Quotes From Master Photographer Ansel Adams and How You to Apply Them to Your Photography

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8 Quotes From Master Photographer Ansel Adams and How You to Apply Them to Your Photography

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The technology of photography has been evolving at a very rapid rate. Most of our cameras are almost obsolete by the time we purchase them! But one thing about photography hasn’t changed over the years and that is the art of photography. We can learn so much about the that from the masters of yester-years. Ansel Adams was one of these great masters, best known for his iconic black and white images of the American West. Let’s review some quotes from Mr. Adams and consider how we might apply them to modern day photography.

This image was part of a digital display that ran alongside the temporary exhibition, Ansel Adams: Photography from the Mountains to the Sea on at the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich from 9 November 2012 - 28 April 2013.

This image by Bruce Wunderlich was part of a digital display that ran alongside the temporary exhibition, Ansel Adams: Photography from the Mountains to the Sea on at the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich from 9 November 2012 – 28 April 2013.

“Expressions without doctrines, my photographs are presented as ends in themselves, images of the endless moments in the world.”

You surely have heard the expression, “A picture paints a thousand words.” Ansel thought of his images as expressions of how he felt in the moment he released the shutter. These expressions require no words of explanation. He was also quoted as saying “A true photograph need not be explained, nor can it be contained in words.” Likewise, we should look for moments in the world around us worthy of a captured image, which affects us emotionally before we click the shutter.

“Twelve significant photographs in any one year is a good crop.”

It is always a good idea to keep your portfolio up-to-date. A yearly inventory of your work, examining what you captured well and what you need to improve upon will help keep you focused on your artistic expressions. Photographers with digital technology have the tools to take many more images than Adams could with film and plates, so here’s a suggestion: Perhaps the number 12 suggests aiming for one memorable image each month. Take these most significant images and create a calendar featuring your art that you can give to friends. Regardless, keep your favorite images, your “crop”, organized and ready to share.

My 2014  "crop" in my 2015 desk calendar

2014 “crop” presented in a 2015 desk calendar.

“Sometimes I do get to places just when God’s ready to have somebody click the shutter.”

One favorite story about Ansel Adams centers around the circumstances of one of his most iconic images, “Moon rise over Hernandez”. As he was driving from what was described as a very unsuccessful day of shooting in New Mexico, suddenly Ansel pulled the car off the road when he saw the now famous subject. The light was changing so quickly that he was only able to get one exposure before the light was gone. Never think a day of shooting is a waste, that iconic image might just be around the next bend.

“There are no rules for good photographs, there are only good photographs.”

In a statement for a 1932 exhibit in San Francisco, Ansel listed his two “rules” of photography:

  1. The completed image must directly reflect how the subject appeared in the camera.
  2. He had to see the finished photograph in his mind before the shutter was released.

One of the most important things Ansel Adams left with us was this principle of pre-visualization. This mental vision of what he was expecting to communicate with the images he created is what makes them so prominent even today, some three decades after his death. We see too many photographers out in today’s world just aiming and shooting, not taking the time to think about the subjects before them and how the resulting image will speak to (or not) the viewers of the image.

Using Ansel's previsionalization method, When approaching this image I immediately visualizied this image as a black and white by adding a polarzing filter I was able to make the blue sky more saturated which can in handing later during processing to create dark and contrasting sky. I also intentionally under-exposed the image to ensure that the white boards of the abandon church are not to bright, to help convey the abandon feeling of theimage.

Using Ansel’s pre-visualization method when approaching this shot, I immediately visualized this image as a black and white. By adding a polarizing filter, I was able to make the blue sky more saturated which helped later during processing to create a dark and contrasting sky. I also intentionally underexposed the image to ensure that the white boards of the run-down church would not appear too bright, to help convey the abandoned feeling.

 “Ask yourself, “Why am I seeing and feeling this? How am I growing? What am I learning?” Remember: Every coincidence is potentially meaningful. How high your awareness level is determines how much meaning you get from your world. Photography can teach you to improve your awareness level.”

What a powerful quote! “Every coincidence is potentially meaningful”. To develop the creative eye that it takes to create great photos we need to be on the constant lookout for unexpected opportunities. So, must we carry our camera at all times? How many times have you come across a great scene only to find you do not have your camera ready and available? It happens to all of us, but don’t get caught up in the fact that you don’t have your camera with you. Instead, use this opportunity to think about the shot and visualize how you would have shot it, how you would compose it, and what camera settings and filters you might have used to capture the scene. Even though you may have missed the shot, you can use this as a learning experience to be prepared in the future.

By studying the images of great photographers of the past and present we can learn how to approach our own images. This image, captured in the Canaan Valley Resort State Park in West Virginia, reminded me of Ansel's image The Tetons and Snake River.

By studying the images of great photographers of the past and present we can learn how to approach our own images. This image, captured in the Canaan Valley Resort State Park in West Virginia, reminded me of Ansel’s image The Tetons and Snake River.

 “The machine-gun approach to photography – by which many negatives are made with the hope that one will be good – is fatal to serious results.”

With the new digital age of photography it is so easy to take the “spray and pray” approach to photography, but we must learn to slow our approach and think about every piece of the image that we are capturing. One way to take a more deliberate approach with a landscape shoot is to place your camera on a tripod, which will allow you to concentrate more on the composition of your image. There are plenty of situations where the machine-gun approach to photography can be helpful, for example, action subjects such as sports or wildlife, but in other areas this approach can be fatal.

“A photograph is never finished until I burn the corners.”

Ansel considered it important to keep the viewer’s eye in the frame of his images, so he would burn (darken) any light areas near the edges of the image. These adjustments were quite time-consuming and tedious to produce in the darkroom of Adams’ era. Today, however, we can easily accomplish these steps in Photoshop or Lightroom. Be careful not to overdo it, as these changes should be made in a way that is completely imperceptible to the viewer of the image.

“I am sure the next step will be the electronic image, and I hope I shall live to see it. I trust that the creative eye will continue to function, whatever technological innovations may develop.”

Many fans of Adams’ photography ask, “Would Ansel Adams have shot digital?” This quote indicates he would have! Ansel was never overly concerned about the process of taking photos as much as he was about the creative experience and how a photograph made him feel. Ansel Adams would not only be shooting digital, but also he would be a Photoshop guru, probably working closely with Adobe to develop and improve the photographer’s experience.

Where do we go from here?

So in conclusion, has photography changed over the years? Yes, the process has changed, but the art of photography remains the same. By studying the guiding principles of great photographers of previous generations, like Ansel Adams, we can sharpen our skills to become the best photographers of our day. Please leave a comment below: What is your favorite photographer’s quote and how has it inspired you?

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Bruce Wunderlich is a photographer from Marietta, Ohio. He became interested in photography as a teenager in the 1970s, and has been a passionate student of the art ever since. Bruce recently won Photographer’s Choice award at the 2014 Shoot the Hills Photography Competition in the Hocking Hills near Logan, Ohio. He has also instructed local classes in basic digital photography. Check out Bruce’s photos at Flickr

  • That church photo you took is amazing. It fooled me at first for a possible Ansel photo I had never seen, albeit a little more on the “edgy” side. My eyes hit that picture as I scrolled down and your church photo stopped me in my tracks.

    Anyway, as a B&W enthusiast thanks for posting this article. It has great content and it’s inspiring!

  • Keith Starkey

    Excellent!

  • imho Ansel adams might have kept on shooting film, though, large format photography still renders better definition than the digital equivalents, IIRC,

  • Gary

    Adams was of course a concert pianist, and my favorite quote of his is along the lines of, “The negative is the score and the print is the performance.” I have seen a straight print of “Moonrise,” and while it is beautiful it is not as powerful as the performance we are used to seeing.

  • “The most important part of any camera is the 12 inches behind it” – every gearhead and troll should have that tattooed on their body/backside where they’ll see it every day.
    Great post … a fun, informative read. And your Canaan Valley image has incredible dynamic range. You must have shot it with a CanOlyPanaFuj with a NikSamSon lens. Great choice 😉 Equipment joking aside, I like that image.

  • Wow! Really inspiring!

  • Tim Lowe

    People know Adams the photographer but few take the time to discover what a wonderful and insightful writer he was as well. Great quotes. Beyond the usual collection things.

  • Tim Lowe

    I don’t think the “film is better” argument is helpful anymore. We shoot film because it gives us images we love. I suppose digital images can have a soul. But it’s much easier to see it on film. 😉

  • i didn’t say nor use the word “film”. Don’t put words in my mouth, don’t distort my message to turn it into superficialities you can understand.
    I said “large format”.

    i was not comparing digital versus film, i was simply stating the technical superiority of the large format.

    if you are unable to understand it, they your ignorance is what creates the not helpful arguments.

  • jaytee

    Loved the article. IMHO Mr. Adams has been right there with Adobe as well as other software manufactures. His concepts of processing prints certainly influence them all. I actually wish they still used the terms like dodge and burn since it gave us that reminder of the connections to the past. I know he did not invent the terms, but he certainly mastered the techniques. Thanks for taking us back to our roots.

  • Edmund

    You did say “film” and you qualified it with “large format”. People differ as to whether 5X4 is large or medium format but 10X8 is definitely large format. I don’t know of any easily available digital back of this size but there are 5X4 and, of course, the Pentax 645 among other medium formats.

    So you know what a 10X8 camera looks like and you know what it takes to lug this around with a tripod that can hardly be carried solo plus the dark slides, the Polariod back, and the lenses which are mostly with a very low f stop?

    I don’t think anyone here is qualified to say what Ansel Adams may have used today but I do appreciate that he would have taken as long as it takes to get to get the right photo at the right time in the right light. This does not mean you need three assistants to carry the equipment!

  • Bruce Wunderlich

    Good points all, while true we can not know for sure what Ansel would be doing now. We all have our opinions to what we think he might be using. I do think that Ansel would love the digital age of the Art of Photography. There are some great photographer of our age who are using digital cameras of some kind to create some really fantastic images.

  • Bruce Wunderlich

    Thanks Will, I like the “12 inches” quote also. It is so easy to get caught up in the feeling that great gear will make great images. But the most important ingredient is what happens in your mind before you press that shutter.

  • Geoff

    An unfortunate reply John, and inaccurate as well, as you ‘did’ use the word ‘film’ that Tim referred to.
    As to what Adams would do with modern technology given the chance… who knows? He probably would have used whatever helped him get better images; like most of us do.
    One new development that’s definitely over-used is the polarizing filter, which usually only succeeds in making photos look fake (like the pic in the article).

  • Bruce Wunderlich

    Thanks Christian, for you comments

  • KG

    Great article! I love Ansel Adam’s photographs, but I’ve read a few of his books and had a difficult time applying it. This helped me connect better with it, so thank you for that!! I can appreciate him even more now!

  • Ranmali Kirinde

    Thanks! This is a great article. One of my favorite quotes is, “You don’t take a photograph, you make it”.

  • Colin Kemp

    Thanks Bruce – really enjoyed reading this. Spotted the link just a few days after a colleague reminded me about Adams’ Examples book. With the interest added by your article, I think it just made it on to my wish list.

  • Alan Kelly

    “Your best camera is the one you have with you!”

  • Sodrul

    I was so much inspired by Ansel Adam’s photographs that this week I converted many of my photos to B&W. Here’s one that I just converted. Thanks for the article.

  • Bruce Wunderlich

    Thanks for sharing, Sodrui

  • Bruce Wunderlich

    So true, it is so easy these days to have camera envy.

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