Good Photography Decisions Start With Pre-Visualization

Good Photography Decisions Start With Pre-Visualization

One percent of great photographs are simple luck, being at the right place and time with a camera... the other 99% are the result of good decisions. One could even argue that a large number of the one percenters made the right decision to be in that place at that time and carry their camera. Good decisions start with pre-visualization.Pre-Visualization is seeing an image in your mind, what does that really mean? That means thinking about an image all the way through and in your mind, planning a location, time of day, what camera to bring, what lenses to have on hand, tripod, lights, cables, subject etc., and seeing that finished photograph in your mind. Louis Pasteur was credited with the thought that  “chance favors the prepared mind.” I believe that when you can plan a photograph completely in your mind, you will be best prepared to make that image, to the best of your ability with the available equipment.

I really enjoy being able to photograph landscape images in the dark. One of my favorite subjects is the Milky Way. I live in Arizona and head into the desert to one of my favorite cactus gardens each time we get closer to the new moon (the phase of the moon when it is in conjunction with the sun and invisible from earth, or shortly thereafter when it appears as a slender crescent) since during these phases of the moon is when the Milky Way is most visible.

We have so many choices of camera formats (full frame, APS-C sensor, micro four thirds), camera bodies (DSLR, mirrorless, medium format, point and shoot), lenses (super wide angle, wide angle, mid-range, prime, zooms, telephotos, super-teles), drones, smartphones, and more.

I love having choices and being able to capture in color, or B&W, or infrared. I like deciding between single shot, multiple image panoramas, and blended images similar to HDR, extending the dynamic range and various techniques of noise reduction due to the ability to use low ISO or make use of super high sensitivity. Allow me take you through my thought process as I dissect one of my recent desert images revealing my photographic workflow.

I knew of an area with a few good-looking saguaro cacti and a small mountain to set my scene and accompany the Milky Way. When I arrived at the location this one night, the sliver of the moon was still above the horizon. It was gently illuminating the desert floor and one of the cacti, but it created quite a problem for me. The moon was causing lens flare in my image, diminishing the contrast of the image. In trouble shooting the problem, I had to figure a way to control exposure and eliminate the flare. I thought to hide the moon behind one of the cacti might be the solution. It seemed to be the correct decision to make. In my first attempt I tried a horizontal composition with a 14mm f/2.8 lens. I found the distortion created by the wide-angle lens to be unacceptable.

Normally I would simply move the camera position back a little, however this caused the moon to be revealed, once again causing flare. A few seconds of thinking of the possibilities, I chose to change the camera orientation from horizontal to vertical and create a 6 frame panorama that would represent the scene, but with minimal distortion. I made the 6 captures, rotating the camera between each exposure, overlapping each image by 30% creating a 120-degree field of view.

I was pleased with the results, as I was able to capture the Milky Way with the moon still up, providing light to capture the detail of the desert, yet hidden behind the cactus preventing lens flare and reduced contrast.

That is how I pre-visualize when creating an image, now I’d like to take you through the important steps of my post-processing workflow.  In post-processing there is one key step to success, and that is having your monitor color calibrated.

In order to get the colors in your image to reproduce correctly, for them to look accurate on your monitor and ultimately for the print you make to look great, you should calibrate your monitor on a regular bases. This is important if you are printing it yourself or sending the file to a lab to have the prints made. I like the Datacolor SpyderX. This tool is the finest and fastest calibration tool that I know of.  Simply attach the monitor calibration tool to a USB port and run the program once a month to keep your monitor consistent with what you are printing. The SpyderX Elite or Pro model are both very easy to use. The trick is calibrating on a regular basis, as monitors tend to shift over time.

With my monitor calibrated, I begin my processing of the files. I enjoy doing most of my work in Lightroom. I open a catalog of my files of the desert shoot and select the 6 images that I captured and stitch them together using Photo>Photomerge>Panoramas.

Lightroom will assemble the panorama and then I make my global adjustments for white balance, color and density.  Next I make local corrections such as dodging and burning to adjust the elements so I can control what my viewers will see and how their eyes will travel around my image.

Once I have my file edits complete, I send the file to the printer and I’m ready to frame and hang the image!  Because my monitor is calibrated using the Datacolor SpyderX Elite, the print looks exactly as the file does on my monitor!

If you’re looking for a complete color managed workflow from capture – to edit – to print, I recommend the Datacolor SpyderX Studio tool suite. From pre-visualization to post-production, your workflow should be seamless and well planned to produce outstanding images. 

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Terry Wright's picture

Where did you get that statistic about 1% being lucky?

Ken Sklute's picture

Terry, after 45 years as a professional photographer, my thoughts are very very rarely is luck a significant part of capturing a great image.

Terry Wright's picture

I can appreciate that, but you are saying you don't actually know what the percentage is, correct?

Ken Sklute's picture

Yes Terry, that statistic is my opinion.

Terry Wright's picture

99 percent of the time I read a statistic in people's articles, they end up being opinion and not measurements. (See what I did there?)

Ben Bowland's picture

Terry, I highly doubt that there are actual statistics on how many good photographs are the result of luck. It’s kind of impossible to measure.

Terry Wright's picture

Not impossible at all, simply ask the photographer "was this a lucky shot?" For all the shots taken in a sample group, report the number of lucky shots.

Jonathan Brady's picture

Serious question that's going to sound like I'm being a smart ass, but I promise I'm not... What's the difference between pre-visualization and visualization? Wouldn't both happen prior to capturing an image?

Terry Wright's picture

Smart ass answer would be "pre-visualizing takes place BEFORE you visualize" hahaha

Ken Sklute's picture

Pat, I grew up a fan of Ansel Adams. He was the one that introduced the concept of pre-visualizing. He put it into practice with his "zone system" so that he could expose correctly for the scene and then determine the correct processing compensation for his method of adjusting contrast through exposure and development. He also carried yellow, orange and red filters to help adjust contrast of the overall scene, again to meet his vision, in his minds eye.

Here is a clip to support the thought that I shared through Ansels words.

Mike Shwarts's picture

Found a thread about it on Seems a redundant phrase.

Ken Sklute's picture

Jonathan, thanks for your comment. To me there is a difference between "visualizing," which I feel most photographers do by looking for and finding images along our path and "pre-visualizing." Pre-visualizing to me is a starting point to determine where to go, at what time of day based upon my decision of what I am looking to capture.

If I am heading out to shoot at night I will probably take my tripod, a few wide angle lenses and leave my long glass at home. If I am considering a shot that might need light-painting, I need to bring those tools so I can accomplish my vision. Showing up unprepared for the image that I am looking to create will leave my vision unfulfilled. We always should be thinking on our feet as we stroll looking for images but, in my career, I found that thinking and planning out an image provided me a greater success rate since I would have the equipment that I need on hand.

In my opinion if what I need for an image is in my garage or camera safe, it does me no good. We cannot always carry everything that we own. I hope that shares a bit of the other side of the coin.

Ed C's picture

To me it is akin to people making a big deal about post processing. Everything you do after the shot is processing. Everything you do before clicking the shutter release is adjusting the camera. I don't really see the need to call it post processing. True post processing I suppose would be dealing with mattes, frames, etc. if you print whatever you processed.

Paul Scharff's picture

I'd argue the opposite. I find when I am somewhere -- a hotel client's guest room; a T&T client's location; even in front of my cat; etc.-- I do my best when I am there at the spot and get inspired as to the best way to shoot it. I suppose that's pre-visualization in that I virtually always have an idea before putting my camera up to my eye. But 90% of the time that idea came to me seconds before I take the shot.

A few times I've created a concept in my brain about what would make a good shoot and the often find my brain wasn't quite as accurate once I'm on scene.

But this is just me. I have colleagues who will plan "recon" for every single shoot, every single time. So I know it works very well for some.

Ken Sklute's picture

Paul, thanks for seeing both sides. I shared my opinion and what has worked for me in my 45 year career as a professional photographer and influencer.
There are many people who will read my article who have never thought of pre-visualization. They may be just be beginning their photographic path. I am looking to reach those folks to help give them a new way at looking at capturing imagery.
Photography is an art where there is not just one way. I chose to share what has worked for me.

Paul Scharff's picture

One of the values of this forum is to be challenged in our thinking whenever possible. And it's why I indicated that my response was how I find I do my best work, and not that my way was right vs. another way was wrong.

Some of my colleagues just shot Manhattanendge Friday night. I guarantee you that's a shot you better plan out if you want to get it, and that's an example where I would be pretty planned out myself. So even though I'm not a typical pre-visualizer, I certainly see its value -- to the point of being one myself, albeit less frequently than most.

Don Althaus's picture

All of this is well and good but I would argue that good photography begins with a having a good story to tell. All of the decisions flow from the subject's story.

Ken Sklute's picture

Don, I do not disagree. Which came first, the story to tell that you tripped upon by possibly walking about or thinking about the story first and developing a game plan to put yourself in a target rich environment with the necessary equipment at the right time of day, month or year, and then hunting out what you visualize on location?

Wolfgang Post's picture

Visualization (whether Pre- or or) is a must, no doubt. But preparation also comes in. There are loads of apps to check position of the moon and the timing of its movements. The same shot done a few days earlier or later would avoid the glaring moon while the Milky Way is still in the same position.

Ken Sklute's picture

Wolfgang, that preparation may be the use of an app or packing the right equipment. Thinking and heading out prepared can lead you to find success rather than making due with what you have with you.
I felt that having the moon up above the horizon added a depth and dimension that would unlikely be there without a hint of the moon. We play, we take chances to try different techniques so that not all of our imagery tends to look the same.

Ken Sklute's picture

Thanks to those that offered their opinions on this topic.

My goal here in creating this piece was to tie together the idea of being in control of what you do. Pre-visualizing an image allows me to be prepared to capture what I think about. Learning techniques to help solve the problems that we come across inn the field. Introducing those thoughts and sharing that the consistency that we look for in our post-processing workflow requires color calibration for creating beautiful prints of the work that we create.
There are so many people who are new to photography that have not thought of preparing, carrying equipment or calibrating their monitors. I hope that I have shared some new thoughts with them so that they can grow and become more in control of their art.

barry cash's picture

Silly you---- pre visualization is the only sure way to achieve images that you can then PP and turn into your final image print.
It has been going on for years scouts go to area to find the best shooting angles so that they might come back and make an image. Portrait photographers pre visualize the lighting for a subject that they think they should start with and after seeing the images tweet and re shoot until a superior lighting situation is realized then they focus on relaxing the model and shooting. Not sure Ive ever not pre visualized an image sometimes its after a few captures then I get serious, sometimes its after many visits to the same area and I get a vision. But rarely have I ever just snapped off a few frames without any visitation and come away with a fabulous image. Area where that could happen would be Iconic locations, movie sets already lit for filming, rare natural lighting situations...or maybe run and gun 1000 images and get lucky on one. Great concept for a great article. A great image always has a capture, PP and printing plan they just don't happen!