Visualization is widely discussed in Ansel Adams’ famous trilogy The Camera, The Negative, and The Print, where he defines it succinctly as “the ability to anticipate a finished image before making the exposure.”
Visualization is one of the most useful and powerful skills a creative photographer can possess. It is also one that takes time and practice to master.
As Adams himself admitted:
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.
Vision vs. Visualization
The difference between the physical eye and the “mind’s eye” might seem obvious; however, in many ways they are not that different.
We must remember that all images are formed in the brain, whether they originate from the visual system or from the imagination. With that in mind, we can define visualization as the ability to consciously form an image in our mind with little or no actual visual stimulus.
In other words, vision is a mostly passive process, while visualization is an active and deliberate act.
Some photographers erroneously use the term “previsualization,” which is redundant since visualization already implies an act that precedes the capture, processing, and presentation of an image.
What to Visualize?
When Ansel Adams originally explored visualization, his primary objective was making the transition from a world of color to a world of tone. Black-and-white film captures tones by taking on different densities based on the amount of light it is exposed to.
To that end, Adams developed the Zone System, a practical method for predicting and influencing how a given scene will be captured on black-and-white film and, later in the process, on photographic paper.
The Zone System remains a valuable tool and can be adapted to color photography, though the advent of digital technology provides us with better tools to support visualization (e.g., the histogram), not to mention the ability to actually see the captured image while still at the scene.
Color photography introduces new factors into the process, and by adding in creative considerations visualization can be extended much further than just predicting tonality.
Generally, these factors fall into one of two categories: practical visualization and creative visualization.
Visualizing the Technical Possibilities
Practical visualization relates to technical considerations. These include visualizing how the camera sees and how it is different from how we see, visualizing what can be achieved in post-processing using materials at hand, and considerations to be used later in the presentation phase, such as mat color, paper type, frame style, etc.
Contrary to popular belief, humans do not perceive color very accurately. In fact, the brain may subconsciously alter our perception of color – particularly color temperature, so that it appears consistent with what we expect, whether true or not.
For our purposes, contrast is defined as the difference in brightness or color between adjacent elements. Contrast determines the degree to which these elements are distinct from each other as well as which ones command more attention. We also can identify opportunities to creatively increase or decrease contrast in post-processing or estimate what type and direction of light may be most favorable to the image we have in mind.
Defined as the difference in brightness between the darkest (DMax) and lightest (DMin) elements in an image, dynamic range should be considered carefully to determine whether an image even can be captured in the first place. We must consider both the dynamic range of the scene as well as the dynamic range of our camera’s sensor or film.
The former must fit within the latter to capture the full range of tones. In cases where the dynamic range of the scene is greater than what can be captured in a single frame, we need to consciously decide whether to sacrifice the highlights or shadows, whether the use of graduated filters may be needed, or if the blending of multiple exposures is desirable.
Think about how the amount, color, and direction of light will affect the captured image, or whether the available light needs to be augmented with artificial sources such as a flash unit. Also consider if the scene may benefit from a different kind of light that may be present at other times of the day or even other times of the year.
Consider the characteristics of the subject being photographed and the technical challenges it may present. For example, is the subject in motion? If so, how will your choice of shutter speed affect the result? Does it require the use of specialized lenses that may present limitations in depth of field or working distance?
Tomorrow: creative visualization