Learning to Visualize

The first step to any photograph is Visualization. This is the way a photographer sees the scene in front and composes a final print even before pressing the shutter release button. Visualization is one third of photography, the remaining two thirds cover up everything from camera settings to post-processing and the final print.

“The term visualization refers to the entire emotional-mental process of creating a photograph, and as such, it is one of the most important concepts in photography.” – Ansel Adams

Visualization is essential for photography. It is the only factor that contributes to such an extent that it can make or break the impact of a photograph. Visualization is also called as seeing photographically or simply the art of seeing by many photographers. Visualization is the awareness of ones surroundings, the continuous change that is happening as well as a vision of the final photograph.


Palm leaves which were in front of me

(Palm leaves which were in front of me when I visualized the following photograph)

Palm Leaf

(B&W image of a palm leaf as I had initially visualized it)

I have been using various ways to develop my visualization skills. Here is a short guide for learning to see and for becoming aware of the compositions.


What attracts me to the subject?

When I see a scene in front of me, I try to analyze as to what attracts me to it.

When I first visited Taj Mahal at Agra, India, with my camera, I was flabbergasted and deeply moved by it. I had seen hundreds if not more, of its photographs but visiting the real thing was an entirely different experience. What was it that impressed me? I sat back on a bench in front of the Taj Mahal and analyzed the scene. It was the size and the monument and its grandeur that had moved me. The sky was nondescript, the weather was slightly warm and a bit uncomfortable, the foreground had green lawns but nothing special. The stories behind its construction and love were even worse. What had made me gape in awe was the monument in itself and the brilliance and opulence that the white marble reeked off. This was what the photographs of the Taj should convey to make them strong.

I visited a century old house and I was immediately attracted to it. I tried to understand what had attracted me. The way of living and the old furniture had me spell-bound. The wooden ceiling interested me as did the large windows with the view of the hills outside them. I then captured some photographs based on what had actually moved me.

What attracts your attention to anything interesting should be analyzed. Is it the contrast, colors,  texture, subject, some kind of geometry, designs, element of exotic, strangeness, or something else? Whatever it is, becomes your main element. This is what has to be captured in a manner to bring about the same feelings in the viewer as it did to you as a photographer.


How do I see it as a print?

As another step ahead, further analysis is required as to how it’ll look in the final print. Do the colors add something to the impact or are they drawing the attention away from the main element? Will the photograph look good as a black and white? Should you have it as a dark low key or a bright high key photograph? What about the contrast, color saturation and even the overall hue? All these and many more contributing factors should be clear in our minds even before clicking the shutter release button. This is what is the art of visualization. With practice, it happens on its own. Most accomplished photographers do it all the time unknowingly.

When I look around me, I see photographs everywhere. There are panoramas as well as macros. I see wide-angle shots of a patch of greens and also the tight crops of some interesting shapes. This is what photography does to you. I am a sane person, but I see photographs waiting to be captured everywhere and I see them how they would appear on the final print. This is the power of visualization.


Learning to see in photograph’s frame and learning to see in B&W

These are two very good aids that can be used initially to strengthen your visualization skills:

Composition Frame or Cutout Card – It is a simple card made out of plastic or cardboard with a rectangular cutout in the center, corresponding the film/sensor ratio. Looking through it at a scene gives a feeling of proper framing without even taking out the camera. Ideally it should be at least 8-10 inches in size with a thick frame and dark in color so that it can be held at a decent distance from our eyes. Too small a size can be difficult to use because of the way our eyes focus. I use a blank transparency (35mm slide) mount, which is actually smaller than what I recommend. This however is quite small and so I can carry it around in my wallet. Even when I am without a camera, waiting in some government office, I take it out and start visualizing photographs around me. The looks that the office workers give me is another matter.

Red Filter – Purchase an inexpensive deep dark red filter. There are different name and numbers given by filter manufacturers but at the end they do the same thing. Use it as a visualization aid rather than as a filter for your lens. For a few seconds whenever the dark red filter is raised to the eye level, the scene appears in monochrome. This can help you develop your visualization of black and white photographs. Learning to see in Black & White helps in developing visualization skills that shows up in all kinds of photography. So even if you don’t plan to do Black and White photography, learn to see in monochrome.


Old Arches - Mystery and Intrigue

(Old Arches – These appear full of mystery and intrigue due to a low key exposure and a slight shift of my position to my left. Had I clicked the arches from the front, the drama and the unknown feeling behind the last arch would have ended. The texture of the stones adds further impact to the composition)


Tips for strengthening your visualization skills

Prime Lens – Use a prime lens on your camera and do not change it. After a few thousand photographs move to another completely different focal length. If you are using a zoom lens, learn to avoid using the zoom function and instead move around for composing your frame. (Prime Lens or Zoom Lens?)

Practice – Try to see photographs around you in your mind whenever you have free time (waiting for bus or flight, standing in a que, traveling to some place etc.). Think of how you would photograph the scene. What kind of lens, which angle, how much of the frame, aperture and shutter speed combinations! Go all the way in your mind to the post-processing stage and imagine the steps that will have to be done then.

Do not pick your camera for sometime – If you feel that you have been photographing a lot but the images are still not upto the mark, then it is time to take a small break. This may sound weird but it actually works. Do not pick up your camera for sometime. Just go around observing things. See the relationships between different objects, study the light, feel the textures. Do not pick up your camera though. Do not use even your mobile phone camera. This break from photography has worked wonders for many photographers, who after a couple of weeks started visualizing photographs.

Study Paintings – Go to a museum and study the paintings, see how each and every thing feels cohesive and interacts with its surroundings. The biggest advantage that painters have is that they can make each and every brush stroke count. Everything that is there in the painting is there for a reason. We as photographers also have to understand this and try to bring this into our compositions. (Common Mistakes in Photography)

See the world upside down – Get hold of a view camera if you can that forms an inverted image on ground-glass. Even an old TLR or medium format will do if there is a waist level ground glass screen. Seeing the image upside down does away with our preconceived ideas of the world around us. The image on the ground glass looks very different and makes our mind consciously focus on each and every element. This is again an easy way to train your mind to visualize photographs.


“The photographer’s most important and likewise most difficult task is not learning to manage his camera, or to develop, or to print. It is learning to see photographically – that is, learning to see his subject matter in terms of the capacities of his tools and processes, so that he can instantaneously translate the elements and values in a scene before him into the photograph he wants to make.” – Edward Weston


Further Reading:
Story in a Photograph
Stand out from the crowd

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