Great photography often starts in your head. Inspiration strikes you, beginning with some small seed of an idea. If left untended, it typically withers away, but sometimes the seed just gets lodged in your brain, like an annoyingly catchy pop song that you just can't get out of your head. If nurtured, the idea grows into an obsession that can only be cured by trying to coax your idea into reality. If everything goes as planned, it blossoms into the real world as a final photograph—although things don't always go exactly as planned.
When seen from the air, the shapes, patterns, and colors of salt marshes are mesmerizing. DJI Mavic 3 drone, ISO 100, f/8, 1/80 second.
I recently had a photography itch that I just needed to scratch. While on an international landscape photo trip and desperate for something to shoot in the pervasive dreary weather, I flew my drone over some salt marshes, and was mesmerized by the shapes, colors, and patterns. Conditions weren't ideal, and since I was at the end of my trip, I started thinking about finding a place back home in the United States where I could do something similar. The obsession had begun, and I started pouring over Google Earth satellite maps, looking for some interesting salt marshes with intricate patterns. After hours of research, I finally settled on the marshes of the Atlantic coast, where barrier islands provide protection from the open ocean, allowing extensive salt marshes to form. With a gap in my schedule and some frequent flyer miles to burn, I hopped on a plane to turn my idea into a photographic reality.
When flying my drone, I often scout my compositions "on the fly," which in the case of drone photography is both figurative and literal. DJI Mavic 3 drone, ISO 100, f/8, 1/60 second.
One great thing about drone photography is that you can easily visualize many final compositions merely by studying satellite maps (that is, for compositions where your drone camera is pointed straight down). Once you've found a composition you like on the satellite map, you just need to get to that location, find a place where you can legally launch and fly your drone, and then go and find the specific spot you had scouted on the map.
The colors of the salt marshes change dramatically with the light and with the tides. DJI Mavic 3 drone, ISO 100, f/8, 1/13 second.
Of course, things often change between when the satellite image was captured and when you arrive on location, and light and weather can change the way the landscape looks as well. And, one can photograph from a drone at other angles than just straight down, which is less easy to research and plan with satellite maps (things get even more complicated when you stitch multiple panned photos together to take in a wider view of the scene). While visualization is certainly an important aspect of the photographic process, part of what makes photography unique and special among art forms is its ability to capture rare convergences of shape, color, light, and action—the “decisive moment” of Henri Cartier-Bresson. For a photographer to capture such rare moments, they must stay attuned to the subject, and be able to react quickly, even if that means abandoning any visualized ideals.
Direct sun on the marshes reveals brilliant colors. DJI Mavic 3 drone, ISO 100, f/8, 1/25 second.
As you can imagine, when I finally visited the salt marshes I had chosen for my photography, I had many visualized photographs in my head, so I immediately set about to find and capture images that corresponded to my vision. Sometimes, I was able to find my visualized compositions, and simply pluck them out into reality. But ofttimes, realizing the visualized ideal proved to be difficult. The salt marshes are constantly changing with the tides and the light; in those situations, the visualization went out the window, and I started to react to what the landscape was offering me instead.
I tried many different angles when photographing the marshes with my drone instead of just aiming my camera straight down. DJI Mavic 3 drone, ISO 100, f/8, 1/60 second.
I was completely captivates by the dizzying array of shapes, patterns and colors. I found I was able to shoot the marshes in almost any kind of light, so I was making photos almost all day long, frantically charging my drone batteries in between flights so I could stay in the air as much as possible. I was constantly reviewing my images, studying each composition to see if it needed any refinement. If a shot required some tweaks or better light, I gave it another try until I got it right. Visualization doesn't end when the photography starts, but rather is a constant incremental process that continues until you are finally satisfied with your results.
I had scouted this composition using the satellite view on Google Earth. I was able to find this specific location and fly my drone over it, capturing an image that almost perfectly corresponded with my visualized ideal. DJI Mavic 3 drone, ISO 400, f/2.8, 1/20 second.
Visualization is a great thing, something that everyone should practice and master. Learning to go with the flow is an equally important skill, one which will help you fully unlock your creative potential. The two should not be viewed as being at odds with one another—they are complementary skills rather than opposites—and when you engage in one, you should never fully turn off the other. They go together, hand in hand, in the photographer’s toolkit.
If you want to see more of my salt marsh photos, check out my Eastern Shore portfolio.
In the video below, available to PRO subscribers only, I take a closer look at how I researched the image above using Google Earth, and then took the raw file into the digital darkroom for final processing. A PRO subscription takes a deeper look at how compelling photos are made, and unlocks access to this video as well as a number of my other courses and tutorials.