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Tuesday, January 26, 2010

DSLRs To Shoot Like Ansel Adams


The great master of nature photography didn’t shoot with a digital camera, but if Ansel Adams was alive today, we’re pretty certain he would. Here, we look at some of the latest cameras and at the features in which Adams might have been most interested.

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The legendary Ansel Adams was certainly one of our best-known landscape photographers. He made so many iconic images of the American landscape that he, himself, became an icon. Adams combined an artist’s creative eye with a scientist’s methodic mind, codeveloping the famous Zone System to enable him to create prints that showed exactly what he saw in his mind’s eye when he took the photo. While some have made a near-religion out of the Zone System itself, to Adams it was merely a means to an end: a way to produce, consistently, prints that conveyed to the viewer what he saw and felt when he made each photograph.

Digital imaging didn’t exist when Adams was active, but he saw it coming. When OP Senior Editor Mike Stensvold interviewed Adams for a magazine in 1980, his wonderful book Yosemite and the Range of Light had just come out, and he was delighted to discover that he could get more out of his negatives with the laser scanner used to create the images for the book than he could printing them in the darkroom. He was excited about the possibilities the future held and even left his negatives to a large university, in part, so the people there could print them with future technologies.

That was 30 years ago.

Electronic (now digital) imaging has come a long way since then, and we strongly suspect Adams would be using it today. He’d be scanning his classic negatives and making more expressive prints than ever. And he’d be shooting digital. Why? Because he believed in control, and digital provides it, far beyond what was possible with film and the darkroom. And more than anything, Adams knew photography is about the photograph, not how you got there. Any tools that would help him create those terrific prints, he’d love.

Ultimately, Adams was about the final image. He previsualized the final image and exposed, developed and printed to get that in the final print. He adjusted exposure, used filters, applied special development, dodged, burned, masked, used intensification and reduction, used different paper grades and toned his prints. There’s nothing “straightforward” about that. But for him, the point was to produce a print that showed what he saw, not the process(es) used to do it.

We think Adams also would have loved digital imaging because it provides instant feedback—you see the results of anything you do right there on the monitor in real time. And ever the environmentalist, Adams would have appreciated the fact that digital does away with harmful darkroom chemicals. (Some also point to a savings in paper, since you don’t have to make all those test prints with digital, but actually, you do. It’s rare that the first or even second inkjet print is “perfect.” Digital does save the time of processing prints and waiting for them to dry before you can evaluate them.)

Adams is best known for his large-format work, but he did a lot with medium-format SLRs and even shot with 35mm rangefinder cameras. While he worked differently with each type of camera, his quest for image perfection remained a constant.

Today, Adams likely would be shooting with a scanning back on his large-format cameras and with medium-format DSLRs. Those are very expensive devices, though, and today we have much more affordable “35mm-format” DSLRs that produce amazingly good image quality—far better than film of an equivalent format, especially at higher ISO settings. What sort of DSLR would Adams use?

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