Be A Modern Ansel Adams

Top tips to create high-drama landscapes
This Article Features Photo Zoom

Ansel Adams was an accomplished musician, as well as maybe the finest landscape photographer of all time. He famously described a negative as the score and the print as the performance. Looking at the body of Adams' work, one could say that his images harken to the big, dramatic Romantic symphonies of Beethoven more than the more mild-mannered Classical chamber suites of Haydn. Drama! In Adams' best-known photographs of the American landscape, one can't escape the sense of high drama he conveyed. He loved the great scenic vistas—the rugged mountains and wild rivers of the West—and he tried to convey the emotion he felt when seeing special places like Yosemite Valley in his photographs. No photograph could match the scene itself, but Adams worked hard as an artist and as a craftsman to distill these places into two-dimensional photographs.

For many nature photographers, Adams is still held up as the great inspiration for their love of photography. Many of us would like to be a modern Ansel Adams. In this article, we explore some compositional devices and technical tips for adding drama to your landscape photographs. These techniques won't magically transform you into the reincarnation of Adams, but we'll give you some things to think about the next time you're out in the field trying to capture the essence of a grand scenic vista and translate it into a photograph.

1 Use Foreground Elements To Create A Sense Of Depth. In this well-known Adams' photograph of Mount Williamson as seen from Manzanar, he set up his camera to give the boulder in the foreground the same relative size as the mountains in the background. The result is an image that conveys a vast expanse of land, and it invites the viewer to move through the scene. If he had used a longer focal-length lens on his 8x10-inch view camera or if he had simply changed the camera position, he could have eliminated the boulders from the frame, but the result would have been a less dramatic image.

2 Take Advantage Of Low-Light Moments. Adams was confined by the state-of-the-art equipment of his day. Film, in particular, was a constant source of frustration because it was so slow and because early emulsions were orthochromatic or panchromatic, which didn't record all wavelengths of light equally. Digital technology frees you from these confines, though, and you can work at times of the day that would have been all but impossible for Adams. In this scene of Convict Lake in California's Sierra Nevada, the predawn glow is illuminating the scene. Take advantage of soft light like this to create beautiful landscapes.

3 Reduce The Amount Of Sky If It's Not Adding To The Photo. Some photographers maintain that if there aren't good clouds in the sky, it's not a good day for photography. Instead of just packing it in on a day with a dull sky, change your compositions to reduce how much sky you show in the frame. Here, a graphic desert sand dune photograph has just enough sky to add some blue color to the scene. If this day had big monsoon clouds billowing up, a completely different composition would have been called for. Adams frequently created images with a minimum of sky in situations when the sky didn't add anything. Many photographers tend to automatically bisect a frame with the horizon, which seldom makes for a compelling and dramatic photograph. Think about the sky as you shoot and compose it out of the shot if it's boring.

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4 Clouds And Dark Skies. On a day when the atmosphere is alive with activity, take advantage of it. While this seems obvious, many nature shooters come up short on a day with great clouds because they don't complete the shot. In Yosemite Falls And Thunder Clouds, Adams used booming storm clouds as an element in the frame. He completed the image by composing the clouds into a scene of the falls and by making the blue sky behind the clouds dark. Whether you're working in color or black-and-white, darkening a sky is one of the best ways to add drama to a landscape. In many of his most famous photographs, Adams renders skies almost completely black through a combination of filtration and darkroom technique. With a digital camera, it's best to shoot everything in color and convert to black-and-white in the computer. If you know you're going to do that, using the classic yellow, orange and red filters that Adams used with black-and-white film is still a good idea. Red will have the most dramatic effect, but it also can kill cloud detail. Yellow will have the least effect on the blue sky; orange is somewhere in between. If you're not planning on converting to black-and-white, a polarizer is the best tool for darkening the sky at capture. The more you do to create an effect in the field, the less time you need to spend at the computer. Adams was adept at dodging and burning, but he still made extensive use of filters when shooting.

5 I Look For Light Vs. Shadow. As the sun rises up or sets, watch the interplay of light and shadow. In this example, the sunlit top of Half Dome in Yosemite National Park stands out dramatically from the cool, shaded valley and the blue sky. Scenes like this are much easier to create with digital cameras than they had been with film because digital lets you keep the shaded areas from going too dark.

6 Seek Bold Color Opposites For Drama. Adams is primarily known for black-and-white photography, but if you prefer color, you can still put his techniques to use. Where he used contrast, you can use color contrast by shooting color opposites. Think of the color wheel with red at the top, green on the lower right and blue on the lower left. Yellow hues would be roughly opposite the violets and blues, magenta is roughly opposite the greens, and cyan is roughly opposite the reds. For dramatic color contrast, look for these color opposites and frame accordingly. In this photograph, the bold yellow aspens contrast with the azure sky and dark green conifers.

7 Shoot The Moon. Adams often included the moon in his photographs, most famously in Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico. In addition to adding a point of visual interest, as in this image taken at Mono Lake, the moon lends cosmic perspective to a scene. The trick is having a moon in the shot and not having a textureless white disc. To get the exposure right, use this simple rule: Take the reciprocal of your ISO and ƒ/8. If you're set at ISO 400, make your shutter speed 1⁄400 sec. (bracket at 1⁄320 and 1⁄500 sec.) at ƒ/8. Adjust this basic exposure for depth of field or handholding as necessary.

8 Print Big For Big Drama. Size always makes an impact. In his darkroom, Adams made prints large and small, but he made frequent use of an enlarger that was built on tracks so he could make especially big enlargements by projecting the negative to a piece of paper on the wall. Today, high-quality inkjet printers give you the ability to make big 16x20-inch and larger prints. A dramatic photograph looks best in a big print. It's really that simple.


    Dear OP,
    Please, please, please, I’m begging you, please stop using Ansel Adams in almost every “newsletter” you send!
    Almost every week I get a “What entry level DSLR from our sponsors would Ansel Adams use” or “What commercial HDR software would Ansel Adams use” from
    Please, let the man rest in peace.

    A very useful article. Although obviously intended for newer landscape photographers, the images themselves inspire us all.

    I love the use of Ansel Adams’ images. Even after 40 years of photography I still see images that are new to me, or even better, newly relevant to me. There are many inspirations for our work, his just happens to be one of the best.

    Really enjoy the tips shared in these newsletters. Even if Ansel Adams is used in every one of them.I think he’d get a kick out of knowing how much attention he is getting…as he rests in peace.

    Loved the article. I have four Ansel Adams photos on my wall and had the honor of attending a seminar he gave. This article was a great primer for beginning photographers and had a little something that I had forgot about photographing the moon. Using his name may be grating to some but no getting around it. AA is the gold standard.

    Hmm.I’m not so sure about the comment to shoot everything in color then convert to B&W afterward. If shooting in RAW you can toggle between color and B&W and don’t necessarily have to convert. I sometimes like to shoot monochrome in the field to get a feel on the view finder, meaning live on site. I can still flip to color at any point if in RAW.

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