The past half-dozen or so Friday Foto Talks have focused on landscape photography. The topic of this one, pre-visualization applies to all photography. But it’s become apparent to me that many photography “experts” believe pre-visualization is critical when making landscape images. That triggered my always-ready skepticism, so I thought I’d examine this assumption with a critical eye. Is it really possible that, at least with respect to pre-visualization, I’ve been doing landscape photography wrong all this time? (In general I don’t pre-visualize my images.)
What exactly is pre-visualization? In order to distinguish it from visualization (the subject of next Friday’s post), I’m defining it the following way: Before you’re out shooting, imagine in your mind the way you’d like an image to look. You’re starting to pre-visualize. Going further, you imagine the place and subject, the composition, all the supporting elements and even the light that makes the image look perfect. In short, everything about it. You also make the necessary plans to execute that image, including when and how to get there, where exactly to stand, etc. You may even imagine all the praise you’ll get, but that’s a different topic!
Problems with Pre-Visualization
With landscape photography, I sometimes pre-visualize when I’m making a repeat visit to a place, rarely on a first visit. But here’s the kicker: I mostly don’t get the precise image I’ve visualized. Often I don’t even come close. Does that mean I fail at getting successful landscape images? Only you the viewers can judge, but in order to keep going I assume the answer is no. Instead of getting discouraged, I recognize there are far too many variables at work for me to consistently realize my imagined images. Light is the obvious one, but access and other compositional restrictions, unexpected extra elements, even the exact mood (both of you and the time/place) all come into play, most of the time ruining our best-laid plans.
THE NEED FOR FLEXIBILITY
To be a photographer is not to always stick to your plan; it’s to be ready at a moment’s notice to enact plan B (or plan C). It’s to be almost hyper-aware of your surroundings, observing the changing weather, light and other conditions, and to adapt, making the most of what you’re given. You could lay out a pre-visualized plan and stick around until all the light and other variables cooperate. But the time and patience required for that is not very practical, at least for the majority of us.
Sure, the occasional image might be important enough to you, so go ahead and do it. Or if you’re shooting architecture, portraits, or some other type of photography with more easily controlled variables, then pre-visualization can work without great amounts of extra patience and time. But your usual mode of operation for landscape and nature photography should be much more flexible and open-minded.
Changing variables and the need for flexibility is only the most obvious reason to take pre-visualization with a grain of salt. Isn’t it possible that many of our pre-visualized images are influenced by images we’ve seen online, even down to the exact place and composition? I think so. This is perfectly fine if you’re a tourist or otherwise casual shooter and simply want to take some photos for fun and memories. I was casual about photography for years, so I mean that sincerely!
If you’re more serious about photography and want to develop a style all your own, if you view your photography as artistic expression, it’s extremely important to avoid influences that could lead you to capture too many images that are derivative in nature, simple replications of the photography of others.
When & Why to Pre-Visualize
Despite these downsides and cautions, I believe there is a place for pre-visualization. For one thing, pre-visualization helps to develop at least a preliminary plan. And it even works sometimes, with some luck. I’ve posted the image at bottom before. I’m posting it again because it’s the most recent successful image that I deliberately pre-visualized before arriving at the location. But it’s the exception. Most of my successful landscape images were not explicitly pre-visualized. However, this doesn’t mean visualization was not involved (see below).
The most important reason to engage in at least occasional pre-visualization is that it can help you to be more conscious about your photography. Consciously thinking about your pictures before you go out shooting leads to more subconscious pre-visualization, tapping into your creativity. Going further, the practice of pre-visualization (either consciously or subconsciously) can lead to a greater amount of visualization, which is done while out shooting. Next time we’ll examine these things in more depth, specifically visualization and its role in making good photographs. Thanks for reading and have a great weekend!