Mental Preparation for Photographers
Photographs are something found, and something given. We can do all we can do fiddling with our
lenses, worrying about preparation, and planning our next shoot, but ultimately we are at the mercy
of what is given. It is true that chance favors a prepared mind, but exactly what does that mean?
It means a few things. First, photographers need to be able to respond to situations fairly quickly.
Animals are pretty bad about giving you opportunities for the shot. Moments in light are not much
better. It is all well and good to be setup for a great landscape shot, but a solid blue sky does not
inspire like a dynamic, colorful sky, but the latter can be fleeting. In this case one must be able to
anticipate, and capitalize on dynamic situations. We must be lucky, and good. The first two skills are
anticipation in dynamic situations, and second, the know how to respond -- knowledge and the
How do you learn these skills? I have two strategies myself. First, I fail and learn from failure. Failure
informs judgment, and it is only through failure that we best understand what is needed in any
situation. To mine those failures, you need to own them personally, and think through what you could
have done differently. Mechanical skill deficits are fairly easy to remedy, for instance, choosing and
changing that lens faster, or understanding what shutter speed is need to freeze the flight of a bird.
Screwing up will teach you these things quickly. I am so dedicated to the idea of screwing up that I
experiment and fail deliberately. This sounds a little goofy, but it is a great way to learn. I am fairly
certain photographers would recommend the "experiment, screw up, and learn method" if most of
us had not started in film. Film costs kept us conservative, there is no reason anymore to be
hesitant about experimentation. Fire away, and learn.
My second core strategy is mental rehearsal. Mental rehearsal has been shown in many fields to
accelerate skill development and judgment. You can do it in your easy chair. I like to think about
situations I have encountered, the events that preceded them, and the context in which they
occurred. If you have a decent memory, you can build your skills by thinking about the opportunities
might come your way -- the process, the flow. Think about what you need to look for to alert you to
the photo opportunities you are trying to capture. This includes time of day, location, animal
behaviors, animal movements, etc. Plan your shooting lanes, the background, the angle of view, etc.
You can do all these things with pre-visualization. Think away from the camera and get results.
I will close this with two other mental preparation ideas. Core beliefs also enter into your success.
You will see, "visualize", "perceive", photos around you if you believe there are always photos to be
taken. Preparation is great, but often the very best photos are accidents, BUT, they are seen. Seeing
them translates to the core belief that there is ALWAYS a picture. Getting that unplanned being in a
good state of focus, the zone where you are immersed in what is around you. So you must believe
there is a picture, and you must be alert in every moment. It is the old "be here now" thing. If you feel
like the world falls away when you take pictures, you are probably immersed in your environment.
Get in that zone, stay there, be alert to your surroundings, and get the pictures that everyone
Mastery in all things is about mental preparation, and only second about the tools. A master knows
how to anticipate the picture and choose his or her path. Masters focus in the moment and are
opportunitistic. Think as carefully about your mental preparation as you do about your equipment.
You might find that you travel lighter as you think more deeply.
"For us the camera is a tool, the extension of our eye, not a pretty little mechanical toy. It is sufficient that we
should feel at ease with the camera best adapted for our purpose. Adjustments of the camera – such as setting
the aperture and the speed – should become reflexes, like changing gear in a car. The real problem is one of
intelligence and sensitivity." Henri Cartier-Bresson
"Anyone can take a picture...a
person with a passion sees the
picture before it's taken."
"We are faced with two moments
of selection and thus of possible
regret: the first and more serious
when actuality is there, staring us
in the viewfinder; and the second
when all the shots have been
developed and printed and we
have to reject the less effective
ones. It is then – too late – that we
see exactly where we have failed.
When we are at work, a
moment’s hesitation or physical
separation from the event robs us
of some detail; all too often we
have let our eye wander, we have
lost our concentration; that is