Learn Ansel Adams’ Biggest Secret for Stunning Photography – Visualization

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Ansel Adams is the most widely known photographer in history, you don’t need to look very far to see one of his images. Would you like to know the whole key to Ansel Adams’ stunning photographs?

This is a photograph of half dome in Yosemite taken in 1927 by Ansel Adams

Monolith, The Face of Half Dome, by Ansel Adams (Image courtesy The Ansel Adams Gallery)

In this video interview with his son, Michael Adams, you will hear about his breakthrough as a photographer, when he went from merely recording an image, to being an artist who interpreted the image to tell the story he wanted.

As you’ll hear, Ansel had his breakthrough when he climbed up to take a photograph of Half Dome, the iconic monolith in Yosemite, California. The moment he realized that the yellow filter just wasn’t going to convey what he saw and felt, he changed to a red filter which expanded the tones of the image and brought out the darkness of the sky, thereby creating the mood he had visualized.

Ansel said, the whole key lies in first visualizing the image you want, rather than just snapping away.

By first forming the image or idea in your mind’s eye, you can then set about to capture it. His son Michael summed it up with, “He knew what he wanted and he got what he wanted.”

These are Ansel’s’ key points that you can practice to continually improve your photography:

  • Look at the external event, and then visualize what you want it to look like, clearly and decisively.
  • Try to make the photograph of what you saw and felt.
  • Train yourself to see what the camera sees by comparing what you see, with what it looks like in the camera.
  • Practice your craft and do your homework so you can make the photograph you desire by going through these steps to capture what you visualized.
  • Placing the camera: Find the best point of view of the lens.
  • Make a proper lens selection.
  • Decide on your depth of field and set your aperture.
  • Control your exposure and later, the development.

As he said, with practice this becomes automatic and instinctive. Put Ansel’s advice into action and let me know your results in the comments below.

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Marc Silber

has been a photographer most of his life, and actually turned pro at age 13 when he sold one of his images to a teacher. He attended the San Francisco Art Institute with fellow alumna Annie Leibovitz. Marc loves to help others improve their photography, so in 2009 began his video series Advancing Your Photography, where he’s had the great fortune to interview some of the world’s best photographers.

  • Randy Menard

    When I started in photography in 1969, the go-to teacher was Ansel Adams. I had all the Zone System books that he published. I have a Limited Edition, signed book of his. My photography was greatly enhanced by his teachings. I stopped taking pictures and began photographing. This video is a great tribute to him and a terrific learning tool.

  • Thanks Randy, it sounds like we traveled the same path, I’m looking over at my set of his books in my studio. He certainly was generous in his teaching, and I’m very grateful to be able to pass along his wisdom.

  • Dave @ DigitalCameraHQStore.co

    It is truly fascinating to read how one evolves as a photographer through time and experience, I too started by just blindly snapping pictures of objects, people and animals without thinking too much about the final result. It wasn’t until much later did I start to think about the final product first.

    Dave, http://www.DigitalCameraHQStore.com

  • One of the conundrums of the digital format is that it costs nothing to hit that shutter release button. It’s a tremendous freedom to take as many pictures as you want, however it can stunt your visualization process. I tell people all the time to pretend it’s still the old days of film and every time you hit the shutter button it will cost you a couple dollars to have the photograph developed. This will help you take pause and visualize the image before you take it.

  • I fully agree Ron, I’ve always tended to shoot digital as though I need to go back in the darkroom and process those negatives! Slowing down and visualizing opens the doors as Ansel said.

  • Tim Lowe

    There is very little about photography that you can’t learn from Ansel. Even digital photographers should read “The Negative.” If for no other reason than to gain a good understanding of the zone system. It wouldn’t kill them to read “The Camera” and “The Print” as well.

  • Libin Dhiin

    I am a bigger in the photography world- and I have found this article so intriguing and inspiring! I am looking to put in practice Ansel’s tips. Thank you! Libin

  • you’re very welcome! Let me know how this goes for you!

  • Michael D Skelton

    I would love to go back in time and be able to shoot with and learn from him.

  • Darcy Lynn Delia

    “The single most important component of a camera are the 12 inches behind it”

    Ansel Adams

  • Tim Lowe

    I never heard that. It’s true.

  • Bev Stapleton

    As a photographer and a printer, one of my favorite things that I ever got to see, was an Ansel Adams exhibit from his daughter’s personal collection. These were all images made for her by her father. Breathtakingly beautiful…amazing depth, tones. Some of it made me speechless. He knew exactly what he wanted those images to look like long before he took the shot. I try that same approach if possible. I shoot full manual with old Nikon film lenses, so no auto anything. I shoot less, but am happy with a larger percentage of what I do shoot simply because I have to slow down to take the shot. And it’s very gratifying to see the final result when I am done printing.

  • TheXIIIthDoctor

    The only time I snap like there’s no tomorrow is when I’m shooting fast-moving objects (planes, trains, automobiles). If I’m doing still images (like the Trona Pinacles), THAT’S when I take my time. I usually end up with only 15 or 20 shots, but my post-production time is minimal.

  • Fantastic Bev!

  • Bev Stapleton

    You can read his books: The Camera, The Negative & The Print.

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