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.
How To Set Your DSLR To Shoot Like Ansel Adams
Ansel Adams likened his negatives to a composer’s score and the print to the performance of that score. With digital imaging, the RAW image is your score, and you have tremendous freedom in performing (processing and printing it).
1All current DSLRs can shoot images in both RAW and JPEG formats. RAW format is the only way to go for top-notch landscape images for a number of reasons. First, RAW images aren’t compressed (or are compressed losslessly), while JPEGs are rather severely compressed, losing a lot of image information (detail) in the process. Second, RAW images are 12- or 14-bit (16-bit with medium-format DSLRs), while JPEGs are 8-bit. An 8-bit image has 256 tonal steps from black to white. A 12-bit image has 4,096 steps from black to white, a 14-bit image has 16,384 tonal steps, and a 16-bit image has 65,536 tonal steps. Besides offering a much smoother tonal range (and much better colors, since each color channel has many more steps), the higher-bit images provide a lot more leeway in editing. If you bring the left and right Levels sliders in 20 steps each to “punch up” a low-contrast image, that leaves a total of 216 tonal steps with a JPEG image, but still more than 4,000 steps with a 12-bit image and far more with higher-bit images. Third, RAW files are essentially the data recorded by the image sensor (they’re not “images” until you process them using RAW conversion software), unmanipulated by the camera’s processor, while JPEGs are processed in-camera. RAW images also allow you to adjust such things as white balance and sharpening, with no loss of image quality, whereas doing this with JPEGs (which already have had white balance, sharpening and contrast adjusted in-camera) will result in a loss of quality. Finally, when you edit a RAW image, you don’t actually change the original RAW image; your changes will be applied and saved as a TIFF or JPEG or whatever you wish, while the original RAW remains unchanged as your master file. RAW images do take up a lot more space on memory cards than JPEGs, require individual processing in your computer and require more computer horsepower, but we’re talking Ansel Adams here—ultimate image quality. Adams would have shot RAW!
2While today’s DSLRs can deliver better image quality than film at any given ISO setting, best results are still obtained at the lower ISOs, just as with film. If you want to shoot a moody twilight or predawn shot, crank up the ISO as needed and do it. But for best results, use the lowest ISO setting that will let you get your shot (i.e., that will let you use a suitable aperture and exposure duration).
3As indicated in the “Tripod Vs. Stabilization” sidebar, you’ll get the sharpest images by mounting your camera on a solid tripod for landscape photos. Using the tripod also will allow you to use a lower ISO setting. Caveat: Some DSLRs offer an ISO setting lower than the lowest one in the camera’s “normal” ISO range. Don’t use it unless you really need a low ISO to produce a long exposure time. “Extended” lower ISO settings reduce dynamic range and, thus, image quality.
4If your camera has a mirror prelock, use it. That will keep vibrations caused by the mirror flipping up out of the light path from adversely affecting image sharpness. Live View is a big advantage here. With most Live View DSLRs, the mirror must flip up to provide the live view, so the vibrations will have settled down long before you take the shot.
5Most lenses are sharpest at intermediate apertures. At the widest aperture, various aberrations reduce image quality, and stopped way down, diffraction reduces image quality (and does it more obviously with high-resolution DSLRs than with film). So, whenever possible, shoot at intermediate apertures—ƒ/8 to ƒ/13 for most DSLRs. It’s a good idea to test your landscape lenses and cameras at various apertures to see what works best with your specific gear—Adams certainly would.
6Of course, if the light level is low, you might be better off shooting wide open or near it, and if you really need extreme depth of field, stop way down. Bear in mind that doing so reduces overall image quality, which becomes evident in a large print. (Again, digital offers an advantage—you can use various sharpening techniques to counter some of the image-quality loss.)
7Accurate focusing is essential. It doesn’t matter how many megapixels the camera has or how excellent the lens is if you don’t focus accurately. The most accurate way to focus a DSLR with Live View capability is to focus manually in Live View mode, zooming in on the point where you want to place focus. You can try contrast-based AF, setting the focus point to the desired spot in the scene. (While phase-detection AF is terrific for birds in flight and such, contrast-based AF in Live View mode is better for landscapes. Test your camera to see what works best.) Focusing manually using the eye-level SLR viewfinder is also good, but we’ve seen a misaligned DSLR—when the image is dead-sharp in the finder, it’s not focused at the image sensor; check your camera and lens(es) for accuracy. For landscapes, Live View is better. Once you’ve focused sharply on the desired point, choose an aperture to provide the desired depth of field.
8Many newer DSLRs offer autofocus fine-tuning. You can make the camera focus closer to or farther from the lens in small, precise increments to compensate for camera body/lens mismatches. If your camera has this feature and autofocusing seems less than perfect with a particular lens, check out the AF fine-tuning feature to optimize sharpness. But it’s still best to focus landscapes manually to make sure focus is exactly where you want it.
9Keep your lenses and image sensor clean. Many current DSLRs have built-in sensor dust removers, and these are a big help, but sooner or later, you’ll need to clean your sensor (or have it cleaned by a qualified repair shop). Acquired debris on the sensor not only appears as spots in images, but can affect overall image quality as well.
10You can improve sharpness as the last step in processing your digital images. Again, RAW images have an advantage. JPEGs are sharpened in-camera, then compressed. If you re-sharpen the image, results won’t be as good as if you sharpen a RAW image that wasn’t sharpened in-camera and lossy compressed. The Unsharp Mask tool is the standard sharpening method, but there are other sharpening tools in image-editing software and entire software programs devoted to sharpening digital images.