Learn from the Legend: Photography Tips from Master Photographer Ansel Adams

Moonrise, Hernandez. Monolith, the Face of Half Dome. Clearing Winter Storm. You know the photographs, and you know the man behind the camera: Ansel Adams, one of history’s greatest landscape photographers—but did you also know that Adams was an exceptional concert pianist, or that he thinks of photography like music? Did you know that he had a deep love for nature, and especially the rugged Californian wilderness? Did you know that Adams hated the word “shoot,” scorned bracketing, and even dabbled in portraiture for a time, if only to pay the bills?

In this 1983 interview with BBC, Adams revealed all of this about himself and more, including some truly profound photography advice:

Adams shared an entire lifetime of knowledge in the interview, but perhaps some of his most relevant and useful advice pertained to the topics of visualization and composition.

Adams believed that there are two types of photographers—the photographer who takes average quality exposures and manipulates them, expecting miracles in post-processing, or the photographer who learns to visualize finalized, edited photographs “in his mind’s eye” before taking the shot, to capture ideal shots simply with proper exposure. Only by envisioning the final product beforehand can photographers learn to expose photos properly and abandon crutches like bracketing.

“While you do have certain enhancements as you print, things and details that become revealed, you never can escape the original visualization—and you shouldn’t,” Adams said. “In actuality, the negative is like the composer’s score, all the information is there, and then the print is the performance.”

ansel adams arches mission san xavier del bac

Adams describes the difficulty of exposing “Arches, North Court, Mission San Xavier del Bac, Tucson, Arizona, 1968.”

However, while visualization seems to require a great deal of time waiting and pondering the perfect composition, Adams insisted that it must become an automatic, instinctive process requiring only a matter of seconds. Whereas painters have time to mull over the proper arrangement of shapes, photographers have seconds at best to work with what is available to them.

“The photographer’s problem is to establish a configuration out of chaos,” Adams said. “But again, that’s automatic. I can’t sit there and contemplate… if I keep waiting and waiting and waiting and waiting, the light changes, the mood changes, the excitement changes—so I’m supposed to see it rather swiftly.”

Adams also paid particular attention to the “mood” of his photographs, since he believed that a photograph is “the equivalent” of what the photographer saw and felt about a particular scene or subject. However, when asked to explain his emotions, Adams always found himself at a loss.

“I could never put into words the particular feeling and emotion of this particular moment,” he said. “I can tell you what camera or lens or film [I used]… but when it comes right down to tell you what I felt in the emotional sense, you have to leave it to the print to explain that.”

In that way, photography is a lot like poetry, Adams concluded with a chuckle, and added, “If that’s not too pretentious to say.”

ansel adams bbc interview 1983

Adams died one year after this 1983 BBC interview, at age 82.

Considering that Adams donated all of his negatives to the Center of Creative Photography in Tucson and regarded the dawning digital age of photography with excitement, he was not at all pretentious. While many master artists have viewed their particular tools as the purest means by which to produce art, Adams described this “new electronic medium,” where RAW digital image files would replace negatives and Photoshop would replace the dark room, as “marvelous.”

“I’ve seen what can happen to a print reproduced by a laser scanner and how that’s enhanced, and that’s just the beginning,” Adams said. “I know it’s going to be wonderful.”

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3 responses to “Learn from the Legend: Photography Tips from Master Photographer Ansel Adams”

  1. John says:

    Ansel Adams died in 1984.

    In 1986, Kodak scientists invented the world’s first megapixel sensor, capable of recording 1.4 million pixels that could produce a 5×7-inch digital photo-quality print. In 1987, Kodak released seven products for recording, storing, manipulating, transmitting and printing electronic still video images. In 1990, Kodak developed the Photo CD system and proposed “the first worldwide standard for defining color in the digital environment of computers and computer peripherals.” In 1991, Kodak released the first professional digital camera system (DCS), aimed at photojournalists. It was a Nikon F-3 camera equipped by Kodak with a 1.3 megapixel sensor.

    The first version of Photoshop was introduced in 1988.

    I wonder where the author concluded Ansel Adams spoke about photographers using Photoshop to manipulate pictures?

    • Rebecca Bennett says:

      Thanks for your comment! I actually wasn’t concluding that Adams spoke directly about Photoshop. Rather, my angle was to explain Adams’ theory of the two types of photographers in relevant terms for today’s digital age, which Adams himself would, I think, have appreciated in passing his advice on to future photographers. Having said that, I do agree that the wording could be improved, so I’ll make a change to clarify :)

  2. Joel Altman says:

    Ansel Adams would love the ability that today’s photographers can see the direct sensor output before taking the shot effectively eliminating the need for the light meter. The photographer as opposed to the picture snapper can pay attention to the picture values before making the photo thus capturing the image quicker. Good photography is about timing as much as it is about composition.

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