“A lot of people think that when you have grand scenery, such as you have in Yosemite, that photography must be easy.”
   Galen Rowell

You've heard a song, or a snippet of a song, or a piece of a movie soundtrack, or, worst of all, a commercial jingle, and then been cursed to have the damned thing stuck in your head for hours or days. These stuck songs have been called earworms; when you're afflicted by one, it's no help at all knowing this happens to everyone. A number of cures for earworms have been reported. There's probably an app for that.

Earworms sometimes go away by themselves. More often, however, one stuck song is simply replaced by another. That's the cure proposed by unhearit.com. This may be a case where the cure is worse than the affliction.

I suffer from the visual equivalent of the earworm; an idea for a photo, a mental picture, if you will, that won't go away. A stuck image. For lack of a better term, call it a visionworm.

Be Lucky (But Be Good, Too)

Much of photography is a combination of serendipity, planning, and previsualization. Serendipity, that “F8 and be there” aspect of photography, is responsible for a lot of great pictures. In the world of professional photography and print-making, I think of this as point-and-shoot meets the DSLR; it's the grab shot made with quality cameras and optics combined with good technique and a good eye. It never hurts to be lucky.

Sunset godbeams over Howe Ridge and Lake McDonald, Glacier National Park

Sunset godbeams over Howe Ridge and Lake McDonald, Glacier National Park. Serendipity meets preparedness.

One can improve the odds of taking home a winner with adequate planning. One plans and prepares to be in the right place at the right time with the right gear, knows where the sun or moon will rise or set, and has looked out the window recently, thereby getting a better idea of the sort of shooting conditions to expect than that provided by the local TV Weather Kid.

Serendipity and planning are often enough. You're in a beautiful place an hour before sunset; you've set up your camera, the appropriate lens and filters, your tripod, and maybe your panorama rig. You're prepared. The waiting begins. A cloud blows in and blocks the sun. It's a large cloud; there may be no sunset photos this evening. Bummer. But you've been here and done this before. Waiting is the name of the game. The cloud is moving, but seems to know it can screw up your plans by slowing, by hanging around until after dark. Now the sun is just below the horizon. The cloud begins to break up. The sky is shot with marvelous god-beams. Chance, along with your planning (and technical ability to make a proper exposure of a challenging sky) hands you your keeper photo. That's exactly the story behind the photo above.

View through the burn, Glacier National Park, Montana, U.S.

I'd been planning this shot for weeks, scouted the location, and plotted where the light would fall at sunrise. I walked out to Rocky Point (in Glacier) in the dark, set up my pano rig (this is a six-frame panorama), and waited. Thanks to the clouds, I didn't get the light I wanted on the rocks at left, but I'll keep the picture.

Previsualization, a mouthful of a term attributed to a past master photographer and print maker, is imagining, or composing in your mind's eye, a picture before you've seen it. Much has been written about what this is, what it means, even how to do it. I prefer to think about the finished print, how it will communicate to a viewer my artistic vision. I think previsualization is where the creativity lies. It is where the pictures that can't be attributed only to luck and preparedness come from.

It sounds easy: get a picture in mind, go where necessary, at the appropriate time of year and day, wait for the right moment, make the photograph. Sometimes it really is that easy, but, for me anyway, not very often.


I get ideas for photos all the time. Often these are just glimpses that come and go. Maybe they lead to something, maybe not. Perhaps I'll see something in the field that brings back the memory and leads to a photo. But previsualizing, for me, works a little differently. I'll have an idea for a picture, think it through a bit more, and get excited by the concept. This leads to additional thought about the potential image: the time of year for the photo, which may be very soon, or months away. Locations; have I seen something like this in my travels? Or, am I starting from scratch, with no idea where I might find the image I have in mind? In what season will I find my picture? Do I need fog, or snow, or virga, clouds for a soft-box effect (perhaps for macro work), arriving or departing storms, rain, god-beams, clear skies (almost never!)? What time of day is required? Black and white or color? It sometimes seems with each answered question another appears. Before long I'll have a distinct mental picture of the photo I want to make.

That's when the trouble begins. When my mind's eye sees the photo clearly, I can't get it out of my head. It becomes a visionworm, driving me a little nuts until I find the scene and make the picture, or, as with a stuck song, another comes along to displace it.

Last week my wife and I were in Glacier. We walked through some of the area burned in the 2003 Robert fire. Today this is thousands of acres of silver and black snags; in the right light it's a forest of chrome-plated spires, tall, narrow, free of branches. The forest floor has regenerated into a sea of green, mostly six-to-seven foot tall (2 m) lodgepole pine saplings. I began to see an image of these snags, lit by low-angle sun, against a dark sky. But standing in the middle of what seemed like the perfect subject material, I couldn't find my photo.

View through the burn, Glacier National Park, Montana, U.S.

The subject I had in mind, but the direction of the light isn't quite right, and the sky is brighter than I wanted. I'll keep looking.

The next day we made our way from Apgar up to Polebridge, in the park's northwest corner. Much of that drive, which wanders into and out of the park, is through areas burned by the Robert and other fires. It wasn't early, but the morning light was soft, the sky filled with huge, white clouds. Subject similar to what I'd imagined, but condtions not quite right. More of the same up around Bowman Lake, and again later in the day on the drive back to our campsite in Fish Creek. I commented to Pat that I kept seeing the picture out of the corner of my eye, but when I turned to look, it was gone. She suggested perhaps I should have become a painter. I don't think so.

I still have that picture in mind. It's out there somewhere; one day I'll find it. Until then, I won't forget what I've seen in my mental gallery, but I've no doubt this image will be replaced by a new idea. I hope so. When those ideas stop coming, I'll have to find something else to do. I can't imagine doing anything else.

July, 2012