The Photographer’s Library: Examples by Ansel Adams

This is the first in a series of posts on books about photography I have found helpful, instructive, or inspiring, or all three. Some of the books reviewed will be physical; others will be e-books.

“Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach.” The aphorism is not merely unkind to teachers, but libellous to the great do-ers of any sort who have passed on what they themselves know. A former co-worker subscribed to a theory of learning he called “watch one, do one, teach one”: to do something very well, you must ultimately be able to teach it.

The great Ansel Adams cared very much for teaching, and while his three-volume series on technique is indispensable, I think his most important book is Examples: The Making of 40 Photographs. Why do I call it his most important book? When one combines high-quality reproductions of a great master’s work with anecdotes that show the technical means of photography to be essential but humble servants of creative vision, one has the stuff of which profound learning is made.

Examples covers almost the whole of Adams’s creative life, from an early soft-focus experiment (“Lodgepole Pines,” 1921, p. 48) to work contemporary with the book (“Graffiti, Abandoned Military Installation,” 1982, p. 166). The prose is lean and analytical. Adams neither boasts nor denigrates his own abilities, and, as in his technical trilogy, he gives photographers who have inspired him their due credit. His account of the early days of Group f/64, which accompanies “Boards and Thistles” (pp. 29-31), is easy to read in the tone of voice of an old man laughing at himself for being so earnest and serious in his youth.

The stories accompanying each photograph are replete with technical data: film format, lens make and focal length, film type, filters used (if any), and the type of developer or development process. Important adjustments (dodging/burning) made in printing are also mentioned. Adams notes that his technical excursions have sometimes exasperated readers:

People have said to me, “Why don’t you just make the picture and forget all that technical gobbledygook?” Practice will bring facility to any serious photographer. Because of ample practice in the field, the technical considerations were decided in about three seconds. (p. 168)

The last clause is the most important for what it implies: technique is practiced so the photographer’s mind is not burdened by it and remains focused on making a strong image. Adams is even more emphatic about disruptions to the creative process, particularly second-guessing oneself in the middle of a shoot:

Intellectual and critical pre-evaluation of work is not helpful to creativity…I have made thousands of photographs of the natural scene, but only those visualizations that were most intensely felt at the moment of exposure have survived the inevitable winnowing of time. (p. 106)

It is essential that the artist trust the mechanisms of both intellect and creative vision. The conscious introspective critical attitude has no place in the luminous moments of creative expression, but should be reserved for later, when the work is complete. (p. 93)

In the age of digital, the habit of “chimping” after shooting for the instant critical feedback is a double-edged sword. While the rear screen makes it easy to see and fix an obvious technical problem, the ease of self-criticism while in the creative flow is a strong temptation, too strong for some photographers to resist. I do what Adams describes much too often, and am never pleased with the results.

It’s also reassuring to see a master describe his mistakes and moments of foolishness:

The picture haunts me. I have not yet made the print I desire. The tonal qualities of the woman’s face please me, but I am not able to print through the the blank sunlit area of her shoulder without getting a flat, textureless value…. (p. 72)

I pleaded, “Edward [Weston], please just keep sitting there.” I was very excited and fumbled my meter, dropped my focusing cloth and inadvertently kicked the tripod leg. Edward was amused and relaxed. (p. 145)

The only thing that could make this book better is to be back in print in a handsome hardcover presentation. Adams’s wit, warmth, and humanity in both word and photograph are a complete school of photography, one that neglects neither the creative core nor the necessary mechanisms to express it. If you are a photographer, tolle et lege; if you love a photographer, Examples comes close to being the perfect gift for your beloved.

Exercises in Visualization

The outing where I was able to capture some neat underpass graffiti was originally intended to take advantage of clear cold weather for getting a shot of the University of Illinois’ power plant in full steam.

The previous day had much the same weather but I was limited to scouting the area for a good location, which gave me time to visualize my image. I wanted a strong monochrome rendering of the scene, and thought of Ansel Adams’ visualization of his famous photograph Monolith, The Face of Half Dome, as described in Examples: The Making of 40 Photographs:

I saw the photograph as a brooding form, with deep shadows and a distant sharp white peak against a dark sky. The only way I could represent this adequately was to use my deep red Wratten No. 29 filter, hoping it would produce the effect I visualized. (p. 4)

In the same way, I wanted the stacks and steam to stand out against a dark sky, while the values of the rest of the building could fall where they may, as long as they were legible. The old Main Line of Mid-America runs right next to the plant; I realized that the top of its embankment was the best place to put my camera.

Not being sure of the optimal focal length, I used my 18-105mm Nikkor, my most versatile lens. f/8 provided adequate depth of field. Without camera movements to manage convergence, I knew I’d have to tilt up and correct perspective in post, and frame just a touch loosely to allow an accurate crop. I exposed to the right and made several exposures with different shapes of steam plumes.

Lightroom’s B&W converter is like Channel Mixer on steroids; it allows the user to control the relative contributions of eight colors to the values of the final image. For this image I took the automatic levels and severely decreased the contribution of blue, darkening sky and shadows without appreciably affecting other values. It took a little more work to find the right amount of perspective correction, and not all parallel lines are strictly parallel even in the final rendering; the stacks are appreciably straight, however, which establishes the necessary orientation and sense of height.

I could have further darkened the sky by using a polarizing filter, but did not think of it while shooting; in any case, it is probably better to capture optimal data and tweak the relative color luminances later, rather than polarize and bake-in relative tonalities I cannot undo.


Retroblogged from my LiveJournal post for 25 May 2011.

The great photographer Ansel Adams is one of my heroes/inspirations/teachers, as he has been (and no doubt will continue to be) to many others. I often find myself taking pictures with the intention of making monochrome versions of them, adapting for digital the tools and techniques Ansel presents in The Negative. Thus it was that I found myself in downtown Urbana with a good view of the courthouse, and realized that the situation was amenable to such treatment.


The early afternoon light here is harsh but tempered a bit by haze. The courthouse is a terra-cotta color, so if we emphasize the red channel, we can both tame the shadows a bit and separate the courthouse from the sky; the equivalent operation on film would be using a red filter with a panchromatic emulsion. Ansel used this effect more dramatically in his famous 1927 photograph Monolith, The Face of Half Dome. Emphasizing the red channel had the undesirable side effect of blanking the traffic lights; since the lights were green for E-W traffic on Main Street, I made a second version with green emphasized, used layers in the GIMP and masked in the bottom traffic light in the three fixtures for eastbound traffic.

This is not a literal rendering of the relative values of the scene; it is an interpretation of them reflecting what the scene made me feel at the time.