Visualization in photography

Photo of author

Words/photographs: Tony Eveling


Visualization is an ability that we all have, learn here how to use it in your photography.

To me, visualization is something common to all of us, and it’s partly our natural ability to recognise beauty in objects and in our surroundings

Lanscapes and seascapes can be prepared days or more in advance. Visualization techniques are part of th epreparation for this.
Swanage Bay at dawn, Dorset

In photography it translates as that moment when you are walking around minding your own business, and you see something and say to yourself

‘I bet that would make a great photograph’

We all have those moments, whether we are photographers or not

This article explains how to harness this instinctive natural reaction, and apply it to creating great photographs, that draw the viewer in and makes them want to keep looking!

Who ‘invented’ the term Visualization?

Visualization in Landscape photography is a term made famous by American landscape photographer Ansel Adams.

Ansel Adams was 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.

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.

So what is visualization?

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.”

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.

How I use 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.”

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.”

And that is my own version or interpretation of what Ansel Adams called his ‘intuitive sense’.

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!

Does visualization  work with modern digital photography?

Ansel Adams related his photography to manipulating tonal values in black and white photography.

He created his prints in a traditional darkroom.

In his minds eye he was seeing a black and white print based partly on his technical understanding and knowledge of a mechanical process.

I however, am a digital photographer and I mostly use Photoshop or Lightroom, 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.

My exact process for implementing visualization

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 the above 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.

I also have to consciously decide if I have to move objects relative to each other by moving myself.  So, after the intuition comes a more mechanical process.

All of the above is a very wordy way of describing a visualization process that takes just a few seconds when I take a photo.

How much is intuition, and how much is mechanical, and how much do you need to practice?

Ansel Adams said visualization was his

intuitive sense, an ability that comes from a lot of practice

Well, the first half of that I agree with, it is an intuitive sense. But the second part, I disagree with.

You are born with that intuitive sense, and you have been practising using it in one form or another all your life.

What you do need practice at though, is the discipline of converting your intuitive sense into a physical photograph.

Much of that practice is a skill rather than a talent, so it is learnable for everyone, not just a talented few.

Surely I need to practice for many many years before I’ll be any good?

Over the past decade or so, it has not been uncommon for very experienced professional photographers saying that it takes years or decades to become an accomplished photographer, some even quote the 10,000 hours of practice ‘rule’.

The 10,000 hours of practice/experience thing is actually a complete and deliberate misquote from a piece of scientific research. It never existed and it doesn’t exist, so breathe a sigh of relief!

The ‘intuitive sense’ that Ansel Adams talks about is in every one of us, it is already fully developed, and all a photographer needs are the methods to turn those intuitive moments into photographs.

The two main types of visualization

There are two types of visualization in my photography, the first is where I stumble across a scene for which I have that ‘intuitive sense’.

In this scenario I have not pre-planned anything. This will happen when I am cycletouring somewhere and I suddenly and out of the blue see a view that inspires me somehow.

This is a kind of visualize-as-I-go process, with no pre-planning.

The second type is where I scout a location before hand and make a prediction that in certain light a particular composition would look great for this scene.

Very often but not always the ‘certain light’ will be golden-hour light, and I will come back at dawn or dusk to take the photo that I visualized earlier.

This second type  is what most people refer to as visualization, or pre-visualization.

Spontaneous visualization

Examples of visualization: Example 1 – Kolkata street scene

For the following two images I describe the way I visualized the images without any pre-knowledge that I would ever be at those locations.

So one is a street scene, and the other is a landscape scene.

Both demonstrate the visualize-as-i-go process that I described above.

Men in the street, Kolkata, West Bengal, India
Men in the street, Kolkata, West Bengal, India

Composition is the single most important thing in photography, and so, even with this spontaneous street scene, I visualized what the final image would look like in my minds eye before pressing the shutter, or putting the camera to my eye.

I was walking randomly around Kolkata with a camera in my hand, getting lost, then getting un-lost and stopping for tea etc etc…

Then, walking past this scene I had one of those moments of inspiration that I talked about earlier, So I stopped and looked at what had inspired me and worked out my shot.

What I saw in my minds eye before I even stopped was a frame completely filled with people, evenly spread across the frame, with the backdrop of a Kolkata street.

That was my initial moment of inspiration.

So I had in my mind’s eye ‘seen’ a version of this final image

Once I had stopped, I then noticed other things happening, like a number of people walking past me in-between myself and the three crouching men, and no one was bothered about me standing there with my camera, which kind of gave me ‘permission’ to hang around and wait for the best moment to take the shot.

So I sort of ‘re-saw’ the final image with all the extra elements, and re-framed accordingly. I still kept to the original idea though, of filling the frame evenly with people.

I then took loads of images whenever a man walked past in the foreground, filling that gap every time, and then, with this particular frame, I got lucky with the man crossing the road on the left, which created a symmetry with the right side of the photo.

So you can hopefully see that visualization was a major factor in the composition of this photograph of a Kolkata street scene.

I also had a bit of luck too, but the way I see it is that you make your own luck. Or alternatively, if you hang around long enough, luck will come to you.

Examples of visualization: Example 2 – Evening sunset

I was passing this scene by road, with no real intention of taking a photograph, but the strip of orange evening sunshine caught my attention. So I found a gap in the hedgerow that lined the road and peered into a field across the landscape.

Looking west from the edge of th ePeak District, Derbyshire, England, UK
Looking west from the edge of th ePeak District, Derbyshire, England, UK

I saw the factory on the horizon and it was that that told me to take the photo.

When I saw the factory I was then instantly able to see the final image in my minds eye. Up until then I just saw a strip of orange light.

The factory was far away and my longest lens was 200mm, and so I put that on.

My piece of luck in this was the tree in the foreground.

In my minds eye I really wanted a recognisable foreground object to give some scale to the scene, from which the eye could be led towards the factory against that amazing sky.

So that is my visualize-as-I-go technique for visualizing images.

Pre-planned visualization

However as you now know, there is another way to visualize a photograph, and I use that method occasionally too, probably 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.

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 may 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 four images in this panel are all exactly the same. They are exactly the same in terms of their composition. They all use the same ‘sweeping vista’ composition that suits golden-hour light so well.

The two images below were taken in locations that I had scouted the day before. in the middle of the previous day when clouds had turned the sky bright white. I stumbled across these locations and knew that they would make good dawn shots. I then planned to come back the next day.

Swanage Bay at dawn, Dorset
Swanage Bay at dawn, Dorset
Narrow path at dawn in the Chiltern Hiulls, near Ivinghoe, Buckinghamshire, england, UK
Narrow path at dawn in the Chiltern Hiulls, near Ivinghoe, Buckinghamshire, england, UK

So when I arrived at the two locations, I just crossed my fingers that the light was pleasant, before applying a very simple and very well-worn composition to the scene.

These photos were very easy to take, and I only had to spend half hour to an hour in each location to get the shots. It’s funny in a way because this type of photo is probably the easiest to take of all my photos, but they always get the biggest instant reaction from people.

The two images below, although employing the same composition were taken without any prior knowledge of the landscape or what I might see. I had just turn up to see what I might find.

View at dawn from Nare Head, Cornwall, England, UK
View at dawn from Nare Head, Cornwall, England, UK
Boats moored at low tide, Mersea Island, Essex, England, UK
Boats moored at low tide, Mersea Island, Essex, England, UK

One photo was taken at dusk, the other at dawn and there were foreground subjects that caught the eye before drifting into the warm light distance…and so the good ol’ ‘sweeping vista’ compo came out again. And again, the colours at golden-hour time very much suits the composition.

The first two images then are examples of visualizing a scene before hand when the light was all wrong, but having an image in my minds eye of what the scene would look like in golden-hour light.

The final two images are examples where I just went out just because of the time. I had no idea what I would find, and that is a great photographic challenge, looking for compositions whilst just wandering around and waiting for that intuitive moment. And so this is what I would call visualizing-on-the-fly.

The two images below were spontaneous shots and again they are the same composition. Both were taken when I cycled over a bridge and had a peep over the edge out of curiosity.

Both scenes gave me that instinctive feeling that there was a photo there. Although both are of roads drifting into the distance, the subject matter is different.

How could anyone resist the shot of a Kolkata street in India? The throng of people reaching out down the road as far as the eye could see.

And then there is the motorway in Holland. I was inspired by the geometry of this scene. That is what gave me that feeling of inspiration. Technically I also knew that I could get all the sky detail too just by using one exposure, so I knew I could get a nicely exposed image without too much effort.

So both of these photos are spontaneous shots, taken after having an intuitive sense, that made me stop and then think about a possible composition. And then of course you have to employ the discipline of good compositional technique.

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!

Images: Slideshow of all the images in this article

  • Swanage Bay at dawn, Dorset, England, UK
  • Men in the street, Kolkata, West Bengal, India
  • Looking west from the edge of th ePeak District, Derbyshire, England, UK
  • Narrow path at dawn in the Chiltern Hiulls, near Ivinghoe, Buckinghamshire, england, UK
  • View at dawn from Nare Head, Cornwall, England, UK
  • Boats moored at low tide, Mersea Island, Essex, England, UK
  • Bustling street scene, Kolkata, West Bengal,India
  • A motorway in Holland
  • Quite an extensive set of galleries here. Just left your forest area. Gonna have to return to view more of your really nice stuff. Thanx for sharing your photos with us.

  • Thanks for visiting my blog.
    Yours is a great resource; I just downloaded the 8 free articles and can’t wait to read them!
    I’m also looking forward to reading about your HDR technique; that’s something I’ve been needing to learn more about for a while now.

  • 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!

  • Very informative. I’m new at photography and appreciate your posts. Thanks for the like on ‘late afternoon.’ I liked your cow on the beach shot.

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