Article by Guest Writer Alister Benn
Most people are familiar with the term pre-visualization, and many consider it to be the holy grail of mastering the art of photography. The concept, in short, is to somehow imagine the final image in your mind before you have even taken it.
The term itself is attributed to either Ansel Adams or Minor White, but the idea became the standard for photographers at the time, and since. We have to consider that the styles of photography throughout history have very much been led by technical, or scientific limitations. Did Ansel Adams become a legend of Black and White Landscape Photography because he chose to shoot in Black and White, or because there was no technical/creative alternative? As color slide film began to take over in the 1970’s is it not the case that the styles and look of images at that time and throughout the 1980’s were dictated by the medium and the subsequent evolution of Graduated Neutral Density Filters?
Some look back on slide film such as Velvia as being the golden age of landscape photography, when the art of pre-visualisation was at its peak. The processing was almost exclusively carried out in Labs and the photographer had to get everything right in camera to have any chance of getting a slide back that equaled their vision in the field. Going back to Ansel for a moment, the use of color filters in black and white photography were an important part of establishing tonal relationships within the frame – pre-visualizing again.
Can we please stop talking about getting it right in camera when we are using digital cameras?
Assuming you are shooting RAW (and you really should be) getting it right in camera can only mean one thing; getting a good exposure to maximize the data the camera can capture. Expose to the right and don’t clip the highlights is all we need to remember.
But what if I want to make a dark, moody image? We still expose to the right and watch the highlights and then darken the image again in Post-processing – resulting in less noise and more shadow detail.
For photographers at the start of their journey of development, the pressure of learning new skills, understanding exposure, composition and focus is enough, without the added weight of having to completely visualize a final image in their minds eye prior to pressing the shutter. By analyzing my own process and workflow I have concluded that pre-visualization in 2015 is not what it was in the past and hopefully this short article may go some way to encourage a more relaxed view to creativity, which in turn can release some of the technical pressures on us in the field allowing us to enjoy the process of being in nature making photographs.
Changes in Digital Workflow
As already alluded to above, in many cases trying to create the “visualized image” in camera in digital can actually harm it. Noise in particular is as much a product of under-exposure as it is higher ISO values. If later in processing you would prefer to open up some shadow detail, exposing to the right is even more vital.
In addition to this technical fundamental change, one further thing happened to really turn my mind around and start thinking in a new way.
Time, Perspective and Intent
Before I turned professional in 2010, I had more time to work images immediately after, or even on a trip. Nowadays, things get in the way, like more trips, or other commitments. In some cases it can be many months before I can get around to working an image.
I found that a number of very profound things happened to me as the time passed:
- It was harder to get my head back into the mood I was in when I shot the image.
- I was attracted to different images from the session than I was before.
- I have to be in the mood to process images.
- The music I listen to when working changes the mood of the image.
- I am not the same person that I was when I was shooting them.
- My perspectives have changed, and subsequently what I have to say has changed.
I believe every photograph should tell a story – they are, after all, little visual messages, articulating something of a time, place and the image creators feelings to someone else. When we process an image, we should do so to convey statements, feelings, emotions, moods and insights into the photographer’s vision. I call this INTENT, and for me, it’s the most important word in the photographers language.
In short, I realized that how I felt when I was shooting the image was important, but actually less so than how I feel when I was working an image.
If we split the creative process into three simplified stages:
We can look at various properties of an image and see where in the Creative Process the decision has to be made about
- Content – 1 (Subject matter, what’s in the frame)
- Composition – 1 & 3 (cropping)
- Correct Exposure – 2 (Expose to the right to harvest the most useful data on your sensor)
- Focus & Depth – 2 (Aperture controlled)
- Energy – 2/3 (Shutter speed for me is the magic energy variable)
- Moods – 3 (Moody, Mysterious, Happy etc)
- Contrast – 3 (Impact – cool to warm, dark to light etc)
- Detail – 3 (Textures, locally and globally in the image)
- Brightness – 3 (Another mood variable)
It is clear from the above, that a huge amount of the decision making in the creative process can be deferred until we are sat at home. The impact of this is clearly we can devote a lot of time to seeing creatively, seeking out interesting content and organizing it in a logical, fluid and interesting way.I’ve always said Composition is King – Processing just articulates our thoughts and feelings about that content.
As I say all the time to clients – they are your images, you’re free to shoot how you want. I have found a way to shoot that works best for me; I can work fluidly and in some cases see a final image right there in the field, with the actual image being burnt into my creative mind. Other times, I am aware of content only and know that I can work those relationships in different ways to articulate wildly different messages.
One thing has become clear though – I lean heavily towards capturing the best useful data I can (either in single, or multiple exposures) and also I aim to determine the most appropriate Shutter Speed to convey the energy of the scene I think is most suitable to isolate and enhance the elements of the frame – think stormy ocean around se stacks – Short Shutter Speed freezes waves and creates a lot of energy, Long Shutter Speed produces calm seas and a more ethereal and reflective mood/energy.
I started by talking about an Evolution of Pre-visualization, and I chose those words to convey the meaning that although they are changing, they retain elements of the original. We have a choice now to defer some of these creative decisions until after the event. Does this undermine the integrity of photography? Is a master someone who sets their intention in stone at the time of capture and lives in moments of creativity? Some will say yes, others will feel that mastery is mastery, even if the creativity is released to its full potential months, or even years after the event! If we return to Ansel in these final words – did he himself not reprocess his prints as techniques, perspectives, vision and contemporary styles dictated?
If it’s good enough for Ansel, it’s good enough for me.
About Alister Benn
Alister Benn is a full-time professional landscape photographer, author and instructor. When not leading tours and workshops in Iceland, Spain and Tibet he lives and runs workshops on the Isle of Skye in the west of Scotland with his wife and partner Juanli Sun.