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. 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 post Tunnel Vision I posted some time 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.

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? 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.

49 thoughts on “Seeing before Seeing

  1. I am a shoot from the gut photographer. I see something and feel compelled to shoot it in varying angles, sometimes. Other times, I hope I can capture what it made me feel. I’m no professional so I can’t even claim to know what I am doing sometimes! All that to say, I think I am more subject-oriented and the emotion it evokes.

  2. I am just a hobby photographer, but like you Otto, much more interested into the emotional content of the image! I was lucky enough to see two of Ansell Adams’ exhibitions, which I very much enjoyed. Many thanks for your explanatory post and very best regards Martina

  3. This is a remarkable photograph Otto. I find it very emotional, the beautiful eyes and faces, the environment. It’s quite evocative for me as a child who spent many summers in the deep south though there is no real connection, those eyes say more than any words.

  4. I love the photo you’ve used here but I couldn’t have taken it. When faced with people I panic and click the shot far too swiftly to capture any emotion. I do much better with inanimate objects or nature and for me it’s all about the moment. Sometimes the shot disappoints and I think ‘it wasn’t like that’ and on those occasions I can sometimes make it more the way it felt by using post process. Alas, not always 🙂 🙂

  5. Man ser och man blir sedd som fotograf. Många gånger kanske det är vi som blir betraktade och bedömda av dem vi fotograferar. Så måste det vara och det om något, berikar och lockar fram kreativiteten.

  6. I rely mostly on intuition or the feeling of it. As you wrote, it’s difficult to describe. The only time I do any real visualizing before taking a photo is if I’m asked to take a photo (family portraits, etc.). Even then, I think my best photos happen spontaneously, when everyone is getting ready for the photo, or distracted, rather than when they are posed. I’ve often wondered, too, if wearing eye glasses has an influence since the world is already framed through my glasses. Lots to think about, Otto. Thank you. 🙂

  7. A couple days ago I was watching a panel discussion on the topic of “practice” in a photography context, led by a fellow named Ben Long. He suggests that in terms of finding and composing shots (seeing), if you’ve practiced various scenarios up front without worrying about getting “the shot”, when the time comes for the money shot you will be more likely to recognize potential scenarios – to the point it will feel intuitive. Scenarios could be anything: vertical lines, specific colors, contrast, the transition of effects on the same texture over the course of a day (light angle, intensity, color), you name it. Studying photos, looking for these sorts of things can also help. To sum up, his idea of getting better at “seeing” means trying out and practicing new perspectives until they’re routine. This includes the post-processing side of the fence.

    I don’t know if I have sufficient compulsion to take this practice idea to its extremes, but certainly just getting out there is half the battle. (The half I often lose.) Many of us “practice” unconsciously and call it experience. I guess the trick is to look for perspectives we want to be better at and practice them consciously. That way, when we “see” something that calls out to us, we can better “see” different ways to express it.

    1. I think Ben Long has a point. Generally, the more we practice the more it becomes a memory muscle, that we can draw on subconsciously. But there is also a danger in trusting this kind of experience, and that is we learn a certain way to see the world, a way that works for us, but then also stop developing or challenging our learned way of seeing. So we keep seeing and shooting the same way.

  8. What an interesting discussion about photography and the picture. I’m not a photographer, but love photography. When I look at a photo of things, I usually notice composition, but when looking at a photo of a person or people, I think the emotion is what keeps me there.

  9. Most of the times I photograph what touches me, there is a certain feeling within me which I can’t really describe in words, that makes me to push the trigger. I mean it depends on my assignment as well, where I need to follow what my client’s visions are, yet I always ad personal ideas in capturing something my client hasn’t even though about and it ends up as a total and pleasant surprise on the other end.

    1. If that is possible, adding a personal touch also when doing an assignment, that’s definitely the best. In my eyes. Thus we need to be aware of whatever triggers us emotionally. Thanks for sharing your experience, Cornelia.

  10. A very helpful discussion. It has been said that a photograph should be about the subject and not merely a mechanical copying of the scene. It should reflect what the photographer feels in response to the subject and that is often difficult to capture.

  11. Very insightful post, Otto, this part of the creative process is so difficult for me to answer. I think you nail it when you mention emotion, as this creates my photographs. If I can get fully engrossed into the scene then everything flows so naturally and my eye, mind, and photography merge together quite well. And then there are the much more common days where mentally I’m just not there 🙂 and while I can capture some nice shots, they happen more out of just being there and going through the proper technical motions.

    1. It seems like your process and mine are quite similar, as I think it is for many photographers. The emotional dimension is essential both for seeing and for creating photos. Thanks for sharing your experience, Randall.

  12. Always very interesting to read you, I really like what you write because it is easy to understand even for a photographer with very little experience like me.

    I can only tell you that often after taking the photo I no longer see what caught my attention. Lately I photograph a little and that little never satisfies me. Maybe I should change my approach to what I like, or maybe even vary the topics.
    A big hello, Patrizia

    P.S. I hope you understand my thoughts, I don’t speak English, I use google translate.

    1. I do understand what you write, thank you Patrizia. It’s always good to change the approach such as the topic. It can spur some energy and inspiration. Otherwise, I always recommend to photograph subjects that you are attached to, one way or another.

  13. My initial focus is on the the whole environment of my normal open lens. But sometimes I’ll see even a small area that would be very cool in itself– and may be something I could use later in a digital compilation. I also almost always prefer unposed shots of folks going about their everyday lives. Although I really like the expressions you captured from that family in your current post.

    1. Sometimes I find it hard to try to be open to the whole environment, as you say. Then focusing on smaller details is a way to get started, and absolutely worthwhile it and of itself. Thanks for sharing your experience, Art.

  14. Finding the words to describe any experience, especially a personal approach to photography, can be difficult. And of course I’m never ‘on assignment.’ That makes a difference.

    But this is how I work. I go out into the field like the bear who went over the mountain; I go to see what I can see. Eventually, something catches my eye, as though beckoning for attention. That’s when I stop, look for a way to enter into a relationship with my subject, and then put my skills to work so I can communicate its essence to others. I suppose some would find that odd or impossible, but I do think it somehow captures what you’re talking about when you bring emotion into the equation. Even autumn leaves or caterpillars like to be seen!

    1. What you experience when going out looking for something to photograph, is what I call flash of perception, an expression I have adapted from the contemplative approach to photography described by Andy Karr and Michael Wood, among others. Thank you for sharing, Linda.

      1. Thanks for mentioning Karr and Wood, Otto. I’d not heard of either of them, but found reviews of their book, and resonated to some of the quotations that were included. If the library doesn’t have it, I think it would be worth purchasing.

  15. when i took my fulltime 3 year film photography course, believe me, i thought in photographs! i framed everything in my mind to see if it would be a good photo… with film you have to learn to do that, because every frame is so precious… but with digital i have become a lot more ‘spray and pray’ about it, then i squint at my little thumbnails to see what would be ok… it’s just different is all

  16. Great blog Otto! It did make me stop and think about what I am looking for when I taking images. Oddly enough, I seem to be attracted to color and interesting objects – not so much people and emotional events. There are some places that to me seem to be “eye candy” for my camera and it is hard to frame good images in camera. When I am taking wedding shots for example (and I totally respect photographers who can), it is really hard for me to get those great images – it is just not my thing. But send me to Disney World or Hawaii, and it is what excites me – I could set up and take images all day. I do not always spend as much time as I should getting the correct settings, but overall it works for me.

    1. I don’t think there is anything odd about being attracted to colours and interesting objects. We all find whatever feels right to our photographic eye. Thanks for sharing your experience, Syd.

  17. The process you describe in the second-to-last paragraph is very close to what I’m doing when I’m out with the camera. Years of looking, appreciating, and thinking about what I see has taught me a lot about how to approach a subject. Most of that is unconscious. Intuition is the guiding force in terms of walking, looking, and making photographs. At the same time, I often go out with some kind of reminder – like trying to pare the composition down or making the most of a tough weather/light situation. Occasionally I use an odd lens or use in-camera filters to shake things up. What I haven’t emphasized as much as you have, is the emotional, connecting moment. Generally, when things are going well, I think my own emotional connection to the subject comes through in the photo and that can be enough. But I believe I would benefit from intentionally thinking about an emotional connection for the viewer more often than I do now. Thanks, Otto, for always probing. 🙂

    1. I am not sure if it’s necessary to think about the viewer, as you write at the end. I think if you, as the photographer, have an emotional connection or reaction to whatever you photograph, that will transcend through to the viewer. She or he might have a different reaction or respond differently, but that is as it should be. Thanks for sharing your thoughts about the process, Lynn.

  18. My process is one of exploration and discovery. I go out into the landscape looking for photos. Sometimes there is a particular composition I have in mind and I might return to a place more than once for the right light and sky … in that instance pre-visualization is at play. I have done so many fall landscapes it has become more challenging lately to find new images … scenes I haven’t shot before. And because the ‘self’ in self-expression is so important to me I don’t look at what others are doing creatively for ideas or locations.

    1. What you describe is part of how our eyes and brain work. When we have gotten accustomed to seeing something, we stop noticing it any more. That’s the way our brain sorts out all the visual inputs we are bombarded with every moment when we are awake.

  19. This “Maybe I am not so concern about a technical perfect photo, but am more interested in capturing emotional content and connections in a photo” really resonates with me Otto. I always say I photograph with my heart. I want people to feel an emotional connection ( though this is not so easy when you are doing a 366 as I am at present )

    What an striking image. Ferocious even. WE have a saying in the UK ( maybe you do too? ) If looks could kill you’d be dead. .. This is her look.

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