Ansel Adams is one of the most revered and well loved photographers of all time. Known for his stunning black and white landscape work he was passionate about the natural world and was a big part of helping preserve it working with the National Parks. In fact several of his images (about 200) now reside in the U.S. National Archives and are public domain like this one below.
Of all the famous photographers in history his images are likely the farthest spread, and the most well known, even amongst non-photographers. Even if you weren’t aware you’ve probably seen his images on posters, books, and online. His methods for exposing and processing black and white images to achieve the ultimate contrast and detail in all areas became known as The Zone System (formulated with Fred Archer). You can even find many books about the Zone System now updated to apply to digital photography.
Below is a neat little video that shows Ansel at work actually taking a photo in the field. If you’ve never used or seen a large format view camera, this will be really interesting for you. Ansel is using an 8×10″ camera (yes that’s right his negative is 8×10 inches!), take note of how many different ones he took with him and how much stuff he had. Watch as he exposes his paper in the darkroom, and does the original form of dodging and burning, as he holds back part of the image during the exposure, and adds more to other areas (using his hands and the card he holds over it).
I used to use a large format camera when I did commercial work, and for the entire first year when I went to photography school all we had was a 4×5″ camera to use. You cannot use one without a tripod as they are cumbersome and heavy (the tripod you see him putting in his car, is the same kind I used in the late 80s and yes it was even heavier – about 15 pounds, similar to this Manfrotto one). The price of film and processing then was about $3 every time you clicked the shutter, so what does is really make you work slowly and purposely. I only took a photo when I was sure it was good, because as a starving student I couldn’t afford to waste $3 on shots that were garbage.
Of course I would love to have been able to interview the man myself, but he left this earth well before I was a photographer unfortunately. It speaks volumes as to the timelessness of his images that his work is still studied today. This video is a bit unique in that it’s not an interview with the man himself, but a tour of the home where Ansel did most of his work. The home is now owned and maintained by his son Michael, who you will see in this video as he describes the taking of one of Ansel’s most famous images, Moonrise over Hernandez when Michael was seven years old.
If you want to know more about this great photographer you can visit the official site, The Ansel Adams Gallery, or do a YouTube drift and check out the many documentaries and interviews with him. You can also pick up a book about him or one of his portfolios books full of amazing images like these:
What can you learn from Ansel Adams?
I think that while there are many technical things you can learn from Ansel Adams, two, which are a bit more intangible, stand out to me.
First, slow down. This applies to while you’re doing your photography, and in life in general. Take your time to think about what you’re doing, check your settings, look at your composition, analyze the light. Using a tripod is something that I see people in my workshops and photo tours almost fight me on, but if you get over that urge to rush and the feeling the tripod is a hinder it WILL make you a better photographer. I have no doubt in my mind that by starting us out with a large, extremely cumbersome camera, that my photography instructor knew exactly what they were doing and I thank them today for it!
Second, be observant and don’t hesitate. In the video his son Michael talks about how his dad pulled over the car in a hurry because he saw something that caught his eye. How many times have you seen something and either not had your camera with you, or don’t take the time and effort to stop and take the photo – thinking to yourself “I’ll came back tomorrow”, and then it’s never the same again. I will raise my hand and admit to that.
I think this lesson applies to photography and life as well. Opportunity knocks often but once, and if we are not ready for it or do not answer the door it may not come again. Take every opportunity that comes your way to photograph, and to explore and experience life to the fullest. Now get out there with your camera, and tripod, and make some photos!