Visualization, Pre-Visualization, Post-Visualization and VISION. What are they and why vision comes first?
I will explain all these terms and the relation among them in this article, by talking about Visualization versus Vision, two very important concepts and phases of the creative process in photography.
I’m starting with an image I created a couple of years ago in Athens in a very inspiring place, the hill of Areopagus, one of the most symbolic places in this city full of symbolism. This image is a combination of vision and visualization and if you read the article till the end you will see what I mean.
(Pre) Visualization – Ansel Adams
Many of you may be familiar with the term Pre-visualization or simply Visualization. The term Pre-visualization was attributed to Ansel Adams (see here a Pinterest collection I created with Ansel Adam’s best photographs), but in reality he never talks about “pre-visualization” but simply about “visualization”. The term and concept of visualization was made popular by Ansel Adams but its history is even longer. Ansel Adams discusses it for the first time in 1927 and then he uses it throughout his long career. He writes about visualization in the first book of his trilogy: “The Camera”, but he talks about it repeatedly also in the next two books: “The Negative”, “The Print”. I warmly recommend you to read this trilogy. Even if it treats subjects related to analog photography, you will learn a lot from it related to black and white photography. And then you can go read From Basics to Fine Art – Black and White Photography, by me and Joel Tjintjelaar, a book highly praised by critics, if you want to learn about fine art black and white photography.
Back to visualization, Ansel Adams describes it as the ability to see the scene you photograph and recreate in your mind the print you will produce. Meaning see your developed image, relying on the information you receive from the scene and on your developing intentions. The way he defines it is “the ability to anticipate a finished image before making the exposure”
You can see below a video where Ansel Adams talks about visualization, to get a better idea about what he means:
Ansel Adams’ first “visualization”
Here is the image Adams describes in his book The Negative, as being his first visualization: The Monolith, The Face of Half Dome, 1927. He shoots this photograph first with a yellow filter but he realizes after shooting it that the result would not express the mood he was after, since the yellow filter would not create the drama he needed to create in the image. As you can see in the image on the left, which is the images shot with a yellow filter, the result is rather neutral and not striking. Having realized this, Adams takes a second exposure, this time applying a red filter and the result is, as you can see on the right, much more intense, with a darker sky and richer shadows, which is what Ansel Adams had visualized before taking the photograph. So, what he did was to choose the settings of the camera and the filter to use according to how the image would look when printed. He looked at the light and understood that he could filter it in a different way in order to get a more intense look by intensifying the blue light spectrum in the atmosphere. You can see yourself the difference. Even if Ansel Adams was intensively processing his images in the darkroom, the basis had to be there since in the analog darkroom photographers didn’t have the freedom and possibilities we have in the digital era to manipulate the image and create effects even if they weren’t there at the moment of shooting.
Tips and Tricks
How to create in seconds a dark sky in black and white photography
If Ansel Adams was processing his photos in Photoshop (I think he would have loved this), he might have not need to use the red filter when shooting but apply it in post-processing in Photoshop or Lightroom, or any other program. This is a tip I have shared with many and I’ll share it with you too because it is very useful and effective. If you want to create a dark sky in a black and white photograph, by starting from a blue sky, you can do yourself in post-processing (even if you didn’t do it in the phase of capture). What you have to do is to apply a red filter when you process the image and you will create darker and more intense skies and shadows. You can even play with the intensity of the filter so you create exactly the effect you need. One of my best tips for black and white photography.
Visualization – Edward Weston
Adams wasn’t though the first who talked about this concept and studied it. The first who talks about this subject is in 1921 Edward Weston (see here a Pinterest collection I created with Edward Weston’s best photographs), one of the photographers Ansel Adams admired and mentioned often in his works, one of the masters of photography of 20th century. Ansel Adams develops the term and makes it popular through his writings and workshops. This is why most people think today that he was the one who created the concept. However, he was the one who made the world of photography aware of this concept and practice.
Pre-visualization and Post-visualization – Minor White
Later on, there was another great photographer and theoretician who writes about visualization: Minor White (see here a Pinterest collection I created with Minor White’s best photographs),, in his book “Zone System Manual: How to Previsualize Your Pictures” , in 1968. If you don’t know Minor White you should definitely read his essays on photography. Minor White takes visualization a step further and he is actually the one who uses for the first time the term “pre-visualization” next to another new term in photography: “post-visualization”. According to White, who mentions Adams as his source of inspiration for creating these 2 terms (White assisted Adams for a number of years being in close contact to his theories), pre-visualization is similar to visualization and it happens when you study the scene and try to create the best capture for your final print, while post-visualization is the ability to remember what you pre-visualized at the moment you are creating the print so the pre-visualized result is recreated in the print. Post-visualization leaves theoretically more room for creativity as it involves intervening more extensively in your image to obtain an artistic result. We could say that post-visualization is closer to fine art photography than pre-visualization, and implicitly than visualization.
Minor White is the author of one of the quotes I like best in photography and that represents myself and what I think about fine art photography the best. What he says is…
“…all photographs are self-portraits.” – Minor White
I think this is the most concise and clear definition of fine art photography I could quote and it stands for all kinds of art.
Visualization versus Vision
My interpretation and why Vision comes first
Many photographers assimilate vision with (pre)visualization and think of vision as being the ability to see your image finished. I have heard this theory many times in my discussions with my students, with my fellow photographers or by reading their thoughts on the internet or in books. It is a largely expressed opinion, a conviction even, I may say.
However, I consider (Pre)visualization as an incipient form of VISION.
In my opinion, vision includes and precedes visualization, as vision is much more than just reading a scene and seeing how you will develop an image, either in analog photography by working in the darkroom, or in the digital era by processing it with the use of software.
In defining vision I am going beyond and enriching visualization (or pre and post-visualization) by adding the artist in the equation and by making him the most important element in the creation of a photograph. Visualization is a part of vision, but vision, as the idea that precedes the photograph and gives the impulse to the artist to create the photograph, consists in more than this, it starts with the artist and with him/her expressing himself through the image he creates. If you want to know why we need vision read this article I wrote.
Visualization is a tool helping you create the photograph,
but VISION is the essence of the photograph.
The process of vision preceding visualization is in a way similar to what I do when creating black and white fine art photography with my method Photography Drawing. What I do is to create an image starting from my vision and I anticipate the way I will process the photograph after capturing it, so the result shows my vision. I start with the vision, just as Ansel Adams starts with visualizing the end result, but for me going to the essence requires to start the process of creating the image even before visualizing it when I am in front of the subject. I first define my vision and intention and then, I visualize my image trying to be truthful to my initial vision. Many times my vision is born even before I find myself in front of the subject, and I recognize the subject and choose it just because it expresses my vision.
When we start with vision, we go even beyond what Ansel Adams calls visualization because we don’t start with the scene, with the subject, but we start with ourselves – with the artist – with our feelings and ideas that are those who initialize the process of creation.
The artist is a step before the subject in the process of creation in fine art photography, this is why vision comes first and then comes visualization.
I hope this will give you some food for thought and that you will start seeing vision as something deeper and more essential than just imagining how the final image will look when processed. Vision is not only capturing the image, it is not only processing it. Vision is the impulse that makes you create in the first place.
When you fully comprehend this, be sure you have moved a step closer to your art. This is why I insist so much on vision in my writings and in my mentoring courses and workshops, in all my educational activity. And I see the results every day in how my students transform the way they see and create their art by moving closer to their artistic self.
Visualization in the analog era – Vision in the digital era
By analyzing visualization versus vision I don’t intend to negate the importance of either concept: visualization, pre-visualization or post-visualization, or of either of their creators whom I highly respect and admire as photographers and thinkers.
But I feel the need to go further in analyzing and explaining fine art photography and implicitly vision in the digital era. What I try to say with this article, with analyzing visualization versus vision, is that all these terms and concepts have become nowadays incomplete as for how you reach a final result in your image that is in line with who you are an artist. They rely on analog photography while the way we are creating now has changed radically through digital photography. This is why they need to be seen as a starting point and be enriched with our Vision. Vision has become much easier to express in one’s work in digital photography through the use of software, so it is much easier to express our artistic self now in photography than it was in the analog era. Thus the concept of (en)Visionography I created and that is related directly to this. The freedom the digital medium gives us is a tremendous opportunity for us to go a step further in photography and make the transition from “direct photography” to fine art photography, by including ourselves as artists (by means of our vision) into the images we make, thus create authentic emotion.
I will come back in a few days with another article on vision, where I will explain why you need vision in the first place. I wrote the article based on the questions I have gotten from my students so I hope it will answer to your questions too. You can subscribe to receive the article when I publish it.