Everything on Earth started as an idea in someone's head. Without ideas and imagination, we'd have nothing.
The same applies to art and photography for exactly the same reason. (Nature may represent God's imagination, but that's a different discussion.)
Shit happens, but art must be created.
The most critical thing about photography is to envision the final result in your mind's eye before you snap a shutter. This is called previsualization. If you know what you want, you can change things while you're still doing them to ensure you get what you want.
It took me 15 years to learn this, and the past 20 since then have been the only ones in which I've been making good photos. Too many people reading up on photo gear on the Internet are falling into the same trap I did for 15 years (see Photography is not a Spectator Sport).
There are two types of previsualization. I use the same word for each of them. Photographers usually use previsualization to refer to imagining the final result, be it a print, a transparency or online, and applying whatever techniques are required to create that previsualized result from the conditions at hand. I'm also referring to previsualization more broadly when we talk about the paths our travel, our lives and our art take.
Previsualization is critical because it is what guides your photographic process towards the final result. Too many beginning photographers have no idea of what final result they want, and spend decades, as I did, chasing clichés and trying to duplicate other peoples' photos.
Even a blind pig occasionally finds an acorn. Shotgun photography (shooting everything and hoping to sort it out later) sometimes yields a great photo. Many more great photos come from paying deliberate attention. There's an old wives' tale about pro photographers getting good shots because they take so many and cherry pick. Not true. The very best commercial photographers impress me when they spend an hour setting up, and have the confidence and experience to make just one shot and know they got what they want.
I love shooting everything in sight with a digital camera, but I get a much higher percentage of keepers with my 4x5" view camera. This is because the 4x5" forces me to pay attention. If I can't create a powerful composition on the ground glass, I don't waste film on it, or even set up the camera. With film I do a lot of my editing before I press the button.
A key differentiator of what leads to great photos is people's ability to imagine what they want. It's the same in life: people who know what they want naturally gravitate towards things that get them there. People without a clue spend their lives running in circles.
I love wild colors, and naturally point myself and my camera to places and situations which have wild colors. That's the larger type of previsualization, and that's what gets me to the woods in the fall.
The more local and usual sense of previsualization is when you get someplace and start looking around for good photos. Once you see your scene, you must be able to imagine the final result, and apply whatever techniques necessary to get your result.
It doesn't matter how you get your result, because whatever you do will be guided by the image you see in your imagination. It doesn't matter if you use film or digital, jpg or TIFF, Nikon or Holga, oils or watercolor or painting or sculpture so long as you can see the picture in your mind's eye of what you're trying to achieve. The details will work themselves out as you experiment and find the best ways to get what you want.
This is part of modern exposure. You make a shot, see how it looks, and adjust the exposure compensation accordingly. It doesn't matter what I suggest as a general exposure compensation setting in a camera review so long as you know how you want your images to look and adjust as conditions change.
Getting what you want may require complex technique, but more important and simpler is the idea. Animators may use dozens of layers (foreground, subject, background, sky, etc.) to create what they want. Before they can start creating each layer, they have to imagine what they intend to create and what layers they'll need.
Photography is often finding something cool and taking a picture of it. Previsualization is imagining the final result and taking the steps to get there.
If you follow your imagination you'll do great. If you need to work on your imagination, do so, because no amount of technical prowess can create worthwhile images without it. The only thing that matters is your ability to imagine, or synthesize, what you want. The rest is easy to learn.
Don't let previsualization restrict you. You can't force a photo. It has to come to you, like trying to remember something that just slipped your tongue. You can't start out any day with a deliberate preconceived notion of an exact nature image you hope to create if you haven't toured the landscape yet. You need rough ideas, and these are developed as you hike and see what you see.
Big picture (punny, hee hee) previsualization is to know on a grand scale what you like and want to create, and small scale previsualization is imagining a final work when you come across a scene. You can't force a nature scene to appear based purely on your imagination. You do need to know exactly how to capture it when you come across it, and get yourself to places it's likely to occur.
Don't cripple yourself to any certain kind of image from day to day. My best shots come from going out with no preconceived photos in mind and seeing what happens. Once I see something, then I get into it and start seeing and creating more and more. My favorite ruin photo happened when I took side roads on the way home from Arizona, and then returned to it the next day when the conditions just happened to be good.
If you find this as helpful as a book you might have had to buy or a workshop you may have had to take, feel free to help me continue helping everyone.
Thanks for reading!
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