The concept of previsualization in photography is where the photographer can see the final print before the image has been captured. Ansel Adams dedicates the beginning of his first book to previsualization, and is often quoted as saying “Visualization is the single most important factor in photography”. Understanding then the significance of this approach is of high value for photographers of all kinds, as it has the potential to unlock greater creative vision, and give greater control (and predictability) over the print process.
The writing of Ansel Adams is often times a bit abstract for the layman, if not highly complex. I have attempted to consolidate some of his thoughts on previsualization, and I hope to explain in plain english how you can incorporate his ideas into practical terms. Let’s start at the beginning.
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Ansel Adams really liked structure and often times broke down processes into concrete steps. For example, Adams felt that the creation of a photograph followed four major steps:
In the above stages that Adams has provided us with, you cannot successfully previsualize something unless you have properly understood it first by way of discovery. In my own experience, I can confirm that this step is one which, if ignored, unfortunate results often follow.
Think of the discovery step as an exercise in which you break down the subject into its essential parts. For example, in the image below there is a doorway – this is the observation we can make. If we apply the discovery step to this frame we can see that the wood staircase and the door frame have the potential to create lines of convergence if the camera angle and position were aligned in such a manner, and that the horizontal shadow at the top of the frame has the potential to serve as a compositional anchor.
What if Minor White set this composition up having previsualized what it would look like if someone were to walk through the frame? There’s a high likelihood that this is what happened!
Galen Rowell, a master landscape photographer, often said that previsualization was an essential element to his photographic approach. In his Mountain Light book, Rowell reminds us that “Seeing photographically involves not only a sensitivity to composition & timing, it also calls for awareness of how the scene will translate into the photograph.”
In the image above it’s entirely possible that Rowell was familiar with this location, subject and environment, and previsualized the potential with golden light. Check out this rare interview with Galen as he discusses the significance of visualization:
The term “seeing” can be used to describe previsualization. Just as a musician “hears” notes and chords in the minds eye of his memory, so can the photographer can “see” certain values, textures and compositions prior to capturing. The visualization of a photograph involves many extremely swift observations and calculations, motivated and controlled by intuition and experience. Below are three methods increase your awareness of the visualization process.
If camerawork fully consumes the conscious attention of the photographer it can represent a major barrier to successful visualization. What does this mean? Master camerawork. With practice, the placement, adjustment and operation of the camera can be moved under intuitive control. Let us assume a person entertains the idea of becoming a professional photographer, it will require at least a year or so of basic study before he can start to move the practice of camerawork under intuitive control – much like that of a musician to a musical instrument!
Visualize, set up the camera, compose, focus, read the luminances, determine exposure – but don’t take the picture! Dryshooting is a term that was coined by Adams. In a way, this is similar to practice with a musical instrument; one or more problems are worked out without attempting to inject fully expressive elements. “Practice with the camera is essential for adequate development of the intuitive command of the medium” says Ansel Adams. Once camerawork has been mastered, Dryshooting is a technique that one can use to continually sharpen and maintain skills.
One way to do this on digital is to not shoot with a memory card. The idea here is to shoot not for keepers, but for the practice of visualization. Sometimes our desire for amazing compositions blocks us creatively from seeing unseen connections. Forget about keeping photographs once in a while and just shoot for the exercise of visualization, or dryshooting.
The art of photography is the art of “seeing”, and the effectiveness of photography depends upon the strength and integrity of this “seeing”. It’s all too easy for a photographer to rely on the automaticity of the modern camera and become visually lazy, but we can, without a camera, see relationships and compositions and start to build an awareness of how scenes translate into final images.
If the photographer exercises these practical methods often, the visualization process is likely to come more naturally, and with faster.
Hopefully this brief overview has provided some value to photographers in building an awareness around visualization and the importance of practicing of “seeing”.
Here’s another rare interview, this time with Ansel Adams as he discusses the importance of visualization
If you have any questions or comments please don’t hesitate to write in the comments section below.
“The concept of the photograph precedes the operation of the camera. The print itself is somewhat of an interpretation, a performance of the photographic idea.” Ansel Adams