Born in 1902, Ansel Adams would become one of the most influential photographers that ever lived. He wasn't just famous for producing some of the most iconic photographs of all time, but he was also responsible for contributing timeless, innovative ideas to the photography community. Apart from developing useful visualization techniques, he also invented The Zone System which is still used by photographers to this day.
Unlike other photographers who were secretive about their process, Adams was always enthusiastic about teaching other people his craft. In fact, he loved sharing his knowledge so much that he wrote several books about landscape photography. Some of his most seminal works include the book series The Camera, The Negative, and The Print, which remain popular among photographers to this day.
In this article, we’ll look at seven reasons why he was so terrific at taking photographs, as well as show you how to incorporate these techniques into your own work.
01. Learn all the features of your camera
One of the reasons Ansel Adams’ photos are so technically outstanding is he knew all the features of his cameras so well. In fact, he was so in tune with his equipment that he intuitively knew which settings to use.
Back then, cameras didn’t measure exposure automatically, so Ansel had to do it all manually by himself. Before taking a photograph, he would take out a pocket-sized meter and measure light from different parts of the scene. He would then make his own exposure calculations and change his settings according to what he saw fit. Since he was so precise with his adjustments, he didn’t have to worry about fixing any exposure mistakes in the darkroom.
Fortunately, these days, everything is automatic, so you don’t have to go through the laborious steps of taking exposure readings. Nevertheless, you still have to learn all of your camera’s features, so you know exactly what to do regardless of the shooting condition.
Nature is unpredictable and unforgiving, so you need to know how to adapt to it if you want to shoot beautiful photos. Familiarize yourself with all the settings—especially the different exposure settings. If it’s cloudy outside, you have to know how to adjust your exposure accordingly, and if you want to make the sky and bodies of water look more dramatic, you need to familiarize yourself with long exposures.
02. Use a small aperture
“When words become unclear, I shall focus with photographs. When images become inadequate, I shall be content with silence.”
In the 1920s, Adams would found the prestigious Group f.64 with renowned photographers Willard Van Dyke, Edward Weston, and Imogen Cunningham, among others. The name was conceived by Adams and Van Dyke and pertains to the smallest f-number photographers back then used to create sharp images.
As the group's famous name implies, Adams was a fan of small apertures (such as f/64) which allowed him to achieve detailed and sharp images. Because of the deep focus that his preferred lens settings produced, he was able to capture great detail in both the foreground and the background of his photos.
Modern SLRs may not have apertures as small as f/64, but the rule stays the same: in order to achieve sharp focus throughout the scene, you need to use a small aperture. Just remember that some lenses suffer from diffraction whenever the smallest aperture is used (typically f/22), so it would be best to use f/11 or f/16 to achieve the best results.
03. Look for a good perspective
“When I'm ready to make a photograph, I think I quite obviously see in my mind’s eye something that is not literally there in the true meaning of the word.”
Adams was known for "visualizing" his images, which means that he knew exactly what he wanted before taking the shot. To achieve the pictures that he saw in his mind, Adams would scout for the best locations where he could capture the best views. Sometimes, that meant hiking and climbing for hours with heavy equipment.
He also outfitted his car with a platform where he could quickly set up his tripod and camera. Being able to shoot several feet off the ground gave him a vantage point that was clear of unwanted visual elements that could obstruct his frame.
Before you go to a location, imagine how you want to capture it. Even when you find yourself in front of a famous landmark that’s been photographed so many times before, remember that there’s always a different way to shoot it. Don't hesitate to take a photo from high up or while laying down on the ground. Show people a unique perspective they’ve never seen before.
04. Highlight the landscape
“There is nothing worse than a sharp image of a fuzzy concept.”
Adams was extremely meticulous with his composition regardless of the environment he was photographing. He knew how to make all the visual elements in any particular scene work together to form one cohesive image.
For instance, in the photo below, he used the natural lines on the rocks to lead the eyes to the formations in the background. It's also no coincidence that he chose those triangle-shaped boulders to create balance.
Unlike other photographers, Adams also had the habit of including only a small portion of the horizon, especially in his earlier works. In doing so, he made the landscape the primary focus of the image. Of course, he also allowed the sky to take up most of the scene every once in a while, but only if he felt the scene needed it.
When photographing landscapes, all the rules of composition still apply. Make sure everything in your scene—from trees to rocks—are in the right place to create a balanced photo. Also, since sceneries can sometimes look busy, don’t forget to include elements such as open spaces to let the eyes rest and leading lines to direct them to your main point of interest.
05. Be mindful of the sun’s location
“The moods and qualities of nature and the revelations of great art are equally difficult to define; we can grasp them only in the depths of our perceptive spirit.”
Adams often shot scenes when the sun was low on the horizon to give his images deep contrast and beautiful shadows. With rich dark and bright elements, he was able to attain the tonal range necessary for creating captivating black and white photographs.
Even in the age of digital color photographs, having an excellent tonal range remains key in creating a good picture. No matter which equipment you use, you still have to chase good lighting. Keep in mind that an image shot at high noon will never be as good as photographing the same scene at sunrise or sunset.
06. Study the zone system
“The negative is the equivalent of the composer's score, and the print the performance.”
In the late 1930s, Ansel Adams and fellow photographer Fred Archer developed the Zone System to help photographers attain their desired tonal range for photographic prints. It was created to compensate for exposure meters inability to read light the way humans do. Although it can measure light precisely, it can’t tell if it’s metering a white wall or a black wall.
The scale for the system is composed of the full tonal gradation (from deep black to pure white with shades of grey in between) divided into 11 zones. Black is represented as Zone 0, while white is designated as Zone X. Whatever exposure reading your meter gives you will be in the middle, which is Zone V (grey).
It's used as a visual reference to allow the photographer to achieve the proper tones in their images. And while this system may have been developed for black and white, it works perfectly for digital color photography as well.
For example, if you're taking a photo of a snowy mountain, and you want the snow to look genuinely white, you need to switch to spot metering mode and point your lens at the snow to get a meter reading. If, for instance, the recommended exposure setting is 1/250th, you need to place that value at Zone V as the Zone System recommends. To make that snow appear brighter, you need to go from Zone V to Zone IX (since if you look at the scale, it's almost pure white).
Since each zone is equal to one stop, you need to go up four stops to reach Zone IX. With that information, you can now confidently adjust your setting from 1/250th to 1/640th (precisely four stops) to and have truly white snow.
However, in real life application, the active zones are only from Zone III to Zone VII. If you go beyond those zones, there's a good chance you’ll start losing detail. With this in mind, you need to go two stops down to retain your highlights. So instead of 1/640th, you need to set your camera to 1/400th.
It may seem complicated at first, but once you grasp the idea, you can use it in any situation to achieve proper exposure.
07. Edit your photos meticulously
“Dodging and burning are steps to take care of mistakes God made in establishing tonal relationships.”
Just like when he was shooting on the field, Adams also visualized how he wanted his pictures to look on a print. What separates Adams from other influential photographers is that he was also extremely proficient at editing his photos. Having control over the aesthetic and the quality of his work gave him full artistic freedom that his contemporaries didn’t have.
Adams was a master of dodging and burning, photo editing techniques we’re familiar with that started in the darkroom. However, instead of conveniently using a computer mouse, he used a circular cardboard cutout on a stick when he was dodging to prevent light from hitting the photo paper, hence limiting the exposure. For burning, he used various pieces of cardboards with different-sized holes in the middle to intentionally let more light hit the photo paper to make specific areas in his print look darker than they initially were.
To show how skillful he was with editing in the darkroom, let’s take a look at this straight unedited print of the Moonrise, undoubtedly among his most famous photographs:
Although you may think the unedited version already looks perfect as it is, Adams changed a few elements that would transcend what we consider perfection. He “burned” the sky to make it darker and remove the clouds he didn’t want. He also made the moon and the rest of the clouds brighter by “dodging” them. The resulting image is the masterpiece you see below:
Fortunately, these days you don't have to go through the intensive process of editing in the darkroom. However, even though you have the best photo editing tools available to you at our fingertips, you should never be lazy about editing. Examine your image and see what you can do to make it even better. Dodge the areas in your image that are underexposed, and burn the ones that are overexposed. Remember to make it look natural, just the way Adams did it.
There’s a whole gamut of technical skills you can study from Ansel Adams, and each of them requires a lot of patience. In an age when people are pampered with instant gratification, most photographers don’t want to work as hard to achieve good results. Remember that regardless of the equipment you use, timing is always key in creating memorable photographs. So get out there and wait, just like Adams did, for the perfect moment when nature reveals all of its beauty.