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Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Be A Digital Ansel Adams

Essential gear to help you adopt an Ansel Adams-type workflow with today’s latest photography tools and technology

Labels: Gear
This Article Features Photo Zoom

"Ansel Adams" and "digital." Some feel these words don't go together: The ultimate film purist (who left us in 1984) would never use "artificial" digital imaging. But, actually, Adams was primarily concerned with the image, and image quality—detail and tonality—was high on his list of important factors, along with his creative vision. He told an interviewer in 1980, right after his wonderful Yosemite and the Range of Light book came out, that he was delighted to find he could get more out of his negatives with the laser scanner used to produce the images for that book than he could in the darkroom. He left his negatives to the Center for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona, in part, so that future imaging folk there could apply the coming new technologies to get the most out of them. Adams knew that the viewer didn't see his camera gear or what the photographer went through to get a shot; the viewer just saw the printed image. And Adams loved anything that could help him produce better final images.

Adams' images exhibit a remarkable tonal range and great sharpness, although some of his early images were softer due to lens limitations. They're still excellent images—it's the light, the moment, the vision (which Adams called "previsualization"). It's the photographer, not the gear, but better gear can deliver sharper images with greater dynamic range and detail, and make it easier (or even possible) to produce specific images.

Adams' best-known work was primarily done with large-format (4x5- and 8x10-inch, mostly) view cameras because those large film sizes yielded the best image quality, while the cameras' swing, tilt and shift movements provided precise control over vertical and horizontal lines, and depth of field. (Later in his career, he also used lighter medium-format cameras, and he occasionally used 35mm "miniature" cameras for handheld work.)

Gitzo Basalt GT1840C
The large-format view cameras required Adams (and all who used them) to work more slowly than today's typical DSLR user. He had to set up the camera on his tripod, attach the chosen lens, open the shutter, frame and adjust the image, set focus on the ground glass and deal with depth-of-field considerations, meter the scene, set the shutter speed and aperture, close the shutter, then attach the film holder, remove the dark slide and make his exposure. If he wanted a backup image, he had to reinsert the dark slide, remove the film holder, flip it over, reattach it, remove the other dark slide, recock the shutter and make the new exposure. Each holder held two sheets of film; sequence shooting was pretty slow.

But working slowly and methodically like that can be beneficial to the DSLR user, too. Just because you can quickly bring the camera up to your eye and rip off many frames per second doesn't mean that's a good plan, especially for landscape work. Take the time to set up the camera and study the scene in the LCD monitor in live view. Adams used a dark cloth to see the ground glass clearly. With a digital camera, a shade or loupe like the Hoodman HoodLoupe, the Flashpoint Swivi and the Zacuto Z-Finder, among others, can give you a similar large, crisp image when you're composing, and you can see it clearly in bright conditions. Fine-tune the composition, as needed, adjust the depth of field, as desired, then make the exposure. The view camera mind-set can improve your landscapes with smaller cameras, too!

Tamron 24-70mm ƒ/2.8 Di VC USD
Adams did most of his work with large-format cameras (4x5 and 8x10) because those large film sizes yielded the best image quality, and the camera's tilt and shift movements provided precise control over vertical and horizontal lines, and depth of field. However, those cameras are cumbersome and not as versatile as today's interchangeable-lens digital cameras (try tracking a bird in flight with a view camera). Adams didn't do birds in flight, and as mentioned, likely would be using a digital back on his large-format camera today for the camera familiarity and the control its movements provide. But for the vast majority of OP readers, a DSLR or mirrorless interchangeable-lens camera is a better choice. Today's top DSLRs and mirrorless digital cameras can deliver better image quality than the films of Adams' day (especially at higher ISOs, important for low-light wildlife photos).


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