Visualization, the Key to Photographic Art Photography

Within the visual arts, we define Visualization as the practice of seeing in the mind’s eye a finished piece of artwork before it is created. It is a particularly important skill for Art Photographers to learn, and Ansel Adams described the process as follows:

When I’m ready to make a photograph, I think I quite obviously see in my mind’s eye something that is not literally there in the true meaning of the word. I’m interested in something which is built up from within, rather than just extracted from without.” — Ansel Adams

Burn by Beth Cataldo

Adams succinct statement is powerful and accurate, but many photographers fail at visualization because they capture what is front of them as opposed to what is within them. These photographers often shoot reflexively to a scene or subject that is interesting or has an aesthetic value that they find pleasing. In the end, they create a documentary image which may or may not be well composed with some post-production adjustments. Some may try to fix the image with digital filters, and while these tools have a place in art photography, they often serve as a splashy veneer for artwork that lacks meaning or significance.

Another reason that photographers fail at visualization is that they believe visualization is a heavenly gift bestowed upon a few talented people, which of course is not true. Visualization is a learnable skill that requires patience, practice, and perseverance. The more you do it, the easier and more productive it becomes.

Visualization and Landscape Art Photography

The challenge for the Landscape Art Photographer is that our subject is often the existing environmental subject of sunsets, sunrises, reflections, natural lands, plants, soils, textures, skies, etc. We are driven to capture these subjects because of the naturally occurring aesthetics of color, light, and our sense of truth and beauty. When reacting to these elements, photographers create representational documents, which may be well executed and beautiful. But if we are to create art and engage our viewers at a deeper level, then we need to explore these subjects with a vision that is often beyond literal illustration.

But how does one visualize or imagine a finished piece of art before one has even begun?

The Visualization Process

Visualization is not magic. It is a conscious process that improves with repetition and dedication. Like writing or learning to play a musical instrument, you will develop your word flow and rhythm the more you pursue the work.

Visualization and Previsualization

Photo by Howard Lyon

We teach visualization in our National Park Photography Expedition Master Classes, and it begins with an understanding that visualization occurs at two levels. The first happens when you are in the field, and a scene or subject grabs your attention. Suddenly you are inspired to pursue this scene, and you begin to visualize how this image may become a completed work. The second might be called previsualization or preconception and occurs when you plan a specific image based upon research and knowledge of the landscape that you have chosen to photograph. Previsualization is helpful when creating commercial artwork, cinema projects, extended themes, and in the world of landscape art, it is useful when we are revisiting a location because we have an idea of what and why we are pursuing the subject with a certain light and atmospherics in mind. However, previsualization can lock a photographer into a plan and often the previsualized image overpowers creative freedom and a spur-of-the-moment inspiration that drives our visual senses. Thus, it is important to keep an open mind and eye for further creative opportunities when working a preplanned or previsualized assignment.

Visualization Tools

The Journal

In our Master Classes, we stress the need for a field journal. Every successful art photographer dating back to the inception of photography packed a notebook or journal and considered it just as important as the camera itself.  Ansel Adams, John Sarkowski, Minor White, Walker Evans, Alfred Steiglist, as well as many contemporary art photographers, journal their activities with thoughts about their emotional reactions to the subject, and post-production ideas. Connecting the visual workflow with writing extends the creative process and deepens the thoughts and considerations.

Your Journal does not have to be an elaborate book or formal day planner. A simple notebook will do, and since this is a personal photographic diary, how you organize the work is up to you.

Metaphors and Descriptive Language

Photo by Gary Goulin

Anyone can create a beautiful sunset, sunrise, or pastoral scene by merely standing in front of the right place and pressing the shutter at the right time. However, the greater art accomplishment is to be fully engaged in the creative process and produce an image of the same scene with an interpretation that is a vision beyond documentation.

Thus, I often think of my camera as a sketch pad, one that captures an idea that I will formally develop in Lightroom and Photoshop. Since some time will pass between the act of squeezing the shutter and completing the post-production workflow, I make notes about what I am feeling, technical considerations, and thoughts about the direction the image may take to guide me once I return to the digital darkroom.

In general, I will briefly describe what I saw in my journal at the time of capture, why it intrigued me, and make more detailed notes later before I begin post-production work. There is no right or wrong way to proceed with extending your creative process through words, but I find that when I think of my work metaphorically and without concern for the literal, I begin to create a form of visual literature.

Descriptors that I often associate with my work are Americana, abandonment of dreams, loneliness, edgy, tactile, solitude, unsettled, warm, etc.

Visualization Journal Examples

I selected a personal image, “The Last Cowhand Wagon,” which I captured while shooting in the Cathedral Valley of Capitol Reef National Park,  and I also chose Annie Blackburn’s “The Golden Barn” which she created while on the Lassen National Park Master Class and synthesized her notes.

The Last Cowhand Wagon by Bob Killen
The Last Cowhand Wagon, After by Bob Killen
The Last Cowhand Wagon, Before by Bob Killen

Commentary I came across this Cowhand Wagon, and I was immediately inspired to explore this home and cookhouse on wheels which had been a ‘residence’ at one time for cowhands who worked the adjacent open range. The scene fits with one of my overarching visual themes that explores man’s abandonment of his dreams. I had limited time, but I worked the image from various angles under a low contrast sky and frequently stopped to make notes.

Journal Notes Flat Light emphasizes the emptiness, abandonment, loneliness. Tires inflated, wood stack in the back— could still be in use?  Big sky angles portray man’s insignificance. Resist the temptation to go blue sky with landscape beauty treatment. I think the forward deadpan approach seems to accent the loneliness and abandonment. Wheels body dents mirror the sharply jagged background. Fade color to demonstrate dust and drought. Maybe crop and lower the sky. Age and wear important. Somehow this wagon has the affection and warmth of an old jacket.

Key Descriptors loneliness, abandonment, faded memories, times past, Americana, strong, silent, flat, dead, rugged, deserted.

Post Notes Lower sky, go for a banner crop. Reduce background saturation; no big sky; press detail. Try a contemporary approach that emphasizes isolation and abandonment.

The Golden Barn by Annie Blackburn
Golden Barn, Before by Annie Blackburn
Golden Barn, After by Annie Blackburn

Workshop Instructor NotesThanks to Annie Blackburn for the use of her image and notes, and commentary.  She created her work during the Lassen National Park Master Class workshop. Students in this class worked a theme entitled ‘Other Worldly’ under trying conditions as the nonstop California Forest Fires filled the skies with smoke and ash during our workshop. Nonetheless, each of our photographers created personal and exceptional work which we are sharing on our social media sites.


Journal Notes  Dead, no clouds, no drama or emotional impact, white sky. Lighting is weak on the bright side and deep shade on the other. Shoot from sunlight side with the option of seeing through the barn, use defined shapes in the dark openings of the barn to capture the angles, roof, and textures as well as some bits of shade on the outside for contrast.  Elected to focus stack with a low angle so that the barn could be seen as if it were springing up out of the grass. Grass textures, light, and shadows provide depth, scale, and contrasts to the straight, predictable lines of the aged wooden barn. The grass brings this image to life, due to the leading lines that come from that low position.

Key Descriptors texture, lonely, statuesque, proud,  commanding presence, dominant

Post Notes Explore instructor ideas for color in Photoshop. Skip  “normal color rules” of blue sky, green grass, brown barn. The emphasis warmth of grass colors and blend with the sky. Blend complementary colors in the grass into the sky and the distant hillsides. The camel color in the sky with the brightened yellows in the grass seems to pop and bring the image into balance. The leading lines of the movement in the grass, now brilliant golds and some greens works; impact, energy, emotion ties together.


Visualization is as important to your creative workflow as the processes of capture and post-production. It is work, but it is also great fun as the process helps you achieve images that are significant, meaningful, and a vision beyond documentation.

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(1) Comment

  1. Ted Rigoni

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts and these images, Bob, through your blog. It is always educational to see what others have viewed and then seen, through their lens, and then creativity, in post, of the scene.

Comments are closed.

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