Visualize This! (Part One of Three)

Stay with me here. I have something very important to tell you. It’s so important that it’s going to take more than one blog post. I’m going to take you with me on a journey of PREVISUALIZATION as I create a night-photography image.

Previsualization? Uh, Kevin, isn’t that a bit redundant? Is that even a word?

You bet it is, and it’s the most important word you can know if you want to be a night photographer. Louis Pasteur said, “Luck favors the prepared mind.” Ansel Adams talked about anticipating the finished image before making his exposures. These aren’t abstract thoughts; they are central to the process of taking pictures at night.

Why? Because most of the images we shoot after dark look nothing like what we see with our eyes. The long exposures required for night photography cause moving lights and clouds to streak and people to blur. Even when there is nothing moving, a 30-second exposure is going to make the scene look a lot different. Don’t believe me? Go out tonight and try it. Doesn’t matter what you point your camera at; I promise you, if you shoot at a long exposure the image will look different from what you see with your eyes. The only exception is when we shoot on the cusp of darkness, in twilight. Twilight cityscapes can look the way we see them if there are no moving people or vehicles.

 Since  the resulting image looks different from what you see when you shoot it, the only way you’re going to know what to shoot is if you are able to previsualize it, if you already have a good idea what the image is going to look like before you shoot it. Before you even get to location. Sometimes, before you even choose a location.     

International Space Station over waterfall

The International Space Station flies over a waterfall during the full moon

While the general concept is easy to grasp, implementing it is difficult for many photographers. The reason is that in order to previsualize a scene effectively, you have to understand what’s going to happen during those long exposures for any given variable. Are the stars shining? What’s going to happen to them in a 40-second exposure with a 50mm lens? Is the moon out? How will its light affect the scene? Are there moving cars or airplanes? Does the scene contain snow or white water from waterfalls? Those subjects are very reflective and will affect the exposure dramatically. What will the weather be like? Will there be lightning, fog, rain, clouds? Will there be any satellites or Iridium flares streaking across the sky?

Yes, to make the best night photos consistently, you need to take all these things and lots more into consideration BEFORE you go out to shoot. It’s nothing like daytime photography, where you can go out and photograph whatever you find. With night photography, you go out and photograph what’s in your MIND. The real key is to experiment as much as you can. Shoot all kinds of subjects with different exposures and see what the effects are. Don’t guess; try it and see. Pretty soon, you’ll start to have a good understanding of how night exposures affect various subjects and you can begin to plan your shots.  

In the next post, I’m going to explain the process I used to create the accompanying image of the International Space Station streaking over a waterfall. I had to previsualize the individual affects from five different elements in the scene and the cumulative affect from all of them. The resulting image is darned close to the vision in my mind before I shot it. See if you can guess the five elements. I’ll be back in a couple days with the rest of the story.   

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One Response to “Visualize This! (Part One of Three)”

  1. Patti Edens Says:

    Kevin, Fantastic image! Can’t wait for the next installment. I can guess at a few of the elements, but don’t have them all. You had to know the elevation, direction of travel, magnitude and time of pass for the ISS. You also had to know the moonrise time and direction. It must have been difficult to choose the right shutter speed to capture the entire ISS arc and also get some definition in the water. Not sure how you did that. Maybe painted the water with light for just part of the exposure? Looking forward to some answers to the mystery.

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