On Assignment (1): Previsualization Makes the Shot
Keywords: on_assignment, mbradley, previsualization, photojournalism, national_geographic, northwest, territories, canada, blanchard, springs, cavern, arkansas
This is the first part of a new series on On Assignment.
“All creativity is in the planning.
The rest is just good carpentry.”
Illustrator, Author and Art Instructor 1892-1959
In his book, The Camera, Ansel Adams described visualization as, “...the ability to anticipate a finished image before making the exposure.” Master photographer and teacher, Minor White, called this skill “previsualization.”
Experienced photographers employ this concept all the time: imagining how the finished photo will look while considering the best use of composition, light and color to strengthen a picture idea. They typically do this behind the camera while judging a scene. Sometimes, they completely plan an image before ever picking up the camera.
Early in my career, I admit being slow to understand the importance of visualization and how significantly it can impact the success of a photograph. But now, looking back on my 34 years as a freelancer, I can’t begin to count how many times this skill saved my bacon while out in the field. In particular, two assignments come to mind.
Canada’s Nahanni National Park lies deep in the Mackenzie Mountains, a jagged backbone separating the Yukon and Northwest Territories. Its centerpiece, the 340 mile-long South Nahanni River boasts some of Canada’s finest whitewater.
National Geographic magazine decided to do a story on the park which would include both summer and winter coverage. Writer Doug Chadwick and I were lucky enough to land the assignment. Instructions prior to our winter trip were sobering: prepare for temperatures as low as minus 40 degrees.
To begin the assignment, Doug and I were helicoptered to a mountain lake known as “Hole in the Wall” for two days of acclimatization. Following this, we started a ten-day ski trip along the frozen South Nahanni River. Hundreds of miles from civilization, we were strictly on our own.
The first morning at the lake, a picture of our snow-bound campsite lacked any real power, although it did depict the bitterly cold weather. The light was dead flat due to a heavy overcast. And what little color there was in the scene appeared dull and dingy.
Even before snapping the shutter, I realized this photo was no more than a snapshot; there was nothing in it to grab the eye. This was my third assignment for National Geographic magazine. If I wasn’t able to do better — much better — there wouldn’t be a fourth.
So I made an effort to previsualize, to mentally conjure a different approach depicting our campsite. An evening composition would cast our mountainous surroundings in twilight, while a campfire could provide bright light and warm color for a compelling center of interest.
The ability to previsualize an image can be a valuable asset to any photographer, especially in extreme conditions. When the temperature dips to minus 20 degrees, the snow is up to your knees and night is quickly falling, it’s not the best time to start wandering around in search of picture ideas.
Doug (in the photo below), noted in his journal: “Fire nearly impossible to start. And food is cold before it’s halfway eaten.”
Waiting for evening light to fade, we huddled close to the flames, slurping steaming tea from aluminum Sierra cups after stirring in spoonfuls of sugar. I remember sitting so close to the fire my face felt scorched. Yet despite wearing long underwear, wool sweater and heavy down jacket, my back remained numbed by the cold.
With darkness about to fall, I reluctantly put my cup of tea in the snow and rose from the fire. Picture time!
Placing my camera on a tripod and attaching a 35mm lens proved tedious. Every movement seemed to play out in slow motion. I could only keep my gloves off for seconds at a time.
After about five minutes and just a few exposures, my fingers were totally numb and no longer useful. Arms and legs were board stiff. I’d had enough, and was ready for another shot of that tea.
Reclaiming my spot close to the fire, I reached for the Sierra cup. The tea had turned to ice, the spoon frozen in the tea.
A Shot in the Dark
Photographing a feature story on my home state of Arkansas for the Geographic required three months, spaced over the course of a year. One photo idea was a “portrait” of Blanchard Springs Caverns in the Ozark Mountains.
A couple of years earlier, I’d visited the Blanchard Springs area and toured the cave. I remembered my jaw dropping in awe as the elevator door slid open revealing a gigantic underground chamber filled with a fantasyland of colorful stalagmites and stalactites.
Based on this memory, I previsualized a composition featuring a tour group and a cavern formation aptly named “Giant Column.” The height of the tall rock column needed to be emphasized and have prominence within my image. This suggested a vertical format. The people, my intended center of interest, would be positioned as only a small part of the scene, helping give scale to the large cavern room.
It wasn’t possible to use a regular tour group for my picture, so I arranged to import a batch of school kids and photograph them at night when the cave was closed to visitors. It took two full days to make these arrangements, determine camera and flash locations, modify the cave’s lighting and conduct test exposures.
Taking manual control of the computerized floodlights required the help of two of the cave’s maintenance staff. A full three-minute time exposure was necessary due to the extremely low ambient light. During this time, Chester, one of the maintenance guys, was to kill several floodlights at just the right moment.
The second staff member would then fire two flashes, instantly exposing my stand-in tour group. When the flashes popped, the kids and cave guide were instructed to walk down the path and wait behind a cave formation. They needed to move quickly or they might record a second time due to the long exposure.
Using handheld radios for communication, we finally got the group positioned in the right spot. The first time I opened the shutter and gave the signal to start our planned sequence, nothing happened. That’s when I discovered Chester was hard of hearing.
After two long days and a sleepless night, I had a grand total of only twelve exposures to show for my efforts. After my editor reviewed the photos, she sent back a short note: “I think you can do better.”
I realized I’d made a common beginner’s mistake; the cave was so gorgeous, I had included too much in the pictures. So back to the cave I went. I tightened the composition and the shoot went more smoothly this time. The resulting image ran a full page.
Editor’s note: Retired photographer and Gold member Matt Bradley discovered a love of photography while serving in the Air Force as a pilot. Shortly after completing his military service, he published his first book and accepted his first professional assignment — for National Geographic magazine. Since that time, he has published five additional books and completed a variety of advertising, magazine and book assignments worldwide.
Originally written on May 20, 2020
Last updated on December 17, 2020
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