Thursday, November 17, 2011

How Much Should We "Pre-Visualize"?

Liberty, New York (9:38:36 AM)

Liberty, New York (9:38:39 AM)

In a comment on a recent post, RyanW wrote:

“For me, I'm at a stage where I notice many things AFTER I shoot the photo, so I think I need to slow down...beforehand and visualize what it is I want to capture.”

This idea struck me as worth responding to in a new post rather than a comment reply. The thing is, I think a certain amount of visualization is necessary, but anything resembling full pre-visualization amounts to a false goal.

Photographs are not transcriptions of what was in front of the camera, but conversions of a view of the real world into a piece of two-dimensional graphics. So learning to visualize what’s in front of you as it will look stripped of binocular vision is a necessary skill if you’re going to have any advance notion of what the final result will be. Also, if you are working in b&w, you have to learn to anticipate what the scene will look like without color. Just as important, when working in color, is that the final presentation in print or on screen will not be a literal reflection of the real world’s color as your mind/eye interprets it at the scene. Not until you’ve trained your mind/eye to interpret the color in terms of the capture/processing/presentation you will use.

Another factor is that the picture consists of every square inch of the print (I’m not going to keep saying “or screen”). The picture isn’t a subject with stuff around it. The stuff is the picture just as much as the “subject” is. Understanding this helps keep you from finding a utility pole sprouting out of Aunt Martha’s head in the family snapshot. It also helps avoid having objects or patterns in the background draw attention away from what you thought was your subject. The whole thing has to work overall, all at once. But, methodical, linear planning may not be the best way to achieve this.

Gary Winogrand famously liked to say that he made pictures to see what something would look like as a picture. Sounds like just about the diametric opposite of pre-visualization.

The problem is, linear thinking is much too slow to deal with many of the situations that make for wonderful photographs. By the time you’ve pre-visualized everything about a possible picture in a step by step way, what you want to photograph may disappear. This is as true of a view camera landscape as street shooting with a hand-camera. My sense is that complete visualization, if we could do it at all, would encourage the repetition of established cliches. Complete lack of disciplined vision before shooting will result in a lot of random junk (1,000 monkeys tapping on their iPads will not produce “Macbeth”). Successful work has to come from somewhere in between those extremes and everyone may have a different spot, or comfort zone, along the continuum.

Making good pictures without visualizing every last detail of the final print probably involves a combination of practice and learning to rely partly on intuitive reactions to subject matter. Intuition is a lot faster than linear thinking, and not necessarily less accurate or powerful. Finding felicitous aspects of a picture that you weren’t consciously aware of at the time of exposure may simply mean that you are developing a good sense of photographic intuition. Finding that a picture fails because you were so busy concentrating on “the subject” that you missed all the distractions in “the background” means that you need to step up your photographic intuition training program—which just means go out and make more pictures, then study the results.


Stephen Cysewski said...

It makes sense, the other aspect for me is cropping. I take photographs with the intent of cropping. Cropping can be as much of the process of photography as clicking the shutter, and just as creative. I am not talking about radical cropping I am just making sure that the eye flows over the surface of the image and does not get "stuck" somewhere.

Tyler said...

Along the same lines, here is an interesting essay by musician Brian Eno, which he summarizes as:

"My topic is the shift from 'architect' to 'gardener', where 'architect' stands for 'someone who carries a full picture of the work before it is made', to 'gardener' standing for 'someone who plants seeds and waits to see exactly what will come up'. "

lyle said...

I first noticed how a slight enlargement of the picture can change things when I saw your show of 7x17's digitally printed at 2x contact size as compared to original pt/pd prints. And as your example here shows, just a slight change in exposure (I am assuming that is what is causing the change) can have an effect and change the image. Regardless, we have a conversation with the world when we make the exposure, and then another conversation in the darkroom or photoshop when the print is made. I have sometimes wondered whether I am taking the image in a certain direction, or it is taking me. Never sure. And finally with regards to "1,000 monkeys tapping on their iPads will not produce “Macbeth”", I am quite sure this is how Shakespeare must have done it, after all, we know he didn't write it!

Carl Weese said...

Tyler, thanks for the reference.

Lyle, look again, it's not exposure. In the first shot, a large dark car or SUV is reflected in the window. Three seconds later, it's gone and much lighter pavement and white stripes of a crosswalk are reflected, brightening up that part of the picture and changing the view of the things inside the window. That's why I chose this for an illustration. I "pre-visualized" part of the picture, then made numerous exposures as changes in the scene played out in front of (and behind) me. No way to visualize that, but no reason to forgo the opportunity because of it.

Carl Weese said...

Stephen, I'm familiar with a lot of the work on your site and obviously this works for you, but it wouldn't for me. I need to find the picture "all at once" and that means as framed in the viewfinder or on the groundglass. I'm not so doctrinaire I won't trim an errant bit of extraneous matter that sneaked in at an edge, but in practice I hardly ever do even that. For me, framing in the viewfinder is of the moment while cropping after the fact becomes a step by step process that loses the gestalt.

Anonymous said...


I think your right in that it's a continuum. It will definitely vary for different types of photography. The street photographer, you mention Winogrand, probably puts less thought into the visualization at least via linear thought anyway. I think the greats probably had a knack for what I'd term spatial thought. Being able to assess that a scene might be interesting as the various elements flitted about. They could sense a convergence of elements that would likely result in something interesting.

For landscape or really any type that of photography that doesn't have a moving or quickly changing subject, more thought probably would improve things.

That said though photography is an art, not a science. I need to keep that in mind and try to create photographs that aren't too formulaic or technically competent, but artistically empty.

Anonymous said...

Hmm, another thing to think about. Possibly another continuum. Found vs constructed.