For many landscape photographers, Ansel Adams is not just a role model, but a household name. Adams’ work has proven itself as timeless and has set the standard for modern landscape photography. So what is it that made Adams such a gifted artist? Of course, natural talent comes into play at some point, but it’s important not to dismiss the endless amount of hard work and dedication he put into his craft.
Digital cameras make it really easy for us to shoot, then shoot again, and again, and again, ad infinitum until we get the exposure just right. While there are benefits to this method, it shouldn’t be taken as an excuse to not understand the fundamentals behind taking a properly exposed photo. Before Adams would take a single photo, he would make sure he knew exactly what exposure settings he needed to be shooting on. He would take one shot using these settings, then would take a second insurance shot using the same settings in case the first one would somehow become damaged in the darkroom. Two photos for each composition and that’s all he needed to get the job the done.
If you’re wondering how he managed to get “the” shot the first time, he used a method called the zone system, which Adams and Fred Archer developed in the 1930’s. Even though Adams used different equipment than most modern photographers, the zone system still applies to digital photography, and knowing how to apply it can help you nail exposure every time you take a photo.
2. He Knew Excellent Exposure Doesn’t Always Make A Great Photo
There’s a lot more that goes into making a gorgeous landscape photograph than camera settings. Without interesting subject matter and artful composition, you’re likely to end up with a nice exposure that’s boring to look at. If you want to make eye-catching photos that are as captivating to the viewer as the experience of seeing the landscape in person, like Adams, you have to be able to combine your talents.
“There is nothing worse than a sharp image of a fuzzy concept.” – Ansel Adams
Adams was also well known to spend countless hours in the darkroom, perfecting his creations during post-production. In fact, it wasn’t a rare occurrence for Adams to spend an entire day in the darkroom on a single photo. Adams looked at post production as an integral extension of his art process and was never ashamed to admit it.
3. He Didn’t Break The Rules Of Photography…
…because he didn’t necessarily subscribe to them in the first place. Adams was vocal in his opposition to constantly abiding by all the so-called rules of photography. “There are no rules for good photographs, there are only good photographs,” he once said. For Adams, the art of landscape photography wasn’t all about following a checklist of rules in hopes they would make a magic formula for the perfect shot.
Of course, Adams accumulated guidelines over the course of many decades practicing his landscape photography, but these were more of a personal method than hard and fast rules.
Adams, an observant man, once said, “Landscape photography is the supreme test of the photographer – and often the supreme disappointment.” As mentioned earlier, talent will only take you so far, you have to be willing to put in the work, and accept that you’re not going to make amazing photos 100% of the time.
Dedication plays a big role in it, and a little bit of good luck will go a long way if you recognize it and are ready to take advantage of it. As Adams himself credited some of his masterpieces to the fact he was sometimes fortunate enough to happen upon a particularly breathtaking scene at just the right the time to snap the photo. Timing can be planned to an extent, but you should also be ready to seize every opportunity that presents itself to you.
The photos used in this article are licensed as Creative Commons BY-SA 2.0