Tag Archives: Ansel Adams

You Don’t Take a Photograph, You Make It

Windmill and Corral, Near Franktown, Colorado

Windmill and Corral, Near Franktown, Colorado

You don’t take a photograph, you make it.

– Ansel Adams

So many people who are not involved in photography – and many who are – have the misconception that a camera is a magic tool for creating great photographs.  For laypeople, I often encounter the assumption that the quality of the final photograph is directly proportional to how much the camera cost, as if all it takes to produce compelling photographs is an expensive camera.  Among photographers, I’m often asked about camera-specific considerations such as the type of camera, the lens used, or the aperture/shutter speed combination.  The underlying premise seems to be that cameras create great photography, and if the questioner just knew the right combination of price, make, and settings, he or she would be producing great photography too.

Cameras are important, no doubt.  But they’re important as information gathering tools, not image making tools.  A camera capture is just that – a capture.  It’s the starting point for making the final image, not the end of the process.  Camera skills are important mostly to optimize the information in the capture, be it digital data or film exposure, so that it’s in its best form for use by the photographer when the time comes to make the final image.

It’s not hard to accept this concept on an intellectual level, but my observation has been that it’s difficult for most people to really internalize it, at least at first.  I know it was for me.  When I started out in photography, I was seduced by seeing the capture I had made on the little screen on the back of my digital camera.  Problem was, that little image would imprint itself in my mind, limiting my concept of what the final print could be to something that was pretty close to what was on the screen.  If you’re a photographer, don’t do this!  It’s a huge stumbling block to creativity and growth.  It’s important to learn the ability to see the potential of what an image can be with the right editing after the capture (be it on a computer or in a darkroom), and not limit the vision of the final image by what was captured by the camera.

The impetus for writing this post came from comparing the “before” and “after” for the image in this post, “Windmill and Corral.”  The final image, of course, is at the top of the post, and I’ve included the jpg of the capture from my camera below for comparison.  Whatever your opinion may be of the final product, I hope at least you’ll agree that the final image is as made by me, not as taken by my camera.

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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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