Photography Lessons I Learned Growing Up Around Ansel Adams

Photography Lessons I Learned Growing Up Around Ansel Adams


Ansel Adams was a young man of 14 when he first came to California‚ Yosemite National Park. The valley had a strong pull for him and he returned to work there in 1920 at the age of 18 to be the caretaker for the Sierra Club‚ LeConte Lodge.

Ansel became vigilant about protecting Yosemite and the Sierras from human impact while showing the world his view of this almost mystical place through his growing photography career. He met Virginia Best, the daughter of the gallery owner in Yosemite Valley. They married, and the gallery became a source of income for the young photographer and his wife. His complete works became the gallery best sellers. They continued to add products such as art books and other photographic services.

By 1940, his photographic workshops started as one of the first photographic education sources in the country. The workshops were usually a week long and for many, became a life changing experience.

ANSEL IN WAGON Photographic Lessons Learned from Ansel Adams

Image by Holden Higbee used courtesy of the Ansel Adams Gallery in Yosemite

That was the case for my father, Holden Higbee, who attended Ansel Adams’ photography workshop in 1965. He, along with my older sister (who was 12 at the time), attended a week long workshop of photographic bliss in beautiful Yosemite Valley with lectures by Ansel Adams himself. In 1965, Adams was a respected photographer, but not yet the photographic icon that he has become in the present day. At that point, his prints were selling for about $50 and he would gift his images to his favorite students. My sister received a copy of his “Mirror Lake” image for participating as a model in the workshop.

MEDIUM FORMAT Photographic Lessons Learned from Ansel Adams

Image by Holden Higbee used courtesy of the Ansel Adams Gallery in Yosemite

The Workshop with Ansel Adams

The workshop was held in the Wawona Big Trees area, the Yosemite Valley, and up into Tuolumne Meadows covering the basics of photography, Ansel’s Zone system, composition, and creativity. The students in Ansel’s classes were mostly young men, just honing their craft from the master, using their medium format and 35mm cameras. Their exuberance for learning photography was evident as they spread out to practice their lessons.

TOLUMNE MEADOWS - Photographic Lessons Learned from Ansel Adams

Image by Holden Higbee used courtesy of the Ansel Adams Gallery in Yosemite

This class stuck with my father, as the photography gene runs long and deep in my family. Holden, as an avid photographer and college professor, would drive across the country to document the countryside for his geography and geology classes and stop every 50 miles to take a picture, much to our dismay. He always had two or three cameras around his neck so he didn’t have to change lenses and he could easily document “how man uses the land”.

The Zone System

ANSEL ZONE SYSTEM - Image used courtesy of the Ansel Adams Gallery in Yosemite

Image by Holden Higbee used courtesy of the Ansel Adams Gallery in Yosemite

My father was particularly interested in The Zone System and how that would affect his photography. For many years after, my father would practice with the grey cards to set up the zone system. I am now the proud owner of his signed set of books from Ansel Adams; The Camera, The Negative, and The Print.

GREY CARD - Photographic Lessons Learned from Ansel Adams

Image by Holden Higbee

Visits with Ansel

On later visits to Yosemite Valley, we would see Ansel on a regular basis. I was a young girl but was impressed by his stature and his gray beard. In the evenings after dinner, we would all assemble in the lodge which had huge fireplaces, comfy 60s style couches, and tall vast windows with views of Yosemite Falls. My father and sister would play Backgammon, and watch the side door to see when Ansel would make his quiet entrance.

Our Dad would wave at Ansel and he would make his way over to our couch where the Backgammon board lay precariously on the cushions. Ansel would give my sister a tip or two on what her next move should be. Often he would sit awhile and watch them play before the Warren Miller Ski Film would start. Then Ansel would disappear as we became engrossed in the film.

ANSEL ZONE SYSTEM - Photographic Lessons Learned from Ansel Adams

Image by Holden Higbee used courtesy of the Ansel Adams Gallery in Yosemite

As children, we had no idea the impact that this nice bearded man would have on the world of photography and our lives as creative artists. We thought he was just another photographer and friend of my father’s.

ANSEL AT WORK - Photographic Lessons Learned from Ansel Adams

Image by Holden Higbee used courtesy of the Ansel Adams Gallery in Yosemite

Respect Nature

Even though I didn’t attend the workshops, Ansel Adams greatly influenced my life, my love of landscape photography and nature, as he did for millions of others. At 6 years old, my father put a 35mm camera in my hands and I was off and running. After that week with Ansel Adams, we would talk about photography and composition frequently at dinner. “When you are shooting landscapes” he would say, “never move a leaf or a flower, respect nature for what it is. Learn to create a composition from what is naturally there.” From that point on, I never put the camera down, it has always been an extension of my life and my personality and landscape photography became my love.

After 50 years of traveling in Yosemite, it continues to take my breath away. We now return to Yosemite three times a year to teach photography workshops. We visit the park mid-week to avoid the tourists and also when there is the greatest chance of changing weather.

“Yosemite Valley, to me, is always a sunrise, a glitter of green and golden wonder in a vast edifice of stone and space.” – Ansel Adams

Full circle

Late last fall, we had the great fortune of spending three weeks teaching workshops in the valley as it turned from fall to winter. Every day the light would change and the photographic options would take our breath away, but we felt like we were in sync with the ever changing conditions. We got into the rhythm of life there and found it an easy and wonderful experience.

Yosemite Fall - Photographic Lessons Learned from Ansel Adams

In January, we returned to the valley to do a private workshop and the forecast was for snow. As we drove into the park, the snow had started to come down and the roads were quite slushy. Little did we know, we were one of the last cars they would let into the valley for the next four days. As we arrived in the valley, it was covered in a thick coating of snow and was quickly adding up. I don’t know how many people were there that week in Yosemite, but it was a photographic wonderland.

We arrived and handed our client a pair of snow shoes and off we went on a winter photographic adventure. I would like to think that those few days of bliss might have been a bit like some days Ansel Adams experienced in Yosemite back in his day. An experience I won’t soon forget.

Yosemite Winter - Photographic Lessons Learned from Ansel Adams

“A great photograph is one that fully expresses what one feels, in the deepest sense, about what is being photographed.” – Ansel Adams


If you come to Yosemite, come in the off season when you can appreciate the beauty of the place without the throngs of tour buses and distracted selfie takers. Everyone that comes to the valley fancies themselves a photographer, so when you are in Yosemite, be sure to embrace the spirit of Ansel Adams.

Do you have any Ansel Adam’s stories to share? What lessons have you learned from his teachings? Please share in the comments below.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Holly Higbee-Jansen is photographer, trainer, blogger, and workshop leader who enjoys teaching and the creative process. Her passions include teaching photography workshops in beautiful locations in California, Iceland, Costa Rica and the American West with her husband Mark. Holly also teaches online classes on Lightroom, Photoshop and photographic technique. Get Holly's Free E-Book on "Landscape Photography and the Light" and find out about her newest workshops at Jansen Photo

  • There is no doubt Ansel is an awesome photographer.

  • Holly Higbee-Jansen

    Yes, he still is a great influence on photography today.

  • Kevin Lj

    Wonderful! What a fabulous story. Thanks for sharing your experience.

  • Holly Higbee-Jansen

    Thanks Kevin!

  • Elliott S.

    What a wonderful story and wonderful experience! How I wish I could have been able to go on a workshop like that. So neat. Thanks for sharing.

  • Yes indeed – he was. He passed away in 1984.

  • Holly Higbee-Jansen

    It’s amazing that he is still such an influence on photography.

  • Oliver Z.

    Its not really an Ansel Adams story, but I just wanted to share this story with you.

    My mother passed away 2 weeks ago. I was / am very sad and depressed. I couldn’t do much then just sit around and do nothing. I watched a documentation called “The genius of photography” in which of course Ansel Adams was mentioned also. I was very fascinated from his work so I decided to buy a book of his great photographs.
    I bought the book “Ansel Adams 400 photographs” yesterday.

    Today when I opened up the website of “Digital Photography School” which I always do in my lunch break, there was this article about him.

    Maybe it’s just coincidence, but I take it as a sign from my mother to continue with photography.

    Thank you for this wonderful article.

  • Holly Higbee-Jansen

    I hope you do pursue your photography. To continue with that coincidence, I also have that book and
    look at it often. It was given to me by my Father, the man in this story. He is now 98 years old, and I will always be grateful that he gave me the gift of a lifetime of photography.

  • Holly Higbee-Jansen

    Thanks Elliott!

  • Great story. I grew up, and became interested in photography, along this same timeframe- I would have cut off my right arm to meet and spend time with Ansel Adams.

  • Claire

    What a wonderful experience you describe. And it’s great that you were able to enjoy it at such a young age–an age when many kids haven’t much interest in what the grown-ups around them are doing. Many people don’t realize that Ansel Adams was also a concert pianist. I suspect that the degree of perfectionism required for playing the piano also served him well in photography, especially in his darkroom.

  • Holly Higbee-Jansen

    Yes, I really wasn’t aware of who he was at the time, just one of my Father’s friends. But his influence has stayed with me to this day.

  • Holly Higbee-Jansen

    Yes, I’m sure the music served Ansel well in photography. And we were definitely fortunate to spend a lot of time in Yosemite in those years. I still spend a good deal of time there, but it’s quite different with the amount of people who have discovered it.

  • Carol Watson Miller

    This article reminds me of my mother (who passed away 4 years ago at age 91). Holly, you certainly had some wonderful adventures with your Dad and Mr. Adams! What an amazing exposure to his art and artistry – and it sounds like a life-changing event for your whole family. My mother took up photography in her late 40s. She was an area correspondent for the Atlanta Journal & Constitution, and she needed pictures to go along with her stories. So, she bought a professional camera and she and my Dad learned how to use it. She loved working in B&W and later began doing color portraits (mostly of her grandchildren, of course), and she went to a photography school in Indiana where she learned how to manipulate and retouch the images. My Dad taught me how to use the camera also, and I spend many happy hours in the darkroom developing my own B&W prints. We all loved Ansel Adams. Oliver, I am sorry to hear about your mother, and I agree that you just got a sign from yours re: your photography. Best wishes to you!

  • He was a master. Yeah can you imagine – will people remember us 35 years after we’re long gone?

  • Holly Higbee-Jansen

    Of course they will! 🙂

  • Holly Higbee-Jansen

    It seems like many of us got into photography because of our parent’s influences. How great for your Mother that she was able to use her skill with the newspaper. My Dad always said his photography was an excuse to travel. I like that plan!

  • Ric of The LBC

    Two of the best film makers intersect. Ansel Adams and Warren Miller.

  • Holly Higbee-Jansen

    Yes, you’re right! I never thought of that!

Join Our Email Newsletter

Thanks for subscribing!

DPS offers a free weekly newsletter with: 
1. new photography tutorials and tips
2. latest photography assignments
3. photo competitions and prizes

Enter your email below to subscribe.
Get DAILY free tips, news and reviews via our RSS feed