Visualisation, Pre-visualisation, Preparation and Pedantics

This post is the result of an interesting and stimulating Twitter debate this week and I felt it needed exploring in more than 140 characters.

The question was raised “do you (or should you) ‘pre-visualise’ your images of a location before you visit?” or something along those lines. This is a big question and I would just like to tackle it from a number of different perspectives.

The first is in my role as a pedant. I have to get this off my chest but it is very boring and this paragraph can easily be skipped if you are not bothered by the use of language. This is based purely on the use of language and doesn’t influence whats behind the question. Its the word. ‘Pre-visualisation’ Or worse ‘Previsualisation’. I know dear old Ansel used it but he was wrong. (There, I said it) There is no need for the ‘pre’ prefix. The word, Visualisation, means to, and I quote the OED here -“adj. to make visible, esp. to one’s mind (a thing not visible to the eyes)”. So, with regard to planning an image or a photographic approach to a location, for example, we often see in our minds eye how we would like our images of the place to look, or perhaps even how a certain composition might be set up. To me, adding the prefix ‘pre’ means ‘before’ and so implies visualising yourself in your minds eye doing the visualising or some such thing. I feel it is simply enough to use the word ‘visualise’, both in the location planning stage and on location. As I said, not important.

There. Now I’ve got that off my chest, on to the important stuff.

The discussion around visualisation and pre(that other thing) raised questions about whether detail planning of visits to locations are a good thing. I am a planner. I plan, make lists, organise. Its in my nature and for years I planned meticulously my visits to locations. Ordnance Survey maps, The Photographers Ephemeris, Google Earth, Flickr, tide tables, Magazines, Books – all of these were crucial to me and to an extent still are. I do like to know where to park, how far the walk in is, where the sun will rise and set and at what times, when the tide will rise and fall and so on.

However, the one area of planning I used to do that I have backed right off from is image planning. I used to scour Flickr, Magazines and other image sources to see what shots others had taken of places and this fuelled my enthusiasm for the visit. But I have come to recognise a huge downside to this. If I see the images of others of a place (and often times it is unavoidable) I am influenced by them. As I arrive at the new location I start to see the area, not through my own eyes, but through the images I have seen. I notice where people have stood, where they placed their tripod (and often understand why they did place themselves there). What then happens, I find, is, I am blinded to other options. It is much harder to see the location through my own eyes and to make my own images of it. It is as though the compositions of others pull me like a magnet to copy or imitate them and I hate that. Not that their images aren’t very fine, its just I have grown to the point where I don’t want the images everyone else has got, I want to see the place through my own eyes. I think this must happen to others too, because the world is awash with identikit images that are drained of all emotion because they may as well just be photocopies of the images of countless others who have copied countless others. Soulless. Pointless (except perhaps for beginners learning the craft).

As a result my location planning is now more limited to geographical and physical information needed to make the visit a success. I am trying to avoid as much as possible, looking for compositions, icons, classics. Iconic locations are just that because they are beautiful but surely we have enough images of them now? From a commercial point of view images of the iconic sell well so there is a financial reason for a professional shooting them for client work and maybe we all want our version of these places – but our goal should surely be to quickly move beyond the need to just duplicate these places? I want to arrive well prepared for the place but not the image. On arrival I want to be affected by first impressions, the weather, the light, my mood and try and feed all of that into my images. THAT is when I want my image visualisation to start, not before. What comes before is planning, what happens on location is visualisation.

And what is visualisation to me? It is taking those factors I have just mentioned, weather, mood, light and so on along with the physical characteristics of the landscape and picturing in my mind a finished image. I tend to see the image as a print. A framed print on the wall. I decide if it needs to be monochrome or in colour. I decide which camera, film or digital, pinhole or lens based will best capture the mood and emotions I want to convey. I need to decide which technique needs to be combined with the camera and lens choice to complete the image. Does it need to be sharp, or soft, shallow or wide depth of field, does the camera need to move during the exposure, does it need to be high or low key and so on. In doing this I am collecting all the raw materials I need for that final framed print, everything I need to make a successful image, getting it right on location as much a possible so that as little as possible needs to be done in software.

I have to admit that usually I see things quite clearly on location. I tend to know what I want. I am not a ditherer. I usually find things strike me or draw me quickly and I can get to work but I am also aware of the need to explore locations more than I have done and to open my eyes wider. Seeing compositions quickly is not necessarily a good thing. I think I may be shooting too much of the obvious and missing the hidden. I need to walk further, slow down look more, shoot less. Make frames count.

It takes bravery to go to less photographed places. You aren’t guaranteed an image. It likely won’t attract the attention another misty sunrise at Corfe Castle, another shot of El Capitan, another shot of Antelope Canyon or Bamburgh Castle. You have to think for yourself. No one will have set it all up for you and worked it all out. You have to open your eyes and search and find your own image, but this is so much more fulfilling, especially if you don’t rely on hackneyed compositions and techniques too, but really start to grown in your photography by allowing the work of others to influence you but not to dictate to you – to really express yourself through your images, developing your own style and vision. THAT is visualisation.

5 comments on “Visualisation, Pre-visualisation, Preparation and Pedantics

  1. Michael Jackson on

    Very interesting post Doug! I find the visualisation aspect of photography fascinating. Thinking about what actually happens when you look through the view finder is a bit mind bending really and I find it comforting that it is such a difficult thing to understand.
    After nibbling away at this problem for ages I came to the conclusion that there is a ‘second place’ of seeing – the first place being the initial reaction to a possible image that everyone has. Then, once you get experience and learn to rely on your intuition, your eye can flip into a kind of tunnel vision that allows you to see things in a more condensed and clear way. I think that this is where the unique personality of the photographer comes into play as it influences the way you see things in this ‘second place’ of seeing – making the image truly and unique yours – as unique as you are as a person.

    And I think that there are deeper things at work too when you get into that ‘second place’ – but I need to think more about that before I waffle on any more.


  2. Valda bailey on

    What has struck me most forcibly about my recent whistle-stop tour of the the western US states is how very differently I need to work these days.

    I have never much gone in for too much planning (pre-planning?) and indeed always enjoyed the challenge of obdurately turning away from where everyone else is planting their tripods.

    However I now find find that I need time – an inconvenient amount of it when you have a husband waiting patiently nearby – to sit and absorb the surroundings and decide what I it is I want to portray. I can’t see how it is possible to do this until one actually arrives at a given location. Only then can one assess the elements, the atmosphere, the lay of the land and how many Japanese tourists there are running around in front of one’s camera. And believe me, there were plenty.

  3. Rob Knight on

    A very insightful and thoughtful post Doug. As with Mike (above) the whole concept of visualisation I find utterly fascinating and can see counter reasoning for both perspectives. I know Pete (Bridgwood) has wrestled with his thoughts around the subject also equally eloquently and in favour of Ansels’ conclusions.

    I think the true value is that this is being discussed and that the concept of visualisation (which ever camp we fall in) is considered and reflected on by all of us.

    I am very much liking Mike’s thoughts around a two place way of ‘seeing’ and this very much falls into my thoughts and theories about how our experiences, motivations, and past all form part of our creativity and our personal way of ‘seeing’ through to representing a location uniquely. It’s a journey that over time we dig deeper into and for me helps us to understand ourselves as creatives. It is though a dynamic and ongoing process we continually shape and construct both through our understanding of ourselves and the locations we choose to explore and portray in our vision.

    It’s certainly very timely discussion as this whole thought process formed the basis of my thoughts, suggestions and theories for my ‘The Experiential Landscape’ talk at my #DarkVisions exhibition……. seems I need to bring together my considerations into a blog post to add to this excellent and valuable discussion.



  4. Sue McGilveray on

    Thank you Doug for a timely (for me) blog post. I am off to Yosemite and Death Valley in three weeks and the very thought of trying to photograph anything in those iconic locations scares the s–t out of me.
    I also avoid scouting for images before I go to locations but some famous ones are seared on the brain and I have even found myself applying their concepts to other places! We can only pray that when we arrive somewhere new we are sparked by something unique to us.
    I agree with all the sentiments above, and like Valda need time to photograph something more personal. I will be travelling with my daughter who is even less patient than my husband!

  5. Ray Fidler on

    Hi Doug, I read this thought provoking blog with interest. It has made realise that I am not cowering away from photographing the usual locations and compositions because my work is not worthy compared with others. Now I will make visits with a greater sense of confidence.

    In the past I have been put off visiting a locations because my usual companion is not impressed by the images, or lack of them, on Flickr. Your post has given me the motivation to go to those places on my own and explore.

    I am also finding that by visiting a location or event more than once helps me enormously to see more. Also as my experience and ability grows revisiting some where produces very different results. I know it is time for a revisit to Dungeness and Hastings beckons once more.

    Many thanks for taking the time to write this post.

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