Seeing the Possibilities by Jack Curran
Let's assume for a moment that we have two feet firmly planted on the ground (OK maybe one or none) with a camera in hand or on a tripod, and we have a piqued interest in the subject or scene in front of us. So now what?
Vision and Visualization
We all have choices to make when looking at a subject that we are viewing, with fascination and curiosity. If by chance your interest includes shooting in Black and White, I might suggest that we have to see the possibilities beyond the obvious or literal scene and consider how to translate the unseen to seen. Or, to say this another way, we have to consider how to turn the light and shadows, textures, contrast and range of light within the frame into a dynamic black and white photograph that connects with us, inspires and is expressive.
So, what is my approach? I start by considering the possible outcomes, thinking in terms of two aspects that work together: Vision + Visualization. Or, said in a bit more literal way, Vision is the artistic expression and Visualization consists of incorporating the technical tools and personal approach to crafting a final image that will actualize my Vision. Much the way a painter has a vision for a painting in their mind's eye, they also have to master their preferred tools to bring their Vision to realization on canvas.
Over the years, I've had a hard time at what is traditionally described as pre-visualization. When standing in front of a mountain scene with beautiful clouds and light, I tended to see and think about the artistic interpretation I'm trying to achieve with as much imagination or "Vision" as possible. I had a rough idea for the conceptualization of the image and composition I wanted, but I just could not fully see the possibilities for the final expressive print.
My final prints fell flat and lacked the emotional connection I was striving for. However, when I really got serious about mastering the craft of darkroom printing, or later building master print files in post-processing programs such as Adobe Lightroom or other programs, was I able to combine the Art "Vision" and the Craft "Visualization" and see the possibilities when in the field shooting.
OK, I know that's a bit abstract. Let me share a few examples that may help explain my approach.
Death Valley, Mesquite Dunes Morning Light
Having hiked deep into the Mesquite Dunes in Death Valley National Park well before sunrise, I set my backpack down and took out a small rectangular viewer that is formatted with a window cut out to mimic the camera I’m using. I almost always start by walking around and consciously framing multiple variations of the scene before I get my camera out. Once I’ve discovered an exciting composition, I’ll set up my camera and start thinking about my artistic “vision” of the scene and subject. However, in the case of Death Valley, Mesquite Dunes Morning Light, it was still dark.
With that in mind, I did my best to establish where the sun would rise and how it might play out and flow over the dunes. I was anticipating beautiful long shadows and highly textured rippled dunes.
Boom, here comes the sunrise and, unfortunately, it’s very flat and barely breaking through the hazy overcast sky. Needless to say, it dashed my early expectations and was not what I had hoped for at all. As the soft directional light began flowing across the dunes, the texture and ripples in the sand appeared shapeless. The challenge, at this point in the process, was having enough forethought to see and think of the possibilities for the image by utilizing my post-processing craft to realize a final image as close to my original vision for the photograph or consider other creative possibilities.
When I’m viewing a scene that has piqued my interest, I generally look for simple elements in a composition that include transitions, tension, tonality, range of light and luminosity. Transitions are really how the eye travels through the frame and come in many forms, like the flow of light across a scene or subject horizontally side to side, vertically top to bottom or front to back and creating depth. Transitions also exist between textures from hard to soft or subject matter like a forest valley to mountain tops.
Tension is another important element. Tension delivers the emotional connection in the subject matter. For example, a thunderstorm over soft silky dunes, or barren, dark trees in stark contrast to white snow. I also look for tonality and the range of light across a scene or subject or areas of light that have luminosity and will translate well into black and white.
Let’s take a look at the initial Mesquite Dunes RAW file. As you can see on the RAW file, (Photo A) the light is soft, the shadows very open and the dunes have very little texture. There is a nice transition in the frame for the eye to travel from the front dune with the bush, over the middle dunes and on to the mountains in the far distance. There is an excellent structural flow and symmetry of the dunes horizontally, as well.
Let me share a bit more about my vision for the final photograph while I was taking the picture. I know this looks a bit confusing, but when looking at the marked-up RAW file (Photo B), you will see how I was crafting the final print in my mind’s eye while in the field. You will see how I visualized my stylistic approach and use of the tools in Adobe Lightroom for burning, dodging, playing up texture, bringing out highlight for luminosity, deepening shadows, and applying a vignette to keep the eye in the frame. Let me be clear here, and as I stated above, I’m not the best at visualizing the final version in advance. And one rule I have is to break the rules. I like to allow myself the opportunity to explore new ways to express my vision.
By mastering and developing a consistent approach and style to using Adobe Lightroom, or whatever tool you use, such as Camera RAW or Adobe Photoshop, will significantly influence your ability to combine your Vision (Art) and Visualization (Craft) and determine if the photograph you’re shooting will work as an expressive print. See (Photo C).
Stairways to the Gods
Let’s take a look at another image and how I envisioned the possibilities.
Stairway to the Sun God, which was captured at Cahokia Mounds in Illinois - at one time the most significant American Indian city in North America. Shooting pre-dawn, it was challenging to see any range of light, shadows, contrast or texture, all of which are very important in Black and White. This image was taken before sunrise. All I could do was compose the image in the frame.
As you look at the RAW file (Photo D), the light was extremely flat, gray and devoid of tonality, except for the subtle shadows on the stairs, black handrail and concrete sides. Of course, the blue tone was a result of the color temperature at that time of day, with no sun to warm it up.
The marked-up version Photo E of the RAW file will illustrate how I approached my vision for the final image while shooting the photograph. (Lightened to help illustrate the points). As you will see, I used my knowledge of the tools in post-production while in the field shooting, as well as a stylistic approach, to visualize how I could craft a master print file that would match my vision.
In the final image (Photo F) for Stairway to the Sun Gods, it was essential to lighten the clouds in the upper left to illicit the emotional connection of climbing the stairs to the light. Having said that, after getting the image close to a final version in the post, I did spend quite a bit of time exploring small details with tactical tools in Adobe Lightroom through the selective use of the Radial filter, Adjustments Brush, Clarity, Dehaze and Texture, Contrast, Highlights, Whites, Shadows and Black to dodge and burn and control the light to achieve a master print file.
Maybe you see a pattern here? I tend to shoot on overcast days. Over time I’ve developed my post-production techniques to compensate for adverse conditions, increasing the range of light and luminosity. The RAW photograph, as seen in (Photo G), was taken mid-day. The first challenge was getting the right composition. I ended up with my tripod legs spread nearly flat on the ground to intensify the reflection. Even though I was able to get a good reflection of the mountains, it was devoid of contrast and luminosity.
Once again, let’s take a look at the marked-up RAW file (Photo H). One thing I need to point out on this image is that, even though I was able to visualize what I hoped for the final image, I failed at my first attempts to craft a master print file. I believe this was due to my lack of knowledge of how to use all the post-production tools effectively in Adobe lightroom. I struggled with global corrections, dodging and burning, layering effects and ended up being frustrated and working very inefficiently.
I went back to this image a year later and started from scratch, using the same program and tools but with a new approach, and found it immensely easier to execute my original vision. Mastering the craft is a big deal.
The Art (Vision) and Craft (Visualization, and seeing the possibilities, are really about combining one’s artistic vision for a photograph with the ability to technically execute and visualize to a compelling and dynamic final print. Hope this helps while you're out in the field.
Jack Curran is a landscape photographer based in St. Louis, Missouri. Jack has developed a deep and connected passion for the natural world and expresses this relationship through his genuine love of Black and White photography. For Jack, it's all about the "Lure of Light". Whether chasing the extreme light of a mountain storm or weathering the chill of a winter snow event, it's all about chasing the light.