How many times have you
done this: you see a beautiful
scene, you compose it through the camera, and shoot it. The
photograph may come out nice, it may not. But when you
look at the photo, it just doesn't quite look like you
pictured in your mind when you tripped the shutter.
How many of us have tried studio or still life projects;
just placing things in front of the camera and moving them
around until it looked right? It may have turned out nice,
it may not have; but it probably didn't quite turn out the
way you imagined when you tripped the shutter.
What would you say if I told you that I have a way to
almost certainly give you better results?
What is my secret? I bet
you have heard it before. Now
when I tell you, don't hit the "back" button on your
browser and call me a "loon." Are you ready? The secret
is to develop your "inner eye" and use it.
Now don't tune me out; I was once a skeptic myself. So
how did I discover my inner eye? I can quite honestly say
that it was an accident. But before we get into that,
let's discuss exactly what the inner eye is.
As I stated earlier, most people look at what they are
going to shoot and manipulate the object or move themselves
until the composition and lighting are to their
satisfaction. In other words (as we say in Pennsylvania
"Dutch country": 'they fiddle around until it looks right.'
When you use your inner eye it's completely different.
Rather than moving things around until it suits you, you
try to picture the final image in your mind and then make
the adjustments to the composition and lighting to match
the image in your mind. More often than not, this method
produces a stonger image that using the 'fiddle around'
method because you have a solid goal to strive for. I am
not saying that you should totally abandon the 'fiddle
around' method, because under certain circumstances it can
be helpful. But using you inner eye in the right
circumstances will give you a creative edge that could mean
the difference between a so-so photo and an exceptional
What are the right circumstances? You are the only
person that can determine that for yourself. I can
visualize still-lifes and studio work better than anything
else; probably because the subjects are small and easily
handled, and I have total control of the lighting. I have
a harder time visualizing things that are on a larger scale
such as building or scenics. I sometimes find that
'fiddling around' will let me see options I didn't know
existed. You will probably be different.
So how do you go about
aquiring your inner eye? You must
practice and learn it until it is second nature; just like
you learned f-stops and shutter speeds and how to use the
combination to get the results you desired.
To develop this skill, try to work backwards. Look
through magazines and find pictures that you like. Take
these pictures and try to to figure out how the picture was
taken. How many lights were used? Where was the main
light? Was a fill light used? What was the lighting
ratio? Why is this composition so appealing? What
backdrop or background did they use, and why did they use
it? Did they purposely use a small or large depth of
field? What was the position of the camera in relationship
to the subject? Was the exposure of the background
different than that of the subject?
Try to picture the setup in your mind. If it helps, try
to sketch an overhead view of the setup. In time,
visualizing setups in your mind will become quite easy.
Here's a tip: when visualizing setups that have people,
look at the eyes. Unless they have been retouched, the
eyes will reflect all the light sources that are in front
of them. This should help you place those light sources.
Try to visualize every photograph that you like. Once you
have mastered this, it will be very easy to turn it around
to set up shots you see in your mind's eye.
This is exactly how I developed my visualization
techniques. When I first started to take photography
seriously, I started a scrapbook of pictures that I liked
(I continue this practice today). With those pictures, I
would sketch the setups of the photograph on paper. After
awhile I could "see" the setup without having to put in
paper (my wife still complains that she will never again
enjoy magazine covers because now all the notices are the
reflections in the model's eyes). Through this process I
was learning lighting and composition skills, but I never
realized that it was conditioning my mind's inner eye.
One day I was paging through a magazine and spotted a
nice photo of a strawberry. It was placed on a table and
filled the entire frame. It was rear-lighted from behind
and to the right. The lighting was nice, but the
composition was lacking.
I thought about the photo for awhile, when a vision came
into my mind. I saw the same strawberry placed on a spood
full of whipped cream against a different background. After
I thought for awhile, the composition and lighting
techniques also came to mind. I could actually see the
setup in my mind. I went home and tried it.
When I got my slides back it was like deja vu. The
images on my slides where exactly what I had pictured in my
mind's eye. And no doubt about it; if I had not visualized
this photo, I would not have gotten it. The "fiddling
around" method would have been a disaster and waste of
I hope that his will inspire
you to try to visualize
setups in your mind. If you don't develop your inner eye,
at the very least you will learn more about lighting and