Marsel van Oosten: how to preview a photograph

October 3, 2021

Award-winning naturalist photographer Marsel van Oosten explains the art of preview in his first column for AP

Marsel d’Osten

Marsel van Oosten was born in the Netherlands and worked as an artistic director for 15 years. He changed careers to become a photographer and has since won Wildlife Photographer of the Year and Travel Photographer of the Year awards. He is a regular contributor to National Geographic and organizes nature photography tours around the world. Visit In this article, he explains how to preview a photo before taking it.

Preview is to view an image before it is made. Instead of just capturing what you see in front of you, you first create the image in your head and then try to capture it. It is the most important creative technique that I use and know of. Nothing else comes close.

There are two kinds of “preview”: when I’m still home and have an idea, or when I’m there and see something that triggers my imagination. The first example is the ultimate form of pre-screw, the second is more common and this is the one I used for this image. You can use preview for any kind of photography, but naturally I’ll give an example of wildlife photography.

There are two ways to photograph wildlife: either reactively or proactively. The vast majority of wildlife photography is reactive – the wildlife does something and the photographer responds to it.

On game drives, photographers often follow wildlife and, once they find it, stick to it. While this is effective, wildlife is responsible for your creative results because you are only following them. While it’s possible to get good photos with a reactive approach, you’re not working towards a goal.

Turning around is less efficient and less productive but, when something happens, I’m really there, I’m already in the perfect angle, the perfect position and I’m totally prepared, so I won’t miss this opportunity… and the result will be something that I really wanted.

In practice, this means that I often do the opposite of what most of my colleagues do: instead of going where the animal is, I go where I want it to be. Clearly my strategy is much less effective than the first one, but when it works, I get exactly what I wanted.

If I go on a project – especially if it’s somewhere I’ve never been to before – I spend a lot of time figuring out what to expect. The most obvious way is to google the destination or subject.

The location photographs are really helpful because then I can see what the landscape looks like, what the habitat is, where the most beautiful trees are and what kind of clouds I can expect. I also determine the weather and temperature, and then I know how the animal might behave.

Supervision of an elephant, Zambia. Nikon D850, 180-400mm f / 4, 1/250 s lens at f / 8, ISO 800

I find out as much as possible and then I look at the photographs that have already been taken of the subject I am going to photograph. As a professional photographer, I have to be able to stand out and sell my images, so it doesn’t make sense for me to photograph something in a way that has been done dozens of times before.

Obviously, this all has to be linked to my own visual preferences and my photographic style. This is how it works. It’s like a little puzzle and then at the end I just found a solution to the challenge. I have lots and lots of images that are the result of that kind of thinking. I’ve never been there, yet I already know by the time I set foot there what I’m going to do and how I’m going to do it.

I have a very clear vision of what I want in my wildlife photography. My favorite animal images are always beautiful landscapes with an animal as a bonus. The habitat is just as important as the main subject – or often, more important. In my work, I like to create order out of chaos by creating a visual hierarchy within the frame. I also like my crisp, uncluttered images.

I focus on strong shapes and graphic lines, and maximum separation between them. These criteria direct my creative thoughts in a certain direction, which is very helpful to me. It’s good to have a goal, rather than moving around like a headless chicken and hoping for the best.

In this case, I was on a photo safari with guests in Zambia when I saw this beautiful constellation of winter thorn trees. I immediately fell in love with the graphic qualities of the scene and tried to visualize what it could become.

After moving our vehicle back and forth to get the best angle, I suggested we wait for an animal to enter this natural setting on the left, as that would bring the scene to life and give a great sense of l ‘ladder. I didn’t care what kind of animal it would be – a zebra, an impala or a hippo. We waited less than an hour and were rewarded when a large elephant entered our frame.

It’s important to remember that this strategy is the opposite of what most do, and this image is a direct result of previewing. If I had just followed this elephant, I might never have seen the potential of this scene, and if I had, I wouldn’t have had enough time to get into the right distance and the right angle to get the perfect composition.

We knew there were lots of wildlife in the area. Obviously this is an easy thing to check – you take a look around and see if there is anything in the area that could go in that direction and if there is it is. makes perfect sense to wait and see if you’re lucky.

As said to Steve Fairclough

Further reading

Photo preview with Marsel van Oosten – Sahara Desert

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