“The term visualization refers to the entire emotional-mental process of creating a photograph, and as such, it is one of the most important concepts in photography.”
— Ansel Adams
If a master like Ansel Adams thought that visualization was such an important concept, we should probably pay attention. What did he mean by “visualization,” and how does visualization apply to digital photography today?
Although Adams mostly talked about visualization in relation to technique, he also made it clear that visualization was part of the creative process. He wrote: “Visualization is a conscious process of projecting the final photographic image in the mind before taking the first steps in actually photographing the subject. Not only do we relate to the subject itself, but we become aware of its potential as an expressive image.”
In other words, when you have an idea for a photograph, that idea can and should include a visualization of what the final photograph will look like and how that finished image will express the feeling you want to convey. Do you visualize a photograph with dramatic contrast, or one that’s soft and impressionistic? Would the colors in the scene help to convey your idea, or would the concept be expressed better in shades of gray? Does the feeling you’re after require sharpness and clarity, or would some blurring suggest that mood more strongly?
Digital photography is highly flexible. We have almost unlimited ways of controlling the look of our photographs, both before and after we press the shutter, but to take advantage of that flexibility, we have to visualize the final result first so we can employ all those controls with a clear purpose.
The next time you see a subject or scene that appeals to you, ask yourself why you responded to it. What appeals to you about the scene? What feeling or mood do you want the photograph to convey? Answering those questions should help you develop a clearer idea of how you want the final image to look. And that visualization can guide each decision in the photographic process—the camera position, what to include and exclude in the composition, the camera settings and how to process the image.
Looking back through my own work, it’s clear that my best photographs were created when I had a strong response to a subject or scene, knew the feeling I wanted to convey and was able to visualize in advance how I wanted the finished image to look. Here are some examples of that process of visualization in action.
An Ethereal Mood
A promising sunset at Yosemite’s Tunnel View fizzled when clouds and fog closed in, obscuring the cliffs and valley, but I decided to wait, and about 20 minutes later, the fog parted, revealing a beautiful, misty scene illuminated by fading alpenglow.
By then, the light was dim enough to require a 30-second exposure at ƒ/11 and ISO 100. I could have opened up the aperture or raised the ISO to get a shorter shutter speed, and prevent the clouds from moving and blurring, but I wondered what would happen if instead I used a longer exposure to make the slow-moving clouds really blur. I visualized a photograph with an ethereal mood, created by deliberately blurring and softening the clouds, and enhanced by the pastel colors of the alpenglow.
So, I lowered the ISO to 50, stopped down to ƒ/16, set the camera to Bulb and made a series of two-minute exposures. The clouds blurred nicely, and all of the images had that soft look I was after, but one frame had a particularly appealing arrangement of clouds and mist.
Processing the image was the final step in making my visualization come to life. The RAW file was quite flat, so I made a sharp S-curve in Lightroom to increase the contrast. Bringing out those pastel colors required using a custom camera profile and pushing the white balance up to 23,000K to compensate for the extremely blue dusk light. I even used a bit of negative Clarity (-15)—something I rarely do—to enhance the soft feeling.
If you visualize how you want a photograph to look before you press the shutter, you’ll have a clear direction to follow when processing the image. Instead of randomly pushing sliders, each move and decision will have purpose and intent. With this photograph, every processing step was designed to help bring out the soft, ethereal, pastel look I had visualized.
The next example was made from the same spot, with a similar composition, but the light and mood required a radically different visualization.
A broken layer of clouds drew me to Tunnel View early on a spring morning, and as the sun rose higher, beams of light streamed through the clouds and onto the valley floor. At one point, I realized that the sun was about to come out from behind El Capitan, and it might be possible to capture a sunburst when it first appeared.
As I prepared to capture that moment, I visualized how I wanted the final image to look. It would need to have plenty of contrast to enhance the drama of the scene, but that wasn’t a problem, as it was an extremely contrasty situation. In fact, there was too much contrast—far too much to handle with one frame. I wanted drama, but didn’t want the entire foreground to be black or big chunks of sky to look washed out.
The only way to make the photograph I envisioned would be to bracket and blend exposures. I set the auto-bracketing on my camera to capture three frames, two stops apart. I then took some test exposures to make sure the lightest frame had detail in the shadows and the darkest frame had detail in most of the sky. I used a small aperture (ƒ/16) to try to get a sunburst effect.
When the edge of the sun appeared, I started firing bracketed sequences, hoping that at least one group of images would have a good sunburst, without lens flare. The photographs on the back of the camera looked, well, awful—much too harsh and contrasty (Figures 1, 2 and 3). I ignored that, knowing that blending the bracketed exposures would produce the result I visualized.
Reviewing the images later, several bracketed sequences had good sunbursts, with no lens flare. I chose the sequence with the best sunburst, but the photograph proved to be difficult to process. Two different brands of HDR software both created unnatural-looking colors and weird halos. Instead, I turned to a favorite software tool, LR/Enfuse. This did a great job of blending the exposures in a natural-looking way (Figure 4).
It might have been possible to lighten the shadows even more, but the sunbeams needed to stand out against darker surroundings to convey the sense of light from above piercing through the darkness below. Lightening the shadows too much would have reduced the contrast and lessened the dramatic effect. Again, knowing what I wanted the photograph to convey helped with making every decision.
Figure 5: Eastatoe Falls, North Carolina—the unprocessed RAW file. Photo by Michael Frye.
Seeing in Black & White
This was my first visit to this North Carolina waterfall, and I loved its shapes, textures and tiers, but finding a composition was challenging, partly because a log near the bottom of the fall disrupted many possible ideas. I finally zeroed in on this hourglass shape near the middle of the cascade, above the log—a composition with a strong overall design that seemed to capture some of the character of this waterfall (Figure 5).
Figure 6: Eastatoe Falls, North Carolina—the final image. Photo by Michael Frye.
This image was all about form, shape and texture. Color only would have distracted from those qualities, so before even pressing the shutter, I visualized this photograph in black-and-white. I also envisioned lots of contrast, emphasizing the difference between the light water and darker surrounding rocks so the overall shape of the waterfall would stand out. During processing, it was easy to convert the photograph to black-and-white and increase the contrast with an S-curve. The final image is exactly what I visualized (Figure 6).
Late one August evening, I saw distant flashes of lightning from my house in the Sierra Nevada foothills. I looked at radar images online and saw that a line of thunderstorms was moving into the San Joaquin Valley, so I drove to a spot in the Sierra foothills with a view looking west toward the storms.
The lightning was still 30 to 40 miles away, so at first I used a telephoto lens to zoom in and fill the frame with the bolts, but that tight framing didn’t seem to capture the feeling of that expansive view with distant lightning, so I considered other possibilities. There were some interesting broken clouds above the lightning, with stars poking through, and I had a sudden idea—a visualization of a photograph with a row of lightning along the bottom of the frame and the clouds above.
I put on a 24mm lens to frame that wide view, then set the shutter speed to 20 seconds. A longer shutter speed would have blurred the clouds too much or turned the stars into streaks. The exposure for the bolts was controlled by the aperture and ISO, because the lightning would be illuminated only for the brief split second that each bolt was visible, regardless of how long the shutter was open. Based on past experience, I set the aperture to ƒ/8 and the ISO to 400.
Then I locked the shutter button down with my camera’s cable release so it would take a continuous series of 20-second exposures and kept the sequence going for over two hours.
The final image is a blend of 13 frames, taken over about an hour when the lightning was most active. Most of this photograph consists of just one frame, when a bright bolt of lightning illuminated a particularly interesting formation of clouds (Figure 7). All that’s visible of those other frames is the lightning itself and some immediately adjacent clouds that were illuminated by the bolts. All 13 frames were blended together in Photoshop using the Lighten blending mode and layer masks (Figure 8).
The Power of Visualization
In the end, despite rather long odds against it, I got almost exactly the lightning photograph I envisioned. A photograph like this can’t be seen with our eyes in real time. A long-exposure sequence has to be imagined, and then executed, something that only can be done with the power of visualization.
Even more “ordinary” scenes can be improved through the power of visualization. As Ansel Adams understood, every photograph that has meaning, that goes beyond just a literal recording of reality, is an interpretation. The more clearly you can visualize the final image, the more powerful your interpretation will be.
Michael Frye is a professional landscape photographer and an educator living outside Yosemite National Park in California. His photographs and articles about the art and technique of photography have appeared in publications around the world, and he’s the author and/or principal photographer of five books, including “Digital Landscape Photography: In the Footsteps of Ansel Adams and the Great Masters,” which has just been re-released in a completely revised second edition. Visit michaelfrye.com/blog to see more of his work, along with photo tips, tutorials and photo critiques.