June 14, 2014

Visualize versus Previsualize

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I have been thinking about two words lately: visualize and previsualize.  What do they mean and how are they different?

I’ve used both words to describe my creative process and yet I’m not really sure if I’m visualizing or previsualizing?

So I looked them up in the dictionary:

Visualize: form a mental image of; imagine.

Previsualize: The word you’ve entered isn’t in the dictionary.

Hmmmm…so previsualize is not a “real” word?

I then turned to the ultimate authority of the universe (Wikipedia) to see what I could learn about previsualization.  Here is what I found:

Visualization is a central topic in Ansel Adams‘ writings about photography, where he defines it as “the ability to anticipate a finished image before making the exposure”. 

The term previsualization has been attributed to Minor White who divided visualization into previsualization, referring to visualization while studying the subject; and postvisualization, referring to remembering the visualized image at printing time.

However, White himself said that he learned the idea, which he called a “psychological concept” from Ansel Adams and Edward Weston.

According to Adams and White, visualization and previsualization are the same and this process takes place before the exposure.

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This has been my experience, that visualization takes place before the exposure. When I’m looking at the subject I can literally see the final image in my “mind’s eye.”

This Vision typically comes quickly and definitively and it guides me during the shot and the processing, helping me transform the captured image into to that visualized image. There is no question as to what the final image will look like, it is burned into my memory.

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Inspiration may come after the exposure and during processing, but that would not be visualization according to Adams or previsualization according to White’s thinking.

I’m grateful for the inspiration whenever it may come, but I do find it most useful when it comes before the exposure.

What has your experience been with visualization or previsualization?



22 thoughts on “Visualize versus Previsualize

  1. Great subject Cole. I have been thinking about this quite a bit. I just posted a blog post that relates: http://blog.jonpaulgallery.com
    I hope it is ok to share that! Basically, I am believing it comes down to how we feel about an image. Does it mean we are thinking about a concept for an extended period of time, or does it include something that calls to us in a moment and we react. I am leaning toward both. When it really becomes art, something in a scene causes us to see with emotion. Perhaps it is within us, and the scene captures our vision. I think we feel the scene emotionally, then we figure out the technical in order to have it look the way we envisioned it. These days, so many people are so technically based (engineering minded) that the emotional/artistic feeling isn’t there. Thus, pre visualization/visualization isn’t a factor. The scene is just data to make into “a good picture”.
    I hope this makes sense.
    Enjoy the View,
    Jon Paul

  2. I love this idea of visualization, pre or other wise. For me in my life I have found that before beginning a project I think a lot about it, study what I need to know about it, look at other’s works for ideas. I think about what I want it to be. I wonder if I can actually pull it off. Then I will have dreams of me really doing it and I am seeing that project as I am doing it, right there in my dream. When I wake up I have the confidence that I can then create it because I know I have done it, in my dreams. I know this is weird, but you can’t share something like that to just anybody. They’d think I was crazy, but I figured I could share that here and be safe and not have people say I am strange. It doesn’t just happen for me in my photography, but also in my painting and sculpture. It’s nice to then start knowing “I’ve got this, I’ve done it before!” Thanks for the cool blog. Your images are works of art.

  3. Haha!
    That’s why I named by blog, “My Mind’s Eye.” I guess I’m in the previsualization camp.
    Though I am open to being “surprised” during the image making process and change my mind, so to speak. I find previsualization is, at least, a good starting point.

  4. The more I photograph, the less convinced I am that previsualization is necessary for great images. Ansel Adams was a big advocate, but really that’s just saying it worked well for him. It seems to me that lots of photographers are working in different ways, and it’s really just the quality of the end result that matters.

  5. Yes, well, I have imagined “pre-visualization” as a tongue-in-cheek expression. The first time reading it, it was attributed to Adams…not sure where I saw it.
    But I did get the feeling that is was jokingly stated since ANY visualization is just that during any part of the process.
    If the question is what do we do before visualizing…me thinks it would be nothing since using the imagination in any form is visualizing. Wiki also attributes the word to story boarding etc…either way, it’s about seeing the end result before one starts the work.

  6. Wonderful post Cole.

    When I first learned about previsualization, about 10 years ago, I would go out into the landscape and find something I thought was interesting, I would then stare at the scene and concentrate, as if the previsualization would pop into my head. I made many images doing this and, I’m sorry to say, none of them came out to be more than a snapshot. And of course at that time I was not that good of a landscape photographer. I gave up on the visualization theory figuring it was either a hoax or something for elite, super-photographers.

    I don’t know when the ability to visualize an image came to me, but I’ve been aware that I use it for the past two years or so.

    Now my biggest limitation is my limited knowledge of digital post processing.


  7. I think photographers who use the term “previsualization” use it because they have heard it used as an “important term” in photographic history, some attributing it to Ansel others not quite knowing the source, in describing how they feel about making images. I also believe that “previsualization” is redundant, i.e., as defined “visualization” is to form a “mental image of; imagine”.

  8. Here’s what previsualization is to me: I approach a scene and try to imagine what possibilities it presents. What atmosphere, what statement, what story, etc. That affects how I’m going to frame the image, expose it, and (in many cases) how I expect to handle it in post processing.
    Doesn’t everyone do that to some degree? Or are we just popping off the shutter and hoping for the best? (I don’t think so!)
    I’ve never thought of the term in the context of Ansell Adams or anyone else. Frankly, I had forgotten he had said that. haha!!

  9. May be I am a simpleton but to me it has always been the same thing, the visualization vs pre-visualization they are the same I just always referred to it as my vision my visualization. White was a zen thinker and more philosophical than a lot of his peers in his photo speak. I doubt St. Ansell would find a difference. His concepts were the same as white’s. He referred to the negative as the score and the print as the performance

  10. I have tried & tried to totally “previsualize” before taking the photo & have found it doesn’t really work for me in the traditional sense. I rather prefer to zoom in & out on a scene with my mind’s eye until I find something that I really react to emotionally. I have developed a variety of ways to process my images & so I can now choose the exact way I want to express the image (monochrome, subtle color, unrealistic color, B&W, whether inkjet or hand-made alternative techniques). For me, the process is twofold & allows for my personal expression of an image that I have spent time connecting with in the first place.

  11. Thought bombs on previsualization:

    1.It is an advanced skill, honed by getting those 10,000 hours behind you, and seeing hundreds of thousands of images. ( My apologies to the celibate crowd) But great images can be made without it. We’ve probably all had the experience of discovering the real potential of an image while in post- post-visualization. Both are advanced tools; something to aspire to as visual story tellers. To develop either, keep shooting. As they say, how do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice. Practice.

    2.Michelangelo was the first to talk about it, although he didn’t use the word. He was given this huge block of marble, and commissioned to do “David”, after other popular sculptors had thrown down their mallets. Michelangelo later said he “saw” his finished project in the marble, so “all I had to do was take away all the rest”. Say what? Now THEIR is some serious previsualization. Sam

  12. Sam, as seemingly always here, provides better words to my thoughts than I can apply. Cole, as you describe your knowing what the image will finally look like after processing before you click the shutter, I wonder if this has always been the case or if you fall into Sam’s #1 (i.e., the visualization you describe has come with experience)? I am a 7 year part-time shooter and while in the last year or two I many times now have a better feel for where I am headed, there have only been a handful of times that when standing before the subject I knew almost precisely what I wanted to achieve as the end process.

    Also, like Wendy, for the first time in the last few months I will awaken in the morning, not necessarily recalling a specific dream., but with one or many ideas related to a specific project I have been working on for several months involving military cemeteries and monuments. Interestingly, it is the first such collection of images that I have ever done where I am attempting to consciously effect the viewer’s emotions and thinking.

  13. Dear Cole,
    great photos and good discussion. I tried many times to implement visualization, but I failed to do so. I take picture, thinking that oh this subject is strong but I cant see that picture in my minds eye. I develop ideas as I process the image and I get newer ideas and meaning and emotions during processing at computer rather than in field. Even when I write a poem, I don’t have complete poem structure in my mind, as I put words, the next word flows out ( may be right or wrong), same thing is happening with photograpy. As you suggested earlier, may be with more practice I may able visualize better. Thanks for your amazing blog.

  14. Edward Weston used the term “previsualization” extensively in his daybooks, and who am I to argue with EW?

    As for the practice of (pre)visualization, it does take a lot of experience, as some have suggested. Mastery of the craft, both in terms of creating the image and in the processing (printing) is essential for understanding not only the possibilities, but the limitations. It also takes conscious thought and effort, something I am continually trying to work on.

  15. See. Breathe. Compose. Breathe. Expose. Keep breathing. Repeat.

    Whatever you want to call it, just take your time and open your eyes and heart to the possibilities.

    Thanks for the post, Cole.

  16. Roger, you ask an interesting question: did my ability to visualize the image develop or was it always there?

    It was not always there, but I only found my vision about several years ago. So under my theory, I could not have visualized my images until that point in time.

    Is this an issue of experience as Sam and Chuck discussed? Does visualization come about as one has more experience and knows what can and cannot cannot be done?

    I don’t believe my lack of experience ever held me back from visualizing. On the contrary, visualizing drove me to find or develop the techniques necessary to complete the vision! What I didn’t know, I was determined to learn.

    I still believe vision comes first, and skills follow. Does it hurt to have the skills first? No, of course not…but not having the skills does not stop you from visualizing or completing the image.

    I only say this is true for me, I cannot say what is true for others.

  17. Cole,

    Thanks for responding with, once again, your interesting insights. Perhaps there are many paths to happiness.

  18. I didn’t mean to imply that visualization itself takes a lot of experience, but rather that the technical skills necessary to realize that vision take a lot of time and effort to develop (pun intended).

  19. Cole,
    I was most successful with visualization when working with the slow and methodical process of using a view camera. The use of the zone system , black and white film and color filters helped me pre-visualize the finished print while making my exposure in the field. I would already know how I was going to process the film and had a pretty good idea what steps I would use in the darkroom when printing the negative. The use of a digital camera has complicated that process a little as far as focusing on black and white images. In the film world I loaded up my film holders with black and white film and only had to deal with the color of the scene while in the field. Now I have to deal with looking at a faded fuzzy color image sometimes weeks later when I go to process the image. It is sometimes hard to connect the vision in the field with the color image that is downloaded to the computer. I feel lucky that I had so many years of darkroom work to rely on to help me with digital black and white photography.

  20. “Let us not be afraid to allow for “post-visualization.” By post-visualization I refer to the willingness on the part of the photographer to revisualize the final image at any point in the entire photographic process.” – Jerry Uelsmann

    “Abandon the idea that you are ever going to finish.” – John Steinbeck

    I have found both to be true. Something I see may inspire me. A photograph is “taken”. In the dry darkroom what is this image to be? Will it become what I believed I saw when it was captured? Will it become something similar or different, and what will it be when its done? (see Steinbeck)

    Just a thought.

  21. Very interesting blog – as started out as a photojournalist and writer, I would visualize the words and the images at the same time. Sometimes the image wads visualize first; sometimes the writing. Now, since i do mostly Photography (as tht has become my passion) I visualize before I go on a shoot – but am always “re visualizing” depending on the light and what I see at the moment.

  22. Some famous photographer – I forgot who – once said that our photography is the sum of all our life experience – every song we’ve ever heard, every picture we’ve seen, every person we’ve ever loved.

    I believe this is particularly true of previsualization, and explains why so many comments here refer to this ability only appearing with lots of experience. They are linked together, and may even one-in-the-same thing, just called different names.

    Years ago I saw for the first time examples of long exposures in daylight, focused on bodies of moving water and swift moving clouds. Those images made an impression. I have since acquired the really dense 10-f/stop ND filter required for this kind of work, and carry it around with me all the time. I have yet, however, to produce any such image, mainly because I haven’t found the right location and the right combination of elements (water and clouds). Is this previsualiztion at work, or just copying another photographer’s technique? Which came first, the chicken or the egg?

    I agree with Victor’s post above. It may be more a question of post-visualization. We have at our disposal today so many tools and options to post process any image. There must be nearly unlimited ways any image can be manipulated and massaged into countless variations, more than were ever possible with the traditional wet darkroom.

    That’s my 2-cents worth, anyhow.

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