Using a Visual Inventory to Build Compositions

A visual inventory is a helpful method for identifying interesting elements when out in the landscape and ultimately assist in building compositions.  This technique is especially useful when seeking to create more personal and meaningful images in landscape and nature photography.  I teach this approach in person with my Artist Series workshops and find it personally to be my most used technique in my own work, no matter the location or season.  Below, I’ll take you through the process with a small example to help illustrate this idea. Some of this may sound familiar or simple and it usually is, so give it a try sometime!

Zion National Park in Winter with a snowy tree and red sandstone along the Virgin River.
Snow covered cottonwood in Zion National Park. January 2023

Walking Without A Camera

This part of the approach is somewhat well known as a way to enhance your observation skills.  By not having a camera in your hand, you begin to notice the landscape in a different way.  Some subjects will stand out and some will pass by, while moments will happen all the same.  You don’t have to do this for too long before you begin to notice what has stood out to you while actively observing nature.  This exercise isn’t to be taken too seriously though.  Let your eyes wander and get into “seeing” photographically in the landscape around you.

eric Erlenbusch photography in Utah @ee_visual and Utah Photography Workshops.
Last light of the day in Capitol Reef NP.

Actively Notice Your Surroundings

In the last section I mentioned “actively observing” or actively noticing the landscape around you.  This is all about getting in the zone to see.  Maybe you walk a little slower, pause to use binoculars or walk along a familiar route where you’re comfortable.  Actively noticing can be done with or without a camera in your hand but the point has nothing to do with a camera.  We want to focus our attention on Nature and the landscape so that we’re fully attentive to the smaller and larger scenes in front of us.

Actively noticing is hugely important to me personally as well.  It helps me through creative ruts, it is enjoyable even without a camera, I can hike faster (with no camera) ha! and helps me feel connected with the landscape a little more than I would without.  It’s my fuel for wanting to create and express through photography because I find Nature to be so inspiring.  But we have to pay attention too, it’s not always given to us without effort.

Utah Photo Workshops and Photo Tours with Eric Erlenbusch.
Cottonwoods in Zion NP with a light dusting of snow.

What Caught Your Eye?

It’s time to get a bit more specific now that we’re actively noticing and ready to begin adding to our Visual Inventory. I find that walking slowly is a great way to allow your eyes the time to notice effectively.  As we slow down, maybe it’s the way the light is hitting one flower but not the others near it in an interesting way. Maybe it’s a group of rocks in the river or a strange branch in a tree.  At this point it doesn’t really matter if you have your camera or not but the sake of this article, we now have it in our packs.  We’ve begun noticing elements in nature, patterns, repetitions, light, etc. and noticing a little more of what is more normal or common or unique or special.

We want to begin asking about each subject or moment that caught our eye and find the reason for it.  What we really want to discover is WHY it caught our eye and what YOU find special about it.  We repeat this process again and again as we slowly walk along.  Everyone is different during this process and you may even find yourself drawn to a subject you didn’t imagine beforehand.  We want to just continue to actively notice 

One example of actively noticing and adding something to our Visual Inventory would be the scenario as follows:

We’re walking through a forest on a partly cloudy day with moments of grey and moments of full sun, so everything:)  As we’re walking, we notice a branch all covered with moss.  We stop to look at it for a moment and notice the way the light is hitting the moss and it seems to glow.  This contrast and intense color is what caught your eye and the organic form of the branch holding it.  This is “actively noticing” this particular branch and adding it to our Visual Inventory is the next part, but it takes a little work.


Drying mud in Capitol Reef National Park on a photo tour.
Drying mud in Capitol Reef NP. Shot on Velvia 50 Film.

Can You find a different example of the same thing?

We continue walking with the newly discovered tree branch added to our Visual Inventory.  The goal now is to see if you can find a better example of the same subject.  I say better meaning a simpler composition, an interesting variation maybe or any surprise from Nature that could be added (or removed).  Often we’re able to find another example of something similar to compare and evaluate.  This may be easy to do in the forest with a branch, but what if we’re somewhere and we see something a bit more uncommon or a rare phenomenon?  The same approach applies where we pause to evaluate WHY it caught our attention and interest.

green mossy tree in the Palouse
Mossy tree in the Palouse of Washington.

Is the new discovery better than the last?

Once we’ve added a scene or idea to our Visual Inventory, we need to evaluate and compare it to the others we’ve added.  This step is very much a personal decision but the important part is taking the time to compare the additions to your Visual Inventory.  To continue with our mossy branch, we continue to hike and discover another mossy branch equally as beautiful and striking and all the same characteristics of the previous one.  Which one is your image? Which one is more clearly expressive of what initially caught your eye?  Which one is more expressive of what now catches your eye?  Is the Light better in one versus the other?  

These are just a small sample of questions needed to evaluate objectively and there’s also the personal meaning and subjective qualities to evaluate.  Like I said earlier, it’s a personal decision.This is where the artistry of Nature Photography comes in.  This is where we decide what, how and why we want to photograph a certain scene and this will be different for everyone. 

Sunset and full moon rising over Zion National Park on a Zion Photo Tour with Eric Erlenbusch. Zion Photography.
Near Full Moon rising over Zion National Park. Stitched Panorama.

Give It Time

Visual Inventories can be built quickly as in the case of the forest branch, or be built and added to over years. The timespan is irrelevant and the important part is the actively noticing and determining personal meaning.  Building a Visual Inventory is an exercise you can do on your own and one I teach in person in my Art of Seeing: Observation & Composition 1-Day Workshop.  I teach it because it’s exactly what I do in my own work while among Nature and in my daily life.

I hope this approach helps you take mental note of what you’re seeing, why it’s important to you and get lost in the joy of creating your best expression of this joy…whatever it looks like to you:)  

Thanks for reading, Eric.

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