Developing Your "Inner Eye"

  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 on 
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 

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Joseph Miller
Lebanon, PA