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The Art of Pre-Visualization in Landscape Photography


[ CECIL FARMHOUSE: Hasselblad 907x 50c + 45P ]

Pre-visualization Objective: I aimed to capture the emotions I felt upon discovering this old, abandoned farmhouse. It appeared neglected and in desperate need of repair, evoking a sense of decay and perhaps even a touch of haunting for those who viewed it.

I create my landscape photography using both film and digital technical cameras. I’ve been asked to share how I compose my images in the landscape with the gear I use. Learning to compose images is a complex topic that cannot be fully covered in a single article. However, we can often gain useful tips from other photographers that enhance our techniques, save time and expense, or clarify our unique perspectives. In this article, I aim to share the pre-visualization technique that helps me determine where to set up my camera.

Photographers who use technical cameras, whether pancake (like Alpa or Cambo), field, or view camera designs, often strive for perfection. This pursuit involves utilizing photographic equipment that many photographers might find cumbersome or unnecessary. Some choose technical cameras for the advantages of camera movements, larger-format films, high-megapixel digital backs, and superior lenses, all contributing to optimal optical quality.

If you are familiar with shooting a technical camera, you know it lacks the convenience of a through-the-lens (TTL) viewfinder for composing images. Instead, you might use a ground glass, tethering to a computer/tablet, or a digital back screen. All of these methods have their drawbacks when shooting out in the field.

My beginnings in photography stemmed from the 4×5 ground glass. So, early on, I had to develop a technique for scouting out shots in the field before carrying and setting up a heavy camera and all the additional gear that comes with it.

The good news is that you don’t need to be a technical camera shooter to benefit from my pre-visualization technique for scouting compositions. This method is for any photographer who wants to learn an effective way to pre-visualize scenes while out in the field looking for the perfect shot. Let’s get started.


A lot of my landscape photography begins with some research into an area. I then travel to the location and scout for interesting vistas, buildings, objects, and more. Once I find something that catches my eye, I park my vehicle and explore further on foot. For example, when I photographed the Cecil Farmhouse, I had to walk through tall grass likely inhabited by snakes and other creatures. I always keep a pair of hiking boots in my camper van for occasions like this to help ensure my safety while walking in unfamiliar terrain.

Because my health and safety are paramount, I take precautions to protect myself. Because I am prone to exploring remote or abandoned areas, I wear camping pants with multiple zippered pockets that securely hold my cell phone and keys. These pants cover my socks and legs and tie at the bottom where they meet my shoes, providing extra protection. They also act as a second pair of hands, allowing me to stow filters, lens caps, cables, and other small items securely and cleanly.

When I’m ready to explore on foot, I grab the small bag below, my Exploring Kit (kit). I also take a water bottle and place my phone and keys in zipped pockets. I pack the kit before my trip based on the cameras I use. I travel with two cameras, usually a film camera and a digital camera, so this small bag contains a few seemingly minor items that I’ve learned are essential to have on hand while I am exploring or shooting. Your important items will differ from mine.




My current Exploring Kit begins with the Tamrac Pro Compact 2 Camera Bag, a small yet efficient choice that cost me $21.95 on a B&H Photo Deal of the Day a few years ago. Before that, I used Newswear Fanny Packs or a PortaBrace Hip-Pack.

In the first image above, you can see the typical contents of my kit during a shoot with an ALPA camera and a digital back:

1. PocketSpot light meter
2. 6×9 Linhof Variable Viewfinder + 56×72 frame
3. Hoodman loupe
4. Location marker tees

The viewfinder is my most important composition tool, second only to my vision. We’ll explore its use in the next section.

The light meter is indispensable when shooting film, but it’s also useful for quick readings with a digital back in challenging weather or other situations, saving time over checking the histogram.

The Hoodman loupe serves as an excellent sunshade for the digital back’s screen in bright sunlight. Its rubberized material prevents scratches on the digital display.

When I find a spot I’d like to revisit with my camera, I often place a location marker on the ground. I’ve never had trouble finding a marker again, but if I think it might be difficult to locate, I take a picture of the marker and its surroundings with my cell phone. I could use a GPS unit for this, but I haven’t needed to do that.


What is good composition, and how can we master the art of creating or recognizing it? If photography were a sport, the foundational skill would be “seeing.”

I’ve dedicated much time to studying art history in college and in my personal life. I deeply love all visual arts, whether photography, paintings, collages, or other forms. Constantly updating my brain’s visual database with fresh visuals enhances my ability to spot compelling compositions wherever I go.

I’m afraid I have to disagree with photographers who advise against studying other visual arts. It’s like telling an athlete not to practice or learn from the legends who came before them.

When I say “study,” I mean looking at art books and magazines, browsing online galleries, and attending in-person shows. It certainly cannot hurt to fill your visual database with fresh material, whether you pursue this on your own or through a structured program. Do it whenever you can; your visual intuition will strengthen, and your work will show it.

My primary tool for composing is walking around and seeing through a detachable viewfinder. This process, which involves looking, noticing, and designing an image first through the framing of a viewfinder, is my definition of pre-visualization. Sometimes, I enjoy looking without ever taking a shot—it’s an exercise every photographer should practice.


#1 Linhof 4×5 VF | #2 Linhof 6×12 (65) VF | #3 Linhof 6×9 VF

Pictured above are my most important tools for creating compositions besides my vision: handheld viewfinders. Without them, I wouldn’t know where to place my camera.

While I love taking my time when exploring, I am quite fast and efficient when it comes to shooting. Operating a camera is easy when you know what and where to shoot. I have a mental checklist to ensure my camera, lens, film, or digital back are set properly. Most of my time is spent composing, which begins and ends while I explore the landscape.

If necessary, I could use a black frame cutout made from mat board instead of a viewfinder, but my tool of choice is a pocketable handheld viewfinder that closely matches my camera lenses to the film or digital format.

With limited format sizes available, finding exactly what you need can be challenging. However, over time, I’ve been able to tweak my viewfinders to match my gear. For example, the Linhof VF 6×9, fitted with a 56×72 frame, matches my 44×33 digital sensor and lenses well enough. I’ll go into more detail about this shortly.

This Lens Visualizer Tool helps with pre-visualizing lenses and formats.




Pictured above is my Fotoman 6×17 with a Fujinon SW 90/8 lens and its detachable viewfinder in the lower right corner of the graphic. This viewfinder is compatible with most Fotoman 6×17 cameras, and its frame is explicitly for a 90mm lens. I rarely use the viewfinder on the camera, opting for the ground glass or the Mark II Artist’s Viewfinder app on my cell phone when I need precise framing.

While my Fotoman kit is somewhat heavy to carry around the landscape, especially when I don’t know where to find a composition, exploring with its detachable viewfinder is a breeze. Once I identify a scene I want to capture, I return to my vehicle, set the camera on the tripod, and walk back to the shooting location—no need to drag the entire kit with me. Without its detachable viewfinder that closely matches the lens and format, this process would be much more cumbersome.


[ FOTOMAN 6×17 + RODENSTOCK 90/6.8 + ILFORD FP4+ ]
Pre-Visualized with FOTOMAN 6×17 (90) VF

Pre-visualization Objective: It wasn’t until I peered through the 6×17 (90) viewfinder that I saw an image reminiscent of the Asian-style art I’ve always admired. Standing in just the right spot, I framed the scene, carefully excluding the peripheral trees, and finally envisioned the photo I wanted.


If your primary camera is a DSLR, you might also use it with a zoom lens to scout compositions. My Linhof viewfinders for 4×5 and 6×9 are variable viewfinders that operate similarly to a zoom lens, allowing me to select the lens size and the correct format frame.


I want to share an image, along with the story behind its creation and my visual objective. While scouting, I discovered the perfect composition and captured it using my Alpa-Hasselblad kit. Post-processing, completed in Adobe Lightroom, is the crucial final step in presenting my images. This integral part of my pre-visualization process can either enhance or undermine the message I aim to convey to the viewer.


[ ALPA SWA + Hasselblad CFi 100/3.5 + CFV-50c ]
Pre-Visualized with Linhof 6×9 VF + 52×72 Mask

Pre-visualization Objective: I sought to reveal the stunning beauty of a big sky photograph. Initially, the trees and light captured my attention, but it wasn’t until I switched my viewfinder to a vertical position that the vastness of the sky truly drew me in.


Above is an image I saw through my Linhof VF 6×9 with a 56×72 mask in place. The mask adjusts the viewfinder to fit the format size of the digital back I was using at the time, the Hasselblad CFV-50c, which has a 44×33 sensor size.

I was standing on the other side of the water inlet from where the trees in the image were. The lighting and clouds caught my attention initially, but I needed to see if I could find anything else that would add more interest to the composition. So, I used the viewfinder to study the scene. Because I was on the other side of the water, I did not have a lot of area to move around in. I was under palm trees, and then a road was behind the trees about ten or so feet.

As I looked through the viewfinder, I adjusted the viewfinder lens dial, which ranges from 53mm to 240mm. This range is accurate when using a 6×9 mask and lenses appropriate for the 6×9 format. However, for a 44×33 frame, I use a 56×72 framing mask made for a 4×5 viewfinder (not 6×9) to get a closer approximation. Trust me when I say the 56×72 mask’s frame opening, made for use on the 4×5 viewfinder, is about half the size on the 6×9 viewfinder. The gear photo below shows how small the opening in the frame is.

Selecting the correct lens becomes straightforward once I determine whether the scene calls for a wide-angle, normal, or telephoto lens. If the viewfinder scene falls within the dial’s 53-65 range, it’s wide-angle; 70-100 is normal, and over 100 is telephoto. Remember, this is medium format, not 4×5 or 135mm.

After I moved the viewfinder into the vertical position, I saw the beauty of the big sky and knew it would be a vertical composition. Then, the composition came to life at the 100mm lens range. The giant tree without leaves was spreading its arms out as if to say, “Look at me, look at me!”




ALPA SWA + SK 35/5.6, Hasselblad CFV II 50C, Hasselblad CFi 100/3.5, Linhof 6×9 VF + 56×72 Mask

The image was created using most of the gear in the photo above: an ALPA SWA camera body, a Hasselblad CFi 100/3.5 lens, and a Hasselblad CFV-50c digital back, all mounted on a tripod with a leveling base. The Linhof VF 6×9 with the (4×5) 56×72 mask played a crucial role in helping me pre-visualize.

Could I have achieved this without the viewfinder? Possibly, but my SWA doesn’t have a native viewfinder, and I haven’t used the ground glass on the SWA in years due to its cumbersome nature in the field.

While the Mark II Artist’s Viewfinder app on my phone could have been helpful, I prefer to conserve my phone’s battery. The handheld viewfinder is ideal for me, as it doesn’t require charging, fits in my pocket, and hangs around my neck when working.

The camera kit I had with me that day included the ALPA SWA, the Alpa-Schneider wide-angle lens 35/5.6, the Hasselblad lenses CFi 100/3.5 and CFi 180/4, the Hasselblad CFV-50c digital back, the Linhof 6×9 VF with (4×5) 56×72 mask, and an RRS series #1 tripod with an RRS TA-2U-LB Universal Series 2 Leveling Base. The SWA’s front-rise movement was used.

The viewfinder provided enough visual information to convince me not to set up the camera with the heavier Hasselblad CFi 180/4 lens, which I might have used if I hadn’t had experience reading its lens scale with the 56×72 mask. Is this important? Absolutely, because I prefer not to carry heavier or extra gear unless necessary.


Pre-visualizing is the art of knowing what you want to shoot and making the image a reality. This skill develops through individual effort and is a lifelong journey for most photographers.

Studying art helps refine my “eye” and keeps my vision sharp.

The gear I use today reflects a 30+ year career in the visual arts and years of buying and selling to obtain what I need. Although I’ve updated my gear periodically, the equipment mentioned in this article has been in my toolbox for many years. Constantly switching gear for the latest technology wasn’t always beneficial; I prefer to know my gear as well as my own hands. I encourage you to work with the gear you have and focus on studying art and observing scenes if you’re unhappy with your compositions.

I appreciate the convenience of automation but also value the freedom to turn it off when desired. This is why I chose an Alpa + Hasselblad kit, which offers a versatile blend of options catering to precision and creative control.

I prefer the character of my Hasselblad V lenses over newer tech lenses, except for wide angles. I rely on the Alpa-Schneider 28 Helvetar and 35 Digitar lenses for medium-format digital wide-angle photography.

After over 25 years of using ballheads on tripods, I grew to dislike them for technical camera use. I use leveling bases with an Acratech Pano Head and a Fotopro Gimble today.



The image above features my Hasselblad 907x 50c paired with the Hasselblad 45P lens, mounted on an RRS Series #1 tripod with an Acratech Leveling Base and Fotopro Eagle E-6H Gimble. This setup captured the photo below after my exploration walks and pre-visualization. With the many options available to photographers today, it’s truly a wonderful time to be a photographer. 🙂


[ Pre-Visualized with Linhof 6×9 VF + 52×72 Mask ]
Hasselblad 907x 50c + 45P on RRS #1 w/Acratech LB & Fotopro E-6H*

Pre-visualization Objective: My goal was to immerse the viewer in the experience of standing before this breathtaking springtime pond, surrounded by its vibrant colors and calming atmosphere. I aimed to capture and share the sense of discovery I felt when I first explored the area.