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Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Legacy: Think Like Ansel Adams Today

Tools and aesthetics have changed, but the techniques of the great American landscape master still apply

This Article Features Photo Zoom

The legacy of Ansel Adams is a driving creative force that motivates every outdoor photographer. Through his treks to Yosemite Valley and other American landscapes, Adams almost single-handedly created modern nature photography. We know many readers will be ready to list all of the other great early American nature photographers and, to be sure, there were many, but none has the same legacy, the same enduring visual magnetism, as the work of Ansel Adams.

Much of Adams’ best-known work was in Yosemite Valley. It was in that granite-strewn, rugged corner of California where he previsualized a photograph for the first time. The unique features of Yosemite remain a cornucopia of photographic opportunities, not just because of the iconic Half Dome, El Capitan, Tuolumne Meadows and Tenaya Lake, but also because of the overall topography and that topography’s effect on the weather. It was often the weather—the booming clouds of midday, the drama of a clearing winter storm, the bright sun and the chiaroscuro effect it had on the steep valley walls—that made an Adams’ image so special.

While we can all appreciate Adams’ photography today, in this article we want to look at how you can use his techniques in your photography. We’re not looking to re-create an Adams photograph, but to examine his processes and use them in today’s digital world.

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1 When we all shot film, previsualization was a special talent that could take a lifetime to hone. Adams himself was a photographer for years before he identified the first image he fully previsualized. This image of Half Dome, taken in 1927, was his first previsualization. With just a few sheets of film, Adams decided to place a red filter on the camera, darkening the sky and giving the whole scene the drama Adams felt as he viewed the scene. He employed the nascent Zone System to determine how the scene would render in a print.

Previsualization is every bit as important to landscape photographers today, but we have tools at our disposal that Adams never would have dreamed of. Using the LCD on a digital camera and the histogram, we can see precisely how the scene is rendered and then make adjustments as necessary. There’s no guesswork when using filters and there’s no danger of missing the correct exposure. In short, we have the ultimate visualization tool.

Even with the LCD and histogram, the practice of completely previsualizing the photograph is an important skill to develop. You can use the LCD and histogram to perfect a photograph, but when you get into the habit of previsualizing, you’re working more efficiently and you’re truly thinking about how to translate what you see and feel into a photograph.


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