What Gear Would Ansel Adams Carry Today?

If Adams was using a digital camera, here are some of the essential pieces of equipment he’d have in the field

Lowepro Vertex 200 AW

What did Ansel Adams carry into the field when he went off to photograph in places like Yosemite Valley? There isn’t much definitive information about his exact kit, but we do know that America’s most famous landscape photographer used a large-format camera (frequently, 8×10) and all of the necessary supporting gear like a tripod, film holders, changing tents, chemicals and plenty of film.

Tamrac Expedition 9x

If he was a photographer today, what would Adams’ kit look like? What are the key accessories that he would want to have with him to make the best use of his DSLR? Well, before we speculate too much—and this is all speculation, of course—let’s start with some assumptions. First, for the sake of this article, we’ll assume Adams would be using a DSLR (see “Would Ansel Adams Use A DSLR?” in this issue for information about which models he might find most to his liking). Second, he would still want the kind of control afforded him by a view camera with all of its movements. Third, he would embrace the digital darkroom like he embraced the wet darkroom to get the most out of his field captures. The initial exposure would be like a film negative—the score—and the final print would be the performance.

Manfrotto 190CXPRO4

Tripod And Ballhead
Sure, it seems obvious, but considering how many soft images we see during portfolio reviews, it makes sense to emphasize the importance of a good solid tripod and ballhead. For Adams, this simply would have been a given. Even with the inherent mobility of a DSLR, when it came time for a final exposure, Adams would have used a tripod without fail.

We think Ansel Adams would have been a great believer in the digital darkroom and Photoshop, as well as other software (see the sidebar “What Software Would Ansel Use?”), but that doesn’t mean he would have been any less exacting in the field than he was with film. Having good filters ranging from polarizers to NDs to red, yellow, green and blue would be mandatory equipment in his bag. You can simulate some of the effects down the road, but getting it as close as possible in the field was always part of Adams’ thinking. Polarizers are ideal for creating dark skies, cutting glare and increasing saturation in a color photograph. In black-and-white images, red, yellow and orange filters darken blue areas, green filters brighten foliage, and blue filters can be used to make the sky white and to mitigate extreme contrast.

Singh-Ray Vari-X Filter #2

HOYA HD Circular Polarizer

Heliopan Circular Polarizer

This Article Features Photo Zoom
Canon TS-E 24mm ƒ/3.5 L II; Nikon PC-Micro Nikkor 85mm ƒ/2.8 D

Lenses With Movements
One of the main advantages of a view camera is the ability to use tilts and shifts to correct perspective, enhance perspective and control depth of field. You can get many of the same advantages with a DSLR and a tilt-shift lens. Nikon and Canon both make such lenses. Nikon calls its lenses Perspective-Control (PC) and Canon calls its lenses Tilt-Shift (TS). Other products like those from Lensbaby give you lens movements, but they’re better suited to limiting depth of field as opposed to increasing it. If you’re shooting with a Four Thirds or Micro Four Thirds camera, the Flashpoint Tilt Adapter lets you attach a lens with a different mount to get tilt control.

Marshall V-LCD50 HDMI

External Monitor
If you’ve ever used a view camera, you know how nice it is to compose a photograph on a large ground glass. Even if the image is upside-down and backward, it’s a different experience than squinting through a viewfinder or even a three-inch LCD. External monitors can give you that big ground glass feeling. The Marshall V-LCD50-HDMI is designed to be used in the field. Lightweight and portable, it features a bright five-inch screen. It improves on a view camera’s ground glass because its LED backlit screen actually is brighter and has better viewing angles.

Apple iPad

Yes. We think Adams would have an iPad in his field gear if he was making photographs today. When he was actively shooting, he was known to bring all manner of chemistry into the field to give him a portable, bare-essentials darkroom so he could process film if he desired. Digital doesn’t require chemistry. Instead, a tablet like the iPad gives one a stripped-down digital darkroom. Smaller and lighter than a laptop, you can connect your camera to the iPad (with a camera connection kit) and review images on the large, vivid screen. We think Adams also would have enjoyed the ability to use some of the apps to find out where the moon would rise and set at a particular location.

GOALØ Sherpa 120 Adventure Kit

Adams carried spare axles with him because the axle was an Achilles’ heel in the rough roads of the Sierra Nevada Mountains in the early 20th century. For a contemporary digital landscape shooter venturing into the vast backcountry to capture the pristine scenic vistas hidden there, the Achilles’ heel is power. Having spare batteries is a must and, for any kind of extended journey, a portable solar panel/inverter system gives you the ability to keep all of your electronics charged. The GOALØ Sherpa 120 Adventure Kit fully charges in about eight hours; you can plug into it to keep all of your devices operational.

Flashpoint FPVL112 Flashpoint Tilt Adapter

Fill Light
When he was shooting with film, common film speeds (expressed in ASA) that Adams used were in the realm of 25 or 50. He frequently used N+ development techniques to boost contrast and brighten the lighter areas of the frame, in part because he had limited ability to add light to a scene. Today, we can set a DSLR to ISO 800 with little to no noise, and instead of magnesium flash powder, we can use a folding reflector to effectively add some fill or we can employ a small flash or LED panel. We’re not talking about trying to light Half Dome. We’re talking about brightening smaller foreground objects to give a scene some depth.

This Article Features Photo Zoom

Lowepro Vertex 200 AW

Photo Backpack
Adams sometimes used a pack mule to get his large camera, tripod, film holders, lenses and accessories to a good vantage point. By going digital, the load can be lightened up enough to be carried in a properly apportioned photo backpack. We think he would have opted for one with a sleeve for carrying a laptop or tablet.

Stetson Open Road

A Good Hat
One of the most useful things for any photographer, a hat protects you from the sun, helps you deal with glare, keeps you cooler on strenuous summer hikes and makes an excellent shade to keep direct sun off the lens, which would result in objectionable flare. Fortunately, today, Stetson still makes the Open Road.

What Software Would Ansel Use?
We think Ansel Adams would make extensive use of software like Photoshop if he was photographing today. He was a master craftsman who sought to bring out every nuance and subtle detail when he was working with his negatives. Although he did take color photographs, Adams is most well-known for his black-and-white landscapes. One particularly convenient software package that gives today’s landscape photographers a lot of control is Nik Silver Efex Pro (www.niksoftware.com). Silver Efex Pro is a specialized plug-in that works with Adobe Photoshop and Lightroom and Apple Aperture. It uses Nik Software’s U Point technology to isolate specific areas or elements in the frame so you can make adjustments with precision. There are a number of presets, and you can make your own styles as well.


    Much of what you speculate on I thinks is fairly accurate…with a couple of exceptions.

    Filters: I doubt he would have been interested in neutral density filters. For a man that is know to be a member of the f/64 club, excess light is not typically an issue. Polarizer, maybe. What you missed however, is a split neutral density filter. I think he’d be all over that.

    Fill light: Really? When was the last time you tried to apply fill light to a mountain? Your talking about a man that would camp on the side of a hill for a week, just waiting for the clouds to look “right.” While he did do some portrait work, it was typically out doors where he was already a master of light control.

    Other than these things, you’re probably not far off.


    What a completely shameless piece of advertising passed off as “journalism”. It is impossible to know what Ansel would be using today were he still with us; anything to the contrary is pure speculation.

    Nice try working with your advertisers to try and get the common joe to part with more of his hard earned cash.

    Has the purpose of Outdoor Photographer become to merely push products?


    Agree here with Tim…..C’mon guys. Mr Adams would never use a camera mounted flash !! Give me a break. Especially for outdoor shots the likes of which he shot. Imagine lighting “Moonrise Hernandez” with a shoe mounted flash. Hysterical.
    To make it pretty simple, Mr Adams most likely would be using EXACTLY what he used before. 8×10 field camera. No reason to switch.

    I think that there are additional questions which could be asked. For example, at what point would he be in his career would he be when today’s equipment became available? What budget would he have had available at that time? Would he be one to hold on to the film view camera a while longer or would he be one to quickly adapt new technology?

    Overall I enjoyed the article. Thank you.

    Assumption: Why would Ansel even THINK about giving up the control of a view camera? I believe he would be using a digital Medium Format back on whichever vield camera he chose. Other than possibly upgrading lenses, he could still be using the same cameras he always did.

    I’m not so sure about lugging an iPad for any processing work. In fact, I’m thinking either a full-blown laptop (PC or Mac – it doesn’t matter), with a monster workstation at home.

    He is known to have shot in both Medium and Miniature (35mm) formats, but his most known works outside of the LF world were Mediem Format.

    I think that there are additional questions which could be asked. For example, at what point would he be in his career would he be when today’s equipment became available? What budget would he have had available at that time? Would he be one to hold on to the film view camera a while longer or would he be one to quickly adapt new technology?

    Overall I enjoyed the article. Thank you.

    I suspect that Ansel Adams by now be so sick of the commercialisation of both the natural world and photography that he would avoid all this expensive digital junk, preferring to continue with the analogue (i.e. film) equipment that related him to nature, rather than producing a digital image that owes more to our electronically-amplified fantasy of nature than to its reality.

    This could have been a really amazing and interesting article, filled with history and a hard, intelligent look at Adam’s work to support the writers assumptions. I have to admit the title was intriguing. Then you read through and find out this was nothing more than a dumbed down advertisement for equipment [colored filters? really?].Outdoor magazine’s writing should be second to none when you are one of the largest publications on the subject of photography I should think most photographers at any level at some point read this magazine. Anyway, I guess you have to keep the advertisers happy. From what I learned of Adam’s [no thank’s to this rag] he was not the wealthiest man in town, so if ‘I’ were to assume the gear he had ‘I’ would have been a little more conservative. It would also have been a nice contrast to peak inside a modern day ‘master photographer’s’ bag. Just a thought.

    Doesn’t anybody think Ansel would be interested in high dynamic range or stitching photo’s together or Photoshop for that matter? The Zone System remember was intended to print what he saw and maximize the equipment in the field and in the darkroom.

    What say we try this again?

    Doesn’t anybody think Ansel would be interested in high dynamic range or stitching photo’s together or Photoshop for that matter? The Zone System remember was intended to print what he saw and maximize the equipment in the field and in the darkroom.

    What say we try this again?

    The problem with these assumptions is they fall short. Ansel was an innovator pushing the limits of what technology of the day could do.

    Don’t short change Ansel by plopping new gear on him without thinking about the innovation he brought to the game, how would he be pushing the limits and what gear would he need to do it.

    For example let’s say we could pry that 8×10 out of his hands and give him only a DSLR, then how would he use it. Would he be happy with a DSLR image as output? No! He would be using panorama heads to stitch together huge numbers of pixels, he might even go the GigaPan route. Would he have a modified camera with a chilled sensor to reduce noise?

    Just a couple of examples, but expect if thought about from an innovation standpoint, others would come to mind.

    His pictures were to put the viewer in that place and 8×10 view camera gave him huge numbers of “pixels” so viewer could see the place instead of the grain.

    Hmmm, First of all if Adams were here today and lets say he was 35 yrs old he may or may not have been a great photographer. He pioneered much of what photography is a long time ago. So not having his own photography to hold up as a sample or comparison he most likely would have someo other great photographer to emulate. Who would that be? Speculation is fun but totally not relevant. I would say this though. If Ansel Adams used the best and finest up to date equipment, film, and methods in his day you can be sure bet he would be doing the same today were he here be it film or digital.

    I totally agree with Tim. What a pathetic article! OP is not what it used to be when Galen Rowell was around.

    This is indeed shameless advertising disguised as journalism.


    Advertising..ugh! It’s so annoying how issue after issue I see the iPad, external monitors, fill lights, and the same tripods over and over. This magazine is just one big advertisement…I won’t be renewing.

    I agree with some of the other posters, I think that we could’ve done without listing out the name brands. We all have a pretty good idea who makes a good solid mount and tripod, etc. With that said, Ansel Adams pushed the technology of his time. He used many creative and uncommon techniques, both in the field and in the darkroom. For those reasons I do believe he would’ve embraced digital photography. Now to what degree and what equipment he would choose? Don’t know, we can only assume as the article did. Would he have given up completely on his Large Format? I doubt it!

    I canceled after one magazine, then reinstated rather than pay for nothing, this is the quality that caused me to read once and have no interest in your magazine. Advertising passed off as journalism all through your mag, really unimpressive work. The British OP is of a way higher standard, take a look.

    I have a keen interest in what gear Ansel would use today. In fact, I corresponded and visited him over a two year period (ca. 1982) as a Product Manager at Polaroid. I was in charge of developing a Polaroid Color Meter and Ansel (as a consultant to Polaroid and close friend of Edwin Land) was quite excited about the ‘new’ technology. The color meter was microprocessor (Zilog Z80) controlled and used a detector filtered to respond like the tristimulus sensitivity of the human eye. From there, it calculated color temperature and displayed the amount of Wratten color correction filtering required to correct the incident light to that used to balance the film (for example, 5500 degrees K for daylight balanced Polacolor)

    I could go on, but I am actually working on a series of articles/posts that cover this unique experience and would welcome suggestions on how to go about it in a way that pays proper respect to Ansel. I still have the correspondence, including many test photographs he made while simultaneously using the Color Meter prototype I loaned him. Incidentally, during one of my visits to Carmel, he gave me an old Kodak Color Meter as an example of the ‘tools’ he had at the time. I think he got it from Edward Weston. It uses a split image viewer and crossed mica (birefringent) plates to measure the mired shift needed to match the two fields and deduce color temperature from there. But that may be a good subject for another article.

    Sadly I have to agree with many of the comments here, I found out more from the comments than the article. There is one comment that says Adams wouldn’t use a flash on a mountain, but the article does say something about not trying to light Half Dome”. Assume Half Dome is a mountain over there somewhere? Perhaps that commenter didn’t know that either. Grad ND’s only mentioned once, in one comment. What’s the go there?

    I have the first issue of Outdoor Photographer. Times have sure changed, like so many other “hobby/pro” magazines. OP is more and more aimed at the photographer, well the person actually, who can spend thousands on not only gear but software as well. The Black and White issue was really bad. One article started with a pathetic image to begin with, and then the author used close to $2000 in various software to make the final, still pathetic, image. Sacrifice an OP and separate the pages into useful information and adverstisement. You already know the answer. OP used to be filled with top articles from cover to cover but no more. I still subscribe, if for no other reason to see how low OP will continue to go. Unfortunately OP is still the best USA photo magazine available, which shows how much worse the others are.

    Wow… other commenters here are harsh! If I had to interpret everyone’s reaction to this article by reading their responses, I’d get impression that reading this article ruined your day. It’s just an article… just one guy’s speculation. One-third of you want the author to say that Adams would still be using film: sure, since that would really interest people like myself that have never sincerely shot film in my life… FLOP! One-third wanted the author to say Adams would apparently be using $40,000 of outrageous gear… not! The last third are dreaded by the fact that brand-names exist and that OP actually mentions them… FOR SHAME OP… how DARE you! Honestly, guys, you’re tearing this article apart for no good reason at all. If you didn’t like the article, fine… but cut the sappy, melodramatic, “it’s the end of all things good” nonsense.

    I really enjoyed reading this article. I would like to see another one based on Galen Rowell. I often wonder what he might have done had he lived for ten more years. His use of grad nd filters was very much like a precursor to HDR. With his desire to travel light, I wonder how much he would have left to digital processing. I think he still would have tried to get everything right in the field first, but he might have abandoned tripods nearly altogether in favor of using higher ISO ( he often did that anyway ). He might have loved the super zoom lenses that are out today with image stabilization. The new d7000 might have been high on his list being a very light yet versatile camera. I am curious to read your thoughts!

    I would be willing to bet he would still do it the same way he had always done it. This is the very reason he stuck to black & white, and that is what I think he would have done.

    Obviously he would use a DSLR for some of his work. He would not put that thing on top.

    As for digital, he made plenty of comments about how he wished he could be a part of the coming digital revolution. He talked about how laser scanning and digital imaging let him do things with his images he never could have done with a wet darkroom.

    And he no doubt use Photoshop extensively.

    Those who say he would always use a tripod would be wrong. His famous portrait of Alfred Stieglitz in his studio in New York is a good example of his using 35mm for handheld work.

    His last camera of choice was a Leica R4. So he liked the portability of an SLR for one very good reason. He was getting weaker as he grew older. And one of his favorite aphorisms was that he always chose the biggest camera he could carry for the job.

    But this article? Rather shameless advertorial.

    There are some very perceptive folk in our midsts, and their observations are most valid. I don’t see a whole lot in this article, if that’s what it really is, about Ansel Adams or what equipment he might use today. Huh. Go figure. Afterall, it is about the Benjamins right ‘Outdoor Photographer’ magazine?

    I, like many believe that his equipment might not change so much, but I feel confident he would want his film of choice. I think digital would be something he would use, but his untiring search for perfection would be found in his own darkroom, with all the smells and chemicals, and stuff that made photography so much an art as just plain fun.

    I miss my old darkroom. Those days are missed not solely because of technology, but because of time. I wish I had that time back. Damn you technology. Damn you old age… Can’t something be done about the old age part?

    Frankly, I believe Ansel Adams would have used a lot of the same type of equipment he did back in his day, only more updated models, of course. Based on what I have read from him and about him and for those that know his work, I believe he would use his film of choice for the serious works, and perhaps a DSLR for some of the minor works and scouting, as well as the few color images he made.
    After all, Clyde Butcher still uses film and a monster of a large format view camera (Wisner 12×20) in his collection of cameras he uses. If you don’t know Clyde Butcher or photography, look him up. He is a master and his photographic purpose is truly amazing.

    I have seen videos of Ansel working, and he came across as a genuinely nice man with a sense of humour. He seemed most interested in the final product, and was not snobby. In the video I saw he used a microwave oven to dry his test strips, so I think he would be using a digital camera, and probably a ipod connected to it for a viewer. I don’t think he was a Luddite as some here suggest. He usually worked not far from his car. When he did hike for moon over half dome, he fell and broke all his glass plates except the one in the camera. He was not an art snob either. He joked about sending ruined image to the Museum of Modern Art with a twinkle in his eye. I speculate that he must have drawn his compositions from the painter Obata, otherwise a huge coincidence between the two bodies of work.

    This article is just speculative garbage!

    He was a good for his time that got better in the darkroom as he got older.

    Today, he would not even get published.

    Ansel is Dead.

    Had Digital been what is is to day, I most certanly think Mr. adams would use it to create his master pieces. Analog & Digial, why not use both if it’s at our desposal? Just as a carpenter has more than a few tools, so must we.

    Personal thought? Why don’t we have a “Photo Contest” featuring Raw, Untouched, Unaltered work… showing off peoples Raw talents. Let’s forget about all the fancy digital post production software. What ever happened to doing as he(Ansel)did, go out, use the Inspiration, Experience, Human Judgement, Compose and Shoot until you were satisfied with what you personally have acheived. After all, it is our perception of a moment in time that inspires us to record that image in the first place. I think Ansel Adams (The Naturalist) would roll over in his grave if he could see what we have done to the natural beauty of this Planet.

    Thanks for stirring up an Interesting Article. Great Feedback. Obviously people are very passionate about Their Photography, I guess the very reason why this magazine exists. Cheers.

    Wefromoz: You are way off. See Ansel’s contact prints compared to his final prints. His quotes also state how he is not trying to replicate reality but capture the scene how he visualized.

    Wow, this is pretty insulting. 8×10 is still the best out there, no competition. Even the pros have a hard time with it! Just look at the Lik guy. He uses medium format with digital backs. Not the same.

    I found this guy and was pretty impressed: http://www.rodneyloughjr.com/

    He’s one of the few photographers I’ve seen that use 8×10 and no digital back. Anyone heard of him? He just posted something about workshops and I’d really like to go, but I want to know a bit more first.

    Thanks guys (and girls)!

    Yes, Rodney Lough JR had a gallery at the Mall Of America and I went there a couple times. Truly great work. The detail in the huge prints was amazing. Stunning exposures. Too bad it isn’t there now.

    The one camera photo you had up on page one is mislabeled, the caption to the photo is “Lowepro Vertex 200 AW” which is also the caption of your backpack on page three. Please correct this so we can know what the camera is pictured in your actual photo.

    Ansel Adams was a great photographer, but invoking his name in purely speculative ways in every other article you write gets very tiring. It’s one reason I stopped subscribing. You can’t know what equipment Adams would use or how he would use it. Adams made great images because he thought for himself instead of trying to do what he thought his predecessors would do if they were still alive.

    I agree with the readers that he would have never used an on camera flash or flash of any type. I believe as an environmentalist he would have embraced digital to get away from all those chemicals. I think he would be shooting medium format with digital backs and tilt/shift lenses. I also believe he would doing incredible HDRs(not the over the top crap but realistic stuff). Just my 2 cents.

    Ansel would, without any question be using one of the Achromatic+ Digital Backs. This produces image quality of 8×10 sheet film or beyond and can be set most any Black and White film response. Works perfectly with the zone system, including n- and n+ processing of the 16 bit raw files. In addition Ansel would carry all of the filters and view camera lenses that he always used, since he would use them with the Achromatic+ digital back, in exactly the same way. But today he would likely opt for the more portable Alpa Field camera with the new and sharper Schneider and Rodenstock lenses (www.achromaticplus.com)
    No question this camera system is the ultimate for the ultimate in Black & White (which is Real Photography)…

    Alot of folks here obviously missed the interview with Adams, where he said “Eventually all cameras will be electronic, and you will then have complete control over your image. I was born a little too early.” Is Outdoor Photographer NOT supposed to help sell the gear of it’s advertisers? And if they are, how does a magazine do that subtly in an article like this? If they didn’t promote their advertisers, it would be a bad move for everyone, as they would go out of business and you, the viewer, wouldn’t have a magazine to read. Having said all that, I’d like to think that anyone who is going to read a camera magazine will be discerning enough to choose which photographic equipment they’d like to buy, regardless of an article.

    I would hope Ansel might have opted to carry some of today’s hi-tech digital equipment. I, like all you other Ansel lovers, would like to see him packing hundreds of pounds of toxic chemicals and gear on pack mules across the Sierra Nevada, NOT! Computer, iPad, Flash cards, lenses, and a couple of cameras in a backpack for Ansel? Does Bjorn Borg still play with a wooden racket?

    Ansel would use modern technology and love the added wonders that it possesses. Geniuses are capable of seeing the benefits of modern technology and adapting.

    I think Ansel Adams had the brain power to realize what digital photography could do for his raw natural talent. World champion pool players can beat US with a broom stick but not other pros.

    I’m in the camp that says Ansel adapts to modern technology, you?

    If the man were alive today he may realize you could connect a digital back from a medium format system to a large format box system. He would probably love the fact that he would have to load film anymore and be able to use his trusted and proven gear.

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