primarily admiring the photographer’s technical skill rather than the interpretation of the subject, then the image has failed – and, although it may be heresy to say so, I have that experience on occasions with some Ansel Adams photographs.

    1. I do agree with you in all you say. Firstly that the expression of feeling is more important than any technique. I also agree with your view of some of Ansel Adams photographs, they are technically perfect, but don’t necessarily trigger any emotions. Thank you for elaborating on the subject, Louis.

  27. Interesting topic, Otto. I think, you mention a very important point in the later part of the article. The genre of photography can have a huge influence over whether one can (or should) pre-visualize the final image. Landscape, still-life etc.could be to a large extent pre-visualized. It could also help to have a pretty clear final image in your head before you hit the shutter button. On the other hand, it is extremely difficult, and perhaps not a very good idea, to pre-visualize an image when you are doing street or wildlife photography. It can act to our detriment because then we are in our head carrying a pre-conceived composition and the richness of the spontaneous moment is lost on us.

    1. I agree with you, Uday, both that pre-visualization can benefit with static subjects while it would be inhibiting when shooting movable subjects. At the same time I also think trusting instinct with the former can also be favorable in that you capture something that you would otherwise maybe not have thought of. Thank you for your elaborated thoughts.

  28. Difficilmente scatto una foto se il soggetto non mi attrae, ultimamente sto cercando di ampliare le mie vedute e di fare foto anche alle persone, a particolari che possono sembrare insignificanti ma invece ai miei occhi non lo sono. Ecco è proprio questo per me la fotografia, prima di tutto deve entusiasmare me, poi se trasmette emozioni anche a chi le guarda ovviamente mi fa piacere.
    Grazie per i tuoi consigli sempre molto preziosi!

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