Swanage Bay at dawn, Dorset, Englanf, UK

Visualization in photography

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Visualization in Landscape photography is a term made famous by American landscape photographer Ansel Adams, who is one of the fathers of American Landscape Photography, and one of the most famous names in Landscape photography around the world.

One of the components in Ansel Adams’ photographic armoury was his ability to ‘visualize’. He is quite famous for using that term, and put simply, it’s the ability to see the final photographic print in the minds eye before pressing the shutter.

But what prompted me to write this post was a comment I read by someone somewhere saying that the term visualization was vague. And this particular person admitted to not knowing what Adams what talking about. Of course, that was just a comment somewhere on the internet, and people are entitled to have their say. I though, feel very differently about the term visualization and what it means to me, so I thought I’d put a few words down.

When I read about visualization for the first time, I’d been taking photographs for a long while already (backpacking trips mainly) and it really chimed with me. It is and always will be very important to the way that I take my photos.

Adams was describing a process that he uses when he took photographs. It was personal to him, his photography, his style, his subject matter and also bound to an extent to the technology that he was using.

If you search Ansel Adams quotes on the internet you will probably come across this quote…

“In my mind’s eye, I visualize how a particular… sight and feeling will appear on a print. If it excites me, there is a good chance it will make a good photograph. It is an intuitive sense, an ability that comes from a lot of practice.”

That is what Adams said, and to me it is not vague at all.

What Adams described is actually an ability that we all have. Children have it too. If you ask a child to draw something that they can’t see in front of them, in other words draw from imagination, they will do so. They will picture what they want to draw in their minds eye and they will draw or paint it on a piece of paper, and they will compose all the elements that they want to draw very simply, and in a way that makes them happy.

That is a version of visualization.

In photography, visualization is not so different. And for me it means this…

When I am wandering around the world taking photos, I kind of allow the photos to come to me. What I mean by that is that I relax as far as the photography is concerned and I wander around and only stop to take a photograph when I have that intuitive moment. And “that intuitive moment” is the moment when I say something like

“I bet that would make a good photo.”

…Or some variation of!

Usually an intuitive moment comes into view out of the blue because objects (trees, roads, buildings) move around in relation to each other when we move, so moving around creates new compositions of the same scene. If you want to move a tree that’s in the foreground to the left, you just move a few meters to the right. You can even move mountains this way!

And when the elements come into alignment I say…and maybe you have also said……

“Wow! I bet that would make a good photo.”

How many times have you said that to yourself when just walking along a road, or walking to the shops, or hiking in the hills? And how many times have you overheard other people say it? Like on a hiking path or somewhere similar. I overhear it quite often. It doesn’t really matter if we have a camera handy or not, people still say it.

And so, as with the example of a child drawing from imagination, visualization is a human thing, rather than a photography thing.

Visualization is in a way a raw ingredient, and what you do next is entirely up to you. It’s your photograph!

Ansel Adams related his photography to manipulating tonal values in black and white photography. He created his prints in a traditional darkroom. He was seeing a black and white print in his minds eye based partly on his technical understanding and knowledge of a mechanical process.

I however, am a digital photographer and I mostly use Photoshop with Nik Software plugins, and so that is the technical process that I understand, and am tuned into. You will have your own processes that you are tuned into.

A number of things happen when I have that “I-bet-that-will-make-a-good-photo” moment. First of all I see the graphic elements that I want to photograph. Maybe it’s shapes made by the branches of trees, or maybe it’s a harsh shadow creating a graphic shape across the street. Maybe it is the symmetry created by looking down the middle of a street with buildings either side and a road in the middle

The next thing that I see are the straight edges of the frame that will contain the final image, and that is where I see the aspect ratio too, whether it is panoramic, square or rectangle. And that process happens before ever putting a camera to the eye.

And at this point in my own process, visualization starts to merge into (or turn into) pure composition, as in where do I want to place the elements of my picture, what to leave out of the frame and what to keep in. And do I have to move around a bit to ‘place’ the elements in a more aesthetically pleasing way?

And sometimes, but not always, I will see a specific Photoshop effect for the image. So I might see the scene in black and white, or I might think that the blue sky should be pure black, via a black and white conversion. or I might see a more even exposure with shadow and highlights much more equalised, possibly a HDR.

What I have described above is a visualize-as-I-go technique for visualizing images, or I suppose you could call it visualizing on-the-fly. But there is another way to visualize a photograph, and I use that method occasionally too, just not as often, which I will now explain.

I have a collection (in my mind) of pre-determined compositions that I use if I am in the right place at the right time. Some of those compositions I have created myself, and have unconsciously repeated them so often that I have now stored them in my mind as a fixed pre-conceived composition. And some of the compositions I have copied from other photographers, partly after I started reading magazines and their fondness for a particular dawn or dusk light which I too liked very much.

For example there is a pre-conceived composition that I personally call the Classic Sweeping Vista. This composition suits that very special light that you get at dawn or dusk. So if you are down on the beach you might take a picture at dawn of a foreground object like a piece of bedrock with dawn light reflecting off its shiny surface showing it’s texture in the subtle light. There may be a rockpool too reflecting the dawn sky surrounded by darker beach. The view fans out towards the sea and horizon, the sea may be smoothed out using a long exposure. Then you get to the horizon some way up the frame with a low sun radiating dawn light though wispy clouds. And that is what I call the classic sweeping vista, which is a composition that can be applied to landscapes and beaches all over the world. If you used that composition at midday you would get a balanced photograph in terms of elements, but the composition wouldn’t suit the lighting conditions of midday.

Once you are tuned into these pre-conceived compositions you can then plan ahead to apply them at specific times in specific locations. That often means scouting locations before hand and visualizing the potential dawn or dusk light and working out where the sun will be at those times. This process can take place days, weeks or even months before pressing the shutter.

The location may be discovered by accident or you may know the location intimately. For me, I will often happen upon a location and see the potential for a photograph. If the location fits one of those pre-conceived compositions, like the Sweeping Vista, but the light and time of day is wrong for that particular composition, then I may plan a future visit. I think some people may refer to that as pre-visualization, but I tend to lump everything like this under the one term of visualization.

So, after all that…my interpretation of visualization is that it is a visual human reaction to our environment that is then refined and applied to the making of a photograph.

Ansel Adams didn’t invent it, or even discover it…but he did document it and he did give it a name.

Visualization is your natural intuitive response to a landscape, whether it be rural or urban. It is unique to you and no one else. Visualizing on-the-fly will give you an opportunity to be original and have fun with your camera whether you are in your back garden, or half way around the world on a trip of a lifetime.

The way you visualize is already a part of you. So it is something that you can tap into right now. You don’t need endless practice or years of experience. Just get out there and be instinctive!!

What you do now is up to you!

Happy snapping!

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2 thoughts on “Visualization in photography

  1. Robin van den Berg

    This is cool! This is exactly what I feel, I just never knew how to describe it haha! I do a lot of editing on my photos and before I take the original photo I already know what I want to do with it.
    I like your blog!


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