Planning the perfect shot


Aphaenogaster woodland ants disperse a bloodroot seed. This image materialized in my head a couple months before I actually set it up.

My photographs fall into two categories: incidental shots I happen upon by chance, and premeditated images mapped out in advance. There’s not much to say about the first type. I wander about in the woods as another camera-toting tourist, and sometimes I get lucky with an interesting subject. A naturalist’s eye and a basic ability to operate photographic equipment suffice to produce usable photos.

As my photographic career progresses, though, more of my work is premeditated. Partly this shift is inherent to a growing business. Clients have requests for particular subjects doing particular things, and I go shoot them.

But mostly I plan photographs because they look better. With precise control over composition and lighting I can walk away with a good image nine times out of ten.


Aedes mosquito larvae. The X wasn’t an accident, nor was the glowing yellow backdrop.

What decisions shape a planned image? The subject is obviously selected to be of interest for some story or another. But other aspects are also important.

  • Width or length of the optics. Do I want a wide angle from up close that captures the animal’s habitat and point of view? Or a long shot that isolates the subject?
  • Angle of attack. Side view? Top view? Head-on?
  • Color and structure of the background. Should I arrange a complementary color? Should I simplify it to basic black or clean white?
  • Lighting. Should I backlight? Spotlight? Diffuse? Mix multiple sources?
  • Motion. Do I want to convey movement with panning or motion blur?
  • Image orientation. Is this a long portrait for a magazine cover? Or more of a panorama?

Recently I’ve been visualizing a lot of my photographs before I take them. The process of translating imagination to photography reminds me of musical improvisation, of hearing the melody before playing it. It cultivates a sense of control over the medium.

Anyway. I’m rambling. Here’s a sampling of planned images:

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I wanted a field guide image of this hangingfly, so I chose a simple composition with an even backdrop.


I had a mesquite tree but no giant mesquite bugs, so a friend let me borrow her lab animals so I could capture this wide angle macro of an insect in its habitat.


We dropped this poor gliding ant over 300 times while I figured out the lighting, backdrop, and timing.


  1. #1 Pedro
    May 29, 2010

    That’s amazing! I rarely plan my photographs. I mean, they do become planned, but usually after several frustrating shots! =] Great advice!

  2. #2 Bob Carlson
    May 29, 2010

    so a friend let me borrow her lab animals

    Nature faker! :)

  3. #3 Warren
    May 29, 2010

    i plan 4 my fotos 2 SUCK n i m never DISAPPOINTED!!

  4. #4 Adrian Thysse
    May 30, 2010

    I still don’t know enough about bugs and their behaviour to properly plan ahead for photographs. When I spot a bug with potential I start by taking a few record shots that will at least give a chance for I.D. Then I begin shooting while moving slowly forward, trying to keep the critter in the correct focal plane while developing the composition. It’s only on those occasions when I realize that it isn’t going to fly or scramble away that start planning how I can vary or improve the shots.

    The gliding ant shot is amazing! Someday I’d like to see an article on how you did that.

  5. #5 jason
    May 30, 2010

    I’m mostly the opposite: incidental images are my thing and planned images are exceptions. Which explains a great deal about my results.

    And I just learned about gliding ants today. I’d never heard of them before.

  6. #6 Angela
    May 31, 2010

    “We dropped this poor gliding ant over 300 times while I figured out the lighting, backdrop, and timing.”

    If I am ever looking for a portrait of myself, I will remember not to call you.

  7. #7 Monika
    June 1, 2010

    These gliding ant had amazed me completely, thank you for the link!

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