Ansel Adams is one of the titans of photographic history. When I started as a photographer, I was primarily interested in landscape photography. I studied and consumed the work of Adams.
What drew me most to his work was the minimalism, zen, and the sense of calm from his photographs. I learned early on that Ansel Adams didn’t just “take” photos— he “made” his photographs, through his extensive darkroom work.
Furthermore, I began to appreciate nature more from him. During his entire life, he canvassed to support the wilderness— politically, and through his photographs.
There are many extensive biographies of Ansel Adams online, so I won’t cover too much of his history or past here. I wanted instead, to dedicate this post to practical tips and lessons I’ve learned from him, and how I’ve applied these theories to my own personal photography.
Even though you might not be a landscape photographer, Ansel Adams’ personal philosophies can help you in all genres of photography, and in life.
1. “You don’t take a photograph, you make it”
Ansel Adams is famous for his “zone system” — a complicated method of rendering the “perfect” monochromatic print.
He was famous for saying that you don’t just “take” photos— you “make” photos.
He saw photography as a form of art. Clicking the shutter wasn’t enough to make an image. You also had to spend time in the darkroom, to bring to life what you saw and felt in real life.
Therefore Ansel Adams spent countless hours in the darkroom, always trying to make the “perfect” print.
I also believe the same is in our photography — clicking the shutter isn’t enough. We need to use post-processing techniques to create a certain aesthetic, mood, and emotion in our photographs.
There is a fine line, however. Many modern photographers spend too much time in the “digital darkroom” and try to polish turds into pieces of art. No matter how good your post-processing techniques, if your photos aren’t good to start with, they’re not going to get any better.
Crap in, crap out.
However that isn’t to say you shouldn’t post-process your photos at all. The common misconception in photography (especially for beginners) is that somehow post-processing your photos are “cheating.”
I think all of us as photographers have a certain vision about the photos we would like to make. Try to pre-visualize the photos you want to make before you take them. Then afterwards, strive hard to “make” your photos.
2. Know where to stand
“A good photograph is knowing where to stand.” – Ansel Adams
In landscape photography, position is everything. Where you are situated in respect to your landscape, will determine your perspective, the mood of the photograph, as well as the composition.
I know some of the most epic landscape photographers will hike with 50 pounds of gear, just to get the best position. They will use wide-angle lenses, and venture into places nobody else dares to go.
The same applies to any form of photography.
In street photography, you can distill it down to two things (credit David Hurn from Magnum):
- Where to stand
- When to click the shutter
Don’t be lazy when you’re shooting. Know how to move your feet. And instead of using zoom lenses, I recommend using “foot zoom.”
By moving your feet and getting a better position, you will create more unique and creative images. Not only that, but practice crouching, moving to the left, to the right, and sometimes even your tippy-toes. Try to hike to get very high perspectives, and sometimes lie on your stomach or back to get very low perspectives.
3. Photograph how it feels (not how it looks)
As photographers, we forget that art is more about the emotion it evokes in the viewer, not how it looks.
In photography, it is easy to forget this point. Why? The camera is known for being the most descriptive form of image-making.
However if we want to make more effective images, we should focus on photographing how a scene feels— not how it looks. Ansel Adams tells why he decided to photograph his famous image, “Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico” shot with an extremely dark sky:
“My Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico has the emotion and the feeling that the experience of seeing the actual moonrise created in me, but it is not at all realistic. Merely clicking the camera and making a simple print from the negative would have created a wholly different–and ordinary–photograph. People have asked me why the sky is so dark, thinking exactly in terms of the literal. But the dark sky is how it felt.” – Ansel Adams
When it comes to your photography, what kind of emotions are you trying to evoke in your viewer? Are you trying to show them beauty, sadness, melancholy, excitement, or misery in your photos? How do your photos make you feel? What kind of feeling do you want your viewer to walk away with?
We can create a certain emotion or feeling in our photos by different methods and techniques. If we are photographing landscapes, we should look for the light, mist, smoke, fog, or other natural splendors. And the way we post-process our photos afterwards will change the emotion dramatically.
If you’re shooting people or in the streets, look for body language, eye-contact, or hand-gestures.
Lastly, shoot with your heart. Don’t just think of composition and framing when you’re out on the streets. Photograph with your emotion, and your entire soul. This way, you will be able to better communicate your feelings through your photographs.
4. Pre-visualize your photos
Going off the prior point, Ansel Adams always tries to pre-visualize his photos. Not only does he look at what his subject is in front of him, but he tries to pre-visualize how the final photo will look like.
Ansel Adams also shares that if he pre-visualizes something exciting, it might make a good photograph:
“In my mind’s eye, I am visualizing how a particular revelation of sight and feeling will appear on a print. If I am looking at you, I can continue to see you as a person, but I am also in the habit of shifting from that consciously dimensional presence to a photograph, relating you in your surroundings to an image in my mind. If what I see in my mind excites me, there is a good chance it will make a good photograph. It is an intuitive sense and also an ability that comes from a lot of practice. Some people never can get it.” – Ansel Adams
We have all faced this, especially when starting off in photography: we see a scene that excites us, and we click the shutter. We look at our LCD screen, and we are massively disappointed. What we saw in our LCD screen did not correspond with what we saw in real life.
To become a better photographer is to better-translate what you see in real life, and make it appear in a photograph.
This happens by improving your composition, understanding your technical settings, understanding your camera, and also knowing where to stand, when to click, and how to post-processing your photos.
Intuition in photography comes with a lot of practice. The more images you shoot, the more you scrutinize them after-the-fact, get feedback and critique from your peers, the more you will internalize pre-visualization, and figure out how you want your final images to look and feel.
5. Ignore critics
Even someone as established as Ansel Adams had critics and “haters” in his lifetime. With more success, comes more envy, and more negative critism from others.
How did Ansel Adams deal with his critics? He just ignored them:
“Critics are never comfortable with anything that catches on. Some people have said that I’m just a postcard photographer. I don’t even bother replying to them. Others have gone overboard the other way and have given all sorts of mystical interpretations to my work. There are very few critics who have understood my work or considered it fairly.”
Adams continues by sharing how superficial critics can be, and how ridiculous they are:
“As a rule, critics don’t get to the bottom of anything; they are superficial. It doesn’t really matter. Art critics are a sort of ridiculous bunch, for the most part. In general, I suppose I’m respected by critics and other photographers, but I also annoy a lot of young people. It’s perfectly natural that they oppose what they consider my conservative ideas about photography.”
No matter what, you can never please 100% of your audience with your photography. In-fact, I think becoming a great artist is to not compromise your vision. The more innovative you are in your photography, the more people you are going to confuse, frustrate, and alienate.
It is all part of the photographic process, and finding your own voice in photography.
If you start getting negative criticism from others, treat it as a sign of success. After all, if you’re a nobody, nobody will ever criticize your work (not even your mom).
6. On technology and photography
The thing that blew me away the most was how excited Ansel Adams was bout the future of photography— especially the technology side of things.
Often myself (and my fellow hipsters) romanticize the past of photography. We obsess ourselves with older techniques, shooting film, and printing in the darkroom.
However even Ansel Adams (the master of the darkroom print) was excited for future digital technologies. He shared how he believed that digital photography would enhance images, and also make even better results:
“Electronic photography will soon be superior to anything we have now. The first advance will be the exploration of existing negatives. I believe the electronic processes will enhance them. I could get superior prints from my negatives using electronics. Then the time will come when you will be able to make the entire photograph electronically. With the extremely high resolution and the enormous control you can get from electronics, the results will be fantastic. I wish I were young again!”
We are lucky to be alive currently with digital technology. I’m sure if Ansel Adams was still around today, he would be using the best technology he could afford.
Ansel Adams also (correctly) predicts the future of photography:
“For me the future of the image is going to be in electronic form.You will see perfectly beautiful images on an electronic screen. And I’d say that would be very handsome. They would be almost as close as the best reproductions.”
You are currently living in the best generation, ever, for photography. We have access to amazing digital technologies that can help us create what kind of image we want. We have powerful computers, smartphones, and cameras that empower us.
We can share our photos with millions (or even billions) around the world. Rather than wishing we were born in another century, let us be grateful for what we have, and make the best out of what we can.
7. On music and photography
One of the things that interests me most about Ansel Adams is his affinity to music. Initially his goal in life was to become a classical pianist, but he decided to pick up photography instead. Ansel Adams explains how he first got interested in photography:
“In 1930 I was in Taos, and Paul Strand showed me his negatives. They were so gorgeous, they confirmed my urge, and I said, ‘That’s it. I want to be a photographer.’ Some friends said, ‘Oh, don’t give up music. A camera cannot express the human soul.’ The only argument I had for that was that maybe the camera couldn’t, but I might try through the camera.”
Despite the negative feedback from his friends, he decided to pursue photography anyways. And furthermore, studying music gave him discipline in his photography:
“Anyway, it worked. I seemed to have an eye, and everything went very smoothly. I had no wracking problems. I progressed. Study in music gave me a fine basis for the discipline of photography. I’d have been a real Sloppy Joe if I hadn’t had that. So before I knew it, I had done some jobs and begun to make a go of it. And here I am.”
Ansel Adams also shares more about how music instilled an incredible work ethic in him:
“Well, in music you have this absolutely necessary discipline from the very beginning. And you are constructing various shapes and controlling values. Your notes have to be accurate or else there’s no use playing. There’s no casual approximation.”
Life often takes unexpected turns. We start college thinking we will be a doctor, and then end up studying sociology and becoming a photographer. Sometimes we pursue some sort of art, and we end up discovering another form of art.
Take your past experiences, passions, and hobbies— and combine them with your photography.
How can your hobby of fixing on cars change how you approach photography? How can your background in theater, dance, music, or sculpture influence your photography?
How can your personality, past university studies, or life experiences influence, motivate, or make your photography more creative?
They often call this “cross-pollination” — taking two different fields of art, combining them, and making something totally unique.
This is what Ansel Adams did, and this is what you can do too.
8. Make photos look like photos
Photographers tried to make their photos look like paintings. They would use soft-focus, diffused light, and textured papers. They called this “Pictorialism”.
Ansel Adams and the “group f/64” rebelled against this notion. Ansel Adams states below what the mission of “group f/64” was, and how revolutionary it was:
“It was devotion to the straight print, paper surfaces without textures that would conflict with the image texture. It was a belief in sharpness throughout the photograph. Good craft, in other words. F/64 is a small stop on the camera that gives great depth of field and sharpness. It was the concentration on images that were not sentimental or allegorical.”
Adams continues by sharing how the working philosophy of “group f/64” was the “anti-pictorialism”:
“It was a reaction, a strong reaction against the pictorialists, who were working their heads off to make a photograph look like anything but a photograph. In an attempt to be creative, they were retouching and diffusing the images. Hideous stuff! They were the ones Weston called the fuzzy-wuzzies. They would go out into the street and find some old bum with a matted beard, and they’d get a tablet of Braille and make the old man put his fingers on the Braille. They would place him in an old chair, looking up through a cloud of cigarette smoke that was illuminated by a spotlight. The title would be Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory. That must have been done a thousand times. There were also slimy nudes. Those photographs were horribly contrived, shallow works, terrible moods–just terrible stuff that completely lacked creative intensity, the very thing we were so excited about.”
What Ansel Adams and the group tried to achieve was to create photos that looked like photos. Photos without any gimmicks. What they called “straight” images — photos that were straight-forward.
They would use sharp lenses, instead of soft-focus lenses. They believed in dodging and burning their photos (increasing contrast or brightness in certain areas) but not so much that it made the photograph look too “dreamy.”
One of the great legacies of the group f/64 and Ansel Adams is that they made photography acceptable.
During the time of Ansel Adams, photography wasn’t seen as a “real” form of art. That was only reserved for the painters.
Therefore when photographers started off, they wanted their photos to be taken as “art” — and therefore tried to make their photos look like paintings. Or tried to make their photos not look like photos.
Fortunately we live in a time where photography is (finally) accepted as a “real” art (at least by most art circles). We have museums, galleries, and schools dedicated to photography.
I think the takeaway point is that we should be grateful for photography — what it is, instead of wishing for what it wasn’t.
Don’t make analogies with photography with other arts, and say it is “superior” or “inferior” in certain ways. Photography is what it is. Treat it as its own form of art.
And let us be grateful to have the great honor of making photographs.
Ansel Adams has re-solidified my belief in digital photography, and how new technologies has helped empower us in photography. Furthermore, he has taught me the importance of pre-visualizing before I make photos, not to just take random snapshots.
Ansel Adams has also taught me to shoot with my heart and emotions, and not to just photograph how something looks like, but how it feels.
Ansel Adams is one of the most famous photographers in history, and will continue to be. He lived well into his 80’s, and lived a creative life all-throughout. Although he achieved commercial success, it came much later in life.
His passion was to make photos that showed the beauty of nature, to educate others about the importance of preserving nature, and to devote his life to making the most beautiful prints.
His philosophies and images can inspire all of us, no matter what genre of photography we shoot.
Thank you for your beautiful images Ansel, and your legacy.
Interviews with Ansel Adams
- Ansel Adams Interview, March 1983
- Ansel Adams: The Last Interview, Summer 1984
- Internet Archive: Conversations with Ansel Adams: Oral History Transcript / 1972–1975
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