Hello, my name is Rick Keller. I am an amateur photographer who lives in San Diego, CA, one of many readers of Photography Life, and an occasional participant in its forums. Recently, after having participated in the Photography Life Photo Critique, Nasim Mansurov graciously and enthusiastically extended me an invitation to write a guest article for Photography Life to share more of my film work and discuss the tools and methodology that I use. I wholeheartedly accepted the invitation. As I pondered this task, it was immediately apparent that I could write such an article in a variety of ways, each of which might lead to a discussion of additional subtopics in both general photography and film photography.
As I contemplated a specific topic to discuss, I felt that it would be more meaningful and productive to write an article that is both interesting and educational as opposed to a prosaic description of a few photographs and the choices of tools. As tempting as it is to delve straight into a detailed description of his/her work in photography, I concluded that I could not in good conscious write a pure show-and-tell article on my film exploits without first describing my general approach to photography – an approach that is grounded in classic teachings, shapes my contemplative process, guides why and how I choose my compositions, and ultimately determines the subsequent process of making the print. Then, and only then, would I feel comfortable writing a dedicated article on my film work. Thus, after much deliberation, this is how I decided to proceed with this invitation. In this essay, I will briefly discuss the history of a fundamental, yet still under-emphasized, concept in photography along with an integral (and underrated) tool that epitomizes this concept. Subsequently, in a follow-up article, I plan to share an essay that chronicles one of my of most cherished photographs and which I believe illustrates the emotional and creative process of visualization. And in a third follow-up article, I will share a select group of photographs that I have made on film and briefly describe the technical process involved and the ancillary services that I use for development, scanning, printing, as well as introduce other subtopics for a future discussion.
First, allow me to delve into a brief philosophical discussion of a process that many photographers – past, present, and hopefully future – consider to be a critical step in the construction of a photograph, namely visualization. Visualization is not a new concept or process in photography. Photographers (beginners, amateurs, and professionals) use visualization every day to conceive their work and make it a reality and use it according to their own personal style and way of seeing and interpreting the world.
What is visualization?
I can think of no better way to answer this question than by sharing a series of quotes from arguably the greatest photographer and master craftsman who ever lived, Ansel Adams:
“Visualization is a conscious process of projecting the final photographic image in the mind before taking the first steps in actually photographing the subject.” (1)
“The term visualization refers to the entire emotional-mental process of creating a photograph, and as such, it is of the most important concepts in photography.” (2)
“To visualize an image (in whole or in part) is to see it clearly in the mind prior to exposure, a continuous projection from composing the image through the final print.” Visualization is more accurately viewed as an attitude toward photography . . .” (1)
“The first step towards visualization – and hence toward expressive interpretation – is to become aware of the world around us in terms of the photographic image. We must explore what lies before our eyes for its significance, substance, shape, texture, and the relationship of tonal values. We must teach our eyes to become more perceptive.” (1)
“I am convinced that the best photographers of all aesthetic persuasions ‘see’ their final photograph in some way before it is completed, whether by conscious visualization or through some comparable intuitive experience.” (1)
My fellow photographers, in my humble opinion these statements epitomize one of the most profound philosophies in the history of photography. Ansel Adams wrote and instructed extensively on the process of visualization. He deemed it to be a conscious, intuitive, and expressive process that begins as an artistic construct in the mind that the photographer deliberately and physically translates into a visual and tangible expression of that construct. Indeed, Adams, along with the movement called Group f/64, is widely credited for transforming photography from a pictorialist rendition of a subject onto photographic paper into a modernist form of photographic art characterized by an emphasis on composition, detail, form, and texture. Of course, in his books Adams writes much more on visualization and concentrates heavily on the appreciation of structure, shape, and form as well as technical manipulations of the tools of the trade that culminates in the print, the end product of visualization. In the decades since Adams laid the foundation for this philosophy and helped to fundamentally transform photography into a true and respected form of art, photographers continue to use this approach in some form according to their own style or persuasion, many perhaps not even consciously realizing it. Other aspiring photographers, no doubt, struggle in this process, specifically in taking the first conscious and tangible step in translating the image in the mind’s eye into an exposure, namely the formation of the composition. As Adams explains in his books, the process of visualization can be an effortless and natural process for the photographer, whereas for others, years of practice and experimentation may be needed before they can take command and control of it. The process of conceiving and seeing the image in the mind, recognizing and appreciating its physical and/or emotional significance, and manipulating the physical tools within reach of the photographer to create the final image represent the artistic and technical imperative that permeates Adams’ teachings and retains its historical and practical significance in the 30+ years since Adams’ passing.
As most of us already understand and appreciate, Ansel Adams was an incomparable landscape and nature photographer, a passionate environmentalist, and a champion of the U.S Parks system, although he did some excellent work with still life and portraiture. Given Adams’ particular interest in photography, his style, and the tools of the trade of his time, the process of visualization clearly lends it itself well to the contemplative photographer, one who takes delight in pursuing a slow and deliberate approach to formulating an image in the mind, interpreting that visual image, and translating that image into a print that best conveys what the photographer was both seeing and feeling at the time. For those photographers who do not photograph landscapes, architecture, stills, or portraits whose imperative and interest lie in capturing movement where there is little time for contemplation, I would argue that the pure concept of visualization remains relevant to those particular endeavors and any other field of photography.
In the 80+ years since Adams embarked on his epic journey into photography, the world has seen vast socioeconomic and technological changes that have profoundly transformed the world. With regards to advances in photography, interestingly Ansel Adams commented on some of these changes and reacted favorably, including the automation of cameras and the early stages of the invention of the digital camera, of which Adams also stated his interest in and acknowledged the future possibilities and applications. Given the technological advances the world of photography has seen over the past 30 years; the evolution of a fast paced society; a thirst for instant gratification; the individual quest for acquisition of new camera gear and perpetual gear upgrades; and the relative disappearance of classic teachings in photography today, I would argue that the visualization process plays a more critical role in the development of the modern-day photographer in the year 2015 than it ever did. Without a skillful translation of visualization and the creation of a compelling composition, the construction of a meaningful photograph cannot be realized. I hope that many of my fellow photographers, young or old, amateur or professional, analog or digital, would agree with this assertion.
Today, the interesting and exciting advances in camera and lens technology, paradoxically, can have an adverse effect on visualization. For example, automation (e.g., focus, metering, exposure, seeing an image immediately) certainly has its advantages and applications, but I consider it to be one of my personal favorite “friend or foe” tales in photography (this is a potential subject of a future article), automation can potentially inhibit the subjective and creative mindset and adversely affect the objective evaluative process in constructing the photograph in the mind in the creation of the composition. The growing and disturbing trend among amateur and professional photographers of expending precious mental energy (not to mention hard earned wages and savings) obsessing with technical specifics, such as autofocus speed and accuracy, microprocessing speeds, buffers, sharpness resolution, MTF charts, noise, pixels (the list is seemingly endless) at the expense of channeling critical thought processes and creativity into a composition is counterproductive. I would also argue that the psychological overlays of a fast-paced and demanding society likewise exert counterproductive forces upon the modern day photographer, meaning less time – or worse, less interest – to contemplate, to construct a meaningful composition, to hone the basic skills of the subsequent conscious efforts (e.g., exposure, development, processing, printing), and to perform a self-evaluative and objective assessment of one’s own efforts and exploits. Today, seldom do I see references or discussions of, either on-line, in print articles, or in a photographer’s portfolio, a photographer’s contemplative style in the visualization process or an explanation of how and why a particular composition works or how it can be improved upon; and even if there is such evaluative commentary, it would seem to be vague or quickly evolve into a technical description. Again, that is not to say that the modern day photographer does not competently or creatively practice visualization in his/her exploits. Skilled and talented photographers accomplish this in some form every day. The problem I see is that the discourse in photography and the training of the aspiring and impressionable photographer has seemingly become entrenched in an overemphasis on the technical tools of visualization, with a strong implication that the camera and lens above all else determine the success of visualization and the creation of a strong composition and exposure and an under emphasis on artistic vision, creativity, compositional skills, and the pursuit and manipulation of the light. Without an understanding of the fundamentals of creating a strong and compelling composition (mentally recognizing form, shape, pattern, arrangement, framing, and interrelationships), then the physical tools that one uses in the latter stages will not help the photographer accomplish his/her goal, not matter how advanced and high-end those tools may be. This skewed approach to photography, in my opinion, impairs visualization and stunts the growth of the photographer. I argue that the biggest room for improvement in this growth process lies in compositional skill. I must admit that I personally fell victim to this black hole early in my exploits in photography, but I managed to escape it … Indeed, many modern day authors have already written on this disheartening problem, including contributors on Photography Life. Sharif has shared this article on gear versus skill and on challenging yourself to improve. Many authors have also written articles on how to improve compositional skills, including an excellent series starting with this one. Yet, I feel that much work remains to be done in this endeavor. Overcoming a massive, seemingly calculated, high-tech, and egregiously misplaced emphasis on gear to improve the quality and merits of one’s photography in order to restore balance and emphasis on the fundamental process of visualization is a formidable task, but it can be done.
So, with this introduction to the history of the concept of visualization and a brief discussion of the modern day issues that threaten to derail it, this brings me to a discussion of a very simple, underappreciated, and perhaps forgotten tool in the process of visualization that can improve your compositional skill. Two years into my photography exploits, I came to the conclusion that there are only three things that determine the success in making a compelling photograph: artistic vision, the light, and the skill of the photographer. Essentially, I made this conclusion from a trial and error approach grounded in self-evaluation, experience, studying classic teachings, and examining the work of the great photographers, the classic as well as the contemporary greats.
In my humble opinion, this is where it all begins and ends. Not a day or a photograph goes by where I do not think of this philosophical triad in contemplating my next photograph. It is a concept within visualization that drives my thought processes and my methodology, inspires me, and keeps me honest. Traditionally, I have steadfastly argued that gear and tools in and of themselves do not make your photographs any better than they are already are, or are destined to be. Consider, some of the greatest photographs that were ever made were constructed with cameras, lenses, and other tools that were manufactured before all of us were ever born. In fact, those same vintage tools from the early and mid 20th Century are still being today used to make stunning photographs (this, too, is a tempting subject for a future article). I have always maintained that the triad above is impervious to the essential gear that one carries: the camera and lens. Of course, one may argue that light in this triad is itself a tool that can be crafted and manipulated, whether that light is from the sun or an artificial source, such as a flash or strobe unit, which can be considered “gear”. I would certainly agree with that argument. Further, one can also argue that the “latest and greatest” camera gear do make it easier for the photographer to create photographs under stringent and challenging conditions that would otherwise not be possible. I would also generally agree with that, but I would also quickly point out that the overall merits of the final product would be no different than photograph made with an “inferior” camera or lens.
Nevertheless, I would make one notable exception to this triad. I would argue that if there was one conscious effort in the entire process of visualization, one underrated tool that can improve the quality and overall merit of your photograph, then it would be the composition card, or the composing card. The composition card has been an instrumental and time honored tool for photographers for decades and continues to be used today by skilled and contemplative photographers. I would hope that some of my fellow photographers, whether they are analog or digital, also use this tool. Interestingly, in the five years that I have been studying the art of photography, I have yet to witness the composing card being used by photographers in practice. In photography workshops, of which I have had the delight and privilege to have participated in three, or on the internet, I rarely encounter a reference to the use of the composing card in making a photograph. One notable exception is this nicely written article published not long ago by Alan Ross, who was Ansel Adams’ personal assistant in his dark room in the 1970s and is an exceptionally talented and accomplished photographer in his own right.
What, you may ask, is a composition card? It is really quite simple. In the words of Ansel Adams, the composition card is elegantly defined and described:
“Visualizing photographs […] can be carried a step further by using a black cut-out card … The frame is cut to the proportions of the film format and held at the approximate distance from the eye to approximate the image area. The card helps in isolating and seeing more acutely the relationships of subject elements …” (2)
There is no instruction manual per se for using a composition card. It is both an intuitive and self-explanatory tool, yet every photographer who uses one has his/her own unique style of how to put it to use. The way to use it is once you have a subject of interest before your eyes, set aside every other piece of gear that you have in your hands (or hanging over your shoulder or back) and use the cut-out center of the card to place the subject of interest within the cut-out image area to frame the suggested composition. Once you “see” the subject through the “hole” in the card, then you can easily refine that initial composition by walking toward or away from your subject, exploring different angles, adjusting the perspective, and alternating between the horizontal or vertical position. Further, by extending or retracting your arm that holds the card to adjust the distance between your eyes and the card, you can easily approximate the appropriate focal length that you will need for the frame. Then, and only then, are you prepared to take the next critical step – opening the shutter. Essentially, the photographer’s body become the camera, the eyes become the lens, and the card becomes the final print.
The beauty and power of the composing card are that it trains the mind and the eyes to visualize the composition out of the relative “vastness” of the scene before the photographer makes the exposure. With practice and experience, the potential exists for the photographer to become more skilled to recognize and “filter out” out the extraneous elements and include only what is desired (and needed) for the photograph. Many of you might be thinking, “Well, I already do all of this through the view finder or on the ground glass of my camera . . . ” That is very true. Indeed, holding the camera (off a tripod or monopod, of course) and looking through the view finder as you move your feet and adjust the subject-camera distance, varying the angles, direction, and perspective are a great way to improve your compositional skill. However, with the composition card, the photographer is afforded the benefit of seeing a wider or more narrow scene (in particular for those using a prime lens) by virtue of extending the card from the eyes, which allows him/her to pay more attention borders, shapes, form, and structure. I would argue that holding a camera in your hands to simulate this process does not afford the equivalent benefits and actually may be counterproductive. For example, the physical weight of the camera/lens itself within the hands can be a distraction. Certainly, the photographer may be overly conscious of not wanting to drop that valuable piece of equipment, and that may exert an inhibitory effect on creating the composition. I argue that the more the mind is free from any such distractions or worries, the better. Further, if the photographer starts off with a relatively more constricted view as seen through the viewfinder, the then he/she may be less able to recognize strong (or weak elements) in a potential composition. As a bonus, a potential psychological benefit from using the card is that it can simulate the picture frame enclosing the finished print, and that may exert a positive influence on the creative process. Again, the more the mind is positively and creatively focused at this critical stage of the visualization process, the better. In essence, the composing card divorces the photographer from the physical and cold technical emotion of the camera itself (buttons, levers, switches, settings), which I consider to be a significant distraction at this critical stage. The card can provide the photographer more freedom and comfort to translate the image in the mind’s eye into a strong composition. Of course, once the photographer uses the card as the initial physical tool to define the composition and is ready to make the exposure, then the photographer can pick up his/her camera of choice, look through the viewfinder, or the ground glass under the dark cloth, to refine the final composition and then open the shutter. If you think about it, the composing card is an elegant and potentially powerful tool.
In terms of the construction of the card itself, photographers have used either a white or a black card. I prefer to use a black card, because I find that the “darkness” of the card helps me to more effectively isolate the composition from the extraneous elements outside of the card, much as the camera view finder or the dark cloth over the ground glass do. Alternatively, the use of a white card can help to simulate the white matte in a picture frame, and that can also exert a positive psychological impact in framing the composition. Or, you can use both! Really, it boils down to your style and personal preference.
Clearly, the composition card is designed to be a tool for the contemplative photographer who takes delight and pride in a slow and deliberate approach to assessing the subject, the lighting, and the mood of the scene. As such, the composing card is ideal for the still photographer (landscapes, portraits, still life) where the subject is relatively static. Obviously, the card would prove far less useful for the action photographer.
So, how does one make a composing card? It is easy and affordable. Simply take a piece of rigid card or cardboard, cut the exterior dimensions to a convenient size to hold (such 7×8” or 8×10”). Then within the center of the card, cut out the approximate proportions of the image area for the format(s) that you use. You could use a card for each format that you use (e.g., 35mm, 6×4.5, 6×7, 4×5), but that is not strictly necessary, so long as the image area dimensions are large enough to see through and approximate the aspect ratio that you envision for your print. Personally, I use two cards: one for a 5:4 aspect ratio for my medium and large format cameras and another with a 3:2 aspect ratio for my 35mm camera. Again, this is matter of choice. A good dimension for the longest edge of the cut-out would be between three to five inches, depending on your preference for ease of viewing. That is it! Simple, cheap, yet highly effective. Since I have been using the composing card for just over a year now, I consider it to be an instrumental tool in the development and refinement of my compositional skills. On a photo shoot or hike, I automatically pack my camera bag with my card and do not take any photograph without it – I am serious! In the photographs below, I have included a few modest illustrations of my composition card and how I have used it to visualize my final prints. (Note: I made the photograph of the tree about a year ago, so I recently went back to the original scene to make an illustration with my card.)
Even contemporary and accomplished photographers, such as the magnificent Howard Bond, use the composition card to visualize their prints. In a recent correspondence, Mr. Bond related this to me regarding the card:
“It makes compositions more likely . . . the exact camera position and lens can be determined before setting up the camera. I use a composing card for all of my photographs. ”
“Looking through it is more like looking at the mounted finished print. A great benefit of the composing card for users of non-zoom lenses is saving time by using it to discover which lens to put on . . .”
The simplicity and influence of the composition card in the visualization process are invaluable. The only challenge, if there is one, is for the photographer to consciously and deliberately pack the card in his/her camera bag and then take it out of the camera bag and use it. When I first started using the card over a year ago, I have to admit that I felt awkward holding this frame with a cut-out hole in the middle to survey my subject while curious passers-by were no doubt wondering or whispering to themselves, “Oh, look honey, I wonder what that guy is doing?” With practice and experience, I now feel very comfortable and empowered by using my composition card. Never do I wonder whether I need to use it for a given photograph. It is an automatic and conditioned process for me. I argue that for the contemplative photographer, the physical tool that should be pulled out of the camera bag before anything else should be the composition card, which I consider to be the tangible bridge between the mind and the print. My fellow photographers, I highly endorse and recommend this tool for refining and translating the visualization process. Please, why don’t you give it a try? There is much to be gained, and you just may be pleasantly surprised.
I hope you found this essay on visualization interesting and educational. I wish to thank Nasim Mansurov for his invitation to introduce myself and this article. As I mentioned, very soon, I will share with Photography Life a follow-up essay on visualization as well as a separate article on my particular tools and exploits in film photography. I would invite you to leave your comments and questions below. If you prefer to submit a private message, you are most welcome to do so with your Photography Life account or via email at my online gallery on Zenfolio. Thank you.
(1) The Negative. The Ansel Adams Photography Series 2.
(2) The Camera. The Ansel Adams Photography Series 1.