I’m not against all previsualization. If we didn’t do some visualization of what the finished photograph would look like, we wouldn’t need to focus or set the exposure. We wouldn’t need viewfinders. We would point the camera in random directions, trip the shutter at random times, and pore through the results later, like looking for Shakespearian nuggets in the output of a million monkeys with a million typewriters.
Heavily emphasizing previsualization doesn’t work for me. If you are a devotee, read along and ask yourself if too much previsualization is damaging your photography. It may be that it isn’t, and previsualization fits your photographic style perfectly. If that’s the case, by all means go ahead and plan the heck out of your pictures. If, however, you’ve bought the whole program without thinking about it too hard, you may want to back off.
Let’s deconstruct previsualization a bit. This will take several posts. I’ll start with two obvious, easy-to-talk-about aspects: framing and exposure. Then I’ll move on to more nebulous, but ultimately more important, components.
One element of previsualization is picking precisely where the boundaries of the frame will be before making the exposure. Usually, this means fitting the image to the format of the camera. This forces the photographer to do two qualitatively different things.
The first is to figure out just where the boundaries of the frame will be. On view cameras and SLRs with 100% finder coverage, this is pretty easy. On SLRs with less than full finder coverage, it’s a little tricky, but the fallback – a minor crop – isn’t bad. On rangefinder cameras, it’s extremely difficult. Parallax cuts off the top and (usually) the left side, and adds to the image on the bottom and the right, where you can’t see it. The corners aren’t always marked, and they are sometimes marked with curved lines, which, while pleasing, don’t represent the shape of the final image.
The second is to find a framing that works visually and expresses the photographer’s intent. As I’ve said here and here, working with constraints can be a creativity enhancer, and thinking hard about the edges of the frame before the exposure is a good thing. You have many options before you trip the shutter that are unavailable later; you can move forward or backward to change the perspective, you can change lens focal length, and you can move from side to side and affect the relationship of objects in the image.
But do you really want to nail the image down so that you have no wiggle room in editing? You do get to maximize quality that way, but, if the edges are critical to the image, you leave yourself open to failure if you slip up. Since it’s much easier to see the final image using the camera as a masking device, I usually try to frame static subjects exactly if I’m not using a RF camera and want to use the format’s natural aspect ratio. If there’s uncertainty, I tend to leave a little extra around the edges, and crop very slightly when making the print. I’ve done it the other way, and most of the time it works out fine, but when it doesn’t it’s a real drag.
Then there’s filling the frame as a photographic fetish. In the eighties and nineties it was fashionable to prove that you hadn’t cropped your images by filing out your negative carrier and printing sprocket holes, frame numbers, shadows of film hold-downs, Polaroid 55P/N matrices, or the twin Hasselblad tick marks. It was a powerful movement, and I admit that I was an occasional practitioner, but it was essentially an affectation, and one that drew the viewer’s attention from the image itself. Celebrating the process is one thing, but many of the pictures in this movement were mostly about the celebration. You don’t see photographs like that much anymore, but there’s an esthetic echo that I find genuinely offensive: doctoring digital photographs so they look like the ones that used photographic artifacts to proclaim their authenticity. Many of these seem to come from iPhones.
What if the right image shape for your subject and your vision doesn’t happen to fit the format of your camera? Do you force the image into your chosen format like Procrustes? Do you move on to another subject? Or do you leave enough room so you can crop it right later?
The worst thing about having a laser focus on cropping in the camera to the native shape is that it can close you off to possibilities that might be better. Why should the best composition for any subject be of the aspect ratio of the camera that you happen to have at hand?