Beam of light striking Bridalveil Fall, Yosemite NP, CA, USA

Beam of light striking Bridalveil Fall, Yosemite NP, CA, USA

“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

I’ve become increasingly aware of the power of visualization over the years. Looking back through my own work, it’s clear that my best photographs were created when I had a strong response to a subject or scene, knew the feeling I wanted to convey, and was able to visualize in advance how I wanted the finished image to look.

But what does visualization mean, and how does it apply to digital photography today? Although Adams mostly talked about visualization in relation to technique, he also made it clear that visualization was part of the creative process. He wrote: “Visualization is a conscious process of projecting the final photographic image in the mind before taking the first steps in actually photographing the subject. Not only do we relate to the subject itself, but we become aware of the its potential as an expressive image.”

In other words, when you have an idea for a photograph, that idea can and should include a visualization of what the final photograph will look like, and how that finished image will express the feeling you want to convey. Do you visualize a photograph with dramatic contrast, or one that’s soft and impressionistic? Would the colors in the scene help to convey your idea, or would the concept be expressed better in shades of gray? Does the feeling you’re after require sharpness and clarity, or would some blurring suggest that mood more strongly?

My latest article for Outdoor Photographer magazine explores the topic of visualization in depth. It includes several examples that take you through the entire process, starting with the initial visualization, then capturing the necessary information in the field, and finally processing the image to make that original visualization come to life. You can read the article on the Outdoor Photographer website, or pick up a copy of the March issue on your local newsstand.

The photograph above is on the cover of the March issue, and I had a strong visualization of the final image before I pressed the shutter. To my eyes, the diagonal beam of light slicing across Yosemite Valley and illuminating Bridalveil Fall created a highly dramatic scene. This was in March of 2007, and at that time this was the most striking lighting event I had witnessed from Tunnel View. Yet here’s what the unprocessed Raw file looks like at Adobe’s default settings in Lightroom:

Beam of light striking Bridalveil Fall - unprocessed Raw file at Adobe's default settings

Beam of light striking Bridalveil Fall – unprocessed Raw file at Adobe’s default settings

Not very dramatic at all, is it? In fact it looks rather washed out. It’s common for Raw files to look flat straight out of the camera, and, as readers of my Lightroom ebook know, the default Exposure setting in Lightroom often makes images look washed out even when they’re properly exposed.

But the histogram showed detail in both highlights and shadows, so I knew there was plenty of information to work with. Remembering my initial, dramatic visualization of the scene, I cropped the image slightly, warmed up the white balance, reduced that Exposure setting to -1.00 (my default starting point), and made a strong s-curve to increase the contrast. I then used the Adjustment Brush to darken the sky. The final image (at the top of this post) represents my initial visualization very well – dark, moody, and dramatic.

The ability to visualize how you want the final photograph to look is one of the most essential and powerful tools a photographer needs to make strong, expressive images. I hope you’ll hop over to the Outdoor Photographer website to read the article, or pick up a copy of the magazine – and I hope you enjoy the article!

— Michael Frye

Related Posts: Telling a Visual Story; Capturing a Mood

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Michael Frye is a professional photographer specializing in landscapes and nature. He is the author or principal photographer of The Photographer’s Guide to Yosemite, Yosemite Meditations, Yosemite Meditations for Women, Yosemite Meditations for Adventurers, and Digital Landscape Photography: In the Footsteps of Ansel Adams and the Great Masters. He has also written three eBooks: Light & Land: Landscapes in the Digital Darkroom, Exposure for Outdoor Photography, and Landscapes in Lightroom: The Essential Step-by-Step Guide. Michael has written numerous magazine articles on the art and technique of photography, and his images have been published in over thirty countries around the world. Michael has lived either in or near Yosemite National Park since 1983, currently residing just outside the park in Mariposa, California.