Would we approach creating a novel by just writing thousands of random words? Then read those words hoping to find a story. Yet photographers taking lots of random photographs, hoping to find a good one during editing are taking that gamble. Think and edit first, shoot later; is a winning formula because you replace luck with intelligence. it forces you to take less images, but high-quality images. Photography previsualization is imagining the final photograph in your mind first, before touching the camera. Taking the photograph in your mind then factoring in the Photoshop transformations. This allows you to decide at the camera, if the scene could become a good photograph. Previsualization differentiates the professional photographer, makes you use your time efficiently by not taking photographs you end up not wanting, while helping you see potential in scenes that you would otherwise have dismissed and not taken in the first place.
Photography previsualization is both the starting point and foundation for creating photographs with quality because you now create photographs with a clear idea, a purpose and plan of action. Clarity that will then be communicated throughout production into your final photograph and finally being communicated to the viewer. Equally, lack of clarity can also be communicated to the viewer; resulting in confused images. Clarity of idea is the essential quality of all good art and photography; the very reason for the photograph to exist; to communicate something of value. All photographs, like books, need purpose; a story, a journey, an adventure, with a feeling of reward afterwards. The photograph is a visual story or statement just in a different media, using different skills. We need to think of each photograph that we take as a single, self-contained story, then learn the visual skills to communicate good stories with clarity, speed and purpose.
For photographs to communicate extremely well, there are a few fundamental principles we must first understand, then employ. First, keep all compositions simple. Everything in a photograph either works for the image or against the image; even the details have no neutral content. Compose the photograph with only relevant content that adds to your story, then crop out all irrelevant content that detracts. Think of the photograph as a game of visual ‘Jango’ – just before the story falls apart, not enough relevant content to tell your story, is your most efficient composition. Simple compositions have less information to communicate; so, what they do contain, they communicate faster. Simple compositions grab viewers’ attention; strength through minimalism, less is more. However, clarity comes not only from what content is kept, but how that content is composed in the camera then treated in post-processing, Photoshop retouching.
Think of creating photographs like being the director of a theatrical stage play. The stage is filled with people. No-one knows who the lead or secondary actors are, nor the supporting cast. There is no order, no logic, no performance, just chaos. As director your job is to take control and turn chaos into order to deliver a polished, cohesive performance the audience understand. You order everyone to the back of the stage, bringing the actors forward in order of importance and position them perfectly on stage, starting with the lead actor then secondary actors and finally, supporting cast. You position your actors in front of a stage backdrop to help give the play context and light the performers with stage lighting that dictates the mood, atmosphere and drama. Everything working in cohesive harmony to deliver a polished performance, every element choreographed to enhance the experience and deliver a rewarding, quality experience.
Likewise, when creating a photograph, we must nominate our single lead actor and main hero first; our main subject and focal point of our photograph. Everything else in the photograph is only there to enhance our hero’s performance. Everything else is strictly supporting cast only; objects that help support the story but not the main feature. The distant landscape being the stage backdrop setting the context, the geographic signature of your photograph. The spotlight must always be kept on your hero at all times, the supporting cast must not be bold enough to create competition or worse still; create confusion about the lead actor. The sky, clouds and the light set the photographs mood, atmosphere and drama. The value and power of selecting the correct sky and clouds is vastly underestimated in photography; it is the stage lighting that sets the whole tone of the story and focuses our main hero, the ambiance of the image.
Photography previsualization has helped use first crystallize our idea and then helped use edit the composition at the camera for maximum efficiency. We can now use Photography previsualization to help production. Because we can imagine the final image we want in our mind, this mental image gives us a good idea of the digital assets we need to capture to create the photograph we imagine. We view the scene from two perspectives; technical and artistic assets. Technical assets provide technical perfection in the print, artistic assets are where the light falls on different subjects in the landscape at different times. It is extremely unlikely the light will strike everywhere you wish, at one time so you can capture it all in one frame. Photography previsualization gives us the ability to create a plan-of-action that breaks down the capture problem into small, logical solutions so we return home with all the individual digital assets we require.
We create two mental shopping lists and update those lists while we capture all the digital assets. One list of assets we have captured and one list of assets we still need to capture. As shooting progresses, we imagine the final photograph we could create based only on the digital assets we know we have already captured. Assets we are confident of having, we do not waste further time on repeating; investing our time on capturing the assets not yet achieved – then update our shopping list accordingly until the ‘to do’ list is fully complete; we have all the digital assets we require to create the photograph we imagine. Often, lucky surprises happen, so we must also be opportunists and capture any unexpected subject, light or weather situations and changes that we had not foreseen. No matter what photograph you would like to create, you can only create the final photograph based on the digital assets you have captured.
We previsualize the scene as the final print, meaning after all the post-processing, so we have to factor in the creative adjustments of the Photoshop retouching stage; while at the camera in order to understand the full creative potential of what the image could become. We judge ‘what it could become’ not ‘what it is now’; not what we see in front of us in a literal way. The scene is only the raw material; our starting point for the final photograph. Many images that ended up beautiful, fine art photographs were not obvious that way, to me behind the camera. Their potential was, but not the literal view; as my before and after Photoshop retouching examples illustrate. Finally, imagine the final photograph you previsualize on a gallery wall. Imagine visitors take great delight in finding fault. What would their comments be? Would you buy the print? Try to be impartial and self-critical, certainly don’t allow excuses to justify things you really don’t like.
David Osborn | Professional Photographer, London, 2020