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Previsualization: Taking the Perfect Shot on the First Try

February 19, 2013 by Johnny Dunn

A professional photography workflow often consists of three main components: previsualization, the act of taking the photo, and post-production.

Taking a proper picture requires correct adjusting of the ISO, aperture, shutter speed and other camera settings, while post-production involves everything that you do to a photo in either the darkroom or software.

And previsualization is everything you do before taking the picture, and it’s a lot more important than everything you do after shooting, though editing a picture in Photoshop to visual perfection, or at least to your satisfaction, can take anywhere from a couple minutes to a couple of hours.

Previsualization is essentially a two-step process. The first component is entirely mental and conceptual, and essentially comes down to what the actual visualization of the image you want to show is (either with or without any post-production), or basically how you would like to photo to turn out.

Basically, you begin the first step of previsualization when you think to yourself “wouldn’t this make a good photo?” The second step of previsualization requires you to actually look through your viewfinder, and involves any adjusting you make to the scene or camera to try to make the picture as close as possible to your visualization, if not any better.

As the environmentalist and photographer Ansel Adams said…

“You don’t take a photograph, you make it.”

Adams is referencing the process of previsualization, and not so much the post-production process.

You can only edit a picture so much in Photoshop before you’ll suffer criticism for deception, and that point will certainly be reached long before you can actually “make” the picture you want.

It’s All About Composition

But previsualization is all about composing a photograph. All sorts of ordinary and unnoticeable things can become potential subjects with some previsualization and subsequent actions following the previsualization. Even for fantastic moments and other very obvious photo ops, without previsualizing the moment into an aesthetic and emotional image, odds are that you’ll be more than slightly disappointed with the resulting photo, and will probably work tirelessly in post-production trying to fix its shortcomings.

But by conceptualizing the art on the spot in your head before taking the picture and by following the basic ideas of design and aesthetics that basically universally work, you can save yourself countless time you’ll spend in retaking the same photo or editing it in Photoshop. A good way to ingrain basic photographic principles into your unconscious, and much stronger, mind, is to look through and visually analyze and/or critique photos you know are successful and acclaimed or pictures that you know could’ve been shot better.

The Rule Of Thirds

And previsualization endlessly, tirelessly improves with practice. The rule-of-thirds, which is the concept that the most visual points of a subject should be able to almost divide the image into thirds, will become second-nature to you once you really get the feel for your camera and its viewfinder. For the most part, you do not want to focus your subject dead-center in the photo because it simply doesn’t look as good.

Rule Of Thirds
rule of thirds image by PhotopediaPhotos

The rule-of-thirds is one of the easiest techniques to get right, so long as your viewfinder is working properly with full visibility.

With enough comfort and ease around handling your camera, following the rule-of-thirds will become an automatic skill. The rule-of-thirds always makes for quality, if not conventional portrait photos too, so long as your subject is sharp and the background undistracting.

Framing

The technique of framing is more advanced, and more effective, than the rule-of-thirds, though proper framing can negate the principle of the rule-of-thirds.

Red Brick House
photo by Neil Howard

The most important (though not the most prominent) content of the image, the red-brick house, isn’t placed at a position where it divides the photo into thirds, but right in the dead-center. The framing of the pillars, however, creates an even more effective aesthetic than applying the rule-of-thirds to the house would.

You can use anything to frame what you want the focus of the photo to be, so long as the subject’s surrounding objects are visually congruent, like trees, mountains, or faces would be. From framing the house with the pillars in the above photo, the house, albeit one of the smallest objects in the photo, becomes the main subject.

Framing also gives a well-defined and pleasing sense of symmetry to a photograph. Usually adding more content disturbs the balance of a picture; showing a message in the simplest and most undistracting way is often the most effective. But framing provides balance as well as content to a picture, and those two qualities are usually very inversely proportional but both highly desirable.

Symmetry

The rule-of-thirds also is less important, but again often contradicted by, symmetry. As said before, symmetry and balance in a photo makes it very easy on the eyes, just in the same way we find symmetrical faces in people attractive. Symmetry also includes repetition of visual patterns or content, not just repetition of shapes and forms. Being able to fold an image unto itself in half doesn’t make for nearly as an important, or visually-striking picture, as having an effective sense of balance, weight, and also quite importantly, distinction would.

Symmetry
this photo by Roger Alcantara demonstrates the effects symmetry adds to an image.

It is also considered a part of symmetry when you specifically layer certain portions or subjects in an picture for a certain visual appeal or effect, usually akin to the same design aesthetics of a literally symmetrical picture.

Layers
image by Ian Sane

Digital vs. Analog Photography

Digital photography benefits the previsualizer in so many different ways that film does not, though its conveniences also remove some of the necessity previsualization plays in photography.

Digital cameras are able to instantly store and show you hundreds of thousands of pictures at any given time. Analog photographers will usually have 24-36 shots on one roll of film, and no real idea of what their photos look like until they can look at their contact sheets or until they scan and print their negatives. The act of previsualization in digital photography isn’t as important as it is in film photography, though. Instantly being able to see the photo you took as well as actually being able to take many pictures eliminates much of the necessity of previsualization in regards to still, constant subjects.

Dynamically active and moving shots though, wherein each second contains a different photographic moment, will still require previsualization as long as there is premeditation. If you only have one chance at capturing a certain moment or image, quickly but conscientiously going through previsualization will better ensure your success. Sometimes, you’ll find that you can get all of the action and light you want in a single shot with thorough previsualization.

And in analog photography, good previsualization skills will save you lots of money and lots of time spent on having to constantly change rolls of film. One of the biggest pains of film photography is having to determine when to stop taking pictures of a single subject and then hoping that one of the photos that at least one of the photos you took of it is sharp enough. There’s no way of knowing how a film photo turned out until you actually get it developed or develop it yourself. Film photography is therefore a much more slowed down process than digital photography because previsualization should be that much more stressed because it is that much more beneficial.

Fractions, balance, and symmetry are relatively easy to achieve and measure in your camera’s viewfinder, but finding emotion, the hardest step of previsualization, is something that is not quantifiable in such empirical terms. If, before taking the shot, you followed general good design aesthetics during previsualization but failed to seek out any humanity or feeling, the image will be a technically good, but ultimately unmoving picture. Fractions, balance, and symmetry are relatively easy to be measured in your camera’s viewfinder, but emotion is something that is not quantifiable in empirical terms. Instead, emotion and feeling has to be sought out, either by literally looking for it in candid moments or by creating it and bringing it out from within yourself and your own creative thoughts.

But there are no such rules to follow when capturing emotion. It’s entirely dependent on your creativity and humanity, though certainly, some situations and events can offer much more and easier-to-find emotional moments than others.

An effective previsualization process can save you a lot of headache and time spent in taking and editing photos. While there are many general, always-works aesthetic and design techniques easily applicable during previsualization that can make your photos look technically brilliant, without striving for emotion and feeling before taking the shot, you won’t get a memorable and truly great photograph.

Johnny Dunn

About the author: Johnny Dunn

Johnny Dunn is a freelance writer located in NYC, and is also currently working at the advertising and design agency Breakneck Imaging as a residential photographer and copywriter.