The Importance of Pre-visualization

Ansel Adams talked a lot about pre-visualization. In his day the term meant knowing in advance how the image he was taking would look on photographic paper when he was finished in the darkroom. He considered all the variables in the field (what filter to use, exposing for the shadows or the highlights) and the variables in the darkroom (the length of time for development of the negative, whether a water bath would be used, and the effect of the chosen print media.) It all sounded so complicated with so many variables. But from the beginning, Ansel would look at a scene, imagine a photographic portrayal of it, and know exactly what steps he would take to achieve that end.

Here we are in the Digital Age. The variables, and more important, the possibilities, have become far greater. The photographer who knows many techniques, has the right equipment, and has post-capture processing skills will display the best final result, whether it’s in a print, at a projected presentation, or online!

Today’s skilled digital photographers use a whole new array of techniques to solve photographic problems, improve creative expression, and achieve higher-quality results. If the scene is contrasty, capture several images at different exposures and later apply HDR software to control contrast and preserve detail in both bright and shadowed areas. If the normal rules of depth of field can’t solve the problem of getting a scene or subject entirely in focus, then the solution may be taking several captures at different focus settings and combining the multiple images in post-processing. Looking at a long horizontal or vertical composition? Capture a composite panorama. Mastering these and other new techniques is essential if you are going to approach every photographic opportunity with the full force of today’s technical and creative tools. Until you know them, you can’t pre-visualize the results you could achieve; don’t wait until you’re in front of the computer to think about the full potential of the image you’ve captured!

The photo example here is an example of pre-visualization. On the first day of the “Balloons Over Bend” festival in Bend, Oregon, I photographed the lift-off and captured the standard images. From the lift-off location, I was not able to achieve the image I really wanted, so the next day I climbed part way up a butte in town and set myself up for (pre-visualized) an anticipated group of hot air balloons with a backdrop of the Cascade Mountain Range. The balloons took off and went every direction except where I had hoped they would go; that is, between the mountains and me. Then one late balloon took off and stayed low; I pre-visualized the sequence panorama that would be possible if the balloon stayed low and tracked across the mountain background. I had come prepared, so I took out an intervalometer and leveled the tripod and camera for a panorama. I set the capture interval for 10 seconds and kept tracking the balloon across the panoramic scene. Luck played a part! The balloon stayed in the frame for every capture and even gave me a bit of an “S” curve in its trajectory. The next step was to composite the 25 images into a single panorama. Using simple “layer mask” techniques in Photoshop CS6 (any version with “layer mask” capabilities will work) I combined and matched the backgrounds of all the images in the sequence. The balloon’s speed was steady, and the ten-second captures placed it in precise, regular intervals. The resulting 20-foot long print tells the story exactly the way I had imagined it.

Technical Information: 25 images composited with Adobe Photoshop CS6. Canon EOS 5D MK III with Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L set to 220mm and f/13. Shutter speed of 1/500th and ISO 400.

One of North America’s best-known contemporary outdoor and nature photographers and a leader in the field of digital imaging and photographic education, Lepp is the author of many books and the field editor of Outdoor Photographer magazine. One of Canon’s original Explorers of Light, Lepp finds inspiration in advancing technology that fuels creative innovation and expression of his life-long fascination with the natural world.


    I have never understood why pro photographers use the word “pre-visualization”. First of all, there is no such word–it was made up by Ansel Adams, according to some. Second, it would have the meaning of visualizing before you visualize. The word photographers should be using is visualization. Dictionary definition of visualize: form a mental image of. This seems to be what photographers are thinking of when they say “pre-visualize”.

    This is what Wikipedia says about pre-visualization. You know that if it’s on the Internet, it has to be true!

    “Visualization is a central topic in Ansel Adams’ writings about photography, where he defines it as “the ability to anticipate a finished image before making the exposure”.[2] The term previsualization has been attributed to Minor White who divided visualization into previsualization, referring to visualization while studying the subject; and postvisualization, referring to remembering the visualized image at printing time. However, White himself said that he learned the idea, which he called a “psychological concept” from Ansel Adams and Edward Weston.[3] Though the term previsualization was and continues to be used by many noteworthy photographers, and had become part of the vernacular, it is often regarded as redundant.”

    And yes, it is a bit redundant.

    As a really old former student (won’t say how old), articles on pre-visualzation have always intrigued me for the fact that it’s something I have never been able to do. Having an idea of what the photograph will look like before the shutter snaps (call it pre-visualzation or whatever term) is just not something everyone can do and I’ve been trying for 30yrs.

    There is still a group of us “shoot and hope” crowd of photographers that have no idea what the picture will look like until later but on rare occasions we get “lucky” and come up with a really good one.

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