Previsualization -- Part I

Article and Photography by Ron Bigelow

www.ronbigelow.com

Once, when I was out in the field with my camera, I happened to come across what I like to think of as an "old world" photographer. He was lugging around a seventy-five pound backpack with an 8 x 10 camera and associated accessories. We had both selected the exact same scene for that evening's shoot (I had identified the location earlier in the day and had returned to find him standing exactly where I had intended to set up my equipment). For the next hour and a half, we stood next to each other taking shots of huge waves crashing against massive cliffs. In between shots, we had a very interesting conversation. He knew nothing about digital, and I knew little about 8 x 10 cameras, so we educated each other. Not only did I listen to his words, but also closely watched his actions. I watched how he carefully studied and selected his composition. I saw how he meticulously analyzed the light and dynamic range with a spot meter. He spent a considerable amount of time looking, thinking, and adjusting before he was ready to press the shutter button. He explained how he had to be very painstaking because every shot cost him thirteen dollars in film and processing. As he prepared to leave, he mentioned that he had taken a mere two shots. As he slowly walked away with that heavy backpack, I couldn't help thinking of some of the extraordinary images that I have seen from various large format photographers. It was obvious to me that much of what I admired in their images had nothing to do with the very high resolution that their equipment produced. Rather, it had everything to do with the time that they put into each image. The observing, thinking, and preparation that occurred before they fired their first shot.

On another occasion, I was in the company of an individual who had the most modern digital equipment. We had gotten up early in order to catch the morning light. Unfortunately, the light was not what had been desired. Realizing that we were not going to get any good morning shots, I suggested that we scout out locations for the evening shoot. Later that morning, I had only a few test shots that had been taken to check out some light conditions. I intended to delete all of the images before I started any serious shooting. At that point, the other photographer turned to me and stated that he had taken 265 images that morning and was concerned that he would not have enough memory for the rest of the day.

The differences between these two photographers are striking. The one slow and meticulous. The other with an auto focus, auto exposure, auto white balance camera that was treated as if it were descended from a long line of machine guns. As I observe other photographers, I see this issue repeatedly. It is not those photographers with the latest, most expensive equipment, or even the most experience, that get the best shots. Rather, it is those photographers that take the time to think through and set up their shots that produce the most striking images.

That brings us to the topic of this article: previsualization. Previsualization is the act of looking at a scene and imagining what the image will look like in its final format (e.g., in a print) and all of the steps that the image will need to go through to produce that final image. That previsualization will then drive how the image is shot and processed from the time the shutter is pressed until the time the image is finalized. Previsualization forces a photographer to slow down and think through the entire process of producing a final image. This is critical because the desired end result of an image, and the way that it must be processed to meet that end, determine the best way for the image to be shot.

In a nutshell, previsualization can significantly improve the quality of one's images. The purpose of this article is to describe the previsualization guidelines that I use in my photography and to give an example of how previsualization was used to produce a fine art image.

Most people start the image creation process by taking a shot. Then, when they get home, they figure out how to edit the image. Next, they figure out how to best print the image. Lastly, they show the image to their friends to see what kind of reaction they get. Previsualization is basically reverse photography. My version of previsualization follows a step-by-step process in reverse:

Emotion: It starts off with deciding what emotional reaction I want the image to elicit from a viewer.

Appearance of the final image: Knowing the desired reaction to the image allows me to visualize how the final image will look.

Materials: Knowing how I want the final image to look allows me to decide what materials will be used to create the visualized image.

Editing: Knowing the final look of the image and the materials that will be used allows me to determine the best way to edit the image.

Optimal method of shooting: Knowing how I will edit the image allows me to determine the optimal method for shooting.

The Image

The image in Figure 1 was shot utilizing this previsualization technique. This image was shot at Tuolumne Meadow, which is Part of Yosemite National Park. The meadow is located just north of Yosemite Valley. The image was shot in spring just one day after the area was opened by the Park Service after a winter of very heavy snowfall. The meadow was flooded with snow pack run off, and the weather was cold and damp as a storm front continuously threatened to drop more snow (as it had in the local mountains the night before).

Figure 1: Tuolumne Meadow

Previsualization: Emotion

The most important rule that I have every learned about photography came from reading Galen Rowell's writings:

All great photography is about communicating an emotion.

If a scene does not stir an emotion in a photographer, an image of that scene will be powerless to do so in a viewer of the image. Therefore, my previsualization technique starts with what I consider the most important part of photography -- the emotion that a scene communicates. I look for scenes that create an emotional reaction in me. I have found that photographs created from such scenes almost always result in powerful images. On the other hand, in those cases where I tried to create an image despite the fact that the emotional reaction was lacking have virtually always resulted in disappointment.

When I saw this scene, the emotional impact was immediate. I knew the instant that I saw this scene that I had found that for which I was looking. The overall feeling was one of grandeur, drama, and contrast. The grandeur was one largely communicated by size: the size of the flooded meadow stretching into a snowy mountain range in the distance. The drama and contrast were interrelated and were communicated primarily by the reflections of the clouds in the flooded meadow (the intense dark/light contrast of the clouds giving foreboding warning of a possible storm). The contrast was further enhanced by the light that occasionally peeked through the clouds to illuminate portions of the otherwise dimly lit distant rock and mountains.

It was clear to me that I had to capture the sense of size/distance of the scene, the drama of the clouds, and the contrast of the peek-a-boo light on the rock and mountains. These were the aspects of the scene that created its emotion -- its power.

Previsualization: Appearance of the Final Image

It was obvious from the beginning that this image was destined for a fine art print. Therefore, in my mind's eye, I saw a fine art print with the flooded meadow and the cloud reflections dominating the image. I wanted to compose the shot so that the trees formed dark, fairly symmetrical wedges coming in from each side and joining at the middle. I also wanted some light piercing through the clouds and illuminating the rock or mountains. Lastly, I visualized an image that had a few blades of grass sticking up out of the water so that it would be obvious that this was a shallow body of water. In other words, I visualized an image just like the one in Figure 1.

Previsualization: Materials

The fact that the image was destined for a fine art print combined with the fact that the image needed to convey a sense of size dictated that the image be printed at the largest size of which my printer was capable (13" x 19"). A paper was needed that had very good contrast and would convey the crisp feel of the scene. It was quickly decided that a premium luster paper was the best choice.

Previsualization: Editing

Since this was to be a fine art print, image quality was a primary concern. This dictated that the editing methods be chosen for their ability to produce high quality images. In turn, this required that the image be processed as a raw file. Several raw converters were considered. The one that produced the highest image resolution was chosen. It was further decided that the image would be at least partially edited in the raw converter (since that causes less image degradation than editing in an image editing program). The image would be converted into a sixteen bit file and any editing performed in the image editing program would be performed in this high bit space. All editing would be performed on layers to further reduce image degradation.

Previsualization: Optimal Methods of Shooting

There are many aspects to choosing the best approach to shooting an image. Each aspect considered with this image is covered below.

Lens: Since the grandeur of the scene, as conveyed by the size/distance, had already been determined to be a very important part of the emotional impact of this scene, a wide angle lens was chosen for its ability to capture a large area of the scene. Also, wide angle lenses tend to emphasize the foreground. This was ideal for capturing the clouds in the foreground and lending them an air of dominance. A lens with a longer focal length would have weakened the importance of the clouds by making them appear smaller and less dramatic.

Position: The camera was set right at the edge of the water and as low to the ground as possible. This was done to bring the cloud reflections as close to the lens as was feasible. This worked extremely well with the wide angle lens' tendency to emphasize close objects, thus, making the clouds even more dominant.

Tripod/Shutter Release/Level/Mirror Lockup: In order to produce the highest quality fine art image, a tripod was utilized. A shutter release was also chosen to minimize camera shake during exposure. It was decided to use a bubble level to insure that the camera was level. This would reduce the possibility that the image would have to be leveled in the image editing program (leveling in an image editing program introduces some image degradation and requires subsequent cropping which throws away pixels). The mirror lockup was activated to eliminate vibration due to the mirror's movement during shutter release.

Exposure: Since maximum quality was required, it was determined that the exposure of the image would need to be maximized (see article titled Exposure). This would boost the signal-to-noise ratio and increase the number of tones in the image. Both of these would increase image quality.

ISO: A low ISO was selected for image quality reasons.

Aperture: A large depth of field was required to help emphasize the distances in the image. However, the smallest aperture on the lens (i.e., f22) tends to produce a soft image. The larger apertures do not yield the desired depth-of-field. An aperture of f16 was selected. This aperture was a good compromise; it has a large depth of field but is sharper than f22.

Shutter Speed: There was a potential problem with the cloud reflections. What appears as a nice reflection to the human eye will appear as a jagged, broken up reflection if a shutter speed that is too fast is chosen. To ensure a smooth reflection that shows the details of the clouds rather than minor ripples on the surface of the water, an exposure of half a second was dialed in.

Neutral Density Filter: This presented a problem. Even with a low ISO and a fairly small aperture, the half second exposure would cause an overexposed image. It had already been determined that an aperture of f16 and an exposure of half a second would be used. Yet, these settings did not match the light conditions. This was easily solved by placing a variable neutral density filter on the lens. The filter was simply adjusted until the amount of light entering the lens perfectly matched the exposure settings. In other words, the exposure was dialed in with the variable neutral density filter.

Light: The overall light conditions were those of very heavy overcast and had to be taken as is. However, it was decided that the image would be substantially improved if the shot were taken when the sun managed to break through a spot in the clouds and illuminated the rock or mountains. Thus, it was determined that the shot would have to wait for the proper lighting conditions.

Dynamic Range: Dynamic range was a concern. Normally, heavy overcast produces very low contrast scenes with a small dynamic range. However, in this case, on one end of the dynamic range, the image contained dark trees along the far end of the meadow. On the other end of the dynamic range, it was hoped that a bright beam of light would pierce through the clouds and illuminate the middle or background -- possibly illuminating the snow. It was not certain if this would exceed the dynamic range of the camera. Test shots were run during times when the sun temporarily broke through the clouds in order to determine if multiple exposures would be required to capture the entire dynamic range of the scene. The test shots showed that, even when the light broke through the clouds, the camera was easily able to capture the dynamic range of the entire scene. Thus, multiple exposures were not used.

Focus Point: The scene was carefully analyzed to determine the focus point. It was desired to have as much of the scene in focus as possible. However, it was realized that the scene stretched from only inches in front of the camera to the infinity point. Not all of the scene could be in perfect focus. It was decided that the line of trees and the rock mass on the left side of the image were major components of the image and needed to be sharp. On the other hand, the reflections in the water would never by crystal sharp anyway since the water surface was not perfectly smooth. In addition, the distant mountains would never be razor sharp since there was a huge amount of moisture in the air that would reduce the sharpness of distant objects. Consequently, it was decided to focus on the water a short ways in front of the trees. This focus point combined with the relatively small aperture and other conditions covered in this paragraph gave a reasonable sharpness for the stated scene and conditions.

Wind: The wind was a major factor. It came and went causing the reflections on the water surface to vary from relatively smooth to totally unrecognizable. The shot would have to wait for calm wind conditions in order to get the desired image.

Multiple Shots: The eye is not always a good predictor of whether the water surface is calm enough to produce good reflections in an image. So, it was decided that multiple shots would be taken over a period of time in order to increase the chances of getting at least one shot that had excellent reflections.

Time to Wait, and Wait, and Wait Some More

At this point, the look of the final image was known fairly precisely, the details of the shot had been determined, and the camera had been set up with the proper composition and camera settings. The problem was that the light needed to break through a spot in the clouds, and the wind needed to be calm so that the water surface would produce good reflections -- and this all had to occur at the exact same time. This required patience. So, I sat down in a folding chair at the edge of the water in the very damp, cold weather and spent two quality hours becoming acquainted with the Yosemite mosquitoes. About an hour and a half into the wait (as I was just about to doze off), I glanced up and saw a beam of light just starting to illuminate the rock mass. I jumped up, ran to the camera, and took about three quick shots. Then, as quickly as it had come, it was gone. I waited another half hour, but the light never produced as dramatic of a scene again. It didn't matter; I knew that I had my shot. As the light began to disappear, I packed up my gear and headed back to my car -- what a great first day of shooting in Yosemite National park.

How Long Does It Take

This process can take me anywhere from a few minutes to an hour or more depending on the scene. However, as far as I am concerned, the question is irrelevant! What would you think of a person that looked at the Mona Lisa and thought, " Okay, but wasn't that a lot of work".

This Doesn't Work With My Type of Photography

I am sure someone is thinking, "I shoot sports or action photography. You can't use previsualization with these types of photography. The action happens too fast". Yes, you can. I recently read an article about one of the world's top sports photographers. He goes into the stadium long before the game starts. He visualizes what action he wants to capture. He makes decisions about what camera locations and equipment (e.g., lenses) will help him capture the action. He puts the cameras in place and adjusts the settings. Once all of the equipment has been tested, he waits for the game to start. In other words, he previsualizes what action he wants to capture and how he wants the images to look. He analyzes the environment to determine how to best set up his equipment to capture the images that he has in mind. Lastly, he sets up his equipment, ahead of time, based on his analysis. This is a great example of the use of previsualization.

Another article described a photographer who specializes in photographing mountain climbing expeditions. He explained how he formed an image in his mind that he wanted to capture. He studied the cliffs that the group was climbing and the lighting conditions, chose his equipment, climbed ahead of the rest of the climbers, chose a position from which to shoot, set up his equipment, and waited (while dangling from the climbing ropes) until one of the climbers reached the position for which the photographer had set up. The photographer got his shot. This is another great example of previsualization.

Both of these photographers used previsualization to capture the images they wanted. Their approaches may differ somewhat from mine (I got to sit in a lawn chair instead of dangling from a rope thousands of feet up the side of a cliff). Yet, that is one of the beauties of previsualization -- it can be adapted to the specific needs of different photographers.

Previsualization and its Place

Of course, I am not saying that all shots need to be previsualized. Sometimes, auto focus, auto exposure, and auto white balance are really neat. On the other hand, there are times when we want the very best that we, as photographers, are capable. For this, previsualization is one of the tools that we should have at our disposal.

Part II of this article will take previsualization to the next level

Articles

Previsualization -- Part II