Cliff divers in Malta and how visualisation can improve your location photography.

During a recent trip to photograph local cliff-divers at the beautiful St. Peter's Pool in Marsaxlokk, Malta, I found myself reflecting on the role that visualisation plays in diving, and how this same technique can be used to improve our photography.

By Mike Best July 15, 2020

Cliff diver at St. Peter's Pool, Malta - © Mike Best

Have you ever watched an experienced diver prepare to launch themselves from a tall platform or rocky cliff edge? Sometimes, they stand for a long time, seemingly just staring out into space. It feels almost they are trying to psyche themselves up, to muster enough courage to make the attempt - as if with each successive ascent they need to decide all over again if they are going to take the leap.

While a novice diver may approach the platform with such trepidation, an experienced diver has already made the decision, and most likely they have even worked out the specific dive they are going to attempt before they began the climb. So why are they waiting so long at the edge?

What they are doing is visualising, and it’s something that we can learn from and apply to our own photography.

"Cliff diver at St. Peter's Pool, Malta"
Cliff diver at St. Peter's Pool, Malta - © Mike Best

Visualisation is the act of rehearsing, each part of an action in your mind, before you carry it out. A diver knows the movements they are going to make will be carried out in fractions of a section. Once in the dive, there is little, if any, time for re-consideration or creativity. They use visualisation to slow down time, to narrow the number of spur of the moment decisions that need to be made and focus on the actual execution. They play the dive out in their head head, numerous times, visualizing a mental image of each stage.

So how can you apply this same thinking to your photographs, especially when out on a walkabout seeking ‘spontaneous’ images, such as these that I took of a group of local divers?

I pleased with the naturalistic feel of the shots - they were not specifically posed which suits my style of shooting that is more documentary-based. But that’s not to say they were ‘accidental’.

For starters, I’d been to the location the week before with my family for a swim. I had even taken a few leaps off the edge myself. I’d also noticed there seemed to be groups of regular divers who came down to the cliffs, so I knew if I returned they would likely be there. I used my camera phone to snap off a number of shots as a form of previsualisation. It has 3 different lenses (ultra-wide, normal, and telephoto), so tried out a out a couple different focal lengths. Although my phone doesn’t give me anything like the quality or range of my DSLR, taking a few snaps helped give me a sense of what I was after.

"Cliff diver at St. Peter's Pool, Malta"
St. Peter's Pool, Malta - © Mike Best

I returned a couple of weeks later, camera kit in hand, and started chatting with a group of guys who were happy for me to photograph them. By this point I had already started to form in my mind’s eye a clear idea what the final image would look like.

I knew that that I wanted to use an ultra-wide lens because the context of the location was going to be such a large part of the visual story. To be able to show the divers, filling the frame, but also have a sense of the dramatic setting, was a key element. Like a lot of stuff I’m shooting lately, my interest is in the relationship between subject and surroundings.

I also knew ahead of time that this choice was going to present a specific challenge. Ultra wide angle lenses push everything visually away from the eye - like those rear view mirror signs that say ‘subjects are much closer than they appear’. This means you have to be extremely close physically to your subjects or they will appear too small in the frame to be of any interest. Also, ultra wide-lenses give a lot of distortion around the edges, which can be ok for scenery but can be quite jarring and unflattering for portraits. This meant I was going to have to try to get the divers to literally dive over top of me if I was going to appear close enough and have them relatively centred in the frame.

"Cliff diver at St. Peter's Pool, Malta"
Cliff diver at St. Peter's Pool, Malta - © Mike Best

This took a little haggling them initially as - their English was limited and my Maltese is non-existent. They had their idea of where they felt I should stand to best catch their moves - fair enough - but as the photographer, you have to be concerned with not just what the subject is doing but also what’s going on behind the action. Having already scouted out the location, I knew it was important that the divers become lost visually against the cliffs and trees on the embankment. As part of my visualisation I had envisioned divers silhouetted against the sky.

Fortunately they were very obliging, and for the offer of sending some images, they did numerous dives till I got something that was close my visualisation, but also had the spontaneity and un-rehearsed quality I love to aim for in my work.

"Cliff diver at St. Peter's Pool, Malta"
Cliff divers at St. Peter's Pool, Malta - © Mike Best

For me the result, if all goes according to plan, is something in between what I had in my mind, and what is happening in real life. The unpredictable elements and spontaneous stories that emerge from everyday situations.

Does this mean we can plan, prepare and visualize the details of every shot? Of course not, especially if your focus is on travel and street photography. For me half the joy of the activity is going out to see what I will find. The more you can approach a shot with a visualisation of what the final image will look like, and how you plan to achieve it, the more consistently successful your images will become.


Hmm... my friends would love this