Previsualization To Get The Shot

Approaching a subject with a concept, planning and persistence

Often as wildlife photographers, we take photos in a reactive way rather than planning for them in a proactive way. That’s in large part due to the nature of wildlife photography, which, more than just about any other genre, relies on the unexpected. I know that many of my own favorite photos are the result of coming upon a surprise species or fascinating behavior that I haven’t captured before. Maybe I’m simply responding to glorious light, turning my lens on any subject I can find to make use of that light.

Red-winged blackbird calls on a frosty spring morning, New York.
Nikon D850, AF-S NIKKOR 600mm f/4E FL ED VR, AF-S Teleconverter TC-14E III. Exposure: 1/1000 sec., ƒ/5.6, ISO 1600.

However, there is some predictability in wildlife behavior. Tapping into that means being in tune with the seasons and the cycles of target species—essentially, becoming a naturalist. Because I don’t use set-ups of any kind (aside from a backyard bird feeder), preferring to capture completely natural behavior, over time I’ve learned to take advantage of the predictability in wildlife’s natural cycles to put myself in the best possible position to make good photos. But quite often that means careful previsualization and planning: studying the light and the landscape in a location, observing the target animal’s behavior, and knowing upcoming weather conditions and sunrise times.

Some of you may have seen the 2019 winner of the annual National Audubon Society photo contest, a red-winged blackbird blowing “smoke rings.” (Full disclosure: I was a judge of the Audubon contest.) These rings are the visible pattern of his song, created by the condensation of his breath when it hits the cold morning air. Photographer Kathrin Swoboda put careful planning and forethought into this image. I personally know how hard it is to accomplish such a well-executed shot because I, too, have worked on capturing this behavior and effect. The story behind capturing this kind of a shot is a good illustration of how predicting, previsualizing and planning can be the key to success.

Capturing the visible song of a red-winged blackbird is a common goal for wildlife photographers in spring. While we’re waiting for the charismatic spring warblers and other colorful passerines to arrive, red-winged blackbirds provide a welcome subject, as the males arrive as early as March on their breeding grounds here in the Northeast. It can be great fun capturing their exuberant displays as they move from perch to perch, staking out their territory with their trademark nasal calls, flashing their brilliant red epaulets as visual cues.

I knew there were several elements that needed to be in place for me to make this shot. First of all, as I wanted to shoot from the car, using it as a blind, I needed to find a red-winged blackbird territory on a quiet road that ran north-south. This would enable me to face east from the driver’s side, shooting into the rising sun, so that my subject and his breath would be backlit. (If front lit, the breath simply wouldn’t be visible.) I was also looking for a contrasting dark background of land, not sky, so that the light-toned breath would stand out as much as possible. For the best backlighting effect, the sun needed to be low, on the same general plane as the birds. Toward the end of March, when I began to hear reports of returning red-winged blackbirds, I began to do some scouting, driving around to marshes and swamps. I finally found a marsh on the east side of a quiet road a few miles from my home that was inhabited by at least four individuals. I sat in my car one evening and watched them for a while, confirming that they were using perches near the road.

Now that I had my location, I needed the temperature and weather conditions to align. It was critical to have a clear sky on the horizon right at sunrise—rare here in central New York—which would mean at least an initial period of direct sun, and a temperature in the 20s or low 30s, so that their breath would condense. I would need to be up well before dawn in order to be in place at sunrise, ready to shoot.

One day, the forecast finally looked right, and I woke at 5 a.m. I arrived at my spot in the dark. As the sun rose, I realized that though the forecast had called for a clear sky, a bank of clouds obscured the sun. I tried again a few days later, and though the conditions were right, the birds never landed on perches near my position. After a couple more unsuccessful attempts, I finally was able to capture a few frames where everything lined up perfectly: direct, low sun facing me, a bird on a perch near the road and singing repeatedly, frosty temperatures causing breath condensation and a dark background. I cranked up my ISO and shutter speed and used a wide-open aperture. When I later looked at the images on the computer, I finally felt I had accomplished my goal.

To sum up, it really helps to have a desired image in your mind and then to work backward from that, taking into account each element that is an integral piece of the whole. Rough drafts are often needed and failed attempts are to be expected. But if you have a vision and are methodical in your approach to achieving that vision, I really believe you will meet with success.

Melissa Groo is a wildlife photographer, writer and conservationist. She believes that photography can be both fine art and a powerful vehicle for storytelling and education, and considers herself a “wildlife biographer” as much as a wildlife photographer. Passionate about ethics in nature photography, Groo is represented by Nat Geo Creative, a contributing editor to Audubon magazine and an Associate Fellow with the International League of Conservation Photographers. She advises the National Audubon Society on ethical photography, and has also counseled National Wildlife magazine and NANPA (North American Nature Photography) on guidelines for ethical wildlife photography. She also serves as a member of NANPA’s Ethics Committee. In 2017, Melissa received the Katie O'Brien Lifetime Achievement Award from Audubon Connecticut, for demonstrating exceptional leadership and commitment to the conservation of birds, other wildlife and their habitats. She also received the NANPA 2017 Vision Award, given to a photographer every two years in recognition of early career excellence, vision and inspiration to others in nature photography, conservation and education.