Planning the perfect shot

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Louis Pasteur once said, “Luck favors the prepared.” While Pasteur may not have been directly referring to photography, shutterbugs heeding his advice can capture better images. Incorporating pre-visualization into your preparation for a photo shoot, whether for an assignment or for stock purposes, can help you capture one-of-kind photographs anywhere, any place, and in any light.
Pre-visualization derives from creating ideas of what you want your photographs to look like before you capture the shot. With the end result in mind, preconceiving ideas encourages you to then determine the best way to achieve your vision. Whether you pre-visualize years, months, days, hours, minutes, or seconds before photographing a scene, considerations like what type and direction of light is desired, how to compose the photograph, and what equipment to use can be defined before you ever set foot on location.
By knowing the types of shots you want to create, you give yourself the best chance of capturing those magical fleeting moments Mother Nature provides. As you pre-visualize, you also inherently develop a deeper emotional connection with your subject matter, which means your photographs will reflect a more personal style beyond the cliché.
How do you go beyond finding the exact tripod holes used by another photographer to capture a remarkable shot?
Familiarize yourself with your subject and scene by getting your hands on as much information as possible before you head out. Start with guide books and the Internet, searching for topics and places that interest you. The library, the local convention and visitors bureau and local chambers of commerce also offer a wealth of information about popular attractions. In addition, those who have visited before often know the “must-see” spots of an area even if they did not intend on photographing those locations.
Not only should you know your subject well, you should also know the behavior of the light at your location just as well. Before you go, jot down the sunrise, sunset, moonrise and moonset times with the help of sun and moon charts found online. Then study the light’s interaction with the land using a handy tool called The Photographer’s Ephemeris, which you can download to your computer for free from Also, pay attention to the weather forecasts. Learn how to read cloud formations, wind and barometric pressure to predict what kind of light is pending. Two great books for sharpening your forecasting skills include “Color and Light in Nature” by David K. Lynch and William Livingston and “Backpacker Magazine’s Predicting Weather; Forecasting, Planning, and Preparing” by OWAA member Lisa Densmore.
Start with a photograph or idea from the research you have completed then keep asking “What if?” What if you use a longer lens? What if you climb the nearby hill? What if you lay on your stomach?
Then think about how to make those “what if’s” happen to create a clear vision of your final shot. As you design your shots, do not assume the quality of a subject or scene based solely on the number of previously-published photographs. The lower number of photographs seen may simply indicate a greater chance to capture something different.
When the creative juices flow, create a “wish list” by jotting down ideas either on the back of an envelope or in a customized spreadsheet. Note a detailed description of the photograph you wish to capture, the ideal time of day, equipment needed, and any other pertinent information that will help you remember your idea. Once you begin your photo shoot, remember your shot list should serve as a guide, not a checklist, so as not to miss any spontaneous moments.


Arriving at a new site is often visually overwhelming, so start with the most important places written in your shot list and become acquainted with the actual surroundings by simply looking around. How does what you see match what you pre-visualized? Swing by the local visitor center or gift shops to take a peek at the postcards, photography books, and prints to get an idea of what has been done before – and what to avoid. Don’t forget to update your shot list with what you learn.
After your trip concludes, evaluate how well your pre-visualized thoughts came to fruition. What you learn about your subject matter, your location, and your photographic technique during previous trips can transfer to your next outing. Then it’s time to start picturing the possibilities for your next trip! ♦
—Colleen Miniuk-Sperry is an award-winning and internationally-published outdoor photographer and writer. In addition to articles for various publications, working on three books, and teaching photography workshops, she is also working on pre-visualizing winning lottery numbers. Contact her at

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