More On Previsualization

Tulip Photo by Scott Bourne

(The featured image for this post is very old. It was shot on film and scanned. It finished second in the National Popular Photography Magazine contest. I used pre-viz to see this image in advance. I used a telephoto lens because I knew it would compress the image and make it appear that the foreground tulips were near the background tulips when in fact they were 100 yards away.)

Learning how to see the final result before you press the shutter is maybe the most important step you can take to mastering photography.

It’s that moment where you grow as a photographer and no longer have to worry whether or not the picture “came out.” Your work becomes deliberate, rather than reactionary. You make pictures, you don’t just take pictures.

When you leave home with your camera in hand, having researched your eventual destination, and can successfully imagine the end result, you are using previsualization. You go out looking for THAT picture. You set out to find THAT image. The one in your mind’s eye.

As Ansel Adams famously said,

“You don’t take a photograph – you make it.”

It all starts in the mind’s eye. Then you can practice some techniques that will improve your ability to “see.”

Start by looking at lots of professionally published photographs. Look at books, calendars, magazines, etc. See what other photographers have seen. Train your eye to go beyond the first reaction to the image and drill down into guessing what lens the photographer might have used. Where was the light? What was its color? What aperture or shutter speed did they use? Train yourself to ask these questions and really LOOK at the pictures. This will help you develop the eye you are looking for.

Then just start shooting with your goals in mind. One thing that trained my eye was shooting panoramas. You have to stitch several pictures together to make the final result. Back in the day, that took a lot more work than it does now, so there’s no excuse not to try it. Almost all modern photo editing software offers a way to easily and automatically stitch images together to form a panoramic image. The reason this is important (within the context of this article) is that the rudimentary skill needed to see which three or four or five, etc. images you need to make to stitch the final result, well that skill is important to developing your mind’s eye.

“A photo is not an accident. . . the machine gun approach to photography is fatal to serious results.”

Ansel Adams.

There are a few steps you can take to improve your previz skills. In addition to looking at lots of published pictures….

1/ Learn all you can about your intended subject
2/ Learn all you can about the environment where you will find your subject
3/ Make sure you know your tools well
4/ Make sure that you are technically proficient so you can devote brain power to actually SEEING instead of fiddling with your camera
5/ Practice often
6/ Try to expand your imagination
7/ Spend time daydreaming about your photography
8/ Try sketching your ideas, even if you cannot draw
9/ If you cannot sketch, try storyboarding
10/ See if you can make your final image using post-processing techniques

If you think of your RAW files as a musical score, and your final picture as the performance of that score, then you are on the right path.

I also have some exercises you might try if you want to expand your ability to SEE an image before you press the shutter button…

Eagle Photo by Scott Bourne
Sometimes, pre-viz can be as simple as shooting a quick burst with your frame rate set as high as the camera will allow it so you can composite three frames together like I did here to tell a story. Previsualization manifests itself in many ways.

Exercise #1

Look at failed images and ask why they failed. Try to previsualize a better version and ask yourself what could be improved.

Exercise #2

Think about a photographic bucket list. If you could only make one more photo before you die, what would you photograph? What’s really important to YOU – not what’s really important to getting more likes on Instagram. Can you see this important thing in your mind without having it in front of you?

Exercise #3

Scout your next photo location like Ansel Adams. Go on a hike WITHOUT your camera. Use only your mind’s eye to see any possible photo compositions without taking any pictures. Do the old-fashioned frame with your hands technique. Take copious notes about everything you see as well as everything you were feeling while scouting, and THEN return with a camera.

Exercise #4

Mine Your Dreams

Keep a piece of paper and a pen by your bed. As soon as you wake up, write down what you dreamt about. Doodle about your dreams. Sketch ideas that come to you. See if there is a photo buried somewhere in there that you can next go seek out and make.

Exercise #5

Feel Your Way To A Photograph

Before thinking about making any particular image, try thinking about the emotional impact that image will have on you and/or the people who see it. Do the same thing while thinking about the psychological impact. Combine different areas of expertise to find new solutions. Throw all that into a vat and let your feelings guide your vision.

Cranes In The Fire Mist Photo by Scott Bourne


The best practical example I can give you of previsualization in my own life is my photo called Cranes in the Fire Mist. You may have heard me talk about it. You may be sick of me talking about it! But if you re-read the story of how I made that image then you can see how all of the above applies.

Previsualization is generally something you take on once you have some serious photography experience. It’s an advanced concept. Don’t worry if you don’t get it right away. But work towards it if you want to really take your photography to the next level.

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