Posted by: kerryl29 | April 4, 2023

A Worn Path

I recently read an article in a photography magazine that doubled down on the importance of visualizing an image for a successful photographic outcome. I have opined on this basic subject a number of times over the years on this blog.

Aspen Leaves and Rocks, Fireside Picnic Area, Banff National Park, Alberta

In essence, my position has been that an over-reliance on the vision you have in your head can–and probably will–lead to disappointment much of the time. After all, how often do the perfect conditions come together in the real world? More to the point, how often do the perfect conditions that you’re envisioning come together in the real world when you happen to be present? (Hint: the correct answer is somewhere between seldom and never.)

Spring Forest Floor, Forty Acre Rock Heritage Preserve, South Carolina

Perhaps more significant than the disappointment that stems from not getting “the shot” that you’re specifically seeking is the realization that there are many other images you’re not making as a function of the tunnel vision implicit in the visualization process. It stands to reason that if I’m focusing the bulk of my creative attention on obtaining something particular, my ability to recognize image-making opportunities that I’m not specifically seeking will be diminished, possibly to the vanishing point.

Pompton Lake Intimate, Terhune Memorial Park, Passaic County, New Jersey

I don’t want to oversell the argument. For one thing, I’ve been known to engage in the visualization exercise myself every now and again. And I don’t want to leave the impression that good image-making opportunities are a function of turning oneself into some sort of tabula rasa, entering the field with no semblance of preconceived notions. That would be absurd. When I go to the seashore with my camera, I have some embedded sense of the kinds of things I’m going find, and those are very different than the sorts of elements I expect to encounter if I travel to the mountains or the desert or the North Woods.

Tree Roots Black & White, East Bluff Trail, Devil’s Lake State Park, Wisconsin

I don’t expect to find colorful foliage at the beach, or palm trees in the mountains or seashells in the desert or cacti in the North Woods. And in the very (?) unlikely event that I did stumble across any of those things in those places, I’d probably be sufficiently shocked to be shaken from the stupor of preconception and produce an image or two of that rare alpine palm tree.

Birch Grove, Hatcher Pass,, Alaska

No, the point is much more nuanced than that.

Seeing in the field isn’t necessarily easy. It’s even more difficult–incalculably so–when you’re distracted. It may seem like a subtlety at first blush, but in my view there is a great deal of difference in the ultimate image making universe between moving through a landscape looking for something specific and moving through a landscape simply looking. For something, anything, interesting, motivating, eye-catching, enticing.

MacBryde Garden, National Tropical Botanical Garden, Kauai, Hawaii

The distinction is intangible and may even seem contrived, but it’s encapsulated in a mindset that led to the making of every image accompanying this post. It’s a difference that leads to the discovery of something, not the realization of one specific thing.

The Heart of the Matter, Zion Plateau, Zion National Park, Utah


  1. Couldn’t agree more. As I’ve noted before, breaking through my “laser-like focus” [per my wife] and making myself be aware of everything around me is a constant challenge when in the field — but well worth the necessary and ongoing struggle.

    • Thanks, Steve. It’s definitely a mindset thing. I’m not sure if there’s a guaranteed winning approach, beyond simply reminding oneself constantly to “look around.”

  2. Thought provoking as always, Kerry. I sometimes think we may, by using the word “visualization,” be creating a “hackneyed” definition of the term. I am as guilty (though unapologetic) as anyone of having certain sites where I have a preconceived idea of the image before I even arrive there (I often refer to such scenes as “iconic”). And I want to (and do) make those images. But where I think I have grown as a photographer over the years, is that when I get that out of my system, I start to look at the scene without any “pre-visualization” for more unique images. Sometimes that can be a closer perspective. Sometimes it is just a different angle or approach. Some of those have become my favorite (if not necessarily best) images.

    I also think there are some areas (many of those which you tend to visit) where there are no “iconic” shots and virtually every shot is your own unique take. I think you excel at this kind of shooting – scouting an area and looking for your own “vision.” I appreciate the distinction you made above and have certainly experienced that kind of “visualization.”


    • I think you make a good point, Andy. It’s pretty easy to pooh-pooh the visualization approach as being inherently stifling, creatively speaking, by simply turning the topic into something of a straw man.

      That said, I do think there’s something to the idea of keeping one’s mind open even before photographing the ostensible subject of a photo session. An example of that is when Ellen and I spent time on the Thunder Bird Falls Trail in Chugach State Park in Alaska a couple of years ago. This was a classic out-and-back hike to a waterfall viewpoint, and we made the pilgrimage there expecting nothing more. But it ended up being a totally different experience than anticipated. We showed and were entranced by all of the little things we found along the trail. The waterfall viewing itself was so mundane I almost kept my camera in my bag when we got to the viewing platform. But by the time we got there, we’d had so many wonderful photo opportunities that the end-of-trail letdown didn’t seem to matter at all.

      Alaska Revisited, Day 16: The Chugach and Beyond (Part I)

      The point, I suppose, is that I think this sort of thing can happen pretty frequently, if you give yourself a chance.

  3. The topic may be a well worn path, but the topic bears repeating. If you go out with only pre-visualized possibilities in mind, you will come home with only those and possibly nothing. Photography has created, for me, a greater awareness of the visual potentials of my surroundings. I like to think that even when I don’t have a camera in my hands that I am seeing great images. Now please kick me in the behind and tell me to get out there and get shooting.

    • It’s definitely a good sign, IMO, when you’re seeing image opportunities even when you don’t have a camera with you. I remember exactly when I first became aware that I was doing this–traveling through upstate New York in the spring of 2006. It’s probably not when I first started doing it, only when I first realized it, but it was still a seminal thing.

      That might make a good blog topic itself. Hmmm…..

  4. Interesting discussion and lovely images.

  5. Great food for thought Kerry. I’m starting to focus on my photography in a way that I haven’t for a long time and much of it is trying to see in new ways, especially becoming aware of what is in front of me instead of relying on what I know what works.

    • I think you’re headed in the right direction. I believe the goal–and this is just my opinion, so take it for what it’s worth–should be to try and reach a point where you don’t have to consciously tell yourself to look beyond the obvious or the preconceived.

      Photography, in my view, is about seeing. Equipment represents the tools, and technique is the methodology to render what one sees. But the creative part is, I’m convinced about a vision. There are multiple ways of getting there, but for me, the discovery (as opposed to preconceived visualization) of something in the field is an important part of the equation.

  6. […] for the lengthy gap between posts, but I did warn readers that things might not be normal on this blog for some time and, unfortunately, that turned out to be correct. I anticipate returning to a […]

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