What the heck is pre-visualization? This term was first popularized in the early 20th century by some of the great landscape photographers shooting their beloved large format view cameras. Changing environmental conditions and the fleeting moment required these photographers to have an exacting knowledge of the behavior and magical alchemy of light, lens, film, filter, process and print. It was always about the print. While setting up and exposing a single sheet of film they knew exactly what the end result would be when they pressed the shutter release.
Many people are familiar with the story behind Ansel Adams’ famous “Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico”. Adams saw the scene, saw the moon and loved the light. Getting out his gear he couldn’t find his light meter but knowing the brightness of the moon he set the exposure on his large format camera accordingly and exposed one of his most beloved photographs. He was a technically experienced photographer and through the process of pre-visualization he knew what he wanted and how to get it.
Some of the most admired and respected photographers in history came from disciplines other than photography. For example, Edward Steichen was trained as a painter, Paul Strand had first been a film maker and of course Henri Cartier-Bresson was a painter and sketch artist. Cartier-Bresson maintained that he never stopped drawing and that his ubiquitous Leica was an instant sketch pad. The point of all this is that these great photographers were visual thinkers, experts in non verbal communication and used the photographic medium to speak their particular language. Their artistic instincts, experience and training prepared them to look at the structure of a scene, the light and geometry and whether or not it was worthwhile pressing the shutter. It’s not an easy thing to do well.
If you find your photographs lacking, spend time looking at and learning from the masters, study the structure of their images, look at their interpretation of light, line, and rhythm. Cross train, pick up a pencil and draw something you see, write, let your creative juices flow.
Next time you start to press the shutter, take a moment to pre-visualize and ask yourself these questions. Does everything inside the frame contribute to the strength of the image? Is there anything I can do differently to improve the light, or geometry of the image? Contemplate what you are trying to say and ask yourself if the image would speak for itself when printed and framed on your wall.