Guiding Vision

Ansel Adams was guided by an overarching vision for all of his photography. We look at his approach and how you can apply it to your own work.

Looking at Ansel Adams' best work is like seeing a highlight reel of a lifetime spent with a camera in the wilderness. Adams' drive to photograph the landscape was informed by his deep commitment to conservation and the environment. As nature photographers, whether we want to shoot grand vistas or intimate scenes in black-and-white or in color, perhaps the greatest lesson we can learn from Ansel Adams is to have a guiding vision. Opening spread: Canyon de Chelly, Arizona.

Ansel Adams' philosophy that, "Without a guiding vision, photography is not necessarily an important activity," divides photographers into two groups: those who simply shoot aesthetically pleasing one-offs of beautiful scenes and those who have a driving force behind why they shoot what they do and meticulously plan how they'll capture the image to make it meaningful. Sure, we're all likely at least a little familiar with Adams' black-and-white landscape photographs, and many would argue that his fame derived from the technical superiority of his images at the time, and their ability to be reproduced and displayed well. While that was certainly a key to his success, it was his guiding vision that led to a lifelong mission of environmental conservation and preservation of the American West that still has an impact on our lives today, decades after his death. This vision can be an inspirational force for photographers who seek to create a broader body of work.

Adams developed an interest in and an appreciation for nature at a young age while growing up in San Francisco in the early 1900s. His passion grew after exploring Yosemite and the Sierra Nevada, some months before the National Park Service was founded in 1916, and he eventually became friendly with the founders of the burgeoning conservation movement in the U.S. when he got involved with the Sierra Club in 1919.

The Sierra Club was incorporated in 1892, thanks to the efforts of wilderness explorer and visionary John Muir, who saw the need to ensure the protection of the recently established Yosemite National Park, and a group of people from the University of California, who wanted to raise awareness of the Sierra, particularly Yosemite, and make these areas more accessible. With logging and sheep grazing in the Sierra Forest Reserve and the flooding of Hetch Hetchy Valley, the value of the Club was becoming crystal clear to all who advocated the preservation of wilderness. However, the mission of the Club essentially backfired, as increased accessibility led to overcrowding and deterioration of what they initially set out to promote and preserve. It was time for a shift in the Club's priorities, and that's when Adams' influence came in.

Adams' first real job with the Sierra Club was as a custodian. That humble beginning ultimately led to a long relationship with the Club. And, although Adams never met Muir, who died in 1914, his legacy would have a profound effect on Adams' career as a photographer and as an environmental conservationist.

In the early 1930s, Adams was the official photographer and guide during the Club's annual high-country outings. He was elected to the Club's Board of Directors in 1934 (and would later become president of the Club for a span of 37 years). At this point, he was already widely recognized as the artist of the Sierra Nevada, and a champion of the preservation of Yosemite and the creation of new parks. Knowing the influence photography had on park creation, the Club chose Adams to present its proposal for the establishment of Kings Canyon National Park at a national and state parks conference in Washington. Although nothing materialized on that visit, the effort continued, and two years later, Adams' new book, Sierra Nevada: The John Muir Trail, made it to the White House. After enthusiastic lobbying by President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Secretary of the Interior Harold L. Ickes, both extremely impressed by Adams' work, Kings Canyon National Park became a reality in 1940. But that was just the beginning. Through his images, in addition to writing thousands of letters and attending countless meetings, Adams' resistance to the overdevelopment of national parks was a lifelong mission. In his autobiography, he stated, "Everything I have done or felt has been in some way influenced by the impact of the natural scene."

Grand Tetons and the Snake River, Wyoming.

While the majority of us aren't going to change the art of photography and the fate of the wilderness with our guiding vision like Adams' did, his dedication to his vision may assist us in changing the way we both see our subjects and capture images to create more inspirational work. For some, a starting point may be creating a visual story with a narrative that's personal to the individual. For others, a socially significant theme may be what motivates them. Look at Adams' journey as a template. Channel what moves you, and dip into your own personality and emotions to find a unique perspective. Draw from your influences. Just like Adams was influenced by the great photographers of his time, studying images by famous photographers you admire, and discovering why their works continue to move and engage us, can be a step toward learning how to translate that feeling into your own images.

Once you start to develop your personal vision, it may look good on paper, but it requires time and dedication to make it influential in your work. According to Adams, "A good photograph is knowing where to stand," but even though he knew the locations he photographed well after years of exploration, this meant the commitment to leave before dawn, climb mountains, hike for hours at a time and return after dark for a chance, not a promise, of getting the shot. Search out imagery that depicts your story to help viewers feel like they're part of the scene.

Once you settle on a subject, study it, discover it and search for its essential parts to help draw out a concept for your image. Adams' work has stood the test of time because his images were planned out before pressing the shutter, and thus captured a feeling, not just a scene. Adams has said that in 1927, while perched on a cliffside shooting what would become the iconic "Monolith, the Face of Half Dome," he realized he wanted an image with more emotional impact, and that was when he first previsualized how he wanted the final image to look. Having a firm understanding of how a scene will translate into a photograph, and then finding the best way to capture the mood and spirit of the imagery to tell your story, has the potential to unleash greater creative vision.

But even then, Adams' photographs weren't complete until they inspired the awe and wonder that he felt while standing before the scene. That required becoming a master of his equipment and craft, as not all situations allowed for hours of preparation. Much like the time when he hurriedly pulled off the road to capture his famous "Moonrise, Hernandez" and couldn't find his exposure meter, he was able to deduce shutter speed and film speed from the moon's luminance seconds before losing critical light. And his precision didn't end when he left the field. Adams would spend hours at a time in the darkroom developing just a single image. Just as much effort was put into processing his images as was taking the initial photograph.

Adams' photographs are as much records of a long-ago wilderness as they are records of the people's dedication to preserve it. So whether we strive to develop a personally meaningful concept in our photography or one with social significance, we can all take a page from Ansel Adams' book: Don't simply be a trophy hunter when it comes to photography; aspire to be a storyteller.

Yellowstone Falls, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming.


    “Don’t simply be a trophy collector…aspire to be a storyteller”
    Pretty much sums it up, IMHO!
    The majority (of photographers) seeks Facebook Likes/Flickr Favorites etc. This article is timely and brilliant.

    The photographs are amazing, and breathtaking. I like the statement – that your photography must be guided by an overall vision. In my earlier days, I was obsessed with shooting poor people, and depicting misery on the streets.

    I have moved to looking to beauty not just in nature, but in the most unlikely places and things. We normally pass by things without looking at them. There is beauty everywhere.

    Not only was he an excellent technician behind the camera, and a renowned conservationist, but he also really enjoyed the entire process of making a photograph. From pre-planning to gathering his gear to traveling to the site to the exposure itself and to the post capture phase in the dark room, including the printing. Photography was fun for him! I suggest you try to find a copy of “Examples: The Making of Forty Photographs, published in 1983, just a year before his death. His text, which accompanies each of the 40 images, is quite revealing as well as instructional.An excellent exercise.

    The majority of photographers on Facebook and Flickr are just everyday people. There is nothing wrong with them posting images to share with friends. I for one have made a wonderful living taking photos and I post on Flickr, not as an ego trip. But hopefully to inspire others and to show some locations that are easily accessible for weekend shooters. Not everyone can shoot for Nat Geo, nor do they want to.

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