Shooting for digital, photographs previsualization and the photoshop fake myth - Photography Course - Lesson 31

This article is part of the online digital photography course.

One of the greatest photographic theories and techniques of the 20th century was related to the zonal system conceived by the great photographer Ansel Adams. What did it say? In few words, Adams created a technique that allowed the photographers to transpose the light that they see in specific densities on the film and the paper, obtaining this way a better control on the finished photos, it basically allowed to determine the exposure and development time providing a better gradation in the gray components.

Without entering into details Adams asserted that to obtain a good shot you had to:

  1. Pre-visualize the photo: Adams itself explained it saying: "...visualizing an image [...] consist in imagining it, even before the exposure, as a continuous projection, of the image composition until the final printing. More exactly the visualization must be considered as a behavior towards the photography more than a dogma. That means that the photographer has total expression freedom, and it is never limited... It's not just to be in relation with your subject, but also to take consciousness of the expressive capabilities of his image [...]" Seeing in advance the alternative solutions with which you can give back a subject leaves a wide space to the subjective interpretation, allowing to use in every phase the means more fit (in terms of exposure and treatment) needed to the production of the image that we visualized.
  2. Shooting in the way to obtain a negative perfect for the development in the darkroom, or just shooting for the darkroom: the photographer, after his calculation for the exposure, has to develop the negative based on the exposure. Obviously he has to know the technical features of the film related to the chemical baths and to keep in mind of every possible variable in the development (time, temperature and agitation).
And in digital?

Things didn't change much. The first point, the pre-visualization, is still a tenet of photography. It's true that now our mind is tempted by the view button and eventually by the erase button too, but now we aren't talking of Sunday photography but we want to succeed in doing a beautiful picture. So we have to remove from our mind the chance to see and erase our shots. Our shots must be right. Thought. Pre-visualized.

Depending on what we pre-visualize, we'll decide how to set the camera: we'll choose the right lens, we'll use a pair time/aperture that will give us the desired effect, and we'll regulate also the new digital variable, the ISO (that wasn't absent in analogical but once mounted a roll of film you shot with that, and at most you could change the magazine but it wasn't immediate and versatile as it is now); then we shoot not for the darkroom but for Photoshop.


Talking about Photoshop people often think about infinite ways to TWIST an image. Maybe you'll think about many blunders that you can find on the net or on the printed paper. Often it’s believed that Photoshop is able to correct errors made during the shot phase. Sometimes... maybe. But here, again, we aren't talking about Sunday photography, but to make a beautiful picture. And then Photoshop shouldn't twist your picture. Your picture will have to be enhanced by the post-production. to do this you have to know how Photoshop works, where and how you should touch your image. You need to know the tools, knows which pixels they are going to touch; you need to know all the possible variations of every single tool. We aren't going to use all the tools but we need to know those we are going to use.

In substance?

I'll summarize all the passages you have to take to obtain a correct picture.

  1. I pre-visualize: I decide how my photo will be after the post production (yes, I don't just decide times and apertures but also how post producing it).
  2. Depending on what we stated above I choose the lens and decide the times, apertures and ISO keeping in mind the technical features of my sensor (as Adams would have kept in mind those of the film): CCD, CMOS... maintenance of the highlights... 12 or 14 bit... expose to the right... in few words I have to know my tools.
  3. I develop the RAW for Photoshop (that is in the most "plain" way possible, I’ve got to pull out a neutral picture, apparently bad-looking, but that in truth is a picture with a wide dynamic gamma with which we can play).
  4. I apply the correct workflow in Photoshop, I’m not going random, I follow a correct procedure that goes from the lighting to the color and then the most creative facets.
One last thing... from a correct photo, Photoshop can take out a very beautiful picture. From an incorrect picture, Photoshop just pull out all its faults.

Translation by Nina Kozul