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In the Footsteps of Ansel Adams

Anyone seriously interested in nature photography has admired at least a few of Ansel Adams better known images. His work is iconic. Trying to follow in Adams' footsteps is a time honored tradition that can teach you plenty about the entire process of photography.

I admit it. On those occasions when I find myself somewhere associated with Ansel Adams work I can't help but try to figure out how he did it. Exactly where did he stand to shoot that famous image of Yosemite Valley or Wyoming's Grand Teton National Park? What time of day was it, and what time of year? If you too have tried this sort of thing, you know that creating such images isn't easy. His images show no evidence of the effort that went into them. You only discover this for yourself once you try to duplicate what he shot.

In some cases, this is due purely to the passage of time and the encroachment of civilization. Not only are the trees taller than they were back when Adams was plying his trade, there didn't used to be those pesky guardrails surrounding what is now a marked scenic overlook. But perhaps if you stood on top of one of the posts for that guardrail...? Just as Ansel Adams did, I have stood on top of my own car more than once to get a better vantage point on a shot when nothing else will work.

In other cases, it can be clear where Adam's must have stood, and there's nothing preventing you from doing likewise, but you still can't fathom how he must have shot that shot. Ansel Adams was famous for extreme depth of field from foreground to back. But he shot with larger format gear that had to have built-in tilt and shift movements so he could coax what depth of field he did have to bend to his will. But even without such lens movements, your digital SLR with its smaller sensor size is guaranteed to have more depth of field than Adams had available for any given aperture. So don't let a little thing like equipment differences become your excuse. Think about what you are doing. Understand the limitations of your gear and adjust accordingly.

Sometimes you may encounter a scenic vista that presents what may seem to be too many logistical and practical hurdles to actually shoot. But if Ansel Adams could do it, you know that at least at one time and with the right equipment it was once possible. His work can serve both as a source of inspiration and a source of personal challenge.

But Ansel Adams was famous for more than what he did in the field. He has also become legendary for what he did with his images after he shot them, once he got back to his darkroom. The "second half" of photography begins after the shutter release has been pressed. Adams knew that and took that into account when he shot. Photography has inherent limitations as to how it sees the world. Although the specifics may differ, your own vision has limitations too of course. But your eye and your brain dynamically compensate for many of these limitations without your even being aware. Your pupils dilate or contract as they need to as you scan a scene. Your vision has no one set exposure, and your brain stitches together the result to create a mental canvas built from what is in fact multiple exposures. There's no reason you can't do the same with your camera.

Adams worked in the chemical, wet darkroom days. I'm betting he'd love the possibilities of today's digital darkrooms. The work he had to go to to over and under expose, over and under process, dodge, burn and mask, can all be done more easily today with digital. If you're not availing yourself of at least some of these possibilities you're not really following in Ansel Adams footsteps even if you do sometimes shoot in locations he immortalized in the 1930's and 40's. Today you can even work with High Dynamic Range image formats to go far beyond what could be done even on a computer, just a few short years ago. Adams didn't start the creative use of darkroom techniques, but neither did they end with him.

All these digital techniques can be abused to create images that never were just as they could have back in Adam's time. But just as was possible back then, they can also be used to extend the limits of photography to more closely match the amazing feats your brain and eye routinely achieve every day.

Following in the footsteps of Ansel Adams both in the field and in the digital darkroom can help push your own creativity to new limits. This is true no matter where you shoot, and no matter what you shoot with or process the results with back in your darkroom.

Date posted: April 14, 2013


Copyright © 2013 Bob Johnson, Earthbound Light - all rights reserved.
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