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Photographing with the mind’s eye

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With the abundance of gadgetry and gear presented to photographers today one can easily be overwhelmed. The first and most important hurdle to overcome is the ability to decipher the difference between technology and marketing. With so much marketing speak being cloaked as innovative technology, photographers end up buying a bunch of stuff they really don’t need to make wonderful images. Plus, when the results expected aren’t achieved, the tendency is to buy more “better” gear. As a photographic educator, the first thing I tell students is to ask themselves two questions; “What am I taking a picture of?” and “Why”? What is the photo you’re visualizing in your mind’s eye?

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Today new photographers seem to spend so much time thinking about post-production they aren’t spending enough time with pre-visualization. Pre-visualization is a term coined by Ansel Adams almost 70 years ago. This concept helped him to codify his workflow when shooting large format black & white film. This was a time and a process where you would make 10 to 20 exposures a day, so you had to actually think about just what you were doing. In fact, you didn’t honestly know what you had until you got back to the darkroom and processed the film. And even then, you still were imagining the final print while you “read” the negative.

Well, all of this came rushing back to me while working on my Northeast Corridor series. This is a series of photographs made photographing out the window while traveling on Amtrak between New York and Washington, DC. On a recent trip from New York City, back to DC, and with my first snap as the train emerged from the Penn Station tunnel, I felt I had a good shot/exposure of a Meadowlands landscape. As I reviewed the images from the SD card I was very pleased with all of the captures in general. But that first shot look very good and I slated it for my first work session. When finished, I was very pleased with its outcome. Then I compared it with the original capture. I was amazed at how different they looked. Yet, when I first started working on it, I pictured that photo from the point of view from my mind’s eye.

It’s important for the photographer to realize that the most essential piece of gear is their mind’s eye. So here are a few steps to help cultivate pre-visualization and the mind’s eye.

1. Always ask the dual question, “What am I taking a photo of?” And: “Why?” This will help to clear out all the elements in the scene that you don’t need. This is really about composition.

2. Next ask what the important exposure element issues of the scene's shadow and highlight detail. While today’s cameras are the very model of technological wonderment, the bottom line is you can only use one ISO#, one f/stop, and one shutter speed per image (HRD aside). So choose wisely and knowledgeably. Experiment often and learn what your equipment is doing. Make it personal.

3. Program your camera for what “you” do. When I use my Panasonic LX3 and I have the time, I always shoot in Manual mode. If I don’t have that time I shoot in Program or Shutter Priority. When shooting “Grab & Grin”, I have a dedicated program setting just for that cause I don’t want to think about it.

4. Setup plug-in filter presets. Sophisticated plug-ins like Nik Collection, OnOne Photo Suite, and Topaz Complete Collection all do the same thing. They offer options to streamline post production workflow. They all work with Photoshop, Lightroom or Aperture or any photo editing software that supports the Photoshop plug=in engine. Choose one and learn it. Photoshop can do all that they do, yet if you aren’t interested in becoming a Photoshop geek these packages will make your life simpler.

The most important piece of equipment you own in your heart. Cultivate it along with your mind’s eye and of course study the works from the historical masters of photographic craft. You’ll not only amaze yourself but the world as well.

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