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.

Filters
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

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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

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

Power
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.


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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.