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Seven Ways to Shoot Like Ansel Adams

By Chris Corradino on April 27, 2011


Most of us think of Ansel Adams primarily as a photographer and an environmentalist. Yet, as this rarely seen documentary shows, he was also an accomplished musician, a writer, and a teacher. This film, created in 1958 offers a wonderful look at Adams creative process and details many important concepts that can be applied to your photography today. Here are seven of them:

  1. As a classically trained pianist, Adams believed the discipline required to be a musician was essential to his success in photography. Like a piano, the camera is an instrument that must be practiced in order to improve and develop a personal style.
  2. He pre-visualized every print in his mind, or on his inner eyelid. This happened before applying technical details like shutter speed and aperture. The concept of pre-visualization allows you to "see" the finished print before pressing the shutter. This changes your photography from merely capturing record shots, to a more deliberate expression of your personal vision.
  3. Ansel metered the shadows and the highlights using his zone system. Shadows were placed on zone 1, (very dark) and highlights on zone 1 (close to white while retaining detail). Contrary to what many believe, this concept is not solely for film, but actually plays an essential role in manual exposure with a digital camera. By spot metering specific portions of a scene and making the desired changes to our settings, we can control the exposure with the same precision used by Adams.
  4. Because he captured the full tonal range of the scene in the camera at the time of the exposure, he was then able to perfect the final print in the wet darkroom. This process wasn't necessarily used to correct problems, but to enhance what was already on the negative. This method still has much validity today as photographers struggle where they stand on the ethics of image manipulation.
  5. He carried two tripods, three or more cameras with a variety of lenses, and several light meters (in case he dropped one). To see how many cases of gear Adams packed into his car is astounding. It was definitely not convenient to carry all of this weight, but he sacrificed convenience for the benefit of the final output. Too often, I see students today who miss amazing moments because they didn't have they left the necessary tools at home because it was "too heavy too carry". I don't love carrying heavy gear either, but thankfully there are many wonderful solutions for lightweight travel today including carbon fiber tripods, light but powerful prime lenses, DSLRs getting smaller, SD cards instead of film, etc.
  6. Upon image review in his studio, the first things he checks for are the details in the shadows and highlights. Next, he studies the sharpness to make sure it's sufficient throughout the print.
  7. Adams studied the way the shadows interacted with the light, and would often return to the same place many times before finding the ideal conditions.