Sharp & Rich

As a digital photographer, you can learn a lot from Ansel Adams. Choose the right gear and emulate the attention to detail that Adams devoted to his craft to get your best possible landscape photos.
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Pentax 645Z

Ansel Adams and Group f/64 were synonymous with image quality, sharpness and detail. Group f/64 took its name from an aperture setting that would lead to maximum depth of field in the image. These photographers used large-format cameras with movements that enabled even greater control over sharpness, and they employed fine-grained film with high silver content for rich tones throughout the range, from dark shadows to bright highlights. For photographers, Adams’ legacy as a conservationist and artist is rivaled by his legacy as a master craftsman who coaxed the most out of his gear through technique and the choice of tools he used in the field and in the darkroom.

We can debate whether Adams would have used digital cameras and software, but that debate misses the fundamental point. If you’re a digital photographer, the lessons to be learned from Adams are how to get the best possible performance and image quality out of your cameras, lenses and accessories. In this article, we look at the range of gear that’s available to a landscape photographer looking to achieve Ansel Adams’ level of craft.

Hasselblad H5D-60

Adams used a variety of cameras, mainly large-format view and field units, but medium format and even 35mm for some handheld work. And he used various films, although he generally stuck to his favorites once he had them dialed in.

With digital, the camera is the film—the image is recorded by the sensor built into the camera. All of today’s serious digital cameras are capable of delivering excellent image quality. For the very best possible landscape image quality, a medium-format digital camera or back is the ideal choice. Those range from 22 to 80 megapixels, and start at over $5,000, extending into the over-$40,000 range. Pentax’s 645Z offers a 50-megapixel, 43.8×32.8mm medium-format CMOS sensor at a price of $8,499; Hasselblad offers the H5D-50c with a similar sensor and its own image “look.” The H5D-60 has a 60-megapixel CCD sensor and H5D-200c CMOS Multi-Shot, which can take multiple exposures, each with the sensor shifted a pixel, or a portion thereof between, so that each pixel receives red, green and blue color info. Phase One offers the IQ250, with a similar 50-megapixel CMOS sensor (and, again, its own “look”), and the IQ280, with a huge (53.7×40.4mm) 80-megapixel CCD sensor.

Phase One IQ280

For digital Ansel Adams aspirants with smaller budgets, a full-frame, 20-plus-megapixel DSLR or mirrorless camera would be a good choice. Among full-frame DSLRs, Nikon’s D810 is king of the hill, with its 36.3-megapixel CMOS sensor and no blurring anti-aliasing filter. Nikon’s new D750 and sub-$2,000 D610, 24.3 megapixels each, are also good full-frame DSLR choices for landscapes. The Canon EOS 5D Mark III and lower-priced EOS 6D, 22.3 and 20.2 megapixels, respectively, are Canon’s top landscape DSLRs.

Nikon D810; Canon EOS 6D; Sony a7R

Sony offers some excellent full-frame mirrorless landscape choices: the 36.4-megapixel a7R and 24.3-megapixel a7 II. In APS-C format, Canon’s 20.2-megapixel EOS 7D Mark II, Nikon’s 24.3-megapixel D7100 and Pentax’s 24.3-megapixel K-3 are excellent landscape cameras.

In APS-C mirrorless, Sony’s 24.3-megapixel a6000, Fujifilm’s 16.3-megapixel X-T1 and Samsung’s NX1 at 28.2 megapixels are top landscape tools. In Micro Four Thirds
mirrorless, Olympus’ OM-D E-M1 and Panasonic’s LUMIX DMC-GH4, both 16.1 megapixels, offer the best landscape image quality. Sigma’s APS-C SD1M DSLR and DP/dp-series compacts, with their unique Foveon sensors, are also excellent landscape cameras.

Sigma 35mm ƒ/1.4 DG HSM

As good as modern zooms are, it’s still hard to beat a top-level prime lens. It’s very difficult to properly correct a zoom lens for all aberrations, distortions and the like through its range of focal lengths and much easier to fully correct a single-focal-length lens. Adams generally worked with moderate wide-angle, “normal” and short telephoto lenses: 24mm, 50mm and 80mm for a full-frame camera, 16mm, 35mm and 50mm for an APS-C unit, or 12mm, 25mm and 40mm for Micro Four Thirds. Of course, you should choose the focal lengths that suit your vision; if you like the compressed perspective of long lenses used on distant portions of the vista, or the expanded perspective of moving in close with a really wide lens, by all means, go for it. If you’re just starting out in landscape photography, you can use a high-quality zoom until you find your favorite focal lengths.

Tokina AT-X 16-28mm ƒ/2.8 Pr; Tamron SP 15-30mm ƒ/2.8 VC

The camera manufacturers’ top prime lenses are all very good, and third-party sources such as Samyang, Sigma, Tamron and Tokina offer good alternatives for those on tighter budgets. Sigma’s Art-series primes rival the best of the camera manufacturers’ optics. Leica and Carl Zeiss offer excellent lenses that can be used on mirrorless cameras via adapters, as well as several Planar and Distagon ZE and ZF lenses for use on Canon and Nikon DSLRs. The new Zeiss Otus line for Canon and Nikon DSLRs are stunningly good lenses, but that kind of performance isn’t cheap (upwards of $4,000).

Zeiss Otus 85mm ƒ/1.4


DxO Optics Pro 10


Adobe Creative Cloud

Practice Postprocessing
As we noted, Adams was as famous for his technical skills as for his artistic eye. He did lots of testing of developers and papers, and developed the Zone System as a means of producing predictably excellent results. To get the best possible images from your work in the field, you should perfect your processing skills. Learn all you can about processing your files, including noise reduction and sharpening. The camera manufacturers offer RAW processing software tuned for their cameras’ files, and third-party software such as Adobe Photoshop Lightroom/Camera Raw, DxO Optics Pro and Phase One Capture One are also excellent. The RAW converters have their own noise-reduction features, but there are also outstanding stand-alone noise-reduction programs, including Imagenomic Noiseware, Neat Image, Dfine from the Google Nik Collection, onOne Perfect Effects, PictureCode Photo Ninja and Topaz DeNoise.

Epson Stylus Pro 4900

Learn Inkjet Printing
Adams often likened the negative to a composer’s score and the print to the performance of that score. Your processed RAW image file is your digital negative; printing it well is another necessary skill. To make good prints, you’ll need a good inkjet printer (Canon and Epson 13×19 and larger inkjets are first rate; the Canon PIXMA PRO-1 and Epson Stylus Pro 3880 are popular models) and a color-management system that enables you to make prints that match what you see on your monitor. Datacolor’s Spyder and X-Rite’s ColorMunki are solid color-management tools. It’s also important to have a good monitor, such as the EIZO ColorEdge series. Finally, you’ll need good printing stock. The premium offerings from Canon and Epson are very good, as are premium papers from third parties, such as Ilford, Moab and Museo.

Moab Slickrock


X-Rite ColorMunki

Adams worked almost exclusively in black-and-white. Most of today’s digital cameras have a monochrome mode, with built-in digital yellow, red and green filters. In black-and-white photography, a color filter will lighten objects of its own and similar colors, and darken objects of complementary colors; you can use a yellow or red filter to darken a blue sky so white cloud build-ups will really stand out, or a yellow or green filter to lighten foliage. A monochrome photo of a red flower and green leaves is pretty dull because both reflect about the same amount of light, appearing about the same shade of gray in the resulting photo. Shoot with a red filter, and the red rose will appear lighter while the green leaves will appear darker; the opposite will occur if you use a green filter.

Hoya HD Circular Polarizer

Of course, shooting film, Adams didn’t have built-in digital filters, so he used physical filters that attached to the lens, and that’s still a great way to shoot for best results. A polarizer can reduce or eliminate unwanted reflections in nonmetallic objects and darken a blue sky in color images without affecting colors as a yellow or red filter would. A graduated neutral-density filter (or a series of them in different strengths) allows you to properly expose both a bright sky and a shaded foreground in a single exposure. A regular ND filter will reduce the amount of light entering the lens without otherwise altering it, allowing you to make a long exposure to blur moving water and such, even in sunlight. Quality filters are available from B+W, Heliopan, Hoya, Kenko, Lee, Singh-Ray and Tiffen.

Hoodman HoodLoupe

Adams focused the image on his large-format camera’s ground glass screen manually, covering himself with a dark cloth to enable him to see the dim image in bright sun conditions. For best landscape results, you should focus your digital camera manually using Live View mode because autofocusing, especially phase-detection AF, isn’t accurate enough for Adams-quality landscape images. The image on the camera’s LCD monitor can be hard to see in bright light, so you can do as Adams did and drape a dark cloth over you and the tripod-mounted camera, or use a device such as the Hoodman HoodLoupe, which fits over the monitor and eliminates stray light. Many newer cameras offer focus peaking, which illuminates the in-focus portions of the scene or subject. You can also zoom the image to magnify it for easier manual focusing.


For the big view-camera look that Adams got on the ground glass of his 4×5 and 8×10 cameras, consider a CamRanger. The device connects to your digital camera via USB, and establishes an ad-hoc WiFi network that allows you to wirelessly stream the live view output of your camera to a smart device (iPhone/iPad/iPod touch, Android device) and control the camera from the smart device from up to 150 feet away. This is handy for many outdoor shooting situations. You even can set up an intervalometer and HDR with the CamRanger.

Arca-Swiss Ballhead

Tripod & Head
Adams did his landscapes with the camera solidly locked onto a sturdy tripod. Besides eliminating camera shake as a source of image blur, a good tripod locks in your composition so you can carefully examine and focus it, and won’t accidentally change it as you squeeze off the shot. For serious landscape photography, you, too, should use a tripod. Good ones are available from Argraph, Benbo, Benro, Berlebach, Cullmann, Davis & Sanford, Giottos, Gitzo, Induro, Linhof, Manfrotto, Really Right Stuff, Slik and others. You want one that can solidly support your camera/lens, and that you can carry to your shooting locations without strain.

To get sharp landscapes, you need a good head on your shoulders, and on your tripod. The most popular tripod heads among landscape shooters are ballheads because they allow you to quickly position the camera as desired, then lock it there with the twist of a knob. The tripod manufacturers offer good ballheads for their tripods. Acratech, Arca-Swiss, Cambo, Kirk Enterprises and Novoflex also offer good ballheads.

Really Right Stuff Tripod