Our friends in Venice told us this was a once in a lifetime sunset and we were fortunate enough to be on a boat in the lagoon when it happened. For me Venice is like a dream, an ancient city floating on the sea, beautiful and unique.
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.
How do you see? What angle of view represents your artistic “vision?” Recently I was having this discussion with some friends and I learned that we, as humans, have a visual field equal to about a 43mm full frame lens. This is why 35mm and 50mm lenses feel so comfortable. However, angle of view does not necessarily equal your artistic sensibilities or best lens option. Then of course, the question becomes, “what is the one lens that represents you”? This got me thinking. Pulling up Lightroom, I performed an experiment.
In Lightroom 5, I clicked on my good file in the left hand column of the “Library” module and placed the images into grid view. A filter menu appeared on top of the grid and I selected “all dates”, “all cameras” and “all lenses.” I wasn’t too surprised by the results. Greater that half of my “keepers” were taken in the 16-35mm focal length. This is how I see. The next block was taken with the 70-200mm and the third largest block with the 50mm prime, then 24mm prime and finally 28mm prime.
Ok, this makes sense since these are the lenses I use most, however I wanted to know more, so selecting “16-35 lens” and switching to the “Develop” module, I was able to look at each individual photograph in this folder, and it’s specific focal length and metadata. I did this by going into the “View” menu and selecting “Loupe Info” and “Show Info Overlay.” This allowed me to have a much closer and detailed look at my images and to my surprise, the majority of the keepers were taken between 18mm and 28mm with very few at the 35mm length.
Even though the 28mm prime was far down on the list, metadata revealed I used the 16-35mm zoom most often at the 28mm focal length. Interesting. It’s a funny thing but I’m reminded of the Robert Capa quote “if your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.” After this little metadata experiment and my realization on how I use focal length, I appreciate his sentiment more and more.
Now the moment of truth, how do I see? What is my best lens for everyday photography and travel? Given a little wiggle room I would answer the 16-35 f/4 VR so all my bases are covered but that isn’t a satisfying response. The one prime focal length I would choose above all others would be a 24mm f/1.4. Why? Being midway between 18-28mm, it’s wide enough to convey strong graphic elements while inviting me to get in close. A 24mm lens has less problems with proportion distortion than wider lenses allowing more intuitive composition, yet it lets me photograph what I see in a spontaneous way. Also, a 24mm is easy to hand hold in low light.
Next time you want to travel light and grab that one lens, what will you choose?