How to Find Your Lost Car Keys
There are times and places in the great outdoors where it seems that everywhere you turn, things look amazing and beautiful. In other cases, you have to go looking for the winning shot. At such times, it can help to have an idea of what you are looking for.
If you've ever lost your car keys in the coach cushions, you know what a frustrating experience it can be. Where could they be? The last time this happened to me, I can remember thinking how important my keys were and that I really needed to find them. I had somewhere to go and couldn't do it without my car keys. If I had approached the search by trying to look everywhere for them, it could have taken forever. Looking everywhere just wouldn't be a very efficient strategy. Of course, the solution was to retrace my steps, and envisioning where they could be, skipping places I hadn't been around recently enough for them to possibly be concealing my keys. I knew what my keys looked like, and I could imagine the various scenarios of what might have transpired to end up with them getting lost. Were they still in the pocket of the pants I was wearing yesterday? Easy enough to check. Had they fallen off the counter into the garbage? Thankfully, no. You get the idea.
My point here is that the task of finding them, as hard as it may have been, was made far easier by previsualizing possible answers and then checking each out until I found one that yielded success. As you may have guessed by now though, my real point is that this same idea holds true when trying to find good compositions for your photography. Yes, sometimes a great shot can simply jump out at you without any need to go looking for it. Sometimes, though not always, this can be the case when you pull off the road at a marked "scenic overlook." They do put those signs there for a reason. Other times, you can find easy success by visiting one of the top National Parks such as Yosemite, Grand Tetons, or dare I mention it, Mt. Rainier National Park in my neck of the woods. But not everyone can be in such a place every weekend (please, no). And even when you are so fortunate, Mother Nature isn't always as cooperative as you might hope. You have to be able to find good image possibilities. And sometimes they can be illusive as finding your car keys in the couch cushions.
The idea of previsualization in photography is frequently credited to Ansel Adams, the pioneering large-format photographer of the American West who wrote about "the ability to anticipate a finished image before making the exposure" as being a critical part of image making. But whether it was really Adams, or perhaps Minor White, Edward Weston, or someone else, the idea is the same. And it's a good one: my having a mental image of what you want to photograph, you're that much better positioned to do so.
You know what your camera and lens can do (or you should know). You understand the way various focal lengths dictate different shooting distances, and thus their various renderings of perspective. In addition to their obvious impact on exposure, you know the consequences of changing shutter speed and aperture. All of these are the equivalent of learning the scales when taking up a musical instrument. They're foundational, and necessary for you to understand what your camera and lens will see, and thus what you can use them for to create an image with the look you are after.
But you should also understand as much as you can about the location you are visiting, and what you might find there and what it might look like. The more you know about the various elements you have to work with, the better you are likely to be at combining them into a great image. And it's a good idea to investigate the area before even getting out your camera gear to see what you can find. Found a good foreground element? Check. Now you need a background, and with any luck, an additional element or two that you can position in the frame to support your composition.
Things don't always work out as you envisioned of course. Sometimes your line of sight for that great image is spoiled by a tree branch or a trail marker sign. Sometimes your car keys aren't in your pants pockets from yesterday. Sometimes you may need to look elsewhere. Of necessity, previsualization often includes having to give up on your first idea and move on to your second or even third possible composition. With a mental list of design elements that might work though, your chances of coming up with a winning combination can still be pretty good. What you are after is to move from simply taking images to making them, building a winning image from the elements you have found, and putting them together with the tools and skills you have available.
Previsualization is one of those photographic buzzwords that many photographers have heard of, but few regularly employ in the field. But consider the alternatives. You won't always be able to stumble on good images without trying.
Learn how to find your car keys. There are good images out there, but you need to know how to find them.