For many people, one of the fundamentals of the craft of photography has been pre-visualization. This simply means that before exposing the image you have worked out the exposure and what mood and effect you want to capture and how you plan to process it.

I’m going to push back on this idea. My premise is that pre-visualization is no longer as important as it was in film days.

Ansel did

Yes, Ansel Adams was a big proponent of pre-visualization. He said “the term [pre]visualization refers to the entire emotional-mental process of creating a photograph, and as such, is one of the most important concepts in photography”.

I think he got a little carried away here. He is veering into mystical/religious experience. The reality is that, because of the technology of the time, he had to pre-visualize carefully to get good results.

Think about it, he was shooting film – no immediate preview. He was shooting black & white – he used strong filters to change the tonal arrangement, and he had to anticipate the result mostly based on experience. Negatives had to be developed and this introduced ranges of contrast choices that couldn’t be seen until after the fact. And then there was reciprocity failure that required compensation for long exposures – something those of us shooting digital don’t even know about. His negatives had to be fairly low contrast to try to capture as much information as possible so he could spend hours in the darkroom creating a final print. He generally exposed pretty conservatively to make sure he got something to work with.

All this made it critical to him to plan out exposures and filter sets and contrast ranges as much as possible without actually being able to see the result. Everything had to be carefully done to capture a decent negative for processing back in the darkroom. Hence, a strong need for “pre-visualization”.

Ansel and some of his associates even developed the famous “zone system” as part of pre-visualization. It divided the world into an 11 stop range from black to white. In normal practice, they pre-planned where the significant tones would end up after development and printing. This was part of the process of trying to make a useful negative at capture time.

Fast forward

We live is a very different world. Shooting digital, we can see a preview image and its histogram immediately. We know what we captured.

And our modern digital sensors are incredible pieces of technology. Despite what Moose Peterson famously says in some of his videos, we can capture a dynamic range of about 14 stops, with a “useful” range of around 8 stops. That is a game changer. And if that is not enough it has never been easier to use high dynamic range (HDR) to capture about as much as you could want.

For those of us still doing black & white – I love b&w and do it a lot – it is the best time in history to practice this. Very few people actually shoot in b&w, e.g. have their cameras physically modified to remove the Bayer color filter. Instead we capture full color images and use the fantastic post processing capabilities we have on our computers to do the conversion and tone mapping. But we don’t have to pre-visualize the tone effects we will get because we can non-destructively play with a wide range of effects to work out what we like. And we see in real time what we are getting. Ansel would have killed for this.

Post pre-visualization

John Paul Caponigro has said “Digital allows us to get away from pre-visualization and get back to visualization.” What does it mean? How can it be?

My take on this is that we are much freer now to let our creativity run wild. Unlike previous generations of photographers we have immediate viewing of our images and non-destructive editing for post-processing. Every frame can be a different ISO speed. It doesn’t cost much or usually take much time to shoot a bracket of images to make sure we get a good original.

And now, instead of huddling in the dark smelling strong chemicals, we can sit at our computer with a nice glass of wine and interpret an image however we want. The range of options is staggering. There are far fewer limits now. It’s a good time to be a photographer!

This plays directly to the imaging style I love. In the field I can be in the moment. As long as I am making good captures I don’t have to have worked out in detail exactly what I am going to do with each image. I am free to treat the processing as an almost completely separate creative act. The raw image can be modified in ways Ansel never dreamed of.

If you can get to the Luminous Landscape web site Alain Briot has a good discussion of this topic.

Getting a good capture

Pre-visualization is much less important now as long as we capture as much data as possible. Get a well formed histogram. Expose to the right where possible to avoid noise. Use appropriate technique for sharpness and detail.

Capturing good images is still an art form. It is just my personal values, but pointing your camera at a scene and saying you will crop a good image out of it later and “Photoshop out” clutter is sloppy thinking and lazy. I believe I should decide what the subject is and create the best composition when I am taking the picture.

Being an artist includes being a good craftsman.

Wonders of post processing tools

Pre-visualization is not as important because of the wonders that can be done now in post. I do not agree with the philosophy that “if it doesn’t work in color make it black & white”. But it is true that the decision does not have to be make up front. That is the point. I can make an artistic decision later when I determine the look I want for the image. I did not have to put a red filter on the lens or carefully place the tones on a zone scale. That can all be done in post processing. It’s great!

Darkroom work was sort of the dirty little secret of photographers way back. They would labor for many hours to coerce a good print out of a negative. We might still spend hours post processing, but we are probably playing with alternate looks and having a lot of fun with the image.

Free your spirit

I am telling you my interpretation and what works for me. I believe we have been liberated from the detailed planning that was necessary in the film days. Now imaging is a more fluid and artistic medium. Pixels are data. Data can be processed many ways and to different degrees.

It is not uncommon for me to see something completely different in an image at post than I felt in the field. This is one of the joys of being an artist today. I am free, creativity can flow, I am not tightly constrained by what I planned at capture time.

I encourage you to not be burdened by a literal concept of pre-visualization. Do your best creative and technical work when you are capturing images and then feel free to decide how you really feel when you process them. Give yourself permission to follow your instincts and take each image where you want to go.

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