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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