Pre-visualization, Getting Lucky, or Cheating? – Evolution of an Image

Ansel Adams, among other photographers, advocated for the use of “pre-visualization,” wherein the photographer has the final print image in mind before he meters, composes, and executes the original exposure in the camera. This purposeful mental exercise is intended to direct the photographer’s efforts to realize an intended photographic outcome, as opposed to merely a serendipitous, or “lucky shot.” While acknowledging the value in making photographs by just walking about and capturing moments opportunistically, Adams’ preferred an approach that progressed from an initial mental concept, through a shooting plan and a shot execution plan, then to a film development plan, and ultimately, to a printing plan to yield the final image. Adams’ renowned Zone System for exposure, created with Fred Archer, was a key component of this approach, envisioned to help a photographer make exposure decisions in the field based on desired outcomes in the darkroom print.

Winter Sunrise, by Ansel Adams

The shooting plan considers the subject, shooting location, time of year or season, the time of day, preferred environmental conditions, and equipment to use – camera, film format, lens focal length, filters, supplemental lighting, etc.. A shot execution workflow considers the image’s lighting, the dynamic range of the image, and the appropriate film (or digital ISO) to use, considering properties such as exposure latitude, resolution, color and contrast qualities, and grain/noise characteristics. Darkroom techniques in film processing and final printing, analogous to digital post-processing, are the last stages of image production, with consideration always towards achieving the pre-visualized outcome. This disciplined approach to photography intensely concentrates the photographer’s mind, driving him to consciously consider and choose between the myriad variables available to achieve his artistic intent. For a bit more on Ansel Adams’ approach to visualization, see this Graham Clark article, “How to Pre-Visualize like Ansel Adams.” Or, in Adams’ own words,

Ansel Adams’ Story of Visualization

So, with this nod to Ansel Adams and pre-visualization respectfully made, what do I really do? I will admit, I really try to pre-visualize, just like Ansel tells me, but despite my best efforts I fear my photographic eye is often inadequate to the task. I will persist in trying to refine my pre-visualization skills, but must also embrace the serendipity of lucky shots when I find them. That being said, sometimes we can make our own luck.

This past September, I attended the Antique Aircraft Association’s annual fly-in hosted at Antique Airfield in Blakesburg Iowa, near Ottumwa (home of TV show MASH’s Corporal “Radar” O’Reilly). This is a very grassroots event that features an exquisite selection of antique aircraft on a bucolic grass field, where one can casually stroll among the airplanes on the field or observe the many takeoffs and landing from the edge of the grass airstrip. I was shooting film on my Hasselblad 503cw and digitally with a Leica M10, primarily looking for static aircraft images, but I still eventually gravitated to the runway to watch the aircraft coming and going.

As in many genres of photography, for aircraft pictures the best lighting is often at or near sunrise and sunset. As I observed the aircraft operating, the sun began to set, making for some sublime lighting on the aircraft. I attempted a few Hasselblad photos, but the diminishing light level combined with the 400 ISO film I had loaded only offered slower shutter speeds that inhibited clear images of the aircraft as I attempted to track them rapidly crossing my field of view. The Leica, with a fast 50mm Zeiss lens mounted, offered a better chance at a clear picture. However, the short focal length prevented me from adequately isolating the subject from the background at the relatively long distance from which I was compelled to shoot.

Stearman on Takeoff, SOOC, by Mike Kukulski

Back at home, while post-processing the images on the computer, I was initially underwhelmed with the images of the departing and arriving aircraft, as seen straight out of camera (SOOC). The subject aircraft occupied only a small portion of the frame with an unremarkable background. Since a couple images had aircraft in interesting compositions and exhibiting interesting light, I chose to exploit the 24 megapixel sensor and crop in to isolate the subject.

Stearman on Takeoff, Image Cropped, by Mike Kukulski

This cropped image is a more interesting overall composition; the lighting on the biplane is promising and the image retains sufficient detail. However, the bland blue sky is boring, and the monochromatic color scheme of the Stearman led me to consider this as a prospect for black and white conversion.

Stearman on Takeoff, B&W Conversion, by Mike Kukulski

To my eye, this black & white version is more interesting, letting light and shadow define the biplane. This version also has modest amounts of dodging and burning applied to accentuate the tonalities in the airplane and to create more depth in the treetops in the background. But the boring sky background is a real inhibition to the impact of this image. It needs to be more dynamic, to impart some punch.

Up to this point, everything I had done in post-processing, from cropping, conversion to b&w, and dodging/burning, was simply digital manipulation of the pixels I had captured in the original DNG image. But the image still needed a more interesting sky to rescue it from the bland background. I could have replaced the sky with sky images from my own archives, but instead I now considered crossing the Rubicon into the realm of photographic purist sacrilege – adding pixels I did not create myself.

Adobe Photoshop has lately been promoting its development of artificial intelligence, or AI, which they call Adobe Sensei. The latest version of Photoshop includes neural filters that offer powerful portrait retouching and manipulation techniques, AI-driven selection and masking tools, and most applicable to this case, an AI-powered sky replacement tool. With this tool I selected what I thought was an appropriate sky image from its stock offerings, converted it to black and white, and layered it in with my image. With a little bit of vignetting added, along with a sepia toning and border addition in Nik Software’s Color Efex Pro, I had an image that was transformed, in my mind anyway, to one with some soul and impact.

Stearman on Takeoff, Blakesburg 2020, Final Image, by Mike Kukulski

I will freely admit that this image is not the result of pre-visualization. While I may have pre-visualized a dramatic aircraft superimposed on a complimentary sky background, the conditions at the time did not support this vision straight out of camera. However, I was able to find promise in a less-than-perfect DNG raw file, and then employ some of Adams’ visualization techniques (I had to know what I was working towards) in digital post-processing to achieve a desired end. Is this visualization, a lucky shot, or “cheating?” Perhaps it is a little bit of each.

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