Using Ansel Adams’ Zone System and Large Format Photography Still Today

The face of the United States has changed quite a bit since the days of Ansel Adams. When he began documenting natural wonders for the Library of Congress, the country was still expanding and firmly based in agriculture. Even the untrained eye could appreciate the reverence of light and masterful composition employed in each of every one of Adam’s photographs:

These days, Adams’s contemporaries march to a bit of a different beat. For instance, Jarob Ortiz, the National Park Service’s latest addition to the exclusive collection of photographers tasked to record our nation’s wonders through imagery, focuses primarily on architectural photography. On a superficial level, their images couldn’t be further opposites. Yet, as the layers of time and appearances are stripped away, the mutual passion driving both men becomes evident.

National Parks photo by Ansel Adams

For one thing, Ortiz insists on using a large format camera just like his predecessor, despite the fact that digital models are infinitely more accessible. He believes deeply that the newest technology can’t compare to the control and resolution provided by the “old school” tools of the past. What’s more, the depth of rich shadows and highlights throughout the landmarks Ortiz portrays is reminiscent of the trailblazer decades his senior.

Ortiz working in field

His latest subject? The remnants of Ellis Island. A stark contrast to the parks Adams traversed in the most remote corners of the west, it’s clear that Ortiz holds the same appreciation for the once bustling hub that Adams held for the ancient rivers and mountains he photographed. In this interview with Jim Axelrod of CBS News, the young, ambitious man expresses his desire to capture the magic of the hub that housed the ancestors of nearly one in three Americans, preserving it for years to come.

Ellis Island through window

Though distance and time have led the men in vastly different paths, it’s clear that the National Park Service could the most striking similarity between these two—the fervor that comes with a camera in hand and a story to tell.

“When you’re taking a photograph—especially with the way that the public consumes photography these days—it’s all instinct real quick. So what you have to do is try to find a composition and angle that you know is going to capture people and interest them.”

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