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Pre-visualising Photographs

by Editor Peter Walmsley

As a serious travel photographer, how often do you turn up in a location, expect to get some great shots and come away disappointed? As serious travel photographers, we know to do our homework: to research the places we’re going to visit beforehand and have in mind a series of shots we want to try. And for sure this pre-visualisation of the images we want to capture can make a huge improvement to our photography; save a lot of time avoiding the standard locations; avoiding the locations which have already been covered, which are inaccessible or simply don’t work as well as giving a sense of purpose to the visit; and generating new ideas.

What is pre-visualisation?
Ansel Adams is often quoted as saying “Visualization is the single most important factor in photography” and considers that the creation of a photograph follows four major steps (See Refs. 1 and 2):

  1. Need, or desire to photograph. What is it about the subject which interests you? Travel photographers generally satisfy this step automatically through their interest in cultures other than their own, though this article is not specifically for travel photographers.
  2. Discovery of the subject, or recognition of its essential aspects. This leads to the exploration of the subject and the optimum viewpoint. In some categories of photography such as street photography this stage can only be carried out in situ. In landscape photography, at least part of this stage can be carried out through research before arrival, choosing viewpoints and appropriate times of the day. This is also the stage to introduce creative ideas.
  3. Visualization is the ability to anticipate a finished image before making the exposure. Personally I find that this stage works in tandem with the discovery stage. What message do you want the photograph to deliver? How do you see the elements in the image (informed by the discovery phase) coming together to deliver the message?
  4. Execution. After visualization of the picture has been accomplished the technical craft of photography is applied to make it a reality. Choice of lens, shutter speed, depth of field are all important. But the camera sees very differently from the eye, so you also have to train yourself to see as the camera sees and to know which technicalities to apply.

Pre-visualisation in practice
At one level, the need or desire to photograph something may seem obvious, but I find it helpful to drill down to something specific. If it is travel photography, it generally starts with an image I have in my mind about a place: in Venice: it is gondoliers in straw hats and stripy shirts guiding romantic couples through narrow waterways at dusk; in Washington, it is the Capitol building at night; in Cambodia, it is the Angkor Wat temple complex; India starts with the Taj Mahal but then moves on to bustling street scenes with women in colourful saris. But these are just start points: the motivation for going.

I start the discovery phase with some research. Initially, I just look on the internet and see what others have done. That doesn’t take long as there are a lot of photographs out there, but mostly snapshots. I then move on to sites owned by other photographers and for travel, I have a few favourites, including 1x. These usually provide ideas and some clues on location and best time of day etc. From that information, I then usually compile a more detailed itinerary and shoot list, but this is still only the start point.

For the next stage, you’ve got to go there and see it and feel it for yourself. I get to the locations I’ve planned and check to see if the image in my head can work in practice. This is not about trying to force fit the elements I see in front of me into my pre-conception. That can only lead to disappointment particularly in tourist-filled iconic locations where I tend to find least inspiration and success.

As far as the itinerary allows, I spend time looking around and taking some ‘test’ shots. What are the local compositional elements that will contribute to the story? Does the scene need people and therefore do I need to choose my stage and wait for the right actors to appear? This is where holiday schedules and good photography can diverge. Good imagery needs time and often more than one visit to the same location. Fellow travellers may not have the same interest, so it’s a juggle and getting up at 4am for a blue-hour morning shot whilst everyone else is still in bed, is part of what we do.

The last part, execution may seem the easy bit. I try to go over my settings and equipment choices at least the day before a shoot both in my mind and as a physical check. For street photography and landscapes, I find that lens choice is determined as much by depth of field required and light availability as by field of view. And I know that at around 50mm focal length or less, reliable, good quality shots in low light need a hand-held shutter speed higher than 1/10s, even if I occasionally succeed at 1/2s. I also know that plain white clouds with no detail always look bland and that blue skies with a wide-angle are going to vary in saturation across the image. And I can see where post processing can pull out shadow detail and increase contrast in highlight detail.

Normally at this point I would look through the 1x gallery for good examples of the pre-visualisation process in practice. But as I cannot know what the 1x photographers had in mind, I can only offer an example of my own. This image, titled ‘Reheat’ has recently been published on 1x.

This image took about 3 years to create. Following the 4 steps:

  1. The desire  to photograph this subject came from a personal interest in flying and fast jets in particular. For me the visual focus of the fast jet is the engine on reheat when fuel is injected into the afterburners to increase power in climbs and turns.
  2. The discovery/recognition  stage considers the essential elements of the image to be a view of the engine with afterburners operating; a steep turn to provide a more dynamic angle to the line of the wings; and damp weather such that condensation forms on the inside of the wings. The background should be a blue sky so that the white condensation stands out, perhaps with a few cumulus clouds to provide interest.
  3. Visualisation  of the image has the jet flying past in a turn with the camera pointing into the engine as it moves away. The wings are at an angle of around 30 degrees to the vertical and the top surface of the wings can be seen so that the condensation stands out and the cockpit is visible. In this attitude, it is a compromise between the view of the engine and a sufficient view of the wing surfaces. Opportunities to practice the shot only occur at a couple of airshows during the year so it’s a slow iteration to reach the ideal.
    A couple of earlier attempts 1, 2 and 3 years of show before are shown in Images 1, 2 and 3 respectively.

  4. Technically, this is a difficult shot to take. First, one has to know where the planes make their turns during a display and get to that position. Next, the planes are moving pretty quickly but I’m still looking for pin-sharp focus. A shutter speed of at least 1/1000s is required at an aperture closed down a couple of stops for maximum sharpness. The distance of the planes means a focal length of at least 400mm and ideally more. On a Nikon 80-400mm f5.6/6.3 lens with 1.4x teleconverter, this means shooting at f11. I don’t shoot at ISO sensitivities greater than 800 as the noise in the sky is too great and with typical UK summer weather, there just wasn’t enough light. Exposure needs to be for the light on the plane, not the sky but any cloud detail needs to be retained too.

To overcome the lack of light, I had to move to a more expensive solution and used the large Nikon 600mm f4 lens with the 1.4x teleconverter to give 840mm focal length at f8 and (on this occasion) ISO640. A one and a half stop improvement may not sound much but it made all the difference in keeping the shutter speed up at a low enough ISO. Practice with panning and single-shot autofocus setting complete the technique together with several attempts at each pass. The chance of getting both a damp day and blue skies was increased by attending the show on multiple days.

In this example, my post processing increases the amount of detail captured, not just in the plane itself but in the wig-tip smoke. Some local burning of shadow areas add a little more directional lighting from the left and, as I didn’t have the luxury of a blue sky, application of a split blue-yellow colour temperature grad top and bottom. I still would have liked a little more visibility of the cockpit, but I’m happy for now.


The Ansel Adams Gallery:


Very interesting & educative article. Thanks Peter and Yvette as well.....
Most interesting article, Peter! Thanksf for sharing with the 1x community. Cheers, Yvette