Thoughts on the visualisation step of the photographic process

Strong photographic pictures are made, not taken. It is such a simple adjustment in language but one with profound implications.

Visualisation is the process of constructing an image making all the choices of composition, lighting, weather and season, timing and camera setup.

‘Loch Torridon’

The techniques of image construction are learned. It follows therefore that teachers or role models are a very helpful step in the early days of one's development. Over time teachers become coaches or mentors as the photographer begins to make independent successful visualisation choices.

But I would also argue that practice (using the camera so much that it disappears in one's hands), retrospection (taking the reinforement and improvement learnings from every single image setup) and the study of other artists work (not just photographers) and their choices are also essential to progress. Visualisation is a muscle that is developed over years of photographic experience.

Visualisation starts with the act of imagination. You imagine what the image might look like or rather could look like given the right circumstances of composition, lighting, conditions, timing and camera setup. The act of imagining a picture might be seconds before pressing the shutter. More likely for successful images it is minutes, days or even years before pressing the shutter. Analysing and reviewing trial pictures is helpful to this process, trying to identify what needs to change for the image to be stronger.

The choices I mentioned above have significant effects on the picture and are all part of successful visualisation if used consciously:

1. Composition is the decisive act of where to place items in the frame and what to exclude from the frame. It is also the choice of the frame aspect ratio (e.g. 5:4, 16:9, 1:1 etc)

2. Lighting. We photograph light and therefore its direction, quantity, quality and colour profoundly change the image.

3. Conditions (weather and season), at least in landscape photograhy, have a significant impact on a scene most noticeably the presence or not and the colour of leaves/vegetation, the presence of snow, ice, mist, rain (in the air or its impact on a subject), the quantity and quality of clouds, the impact of wind on trees and water, and the height of rivers, tides or other bodies of water.

4. Timing. Very often the success of our image relies on a particular moment - the position of shadows, moving objects comming into a perfect alignment, light striking a particular part of the scene, a particular facial expression or maybe because the moment is readily identifiable and has special significance for the subject or viewer.

5. Camera setup

There are many choices to make around camera setup, all of which significantly affect the image and can be explicitly considered during visualisation. The most obvious is the choice of colour or black and white images. But outside this obvious decision there are a number of more subtle choices.

a) Lens focal length. Long lenses narrow the field of view making distant objects larger. They also compress the image, especially distances between objects and they narrow the depth of field for the same aperture setting. Wide angle lenses have the reverse effect. Standard lenses have a field of view much closer to the human eye.

b) Focus. Points 5b and 5c go together. There is only ever one actual plane of focus selected when the camera is focused. The depth of field (how much the image appears sharp behind and in front of that plane) is controlled by the lens aperture. Usually in a standard camera this focus plane is parallel to the film and lens plane and can be placed at any point from just in front of the photographer ('close focus') to a long way in the distance ('infinity focus'). A view camera allows the plane of focus to be moved by either tilting the lens or the film/sensor. For example the plane of focus could run along a nail so that it is sharp from tip to bottom or run from the photographers foot to the top of a distant mountain.

c) Depth of field. Although there is only one plane of focus, the aperture selected changes the apparent appearance of sharpness. A larger aperture number setting (a smaller hole to let the light through) makes more of the image appear sharp in front of and behind the plane of focus. This effect is countered by the gradual impact of diffraction which correspondingly softens the image as the aperture number gets larger. When combined with focusing, creative choices can be made about which parts of the image appear sharp and which appear to be soft or 'out of focus'. Different lenses have different ways of rendering this 'out of focus' called the quality of its bokeh.

d) Shutter speed has a significant impact on how moving objects are rendered in the image - water, trees, clouds etc.

e) Exposure and dynamic range. How to imagine the exposure and dynamic range of the image is also an important visualisation choice. Traditionally this was done with the aid of film choice though today in the digital world the use of post processing is the more typical approach. Considering whether the image looks best high key, rendering shadows as black or with lots of shadow detail are all visualisation choices. One needs to visualise the potential of post processing or darkroom options and embed that thinking in your visualisation. In otherwords, imagine the print.
'Quarry #2''

f) Filtration is the act of placing plastic or glass in front of the lens to change colour, reflections or exposure in all or parts of the frame. The most commonly used filters these days are graduated filters which alter exposure across selected parts of an image (e.g. the sky) in order to control image highlights, neutral density filters which increase exposure requirements for the whole image and polarisers which alter how reflections and skies are rendered in the image. Various coloured filters alter tones in black and white photography and are important to understand for effective black and white visualisation even if applied in post production for digital images.

g) Image shape. The act of pointing a camera upwards or downwards changes the shape of the image (it distorts) because the film plane has changed relative to the subject. Lines that were parallel are no longer parallel. Imagine a slide or movie projected onto a white screen. If the screen is perfectly parallel to the projector the image shape is the same as the intended aspect ratio. If part of the screen is closer to the projector, the image shape changes. Again a view camera with rear (film/sensor) movements and/or front rise or fall can control this shape for exampe to correct converging verticals or to loom (magnify) the foreground relative to the top of the image (or visa versa). For a view camera user, image shape choices are also part of the image construction and visualisation process.

Not every visualisation considers all these five elements explicitly but not considering them is still making an active choice.

Visualisation is at the heart of the creative process - for any given subject there are theortically many hundreds of different potential pictures possible. The question is what is the best visualisation to execute? Here are some of my learnings on this subject over the last 20 years or so of active photography.

1. Take the training wheels off in your approach to composition

In other words treat composition as a process of construction not a process of fitting the world into a preconceived standard pattern or rule.

Making independent compositions is one area that beginners to photography find most challenging. The first mistake is to seek to repeat the compositions of other photographers or famous pictures in famous locations. This teaches one nothing and is shallow, akin to trophey hunting or painting by numbers.

Going beyond this, the first important step is to recognise that any successful composition has an abstract pattern in the arrangement of the elements and that pattern can be transposed to compose another scene. Over time a photographer that can think abstractly collects a number of successful compositional patterns they can deploy to visualise a new image. This is the origin of the so called rules of composition - they are attempts to fit an image into a preconcieved pattern. The so called rules however only account for 1% of the art of the possible when it comes to image creativity using compositional patterns. And they by definition of being rules preclude the other 99%.

I would argue even force fitting patterns is still mechanical, limiting and misses the point of what it is possible to do with composition. I see composition as a process of constructing relationships, flow and balance. At its simplest one important element is placed in the frame. Anywhere. It doesn't matter. Then other elements are arranged around it in such a way that the overall image is balanced (in terms of objects, colours and tones) and has flow (the eye moves around the image sustaining interest in the picture - 'the eye goes on a dance around the image' as my photographic teacher and mentor once said). This can be understood by taking some different coloured pens, drawing a frame on paper, placing a random first object inside the frame (random colour, size, shape). And then adding elements that make and keep the image balanced.

Thinking of composition as a process of construction to create balance, relationship and flow is liberating and transformational. There are an infinite number of possible effective compositions for any subject. Some simple. Some complex. The question is what element do you select first to start the process of composition (and why) and how should you arrange the other elements in the frame to create balance and flow.

It also raises the interesting question, just how many of the elements (when it comes to realising a visualisation) can you control? You can control the camera and lens, the camera position, the time of the day, possibly the time of the year and by looking at the forecast to some extent the weather. But what else? Take a look at the work of Gregory Crewdson and think again about precision and control.

2. Iterate to the answer(s)

I carry a viewfinder in the field because I find it helps me to consider all the possibilities when evaluating a scene. It helps me imagine one particular visualisation and to evaluate it. Good visualisation has a feedback loop of improvement - what can be added, what can be removed, what can be changed and how. Getting to a 'right' answer usually needs more than one go at a subject, either over a session or over more than one session. Repetition (returning to a location, subject or scene more than once or many times) is key to making strong images.

3. Move your position, don't stand in one place and 'zoom'.

One of the reasons I carry a small number of fixed focal length lenses is because zoom lenses seem to anchor one's feet to the ground. Good composition is about changing and selecting the relationship between foregroud, mid distance and background elements by moving the camera (forwards, backwards, sideways or higher/lower) for a given field of view or focal length. Having no more than four or five choices of focal length for me massively simplifies the process of construction.

4. Scouting is as important as making images

So many of my best pictures happen because I or others I know have first scouted a location. That scouting might have generated a full visualisation that implies a particular combination of lighting and conditions could be good and therefore returning in such a circumstance is required. Or it might simply reveal there is a rich seam of potential images possible given certain conditions, time of the day or time of the year. Either way, scouting combined with effective visualisation is well more than half the battle.

5. Locations and subjects can be 'mined' for fresh images

Don't stop at one strong image from a location or don't be put off from inventing a new image because a famous photographer has solved the location in one particular way. I would argue that very few locations are incapable of being mined for fresh images if one's imagination is sufficiently well developed. Unless it is a concrete car park in a national park offering only a viewpoint of a distant mountain!
‘Buttemere towards Honister Pass’

6. Depth

Photographic pictures are two dimensional creations. We see the world in three dimensions. Therefore one important part of successful visualisation is finding ways of creating the illusion of depth. There are many ways to do this. Constructing a clear relationship between foreground, midground and background elements is one allowing the eye to be 'moved' from front to back to front around the image.
Another approch is to use limited depth of field to make some elements stand out from others. Lighting also helps to create depth, especially via shadows.

7. Read and react to the conditions
It is important not to get overly fixed in your visualisations. If the conditions and lighting are not suitable for one visualisation, invent another one. ‘Other subjects and compositions are available’ as another of my mentors keeps repeating. One important skill is to learn to anticipate how the light and conditions will change and get ahead of the game. If you are constantly reacting last minute to conditions and light, composition tends to go out of the window.