Have you ever watched an experienced diver prepare to launch themselves from a tall platform or rocky cliff edge? Sometimes, they stand for a long time, seemingly just staring out into space. It feels almost they are trying to psyche themselves up, to muster enough courage to make the attempt — as if with each successive ascent they need to decide all over again if they are going to take the leap.
While a novice diver may approach the platform with trepidation, an experienced diver has already made the decision to dive, and most likely they have even worked out the specific moves they are going to attempt even before they began their ascent. So why then are they waiting so long at the edge?
What they are doing is visualising, and it’s something that apply to your photography.
Visualisation is the act of rehearsing each part of an action in your mind, before you actually carry it out.
A diver knows that the physical movements they are about to attempt will be need to be performed in a fraction of a second. Once they are engaged in the act of diving, there is little — if any — time for re-consideration or creativity.
They use visualisation to slow down time, to narrow the number of spur of the moment decisions that need to be made and instead focus on the actual execution. They play the dive out in their head head, numerous times, creating a mental image of each stage.
So how can you apply this same thinking to your photographs, especially when out on a walkabout seeking ‘spontaneous’ images? Surely photography — especially travel photography — is all about reacting to what is happening in the moment? Isn’t the whole idea to get those shots that aren’t staged, that are just random moments captured perfectly in time?
The truth is that the more I talk with other photographers — including photojournalists who’s entire job is to capture ‘real life’ occurances as they happen — I’m suprised by how often they confess to walking into a situation with some kind of idea in their head of the image they want to come away with. While of course the final picture may wind up being something very different from what they had originally envisioned — isn’t that the beauty of the medium? — you would be suprised how many say they got that amazing shot because they already had a clear idea in their mind of what they were after.
I am very pleased with the naturalistic feel of these shots I took of some local men diving into St. Peter’s Pool, a semi-remote swiming hole carved into the rugged coastline of Malta. While the shots were clearly not specifically posed — they also were not entirely ‘accidental’.
For starters, I’d already visited the location the week before for a family day out. I had even taken a few leaps off the edge myself. So I had an idea of the location and what to expect.
I’d also noticed there were a couple groups of what appeared to be regular divers, so I knew if I returned at a similar time they would likely be there.
I grabbed a bunch of snaps with my camera phone, to try out some different angles and ideas. My mobile has 3 different built in lenses (ultra-wide, normal, and telephoto), which makes it handy for tyring out different focal lengths. Although the phone doesn’t give me anything like the quality or range of my DSLR, it has the advantage of usually being in my pocket. I use it a lot just for grabbing ideas I might want to return to.
I did have a chance to return to the location a couple of weeks later, with proper camera kit in hand. I started chatting with a group of guys who were very happy for me to photograph them diving. By this point I had already started to form in my mind’s eye an idea what the final image would look like.
I knew that that I wanted to use an ultra-wide lens because the context of the location was going to be such a large part of the visual story. I wanted to be able to show the divers, filling the frame, but also to have a sense of the dramatic setting. One of the areas I enjoy exploring with my pictures is the relationship between my subjects and their surroundings so where the divers where located physically was important to the story I wanted to tell.
I also knew ahead of time that this choice was going to present a specific challenge. Ultra wide angle lenses push everything visually away from the eye — like those rear view mirror signs that say ‘subjects are much closer than they appear’. This means you have to be extremely close physically to your subjects or they will appear too small in the frame to be of any interest. Also, ultra wide-lenses give a lot of distortion around the edges, which can be ok for scenery but can be quite jarring and unflattering for portraits. This meant I was going to have to try to get the divers to literally dive over top of me if I was going to appear close enough and have them relatively centered in the frame.
This took a little explaining initially as the guys had limited English, and my command of Maltese is, well, non-existent. They also had their own ideas of where they I should stand to best capture their moves — fair enough — but as the photographer, you have to be concerned with not just what the subject is doing but also what’s going on behind the action. Having already scouted out the location, I knew it was important that the divers not become lost visually against the cliffs and trees on the embankment. I had envisioned divers silhouetted against the sky, and this was vital to the shot I was after.
Fortunately the guys were very obliging, and for the offer of sending some images, they did numerous dives till I got something that was close to what I’d originally envisioned, but that also had a spontaneity and un-rehearsed quality I aim for in my work.
For me best result is to produce and image that is something between the one that I had in my mind, and a reflection of what is happening in real life — the unpredictable elements and spontaneous stories that emerge from everyday situations.
So does this mean you can prepare and visualize the details of every shot you take? Of course not, especially when your focus is on travel and street photography.
Half the joy of photography for me is going out, exploring, and seeing what I will find. But even in situations where there is very little time to prepare it’s still worth taking the time to stand back — like the diver atop the platform — and visualize the picture you are hoping to achieve.
It’s great habbit to get into, and the more you can approach each shot with by first visualising hat the final picture will look like, and how you are going chieve it, the more you will consistently produce successful images that tell a great story.