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  • Raquel Rivas


5 Important Lessons from the Grandfather of Landscape Photography. Improving Black & White and Long Exposure.

Savannah Lewis by Ansel Adams

“A great photograph is a full expression of what one feels about what is being photographed in the deepest sense and is thereby a true expression of what one feels about life in its entirety.” ― Ansel Adams.

To understand the work Ansel Adam is helpful to remember where the word “Photographer” comes from.

In Greek the Phos mean “light”, Graphe refers to “drawing or writing”. A photographer is literally somebody writing with light, a person drawing the world with light and shadows.

The Tetons and the Snake River, Grand Teton National Park By Ansel Adams

There are plenty of biographies and a lot of information of Ansel Adams that can be purchased or found online. There is an extensive documentary on Youtube. “Ansel Adam American experience” that is totally worth a watch. Here I want to focus mainly on what I’ve learned from him and how he changed my perception of photography.

01. 50% of Every Photo is Made in the Light Room-Photoshop.

Ansel Adam manipulated his works negatives tremendously in the dark room. He used to say that the negative was the equivalent of the composer score and the print was the equivalent to the conductors performance. The same way a piece of Mozart sounds differently performed by different orchestras and different conductors.

He performed his own negatives in a very special way. Developing The Zone System. This system assigns numbers from 0 through 10, to different brightness values, 0 representing black, 5 middle grey, and 10 pure white. The Zone System requires that every variable in photography, from exposure to darkroom production of the print, be calibrated and controlled.

In the Dark Room Ansel was doing the equivalent to the Dodge and Burn that we use today. Painting the areas of the photo he thought should be darker or lighter than others. The print (Post-Processing) is the last link in a chain of events, no less important to the Zone System than exposure and development of the film.

Dunes, Oceano by Ansel Adams

“You don't take a photograph, you make it.” - Ansel Adams.

With a lot practice, a photographer visualises the final print before the shutter is released, the same way Beethoven was able to compose despite loosing his hearing.

For me post-processing is just as important as the shooting itself, and shouldn’t be looked down as secondary or unnecessary. In the beginning all my black and white photos where just grey, they look pretty flat, like washed. Understanding the concept of the Zone System was necessary for me to start using the full range, from Pure black to Pure white. Immediately I saw a great improvement in my photos.

02. Photography Becomes Instinctive, When you know what you doing.

This can only be achieved through practice and more practice. It is essential for those rare moments of bliss, where everything aligns in front of you and quickly disappears, so you have to work fast.

The story behind Moonrise Over Hernandez tells that it was taken within a few seconds of pulling his car over to the side of the road he was driving on route to Santa Fe from an assignment. Approaching the Hernandez village, a mesmerising scene unfolded before his eyes:  “The moon was about two days before full and the buildings and crosses were illuminated by a gentle, diffused sunlight coming through the clouds of a clearing storm.”

With the sunset already happening and the light quickly moving away, Ansel Adams had the experience to calculate the exposure for the photo, without any tools but his mind. This photo became one of his most famous photographs.

Moonrise over Hernandez, New Mexico by Ansel Adams

“You don't make a photograph just with a camera. You bring to the act of photography all the pictures you have seen, the books you have read, the music you have heard, the people you have loved.” - Ansel Adams.

By comparing my photos to Ansel Adams, I understood that to get to his level will require a great amount of dedication, understanding of the equipment, composition, exposure techniques, etc.

Researchers have found that it takes around 10 years or 10,000 hours of practice to completely master any Art form. This made me think of photography as a long term path of progression, instead of innate Talent and I became less anxious about getting to this level.

03. A Good Photographer is Willing to Give What it Takes for the Shoot.

To get his famous photo, Monolith, the Face of Half Dome, in Yosemite National Park, Adams and his friends set out to reach the Diving Board, a rock slab hanging some 3,500 feet above the valley floor. It wasn’t an easy hike in the first place, and Adams was loaded down with a 40-pound pack containing his camera, a handful of filters and lenses, and 12 glass plate negatives. This dedication would become typical of the photographer’s later process, in which he would spend weeks at a time in the mountains, scouting out the perfect location.

En route to the Diving Board, Adams made several exposures, and by the time the group reached Half Dome, he had just two plates left. For his first shot, he used a yellow filter that he often placed over his lens to subtly darken the blue sky. But almost as soon as he’d released the shutter, he knew that something wasn’t right.

“I began to realise, why, I’m not creating anything of what I feel, because I know the shadow on the cliff is going to be like the sky; it’s going to be grey,” Adams later explained. “It will be an accurate picture of Half Dome, but it won’t have that emotional quality I feel.”

Instead, for the second exposure, he used a deep red filter that would darken the sky almost to black and emphasise the white snow on Half Dome’s cliff face. The filter made all the difference, as Adams quickly realised when he developed the photo later that night. He considered Monolith, the Face of Half Dome, his “first really fine photograph,” a career-changing image that marked his first successful “visualisation”. Adams’s term for carefully determining all elements of a photograph before ever releasing the shutter.

Monolith, the Face of Half Dome, Yosemite National Park, 1927 by Ansel Adams

Landscape photography is the supreme test of the photographer - and often the supreme disappointment. ” ― Ansel Adams

I have learned the best times of the day for the light are early morning and sunsets, on Saturday and Sundays early morning you can skip all the crowd and the underground will be almost for your exclusively photographic use. To get “the photo” requires many times to walk long distances with heavy camera bag and tripod, in winter you get your hands and feet frozen, in spring there are a lot of chances to get caught in a rain shower, in summer you could get sunburnt and be ready for the disappointment! Because after all the effort, there is not guaranty you will get the shot. It is pretty much like fishing for me, you may get something you want or you may go home empty handed. But still people go to fish because they like the process itself not only the catch.

04. Not How it Was, But How it Felt. Photography as Expression of Feelings.

Photography Is not just about making photocopies of the reality with your camera, in photography you are allowed to create images to communicate to others, using visual language, how you feel about a specific idea or a place.

We humans as the rest of animals are hardwired to visually read emotions, We naturally read the changing in others faces and instantly understand how they feel. It is not only human appearances that we are able to read. We also have an emotional response to our environment. A great example is how it feels to watch a sunrise or why people that know nothing about Art can recognise some photos as really good compared to others. Like there is “Something” in the photo. This is because it evokes an emotional reaction inside you, intentionally transmitted by the photographer.

Ansel Adams tells why he decided to photograph his famous image, “Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico” shot with an extremely dark sky.

“People have asked me why the sky is so dark, thinking exactly in terms of the literal. But the dark sky is how it felt.” – Ansel Adams

Moon and Half Dome by Ansel Adams.

“Photography, as a powerful medium of expression and communications, offers an infinite variety of perception, interpretation and execution.” – Ansel Adams.

Photography as expression of myself was a totally new concept for me . I had to learn this from Zero. I have never been taught in any school the importance of feelings neither how to be in tune with my own ones.

Since then I stoped worrying so much about my images being perfect and beautiful and started focusing more on emotions and feelings, because that is what make the difference in a good photograph.

05. Nature and Man, The Commitment that can change things.

Ansel had a message in his Art that was consistent throughout all his career, He is presenting the world as immensely beautiful. His subject was the admiration he felt in nature, the humbling exaltation he felt in the wilderness, whether manifest on a huge or tiny scale. His photos are often of the great outdoors, putting man into perspective. By the scale and proportions he is using in his landscapes we feel just a tiny part of this large world and cant ignore the fact that man are so insignificant in comparison.

In the early 1930s, other photographers and critics complained that the world was going to pieces while people like Adams and Edward Weston were photographing rocks. Adams responded in a letter to Weston that “Humanity needs the purely aesthetic just as much as it needs the purely material.”

Clearing Winter Storm by Ansel Adams.

“It is horrifying that we have to fight our own government to save the environment.” – Ansel Adams.

I was attracted to Ansel Adams photography for this very reason. I'm drawn to travel to destinations that put me in my place. I think is necessary for people of such great Ego like mine. I like to remind myself that I am very small in this world, that we are all related and connected and there is no real difference between us and the world, we are all part of the same thing.

He recognised that there was something he was suited to do for humanity, committed to share the beauty of wilderness and convince people to keep some areas inviolate for generations to come. He said he couldn’t make art about unemployment lines, but he could inspire reverence and gratitude for nature.

Learning and Evolving.

While I was learning more about Adams work. I discovered that he was trained as a classical pianist and that his first love had been music. In his early twenties, his parents pressured him to pursue music instead of photography. Immediately, I felt a connection with this man. Like he had once been, I was at a crossroads, and his work inspired me to keep going in this direction.

I never had a formal education in photography apart from Macro and Micro photography classes. I remember reading the camera manual page by page the same way I read the microscope manuals page by page. I was taking photos the same way I was doing in the Cytology Lab, everything clearly in the centre and as sharp as possible. I was too seeking for that ONE photo that was going to be amazing and unrepeatable and admired and rewarded. I totally was seeing it from a different perspective and missing the point of photography.

It took me a while to start considering to do photography projects. I started to think in ways I could use a series of photos to write a message, the same way words can be linked together to build a story. I could use photography for something else, to involve myself in something bigger than myself.

“Life is your art. An open, aware heart is your camera. A oneness with your world is your film. Your bright eyes and easy smile is your museum.” ― Ansel Adams.

Lake MacDonald Evening, Glacier National Park, 1942 by Ansel Adams



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