Lessons you can learn from master photographers – Minor White, Ansel Adams, and Syl Arena

Lessons you can learn from master photographers – Minor White, Ansel Adams, and Syl Arena

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The reason I have put pen to paper (fingers to keys) is to share with you some simple tips and knowledge that can be gained from taking a look at some notable photographers. Some would even argue that these people are among some of the most creative and artistically idolized craftsmen who have ever captured light with a box. If you’re just starting out on your photographic journey these tips from some of the masters will hopefully help you along.

Minor White

Minor White by Imogen Cunningham

Portrait of Minor White by Imogen Cunningham

Born during the summer of 1908 in Minneapolis, Minor White held jobs as a waiter, bartender, and even worked in military intelligence during World War II. He was a very spiritual man and his beliefs spilled over into his photography. Co-founder of Aperture magazine along with Ansel Adams and other notable photographers, Minor was also an early advocate of the Zone System pioneered by Adams and Fred Archer. An early practitioner of infrared photography, White ventured into an array of subject matter but his work with the small, and often overlooked scenes and objects, such as frost on glass and dilapidated structures remain some of his most acclaimed.

Lessons you can learn from Minor White:

Make photographs all the time, even if you don’t have a camera.

Minor said that he was “always mentally photographing everything as practice”. This is solid wisdom for any photographer of any skill level. Unfortunately, the realities of most of our lives limit the time we get to spend with a camera in hand. The good news is that our artistic mind is never absent. Think about which exposure would blur that passing train just right. What aperture would give me enough depth of field to put that entire table into focus? You’ll be more prepared next time when you have your camera handy.

Don’t overlook small objects and details.

Some of Minors’ most celebrated works were of seemingly mundane or otherwise less than notable subjects. Be on the lookout for details and textures of things that you see every day. This is especially useful if you have an interest in abstract photos.

Drops of rain on my back door glass. Easily overlooked.

Rain on glass small

Simple occurrences made more interesting with a little creative thinking.

Ice on Firepit small 1

The early morning blue hour made this frost and ice on the cover of my fire pit look otherworldly.

Ansel Adams

Ansel Adams self portrait

The portrait of Ansel Adams taken by J. Malcolm Greany around 1947

Chances are, you have heard at least something about Ansel Adams, even if that something is that he was a famous early photographer. It’s true, he is considered by more than a few to be one of the best photographers of the twentieth century. There have been volumes filled with the ins and outs of this photographic master. Born on February 20th, 1908 into a well established family in San Francisco, Ansel Adams discovery of photography was unplanned. Ansel was a gifted piano player. An exceptional piano player in fact, so exceptional that he was set to become a professional concert pianist until he decided to commit himself fully to photography. Honestly, the next sections could be titled “What can Ansel Adams NOT teach you?”. The man was such a force in the early days of modern photography that it almost seems unfair to point out only a few practices that will help you improve your own work. However, I have managed to list some basic tips from Ansel Adams that you can put into action in order to make you a better photographer right now.

Lessons you can learn from Ansel Adams:

Slow down

I’m sure you’ve heard this before and possibly have read about the importance of slowing down and making your photographs with more deliberate intentions. Our crushingly convenient modern era of virtually unlimited and relatively low cost film (i.e. digital photography) has lent itself to making us potentially sloppy in our shooting. We sometimes press the shutter button entirely too often in order to get a suitable image for processing. I will shamefully raise my hand and admit that I too am guilty of this spray and pray method of shooting, more so in my earlier photography days right after I made the leap from analog to digital.

I did myself a favor, that I also encourage you to do for yourself, and decided to take things more seriously. Ansel would consider all aspects of his composition: from the elevation and tilt of his camera, the perspective of his lenses, the cast of shadows, even the future effects of the wind on the clouds. There will be times when you are racing against a sunset or you will be trying to catch some specific or fleeting moment and at those times you must shoot quickly and intuitively. Usually, however, we rush for no perceivable reason and often overlook or forget small changes that can make or break an image. So the next time the muse slaps you across the face to make an image, calm yourself down and work the problem. Think about what it is you are trying to do. Put yourself into the correct mindset to make better images and you might find, strangely enough, that your images become better also.

Teach yourself to see the finished product before you make the exposure.

The act of seeing or visualizing is another subject that has been touted by the photographic community many times. Visualization is one of those things that really can’t be brought about by technical instruction in the traditional sense; meaning there are no classes on visualization. Ansel Adams himself remarked that visualization cannot be taught, it is be learned. Think about that concept.

It’s undeniably true that some people learn faster than others when it comes to visualizing finished prints. However, it is equally true that no one started out being able to see in their mind’s eye the final result of a photo. Like most things, it takes practice, as well as patience, and more than a healthy helping of sheer determination. When you begin to see the print before it is made, then really all that stands between you and your vision is the selection of techniques which, similarly, require just as much determination and commitment to master.

Use a tripod

To reiterate, please, use a tripod whenever and wherever possible. A tripod is one of the single most important tools you can use to increase the focal clarity and sharpness of a photograph. Minimizing camera shake and vibration is key to making crisp images, period.

Colorflowersmall

By using a tripod I eliminated the need to worry about vertical camera movement in the macro shot above. Ansel tells us that the ideal tripod is “a cubic yard of solid concrete with a 1/4″ X #20 bolt head sticking out of the top”. If you don’t have a huge block of cement lying around to attach your beloved camera to, then the next best thing is to obtain a quality tripod and use it.

Having some way to keep your camera absolutely still is essential when working with long exposures like the image below.

Cane Creek Cascades Star Trail Color3

Exposure time: approximately forty seven minutes. This long exposure time would not have been possible without the use of a tripod.

Using a tripod (correctly) also forces you to, again, slow down and think about the photograph you are intending to make. dPS has a superb article on tripod employment that can be found here.

Syl Arena

Syl Arena

Photo by Vera Franceschi

Syl Arena, is a uniquely humble and genuine person, author, teacher, lecturer, and a speedlite Jedi. He is a magician of sorts when it comes to creating and moulding light. Syl currently resides on the west coast around San Luis Obispo, California. His biography is brief and barely mentions any notable achievements of which there are many. The lessons I learned from him actually lean more towards the philosophical than the technical. That being said, you will find this section contains no real insight from Mr. Arena concerning artificial light manipulation or photographic technique in general. For that I would highly suggest you check out his blog or his new Q&A site for loads of information.

My first introduction to Syl was through the gift of one of his books (thanks Mr. Veneman), “LIDLIPS: Lessons I didn’t learn in photo school“. In that book, this highly educated, highly skilled, highly successful, highly haired photographer simply and truthfully listed page by page the things he was never taught. They ranged from personal revelations on the photographic process to small background stories of some of his location shoots. He mentioned nothing about technique or gear really, just lessons from his life as a picture maker, unpretentious and sincere.

Lessons you can learn from Syl Arena:

Don’t be afraid.

Your limited gear, your perceived skill level, your lack of obvious subject matter, your lack of confidence, fear of trying something new; don’t be afraid of any of these things, or anything else for that matter. You will never have the all of the best gear so don’t let it worry you. Instead, learn to make the best use of what gear you have. You will never learn all there is to know about making photographs so learn what you can, where you can. Feeling like you’ll never get an image just right? You are your own worst critic, so don’t hide your work from the world.

Be inspired, not intimidated.

This is one of the hardest things to overcome, especially if you are just beginning to learn about photography. It’s easy to feel envious or even jealous of other photographers work. This can sometimes lead to convincing yourself that your work has no merit. Chances are, that image you’re envying and ogling over is a product of hard work, patience, diligence, determination, perseverance, and many other great words that the thesaurus can produce.

Viewing other artists work is one of the best ways to grow your own creativity.

Take the work as seriously as you want, but not yourself.

As you grow and learn as a photographer, remember that we all started out understanding absolutely nothing about photography; so keep that in mind the next time someone asks you a question about one of your photographs in a less than learned way. Most likely, you have learned something from someone who was nice enough to teach you. Please pay it forward.

Have you learned any lessons from other master photographers? Who is your mentor? Please share in the comments below.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Adam Welch is a full-time photomaker, author, adventurer, educator, and self-professed bacon addict. You can usually find him on some distant trail making photographs or at his computer writing about all the elegant madness that is photography. Follow his blog over at aphotographist.com and check out his eBooks and Lightroom presets!.

  • keepntch

    Inspiring selection of lessons you have chosen and not overwhelming. Thank you.

  • Marquinius

    Simple and oh such BIG truths in this article.

    My inspiration comes from yet another trio: Henry Cartier Bresson, Willy Ronis and Robert Capa. Funnily enough I shoot landscapes more than street scenes or people in general. Inspiration can be a weird thing!

  • A thought-provoking post. will share with my circle .

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  • Adri

    Beautiful article. I’m bookmarking this one for rereading.

  • Nice lessons from three great visionaries!

  • Keith Starkey

    Thanks very much.

  • Gavin

    it is great to get such learnings from your hard work – thankyou!

  • Adam Welch

    Marquinius, Bresson almost made it into this article! I too, am a fan.

  • Zain Abdullah

    Thanks for sharing these useful tip

  • asim khattak
  • Be inspired, not intimidated. I consciously stay in beginner’s mind, which keeps my photography fresh and the creative juices flowing.

  • Susinok

    Having grown up with film photography and a tight budget, I can honestly say that I am still a slow photographer. I tend to only take 1 or 2 pictures per scene and then change something. My DSLR friends often remind me that I can shoot as much as I want, but then weeding through the garbage photos in Lightroom is a pain. I still like to take my time.

  • GreenMountainGirl

    The tips are great – it is often easier to understand when the concept is distilled and condensed. I have read Ansel Adams, and had some difficulty getting it, although did learn the basics of his Zone system. But going to see Syl’s blog and website were a total loss for me. Probably because his topics are so advanced, I could not comprehend anything!

  • Adam Welch

    I feel your pain. Some concepts can make your head hurt. Check out this vid on basic off camera flash http://youtu.be/5gmgN8l7UFg. And remember, if you have at least a simple understanding of the Zone System you can probably hack your way through any and all subject matter.

  • Adam Welch

    It’s definitely not easy. I think the hardest part is learning how to learn to be a better photographer.

  • Anne

    Thanks so much! This was very helpful, for me the most useful advice was the ansel adams one about slowing down! Definantly something I will put into practice!!

  • Lonnie

    Thanks for the great tips! Love the simplified manner in which you share them. You have a great gift for teaching along with your talent as a photographer. My husband and I have hiked in the GSMNP the last four years. Wondering if you ever do photography work shops there? Would love to have an opportunity to learn from you in such a beautiful setting!

  • Adam Welch

    You truly flatter me! I love sharing anything that I know but I have never actually thought about hosting a work shop although its not completely outside the realm possibility, if there is interest. I love GSMNP and hopefully can return very soon.

  • Fat American Kid

    Thanks For The Amazing Tips 😉

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