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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

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Look For “Grandscapes”
4 Adams’ landscapes are “grandscapes.” When we look at images like this one, we feel small and insignificant in comparison to the landscape. Often, an Adams grandscape had a “stand back and marvel at the scene” feel to it. Some have described Adams’ whole mentality as one who would rather bring a viewer to the scene instead of taking a photograph. He often used longer focal-length lenses, which tend to flatten the field and create the “from a distance” look.

Today, the notion of the grandscape still exists, but the aesthetics have changed. The “stand back and admire” look has been replaced by an immersive look and feel where the viewer feels like he or she is part of the scene instead of an observer from a distance. In this color image, the grandeur of Yosemite Valley is clear, but the photographer makes us feel like we’re in the scene. It’s an evolution of the Adams grandscape.

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Think About The Sky
5 Many of Ansel Adams’ best-known landscapes have skies that are at least as dramatic, if not more dramatic, than the terrestrial features. Booming clouds add a sense of majesty to any scene. In both the Adams black-and-white image and the color image shown here, the mountains and valleys play supporting roles to the incredible skies. When you’re faced with an interesting sky, let it be the focus of your photograph, not an afterthought.

Skies like this often happen at times of the day when we don’t think about shooting. A modern landscape shooter is conditioned to think in terms of the “magic hour” as being the only time to shoot. However, Adams made a great many of his best images in midday sun. To get your best midday images, think about tools such as filters to darken blue skies and draw texture out of clouds. Also, notice how midday sun has the benefit of illuminating steep mountains and valleys.

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Yosemite Yesterday And Today
Comparing the environment of shooting photos in Yosemite then and now, one would be surprised at the stark differences. For instance, photographing meadows in summer was impossible due to the inundation of campers who occupied any flat space. There was no control of camping in those days, and meadows were trampled. Grazing animals also were common, corrals were everywhere, and farm animals often ate grasses in meadows down to the bare dirt. Today, you can photograph various Yosemite meadows that look very close to what they were like before 1851.

Cameras and equipment were bulky and heavy, making it difficult to move around when conditions changed. Exposing one image took 10 minutes of setup procedures. But photographers could go where they wanted, when they wanted, with no restrictions whatsoever, unlike today in which one must obtain backcountry permits. The trail system wasn’t as developed as it is today, so the only way to travel with photography equipment was with mules. Today, equipment is lighter, and the trail system allows a photographer to go deep into the wilderness in relative safety and speed.

The Camera Comparison: Yesterday And Today
legacy Toyo 4x5 Field Camera Camera technology has undergone a complete revolution since Ansel Adams’ time. While some photographers continue to use large-format 4x5s and film, most of us have embraced digital models. For years, it had been thought that a digital camera with its smaller sensor and lack of camera movements would be unable to create the look of a view camera, but it’s becoming an open question if that’s still true.

Tilt-shift lenses and high-resolution/low-noise cameras are giving digital shooters the same tools that a large-format film shooter has, and there are other benefits of digital that a 4x5 can’t touch. LCDs and histograms give us a precise look at a photograph while film shooters can only guess until the film is processed and by then it’s too late to reshoot.

Some nature photographers continue to use 4x5 because the process is personally rewarding, but for getting the best photographs, digital cameras have bridged the gap.
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