Nature Photography: Think Like Ansel Adams Today

Tools and aesthetics have changed, but the techniques of the great American landscape master still apply
This Article Features Photo Zoom

The legacy of Ansel Adams is a driving creative force that motivates every outdoor photographer. Through his treks to Yosemite Valley and other American landscapes, Adams almost single-handedly created modern nature photography. We know many readers will be ready to list all of the other great early American nature photographers and, to be sure, there were many, but none has the same legacy, the same enduring visual magnetism, as the work of Ansel Adams.

Much of Adams’ best-known work was in Yosemite Valley. It was in that granite-strewn, rugged corner of California where he previsualized a photograph for the first time. The unique features of Yosemite remain a cornucopia of photographic opportunities, not just because of the iconic Half Dome, El Capitan, Tuolumne Meadows and Tenaya Lake, but also because of the overall topography and that topography’s effect on the weather. It was often the weather—the booming clouds of midday, the drama of a clearing winter storm, the bright sun and the chiaroscuro effect it had on the steep valley walls—that made an Adams’ image so special.

While we can all appreciate Adams’ photography today, in this article we want to look at how you can use his techniques in your photography. We’re not looking to re-create an Adams photograph, but to examine his processes and use them in today’s digital world.

legacy 1

1 When we all shot film, previsualization was a special talent that could take a lifetime to hone. Adams himself was a photographer for years before he identified the first image he fully previsualized. This image of Half Dome, taken in 1927, was his first previsualization. With just a few sheets of film, Adams decided to place a red filter on the camera, darkening the sky and giving the whole scene the drama Adams felt as he viewed the scene. He employed the nascent Zone System to determine how the scene would render in a print.

Previsualization is every bit as important to landscape photographers today, but we have tools at our disposal that Adams never would have dreamed of. Using the LCD on a digital camera and the histogram, we can see precisely how the scene is rendered and then make adjustments as necessary. There’s no guesswork when using filters and there’s no danger of missing the correct exposure. In short, we have the ultimate visualization tool.

Even with the LCD and histogram, the practice of completely previsualizing the photograph is an important skill to develop. You can use the LCD and histogram to perfect a photograph, but when you get into the habit of previsualizing, you’re working more efficiently and you’re truly thinking about how to translate what you see and feel into a photograph.

This Article Features Photo Zoom

Processing Then And Now
2 If you’ve ever had a black-and-white darkroom, you know that Photoshop is merely the latest tool for techniques that go back as far as photography itself. Ansel Adams manipulated his images extensively through the use of push-and-pull processing when he developed his sheets of film and then extensive dodging and burning when he printed.

Today with digital, you can use Photoshop in a similar way. One of Adams’ trademark techniques was to push-process film to enhance contrast in the skies. Using Photoshop Curves and Levels, you can achieve the same effect and draw detail out of a dramatic scene. Try working with Layers to selectively lighten, darken and boost color areas of the frame like Adams would have dodged and burned in a darkroom. Photoshop has a Dodge and Burn tool, but most users recognize that working with Layers yields vastly superior results.

legacy 3 legacy

Chiaroscuro And Contrast
3 As photography developed as an art form in the early 20th century, many of the luminary photographers like Adams studied the paintings of the Old Masters. Among the important techniques they developed was using light and dark—chiaroscuro—to create drama and scale in a photograph. In this image of El Capitan, the dark, semi-silhouetted trees in the foreground frame and define the ethereal grandeur of the mountain in the background.

In the color image above, some of the same techniques are employed. Phil Hawkins took advantage of dramatic, low-angled light to create contrast between the more shadowed rocky slopes of the valley and the illuminated mist in the low areas. Also notice how the dark trees in the Adams image give scale to the massive monolith in the background, while in Hawkins’ image the illuminated trees in the foreground help to define the scale of the darker rock faces in the distance. It’s the same technique, but employed in an inverse way.

This Article Features Photo Zoom
legacy 4 legacy 4

Look For “Grandscapes”
4 Adams’ landscapes are “grandscapes.” When we look at images like this one, we feel small and insignificant in comparison to the landscape. Often, an Adams grandscape had a “stand back and marvel at the scene” feel to it. Some have described Adams’ whole mentality as one who would rather bring a viewer to the scene instead of taking a photograph. He often used longer focal-length lenses, which tend to flatten the field and create the “from a distance” look.

Today, the notion of the grandscape still exists, but the aesthetics have changed. The “stand back and admire” look has been replaced by an immersive look and feel where the viewer feels like he or she is part of the scene instead of an observer from a distance. In this color image, the grandeur of Yosemite Valley is clear, but the photographer makes us feel like we’re in the scene. It’s an evolution of the Adams grandscape.

legacy 5 legacy 5

Think About The Sky
5 Many of Ansel Adams’ best-known landscapes have skies that are at least as dramatic, if not more dramatic, than the terrestrial features. Booming clouds add a sense of majesty to any scene. In both the Adams black-and-white image and the color image shown here, the mountains and valleys play supporting roles to the incredible skies. When you’re faced with an interesting sky, let it be the focus of your photograph, not an afterthought.

Skies like this often happen at times of the day when we don’t think about shooting. A modern landscape shooter is conditioned to think in terms of the “magic hour” as being the only time to shoot. However, Adams made a great many of his best images in midday sun. To get your best midday images, think about tools such as filters to darken blue skies and draw texture out of clouds. Also, notice how midday sun has the benefit of illuminating steep mountains and valleys.

legacy legacy

Yosemite Yesterday And Today
Comparing the environment of shooting photos in Yosemite then and now, one would be surprised at the stark differences. For instance, photographing meadows in summer was impossible due to the inundation of campers who occupied any flat space. There was no control of camping in those days, and meadows were trampled. Grazing animals also were common, corrals were everywhere, and farm animals often ate grasses in meadows down to the bare dirt. Today, you can photograph various Yosemite meadows that look very close to what they were like before 1851.

Cameras and equipment were bulky and heavy, making it difficult to move around when conditions changed. Exposing one image took 10 minutes of setup procedures. But photographers could go where they wanted, when they wanted, with no restrictions whatsoever, unlike today in which one must obtain backcountry permits. The trail system wasn’t as developed as it is today, so the only way to travel with photography equipment was with mules. Today, equipment is lighter, and the trail system allows a photographer to go deep into the wilderness in relative safety and speed.

The Camera Comparison: Yesterday And Today
legacy Toyo 4×5 Field Camera

Camera technology has undergone a complete revolution since Ansel Adams’ time. While some photographers continue to use large-format 4x5s and film, most of us have embraced digital models. For years, it had been thought that a digital camera with its smaller sensor and lack of camera movements would be unable to create the look of a view camera, but it’s becoming an open question if that’s still true.

Tilt-shift lenses and high-resolution/low-noise cameras are giving digital shooters the same tools that a large-format film shooter has, and there are other benefits of digital that a 4×5 can’t touch. LCDs and histograms give us a precise look at a photograph while film shooters can only guess until the film is processed and by then it’s too late to reshoot.

Some nature photographers continue to use 4×5 because the process is personally rewarding, but for getting the best photographs, digital cameras have bridged the gap.

legacy Nikon D700