Monthly Archives: August 2013

Pre-Visualization Versus Post-Visualization

Five Trees at the Edge of a Storm

Many photographers are familiar with the concept of pre-visualization.  Essentially, this is the idea that when you look at a scene, you envision what the final print will look like even before you click the shutter on your camera.  In this manner, among other things, you can anticipate and control all the variables in your photographic process – composition, camera settings, processing parameters, etc. – up front, so that all the actions you take will support achieving your vision of the final print.  The concept of pre-visualization generally is attributed to the great American photographer Ansel Adams.

In photography circles, I think the idea of pre-visualization has taken on an almost mystical, inviolable aura.  For some, it seems to be a mark of technical prowess: any sign that you deviated from a truly and completely pre-visualized image, such as cropping the image to exclude something in the original capture, is perceived as a sign of lack of craftsmanship when the image was captured.  For others, it seems to be a mark of artistic vision: the truly inspired photographer will be guided by a higher vision for the image, and only a dilettante resorts to trying different interpretations after the shutter is clicked.

I largely support and practice the concept of pre-visualization.  Indeed, it fits hand-in-glove with how I work.  When I see a scene, I generally have a good idea of what I want it to look like in a final print, and knowing how I want it to look does allow me to tailor the photographic process, from capture to print, to fit my vision.  Moreover, I think pre-visualization is an excellent learning tool for those learning photography.  It forces you to know how the technical parameters of your process will affect how your print will look, and it helps you to determine if the scene you are looking at will work as a print at all.

However, as with most things in photography, pre-visualization is not an absolute, at least not for me.  I try not to confine myself to any rule, guideline, or principle that limits my ability to create work that I like.  The image in this post, “Five Trees at the Edge of a Storm,” was pre-visualized by me before I clicked the shutter.  My vision for the image was a high-contrast, somewhat low-key interpretation, wherein the trees would be generally light in tone against a background of foreboding, gray and black clouds.  In the editing of this image, I did indeed try some variations like this, and I believe those results were quite pleasing.

Still, that’s not how it came out in the end.  Instead, it became an exercise in high-key tones and high-contrast elements.  The sky and grass are high key, and high contrast is introduced by the very black silhouettes of the trees.  What changed after I clicked the shutter?  Very simply, I had the chance to see some excellently-done high-key photographs that made quite an impression on me (as an aside, I have no problem with viewing and being inspired by the work of other artists, short of slavish imitation and copying – but that’s a topic for a different blog post).  Suddenly, my whole vision for this image changed into that of the high-key, high-contrast image it became.  In a sense, I post-visualized a whole new interpretation of the scene that I hadn’t considered when I had my camera in hand.  Is this vision any less valid because I had it after the fact?  Is the image any less appealing because I didn’t have this interpretation firmly in mind when I clicked the shutter?  Obviously not, at least for me, anyway!

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Working With Backlit Clouds

Broken Prarie Fence, Near Fort Collins, Colorado

Editing the image in this post, “Broken Prairie Fence,” was kind of like what I imagine it must be like to wake up the next day after a bender and not remember what you did the night before:  I know I did stuff, I just can’t remember quite what it was or in what order it went.

The real challenge with this image was the backlit clouds.  Some photographers do backlighting quite well; I find it to be difficult to work with.  For me, the problem mostly is that backlit clouds tend to present very high contrast.  For example, the centers of the clouds, where the sunlight doesn’t pass through, tend to be very dark, while the edges of the clouds, where the sunlight amplifies the white, tend to be very bright.  To keep the sky from being a busy, cacophonous conglomeration of wildly differing shapes and tones, my approach is to reduce the contrast to more manageable levels.

How to do this?  Well, therein lies the editing of this image.  I threw pretty much everything I know how to do to try and bring the contrast in the sky under control:  dragging top-down gradients over the clouds in various blending modes (I generally use normal, overlay, or soft light), dodging and burning with the brush tool, dodging and burning with the dodge and burn tools, making adjustments with levels and curves and painting them in using layer masks.  It was a pretty seat-of-the-pants operation, and after awhile my layers-based workflow (which I generally prefer but am not committed to) went out the window as I built up version after version of the image.

In the end, I think I achieved my goal.  My main vision for the image was a silhouette of the fence and tree against the dramatic backlit sky.  I dodged up the foreground grasses to bring out some of the detail and highlights there, but I think the image probably would have worked even if the foreground largely stayed in shadow.  Sometimes you just have to go along with the process and see where it takes you.

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