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Be A Digital Ansel Adams

Essential gear to help you adopt an Ansel Adams-type workflow with today’s latest photography tools and technology
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“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 (4×5- and 8×10-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 (4×5 and 8×10) 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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Really Right Stuff BH-55 Ballhead

With film cameras, image quality could be upgraded simply by switching to a better film when a better one became available. With digital, the camera’s sensor is the “film,” and, yes, sensors get better with each new generation. So to get state-of-the-art image quality (which, presumably, Adams would do), you have to upgrade cameras more often than in the film days. However, if you’re happy with the results you’re getting, there’s no reason not to continue using what you have.

Megapixels are important, of course, because they largely determine the level of detail an image can contain and how big a print you can make (all assuming the image is sharply focused and not blurred by camera or subject movement). But there are other important digital camera considerations. One is dynamic range, which means how great a scenic brightness range can be recorded without blowing out highlights or losing shadows to noise. Most newer DSLRs produce very good dynamic range; check for their test results on current DSLRs. If you look at Adams’ work, you’ll notice that he shot in a variety of conditions, from bright midday sun to twilight. He relied on different film emulsions and his mastery over the darkroom process of film development and printmaking. Today, we can make use of a DSLR’s ISO range to give us the ability to shoot in that broad range. The best cameras for high-ISO work are the newer full-frame DSLRs. While Adams had to deal with reciprocity failure and expertise with chemistry, we can shoot in low light much easier with one of these newer cameras.

Sigma 35mm ƒ/1.8 DG HSM

DSLRs & Anti-Aliasing Filters
The photodiodes (pixels) in conventional image sensors can’t detect color; they record only how much light is striking them, not its wavelength(s). To obtain color information, most sensors use a Bayer filter array, which positions a red, green or blue filter over each pixel, so that each pixel receives mainly red, green or blu light. The missing colors are obtained by interpolation using data from neighboring pixels and complex proprietary algorithms.

One problem with this system is that it can result in moiré and other artifacts when a finely patterned subject’s image at the focal plane conflicts with the pattern of the sensor’s pixel grid. This is especially possible with Bayer sensors because they record only one primary color at each pixel site. To minimize moiré and artifacts, manufacturers position an anti-aliasing (AA) filter (also known as an optical low-pass filter, or OLPF) over the sensor. This blurs the image’s high frequencies (fine detail) at the pixel level, eliminating or greatly reducing moiré, but also slightly reducing image sharpness.

Medium-format digital cameras and backs don’t use AA filters because users of these devices are concerned with maximum sharpness and prefer to deal with any moiré and artifacts that occur on a per-image basis during postprocessing.

Some manufacturers now offer DSLRs without an OLPF. The pixel density is so great on these 16- and 24-megapixel APS-C and 36-megapixel full-frame models that moiré is less likely to be visible. These include Nikon’s 24-megapixel APS-C D5300 and D7100 and 36-megapixel full-frame D800E (with an AA filter, but its effect has been negated), Pentax’s 16-megapixel APS-C K-5 IIs and 24-megapixel K-3 (incorporates an AA filter simulator you can activate, when desired) and all Sigma DSLRs (their Foveon X3 sensors record all three primary colors at each pixel site and don’t suffer from color moiré). Mirrorless interchangeable-lens cameras without an AA filter include the 16-megapixel Fujifilm APS-C X-Pro1, X-E1, X-E2 and X-M1 (their X-Trans sensors use a non-Bayer color-filter pattern that’s less likely to produce moiré) and Sony’s 36-megapixel full-frame a7R. If you’re looking for Adams-type sharpness in a small camera, consider one of these AA-less models.

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One strong point of DSLRs is the wide range of lenses available for them. But a quick survey of some of Adams’ books reveals that he favored normal, moderately shorter and moderately longer lenses for most of his most popular images, a range equivalent in field of view to perhaps 28mm through 150mm for a full-frame DSLR. So, you won’t need superwide-angles or supertelephotos if you want to be a digital Ansel Adams, but by all means, use those if they better suit your photographic vision. Whatever focal lengths you choose, you’ll find options available for your DSLR.

Tokina 100mm ƒ/2.8 AT-X Macro AF Pro D

The lens determines the magnification at the image plane and (along with the image sensor or film size) the field of view, while the camera position determines the perspective. With a wide-angle lens, you can move in close to a subject to render it large in the frame, expanding the perspective; conversely, with a long lens, you can zero in on a distant portion of the scene for a flattened perspective. Note that while shorter focal lengths provide wider angles of view than longer focal lengths, the term “wide-angle” is relative: 50mm is “normal” on a full-frame DSLR, short telephoto on a Micro Four Thirds mirrorless camera and really wide-angle on a 4×5 view camera. The angle of view of a lens depends on its focal length and the format with which it’s used. Also note that a lens of a given focal length, focused at a specific distance, produces an image of the subject at a given size at the image plane. That size (magnification at the image plane) doesn’t change because you change the size of the film or image sensor. What changes is how much of the image frame the subject occupies. (A 100mm lens on an APS-C camera frames like a 150mm lens on a full-frame camera, but the subject’s image is the same size on both sensors; it just takes up more of the smaller APS-C sensor. If the cameras have the same pixel count, this does result in a “reach” advantage for the smaller sensor.)

Adams was concerned with detail, choosing the sharpest lenses available to him. For today’s shooter, that means prime (single-focal-length) lenses rather than zooms, although today’s better zooms are very good and used by many pros. Today’s better lenses have better coatings and less flare than Adams’ optics, and recent computer-aided designs and manufacturing also improve performance. The wide-range “superzooms” are quite versatile, but won’t give you Adams-esque sharpness (and they distort more than he would have liked). The fast prime pro lenses offer the best image quality.

Sekonic L-758DR

Exposure Meter
Adams had vast experience to fall back upon in determining exposures (as he had to when creating his most famous image, “Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico”; he didn’t have time to dig out his meter as he skidded to a stop in late fleeting light). But he preferred to use a spot meter to make the best use of the Zone System that he developed with Fred Archer. The spot meter let him measure the brightness of individual portions of a subject or scene, so he could determine the brightness range and work out the best exposure. DSLRs have spot-metering modes, and you can use these in similar fashion (although most read a larger area than the handheld spot meter’s 1°). But using the camera’s meter to measure different spots in the scene means you have to change where the camera is pointed after initially composing your image. A handheld spot meter lets you take your readings without disturbing the camera (and your composition). Adams used a (now discontinued) Pentax digital spot meter toward the end of his career. Today’s Sekonic L-758DR and Gossen Starlite 2 offer 1° spot readings along with wider-zone reflected and incident readings and flash metering.

Digital also provides exposure assistance Adams never had: the ability to examine the image immediately after shooting it (on the camera’s LCD monitor) and the histogram (a graph that shows the distribution of the various tones in the image, from dark on the left to light on the right). Bear in mind that the review image is a JPEG the camera creates from the raw data, and the histogram is for that JPEG image, not the raw data—but it still gives you a good idea of what you have, and certainly lets you know on those rare occasions when the digital works completely blow out or fail to expose a frame. And note that you always need to use the histogram to evaluate exposure. The image itself on the LCD can play tricks on your eyes, especially in bright and dark conditions.

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Arca-Swiss Monoball Z1

Besides the lenses offered by your camera’s manufacturer, you might consider the recent higher-end offerings from third-party lensmakers such as Sigma, Tamron, Tokina and Zeiss. Generally, a given manufacturer’s 35mm, 50mm, 85mm and 135mm lenses are very good and fall in the “Ansel” focal-length range. If you want to do zooms, the 24-70mm and 70-200mm constant-aperture lenses are the best choices.

Adams’ photos usually exhibit great depth of field, with everything sharp from foreground through background. With the view camera, he could use swing and tilt movements, and the Scheimpflug principle, to optimize depth of field even at relatively wide apertures (basically, when lines drawn through the subject plane, lens plane and image plane intersect at one point, depth of field will be maximized). You can do a little of that with a tilt-shift (Canon) or perspective-control (Nikon) lens, but if you don’t have one of these lenses, your main control over depth of field is stopping the lens down. But, remember, as you stop the lens down, diffraction reduces overall lines-per-millimeter image sharpness even as depth of field increases, so stop down only when you need to, and only as far as you need to. Despite being one of the founders of Group f/64, Adams rarely stopped down that far. With modern lenses on a DSLR, you’ll probably find that diffraction becomes a problem below ƒ/16. Of course, there are also times when you’ll want to minimize depth of field to clearly separate a subject from a distracting background, in which case you’d shoot with the aperture wide open to minimize depth of field. At wide apertures, various aberrations reduce sharpness. Each lens has a sweet spot, usually a couple of stops down from wide open, where it delivers its best sharpness. Try your lenses at different apertures to see where their sweet spots are.

Flashpoint 3POD

Camera Support
Adams referred to his “miniature” (35mm) camera as “an extension of the eye as used freely in the hand.” But he used his large-format cameras on very sturdy tripods. A digital Ansel Adams would do the same. A tripod can hold the camera steadier than any photographer can for maximum sharpness at any shutter speed. It will also lock in your composition so you can carefully examine it and won’t accidentally change it as you squeeze off the shot. The tripod allows you to use your DSLR more like Adams used his large-format camera, especially when you compose in live view on the LCD.

Your tripod should be sturdy (a cheap, flimsy one is no better than handholding, and may be even worse), and designed for the weight of your heaviest camera body and lens. Likewise, your tripod head should be sturdy and designed for the weight you intend to place upon it. Most landscape photographers today prefer ballheads because you can easily position the camera just as you wish, then lock it there with a single knob.

Giottos YTL 3-Way

Adams frequently worked from a platform atop his car. This provided him with a higher viewpoint for a better angle on the near foreground and the ability to shoot over foreground clutter. Choosing a tripod that can offer you a lot of height can give some of the same benefits, and if your camera has an articulating LCD, you can easily compose with the camera over your head.

Your choices of tripod and ballhead are nearly endless, and space prevents us from going into detail over all of the possibilities. Make your decision based on the anticipated maximum weight of your rig. We love carbon fiber for its combination of strength, capacity, low weight and excellent dampening qualities. Similarly, we find that a sturdy ballhead that’s appropriately matched to your camera and lens combination is the best way to go.

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B+W Kaesemann Circular Polarizing MRC

Tethered Shooting
For landscapes, it’s frequently best to work in Live View mode. The image on the LCD is bigger than the one in the eye-level finder, and can be zoomed for careful examination and manual focusing. Some newer cameras feature focus peaking, which is analogous to how large-format photographers use a loupe on their ground glass as they stop down to evaluate sharp focus.

There are also accessories like the CamRanger, which gives you a much larger view of your composition on the screen of a smartphone or a tablet. On a tablet, it’s about the same size as Adams would see on the ground glass of his 8×10 camera! Besides the larger image and remote-control capability, tethered shooting offers the advantage of no camera shake when you make the exposure because you don’t physically press the shutter button.

Many higher-end (and some other) DSLRs can be used tethered to a computer—you can operate the camera from the computer and examine the image on the big computer monitor. Some camera manufacturers build this capability into their cameras or offer accessories that provide it.

Hoya PROND Filters

Adams used color filters with his black-and-white film to overcome color-sensitivity deficiencies in the film and make the images look “natural,” as well as to create emphasis in certain elements in a scene. This usually meant using a yellow filter to darken the blue sky and help clouds stand out, but it could also mean using a red filter to lighten red flowers and darken green leaves, which would otherwise photograph as about the same shade of gray. (A color filter lightens its own and similar colors, and darkens its complementary and similar colors, in a black-and-white photo.) Many DSLRs provide built-in color filter effects when you’re shooting in monochrome mode to simulate these effects.

Heliopan Variable ND Filter

Two actual physical filters that you should have are the circular polarizer and graduated neutral-density filter. The polarizer can deepen blue skies (you can’t use a yellow or red filter to do that in color work or the image will take on that color cast), reduce or eliminate reflections from nonmetallic surfaces, and intensify colors and contrast that polarized reflections tend to reduce). The graduated ND filter can reduce sky brightness so you get good detail in both bright sky and dark foreground. If you want to do long-exposure effects in bright light, you also should acquire a strong or variable-strength standard ND filter to reduce the light entering the lens without otherwise altering it.

The camera is only part of a digital imaging system. The software you use to process your images is also important.

Adams would have loved digital because of the control it provides—nothing in the physical darkroom gives the control over the image that a good RAW converter and image-editing program can deliver. But there are also specialized programs, such as Nik Silver Efex Pro, that provide a tremendous range of control over black-and-white images.

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Note that if you shoot RAW—and you should if you care about image quality (Adams certainly would)—your image can be processed to color or black-and-white, and later, you can process it the other way, if you wish. And as better RAW conversion software comes along, you can reprocess old RAW files with even better results.

Besides your RAW converter and image-editing software, there are programs dedicated to black-and-white. Among our favorites are Nik Silver Efex Pro 2, onOne Software Perfect B&W, DxO FilmPack 4 and, for filters, Tiffen Dfx v3.

HDR (High Dynamic Range) has a complicated reputation because it can be used to produce very unrealistic effects that can be objectionable to purists. Used skillfully, HDR lets you produce images with detail from shadow through highlight—way beyond what film can do—a benefit that we believe would be right down Adams’ alley. With HDR, you shoot several bracketed frames, then use the HDR software to combine the best of each—highlight detail from the underexposed images, midtones from the “properly” exposed one, shadow detail from the overexposed images. Many recent cameras have in-camera HDR; if yours does, try it, but combining the bracketed images in postproduction provides much more capability and control. Nik HDR Efex Pro, HDRsoft Photomatix Pro and Unified Color HDR Expose 3 are powerful, highly effective HDR programs.

Okay, you’ve handled the visualization, recorded the image nicely in-camera, processed it to a “T” in your RAW converter and tweaked it to perfection with your postproduction software. Now for the other half of the job. Half? Ansel Adams, who originally set out to be a professional musician (piano), famously likened the negative to the composer’s score and the print to the performance of that score. Yes, the negative (or, in our case, the processed digital file) must be printed well to complete our Digital Ansel project.

As a side note here, Adams printed his images differently as the years went by; often, the earlier prints were more lyrical, the later ones from the same negatives more dramatic, although always true to what he saw in his “mind’s eye” at the time. There’s no concrete “right” or “wrong” here; it’s up to your vision as an artist how your print should look (in our case, presumably as close as possible to what your processed image looks like on screen).

There was a time when digital inkjet printers didn’t do black-and-white well, but today’s high-end, large-format desktop models (13-inch and larger) do black-and-white very well. The Canon PIXMA PRO-1 and Epson Stylus Pro 3880 are two popular and reasonably priced printers that are particularly popular with OP shooters making black-and-white prints. You first have to get your system calibrated properly so that what you see on screen is what appears on paper (as closely as is possible considering the two different display media involved). This is beyond the scope of this article, but there are many good sources. Andrew Rodney’s Color Management for Photographers is one good reference.

Adams preferred the look of un-ferrotype glossy papers; the resulting smooth surface produced a long tonal range without an overly shiny look. For monochrome inkjet prints, papers such as Canon Photo Paper Pro Luster, Epson Exhibition Fiber, Hahnemühle Photo Rag Bright White 310 gsm, Ilford Galerie Gold Cotton Smooth, Moab by Legion Entrada Rag Natural 300 or Red River San Gabriel SemiGloss Fiber can produce a similar look.

David Morgan Hat

Besides protecting your head from the sun and the elements, a good hat can be used as a scrim to block light off the front element of the lens during exposures. Ansel Adams wore a Stetson Open Road, which has style, but isn’t as utilitarian as some current options. Check out David Morgan ( for a variety of attractive and functional hats.