Previsualisation, the film approach | Russell Jones-Davies

Hi! I'm Russell and I'm a primary school teacher from the UK.  I am passionate about film photography and developing my knowledge and creativity with this medium. My main passion is shooting landscapes but I also enjoy shooting my own personal moments on something that will last a lifetime.

I have often heard in photography that you have to learn to "pre-visualise the shot" and with experience, this becomes second nature.  This thought made me compare and contrast the ability to do this pre-visualisation when shooting digital vs. film.

When I shoot digital I sometimes find it difficult to choose an editing direction as you have an unlimited variety of ways to edit.  Which way do you go?

One of the unique features of shooting with film is the ability to consistently pre-visualise by shooting a film that you become familiar with and understand its response to colour or tones.  This is something I see many digital shooters beginning to emulate with the purchase or use of film presets, to help find that consistent starting point.

Mamiya 645 Pro TL, 80mm, Provia 100.

I knew that Provia had a similar level of contrast and saturation as Velvia, whilst a little more realistic, so on a relatively stormy, cloudy day it accentuated the strong clouds and the tone differences in the ground.  I think Portra here would have looked incredibly flat by comparison.

What I've initially found

I have shot with film on and off for several years. In the last few years I have begun to become a much more frequent film shooter and I find my results are regularly what I had envisaged at the moment of capture, or at least very close.

Recently I began to strip out the variety of films I shoot and concentrate on a few key films so I can learn their characteristics.  I started using Portra 160/400 and Velvia 50 for my colour work and Delta 100 for my black and white.  Also, I’m trying Provia 100 for ease of scanning but this is only in the testing phase.

I’ve begun to shoot just these few films as they give me quite a breadth for the landscape work I do whilst still fitting the mental image I have; Portra gives nice soft colours and pleasing contrast whilst Velvia gives the classic punchy, saturated look.  I find Delta gives me a great neutral negative to work with either in the darkroom or post so I’m not battling my own image.

Mamiya 645 Pro TL, 80mm, Portra 160.

The evening was borderline cloudless and the contrast range was pretty high.  There were 4 stops between the sky area and the grass/path in the foreground.  Using Portra allowed me to meter for the foreground without worrying about losing detail in the sky. 

The Benefit

Having this knowledge of the films I shoot can help me to read a scene much better.  By understanding these characteristics I don’t try to shoot extremely high contrast scenes with Velvia, for example, it would be a battle and most likely lead to less than pleasing results.  Whereas in the above situation a shot on Delta 100 could potentially look amazing by having strong blacks and whites present in the image. 

Mamiya 645 Pro TL, 80mm, Delta 100.

I had Velvia and Delta loaded at the same time but the only image I had for this shot was a strong silhouette against the mountains behind.  With the rain softening the edges of the mountains it had a sense of mystery to me that colour wouldn’t have had.

By using the same films over and over you begin to learn the quirks, limits and key characteristics of what you’re going to shoot and by learning these quirks I believe that the real pre-visualisation can start to happen.  As you become familiar with these elements it becomes easier to develop a mental image of the scene you are viewing and how the film will handle what you can see. 

This allows your results to be less of a surprise and more of a realisation of the mental image you developed on the field.  This can help to provide a much stronger starting point for any further editing to get the final image you envisaged as you captured that moment. 

Mamiya 645 Pro TL, 45mm, Delta 100.

I shot this in Snowdonia, Wales and I liked the high contrast of white rock against dark grasses.  This screamed for black and white with great contrast.  For me the strength of the white rocks that look like a small mountain, against the darker mountain peeking over the top is a nice contrast.

I also feel that by being able to visualise your end result strongly it can only help to embrace the entire moment more vividly and completely.  For me personally, I am already assigning a final edit to the negative. I am producing and attaching the emotion and feeling to that exposure as I release the shutter.


As I progressively shoot more and more film I am finding digital harder and harder to shoot and edit effectively.  I feel that having too much choice is almost worse than having no choice at all.  In an era where you can have anything you want, whenever you want, applying restrictions can help to focus on your imagination, ideas and results.  This has also helped me to develop my own shooting style as I have stopped chasing an overly HDR effect or the super wide landscape as it simply doesn’t fit my equipment or the vision I have for the films I shoot.  I feel my photography improved the most when I solely shot Delta 100 for a few months and nothing else.  I began to imagine the tones in every scene I saw, I knew how much exposure it could cope with without measuring overly accurately and I then began to know how to print it.

Mamiya 645 Pro TL, 45mm, Delta 100.

Finding a silver boat with a wooden fence next to it on a dark rock beach is just a tone perfect subject for black and white.  The boat set against the mountain with a combination of rain and sun in the background for me creates a quite dynamic image with a very static subject.

Overall I think that if you want to begin to pre-visualise your shots you need to find a film that records how you see and then shoot it…a lot.  Then shoot it some more. 

With film, less is more.

Mamiya 645 Pro TL, 45mm, Delta 100.

Sometimes I simply like the simplicity that black and white brings.  The light kept breaking on this white house and illuminated it for a few seconds at a time.  With black and white there are no distractions and it helps to draw the eye to the house and then the mountains in the distance.  The patches of heather and greenery could have caused a distraction here.


You can find more of Russell's work in his profile here in the FSC, his personal page and his 500px account.