I rounded a corner on a remote Pacific Coast Trail and said to myself, "There it is!" Right before my eyes was a perfect photograph. In the middle of spreading sword ferns backdropped by old-growth redwoods in a veil of fog sat a wild iris in bloom. The colors were accentuated by a light drizzle, and all I had to do was compose and shoot.
That image doesn't appear here because I shot it on assignment for someone else. It's better not having it on the page, because instead of drawing your attention to that particular place and time, I can describe the image in such a way as to explore my more general conclusions about how seasoned nature photographers discover their finest images.
Creative visualizations are all-important, but rarely described in a tangible way. A decade ago, I devised a four-part visualization scale that I can more easily define in a lecture than in my own photographs. My perfect photograph beside the trail is a classic example of how broad the in-between gray areas can be. From the description I've given, that image could easily be construed as a mere snapshot at the lowest level–a stage-one snapped image usually taken with the expectation that the picture will look just like what the eye saw. The photographer grabs a camera and takes a snapshot only after "a nice picture" grabs his or her eye.
The second stage is a pre-visualized image in which the photographer imagines how the scene will look on film, instead of accepting that the picture will look as the eye sees it. If the shadows will go too dark, changing the composition to lessen their effect or to emphasize the graphics of their outline may solve the problem. Or perhaps the original composition can be saved with fill-flash or a graduated filter. Serious black-and-white photographers stand before a scene to make careful measurements that govern where to place each value in the Zone System to match the tonal vision in their mind. Yet in the final analysis, all these pre-visualizations are passive. They depend upon discovering a scene with the eye, then only later deciding how to best render it on film.
The third stage is a pre-synchronized image in which the pre-visualization becomes active. Instead of trying to make something of what's there before the eye, the photographer brings in experience and technical knowledge to conceptualize something other than taking that picture now. This might involve choosing a different angle, waiting for different light, or looking for similar subject matter with a better composition. By involving the photographer's direct experience, the stage-three process moves far beyond the realm of the casual snapshot into an art form controlled through aesthetic choice. And yet, pre-synchronized photography still deals only with subjects first observed by the eye.
The fourth stage is the created image. This highest conceptual level involves a photographer bringing something to an image that wasn't initially observed. Subject matter previously seen only in the mind's eye is revealed by a visual treasure hunt to become part of an image of nature. Commercial photographers parallel this creative process when they contrive scenes with lights and models in the studio or on location, yet they usually opt out of the process when confronted with natural light and subject matter that is not so amenable to their control.
To the contrary, the appearance of natural light and form on film is far more subject to control than most pros and amateurs alike realize. The greatest moment of truth in a photo workshop is the critique session where projected photographs of the same landscapes shot at the same time on the same film with much the same equipment look incredibly different through different eyes.
While perfect stage-three renderings may be just what calendar editors are seeking, any well-conceived stage-four image will pop out of a projection session as a visual surprise, a cut above the rest in terms of personal vision. And yet, to create every nature photograph as a stage-four image is not a reasonable goal. To do so would be extremely self-limiting in subject matter as well as personal vision. The consistent element of surprise would take on the tell-tale signature of contrivance as the once-unexpected became transposed into the expected aspect of the photographer's style.
On the other hand, every top nature photographer I know has a fair number of created images among their most published work. A rainbow, for example, can appear in a photograph of all four stages. It can be the only thing of interest in a snapshot, or it may perfectly composed with other subject matter as if the photographer just happened to be in the right place at the right time, but was actually already there in position with a creative visualization of a matching foreground before the rainbow ever appeared. An understanding of the physics of rainbows combined with visualization and personal action can make for a highly original created image, such as the one that appears here of a veteran helicopter pilot witnessing his first 360-degree true rainbow. I directed him into position to see the full circle and shoot through it, with the foresight of using a 16mm fish-eye lens with the door off.
Though all stage-four created images of nature could also have come about from lucky snapshots, that almost never happens. Producing a body of consistently creative nature photographs requires a consistently creative mind, but only the artist can truly know what went into the visualization of a particular image.
Was my iris-fern-and-redwood photo a lucky snapshot? Did I merely walk around the corner and take it? Or had I built a template in my mind after considering and rejecting hundreds of other situations with redwoods and ferns until the perfect one was there before my eyes? I'd rate the photo as a stage-three "pre-synchronized" image that does not include any subject matter that I can honestly say was previously unseen. Regardless of what stage it rates, it's a personal vision that I'm proud of. It closely reflects what I was thinking, feeling, and seeing on that foggy day in the forest. I actually like it better than many of my stage-four created images, but not as well as some other created favorites.
If you take a close look at your own ten favorite photographs and can't see aspects that you can honestly say you discovered through stage-four creativity, you've limited your personal vision. Unless you feel completely satisfied with the present level of your imagery, it's worth trying out a self-assignment. Next time you're in the field, even if you think you've already gotten the best possible photographs, take the time to sit down and visualize a concept in your mind's eye that you haven't come across yet, but is within the realm of reasonable possibility. Go back out and try again. The following time, do several pre-visualizations for created images before you head out in the field, and again when you think you're ready to leave. Even if you fail to produce any memorable photographs on these particular outings, you will have gone through the kind of mental exercise that may someday lead you to walk around a corner and say to yourself, "There it is!"