How to Pre-Visualize like Ansel Adams

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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The Inception of a Photograph

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:

  1. Need, or desire to photograph. Catalysts such as assignments or travel can increase our desire to photograph. Simply being there is half of a good photograph (in my opinion), so by placing yourself in situations or environments where you are more apt to shoot, all the better.
  2. Discovery of the subject, or recognition of its essential aspects will evoke the concept of the image. This leads to the exploration of the subject and the optimum viewpoint.
  3. Visualization is the ability to anticipate a finished image before making the exposure.
  4. Execution. After visualization of the picture has been accomplished (and this is frequently an almost instantaneous event), the technical procedures are applied.

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.

Movement Studies Number 56, 1949

Movement Studies Number 56, 1949

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.”


Golden light on a natural arch – Galen Rowell

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:


3 Practical Methods for 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.

1. Camerawork

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!

2. Dryshooting

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.

3. “See” Images

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.

Examples of Visualization

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


Winter Sunrise - Ansel Adams

Snake River, Ansel Adams

Ansel Adams Visualization

Tenaya Lake Clouds, Ansel Adams

Mountain Reflection, Ansel Adams

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

13 Comments on “How to Pre-Visualize like Ansel Adams

  1. Graham, great work both in technology and art of photography. Enjoy your website and appreciate your leadership. See you at your meetups. Charlene Tan

  2. How if it does, does visualization differ in people photography as opposed to landscape photography? Just me, it seems that landscape photography would be easier to visualize.

  3. Mark Sanders: “How if it does, does visualization differ in people photography as opposed to landscape photography? Just me, it seems that landscape photography would be easier to visualize.”

    Hi Mark, What I offer here is not an answer, but a humble opinion. The one essential element of a good image is that it has to be evocative, whether it is of a landscape scene, or portraits of people. All the best photographic equipment and mastery of photographic technique, will not in themselves make the image equal to the reason for capturing it. The photographer has to infuse that reason into the image at the time of pressing the shutter.

    Thus, pre-visualization is the contemplation of the reason for the photograph. That is the ‘art’, followed by the ‘craft’ and ‘science’ of photographic technique in bringing the image to print or screen, so that the viewer of the image feels something of the resonance of the photographer’s reason and shares in the understanding of it.

    Take a look at the last image of the lake and the bridge and the mountain. It displays obvious mastery of photographic technique, but more importantly, it is evocative. The photographer has managed to infuse something of the reason for his capturing the image into the scene with superb composition and framing, and excellent rendition of tones across the scene. The image is also pin-sharp from foreground to infinity. So good is the image, that the viewer is easily resonant with how the photographer felt about his subject when he pressed his shutter.

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  8. Very well said….lucid style and very easy to understand absolutely brilliant piece of information.
    However; with the technology people or so called photographers are so much into megapixels and lens that they dont even know the stalwart photographers for different genres of photography. The worst thing is what ever such people advice is 99.9% wrong. Either it be lens or mega pix.
    I would like to conclude that as of history none of the cameras have won any awards its the photographer who shoots it.

  9. Thanks for a very helpful article. As a much older photographer looking forward to hopefully a couple more decades or more to explore and make my best photographs, I sincerely appreciate your curating and passing on the best wisdom and lessons that experience and inspiration have had to offer, while continuing to push the boundaries of excellence in all your endeavors. At sixty years of age, having a natural curiosity for the camera since I was a child and loving the craft since I got my first Brownie in first grade, I find that photography continues to grow on me and I look forward with great enthusiasm to the future of the profession. I trust that when you find yourself at sixty years of age you too will be blessed with the health and fitness to continue to explore and enjoy the craft and have dreams and hopes that will take you further still. Who knows what you may discover along the way? Already your investment in time, money, and craft-making is providing better tools for many of us, making our photographic pursuits and efforts all the more rewarding.

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