The Importance of Previsualization (2014 Archived Post)

I’ve found previsualization to be one of the most important concepts in making an image, in any genre. Previsualization is defined by Ansel Adams in his book The Camera as “the ability to anticipate a finished image before making the exposure.” Essentially, this means “seeing” the final edited photograph before you shoot it. I believe that every great photographer applies this concept to their photos, and after some time it comes with minimal thinking. Of course, when you first begin to previsualize photographs, you must do so very consciously for some time before it happens naturally.

Previsualization is simple to learn and practice, and there are many different ways to go about it.

Sometimes I see a very interesting and unique spot and think to myself, “This would make an awesome photo if someone would do this trick on it.” At that time, I try to visualize the light, composition, timing of the trick, and so on. I think of the best time of day to use the sun’s natural light, and where to put flashes if necessary. This could be minutes, days, or even years before even shooting the photograph.

Another way, which is often more common, is to take a few minutes at the spot to previsualize before you pull the camera out. If you’re at a spot and want to shoot a photo (or a skater wants you to shoot one), look around. Previsualize by exploring all sorts of different angles and compositions. Walk around with just your eyes at work. Once you’ve found a good angle, think of the lens you’re going to use (fisheye, wide, normal, tele, etc.), think of the depth of field (deep to keep everything in focus or shallow to blur out the background), and think of how to use the light (the best angle for the natural light or where to put the flashes). Once you’ve figured this out, setting up and shooting the photo will yield much better results and do so much more quickly than the photographers who simply walk up, pull out the camera, throw out some flashes, and shoot—constantly switching angles, switching lenses, moving flashes all over, and shouting “wait!” at the skater in frustration.

Jared Martinez – Backside Tailside – Camarillo, 2012

Jared Martinez – Backside Tailside – Camarillo, 2012

The photograph marks one of the first times I successfully previsualized a photograph. I was skating around with my friends at this spot, and I noticed the light was low and it looked beautiful. Before pulling out my camera I took a second to previsualize. I knew a standard focal length would work best to keep a lot of the environment in the frame and I could use a fairly shallow depth of field to give a little extra separation from Jared and the background. The key thing in this photograph was the sun giving a nice rimlight around him, so I thought for a more straight on angle. No flashes were necessary since the background was shaded and was at the same exposure as him.

After figuring this all out in a matter of a minute or two, I brought out the camera, parked myself at the angle I wanted, set the exposure, and had him do a back tail—which is also the trick I’d envisioned. In a matter of a few tries, I got exactly what I wanted and was happy with it.

Previsualization also extends to the final editing of the photograph, and it went without saying that I really wanted to emphasize the gold tone of the sunlight. Knowing what I wanted, versus mindlessly moving around a bunch of sliders around in Lightroom, proved a quick and easy edit job.

Branching out

As I’ve explored shooting things other than skateboarding tricks, I’ve applied previsualization there as well.

In portraits for example: “I want a black and white 6×6 medium format portrait of James after he comes out from the ocean. I want a shallow depth of field to separate him from the background, and I want the low sun to illuminate from the side. I also want it to be natural—the messed up hair and the water still dripping, and to catch one falling if possible.” That quick moment of previsualizing enabled me to quickly get what I wanted, with fewer wasted frames and a higher likelihood of the portrait being as close to natural as possible.

James Martin – Santa Barbara, 2014

James Martin – Santa Barbara, 2014

Another quote from Ansel Adams:

“Visualization is the single most important factor in photography.”