Visualization is one of the keys to creating a compelling photograph. Visualization is a central topic in Ansel Adams' writings about photography, where he defines it as, "The ability to anticipate a finished image before making the exposure". Artsy was kind enough to reach out to me regarding this article with a relevant bio on Ansel Adams here. He was also one of the leaders in the ideal of pure photography.
We can expand further on this concept, and break visualization into three distinct parts.
Pre-visualization is conceptualizing the still frame prior to making the photograph. We are imagining the conditions we might want to make a compelling photograph. One could become familiar with a location, either through research or personal scouting. You can let your imagination wander at this stage. It's very important to aim high, because even if you don't get quite what you're looking for, chances are it will still be exceptional.
One might do some of the following when pre-visualizing:
Photo: Inner Spirit by Majeed Badizadegan [Spirit Falls in Washington]
The above photograph is an an example of a picture that required pre-visualization. The Northwest had been pounded this winter by a multi-day snow storm. The roads were not safe, and the hike down this fall even less safe. But we knew if we went through the effort, we could find something truly unique in nature. A beautiful ice blue waterfall with fresh powder surrounding it, and icicles hanging down.
When planning for this trip, and pre-visualizing the photograph, we used shots we found online from a couple days prior to gauge the risk versus reward. We knew that the fall would look much better than the image we found online (because the image was taken early in the storm), but the effort to traverse to this particular fall in these conditions was unprecedented.
We pre-visualized the shot, and this planning is what motivated us to great lengths to achieve our goal.
A word of caution: Do not allow the image you pre-visualize to give you tunnel vision. Pre-visualization is an important part of the photographic process, but it can be dangerous if it causes you to lose adaptiveness and creativity when on location.
Visualization happens on the scene. It's where you become adaptive and creative based on the variables in and out of your control. You cannot control light, where the clouds are, or what log is hurting your composition. You can control where you point your camera, So you must control what you can.
Just as rules are made to be broken, plans are made to be changed. You may pre-visualize, make all the proper plans, bring all the appropriate equipment, pack the right lenses, and when you get to the scene, it's just not coming together like you imagined.
Visualization builds off of what you pre-visualized. You are taking into account the photograph you imagined making. But now you are actually at the scene, and many variables are at play.
Photo: Paint the Town Red by Majeed Badizadegan [Mount Saint Helens, WA]
Take the above photo for example. Three hours prior, this gorgeous grouping of clouds was sitting right atop the amazing Mount Saint Helens. Things were poised for an excellent sunset. I had driven well over three hours, and was at one of the most amazing mountains in the world. I had pre-visualized sunset clouds above the mountain, with prime wildflowers in the foreground, and everything was looking great.
But as the scene changed, the clouds moved away from the mountain. Suddenly, the sky was bare. Much of the visual interest was gone, just as golden hour approached.
Many would stick to their guns and photograph the mountain, even if it had lost much of its luster. But the real fun was happening to the west where the clouds were clustered. It is very important to be adaptable and not let your pre-visualization constrain you.
Visualization happens in a fluid fashion. As you become more experienced, you will be able to "see" the world in photographic form. Visualization occurs on scene, where you are scanning the location for the most interesting photograph. You are spotting compositions and considering all variables. As one improves, the speed at which they find compositions will increase.
With all the words of warning, and the stress on staying adaptive on location, there is still a great possibility all of the elements will line up for you just as you pre-visualized. It is critical during the visualization process that you remember and reference what you pre-visualized, but don't let it consume you to the point where you can't be adaptive.
Post-visualization is essentially making our vision a reality through software. It is staying true to what we pre-visualized and what we visualized in field as a final result. The more skillful one becomes in photo software, the easier it is for them to convey this vision. To me, a solid understanding of photography software is 50% of the battle in today's landscape photography.
Digital landscape photography can feel very "back-heavy" when it comes to the amount of work done in post-production. It's because we are gathering data for a variety of things. Sometimes we are shifting our focus to get a larger depth of field, via focus-stacking. Sometimes we are recording multiple exposures for dynamic range. We might close down our aperture to render a point of light differently through our aperture blades. We may shoot at different ISO speeds to freeze moving objects in the frame. Essentially, we are creating many pieces to a puzzle. This creates a lot of work for us when we sit down at our computers-- the challenge is to skillfully build one photograph with all those pieces.
Photo: The Giving Tree by Majeed Badizadegan [Rowena Crest, OR]
This shot was created from 6 different exposures for focus and three exposures for dynamic range. To make these balsamroot appear larger than life and as though they are popping out at the viewer, it required meticulous attention to focus through the entire depth of field (2" to infinity).
Post-visualization requires careful attention in post-production. Many smaller parts will make a whole, but we must keep in our minds-eye the big picture. This is where what we imagined creating meets the technical challenge of reality. Post-visualization is where we make our vision a reality. We use our skill and knowledge to pull together many smaller pieces of the puzzle to achieve our final product.
I find breaking down visualization into three distinct categories helpful in my artistic process. I hope you do too.
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