Pre-Visualization Techniques in Black and White Photography

Image by Marina Pissarova

Pre-visualization refers to the ability to see in the “mind’s eye” how a final image will come out based simply on the scene in front of one. Pre-visualization is a crucial skill for all photographers. Without pre-visualization, photography can be largely random, and lacks conceptual clarity. You’ll also waste a great deal of time by making captures that don’t come out the way you’d expect or like. 

Some people think that digital technology has made pre-visualization greatly easier. With a digital capture, you can “see” what you’ve got right after the exposure—or using Live View even before you make the exposure. Reviewing a photo on your LCD screen can be a great way to check the accuracy of your exposure and the basics of your composition, but there are a couple of reasons why pre-visualization in the digital era is still as great a challenge as it ever was.

Assuming you’ve set your camera to create RAW captures, the image you see on your LCD is a JPEG rendition of the RAW file—and as such gives you only one data point regarding the potentialities available within the complete capture. There’s also close to an infinite universe of possible approaches to digital post-processing. You can take the file representing a photo and process it in numerous different ways—with tremendous variations in the final black and white image. 

From this viewpoint, the ability to pre-visualize digital black and white takes knowledge of the vast array of post-processing techniques as well as the ability to see with subtlety and clarity how the color world translates to monochrome. Here are some techniques you can use to help develop your pre-visualization skills, and to try and see how particular photos will “come out” in their final black and white versions:

  • Consider a generally monochromatic subject—this could be anything ranging from a bush to a door—and pay special attention to how it is lit. Think about whether you can make a black and white photo from the contrast between highlights and shadows. If not, consider how you need to change the lighting to create an interesting photo.
  • Bring a small sketchbook and a pencil with you on your shoots. Before making any exposures, try to draw the key shapes you see in the image. This work will help you clarify the important aspects of the composition you are trying to make.
  • Looking at a potential photo in your viewfinder, try to see the image in black and white. In your mind’s eye, try to take both black and white areas to the limit. What happens when the darker areas go completely black? What happens when the lighter areas go completely white? What are the results if both “moves” are attempted at the same time?

By the way, pre-visualization is not a be-all and end-all by itself. It’s a tool and technique to help you create more powerful images with greater control. But don’t get caught in the trap of excluding alternative possibilities when you come to process your imagery. Often, the most interesting photos come from surprise detours along the way rather than following the straight and narrow path of your original roadmap.

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