Happy Birthday, Ansel Adams
Ansel Adams’ influence on photography is impossible to measure. Not only Adams’ influence on photographers, but his influence on the viewers of photography as well. Ask 100 people to name a photographer and 99 will name Ansel Adams; ask them to name a second photographer and you’ll get 99 different names.
Through his use of relationships, perspective, and tones, Adams’ images masterfully emphasized light and shape to guide viewers’ eyes and emphasize aspects of his scenes that he found most compelling. An entire generation’s relationship with nature was unconsciously shaped by the prints of Ansel Adams, not because they showed the world as we already knew it, but because they showed us the world in new and exciting ways.
Now that I’m a photographer, Adams’ influence manifests most in the freedom to render the natural world as my camera sees it, liberating me from the impossible task of duplicating human vision. The camera and the eye experience the world differently; rather than fight that difference, Adams’ photography celebrated it.
Today’s photographers perpetuate Adams’ vision with the help of far more advanced tools, tools so advanced that it’s easy to overlook the foundation he laid for us. On blogs and forums I see some rolling their online eyes at all the Ansel Adams adulation, discounting his influence and labeling his photography pedestrian and prosaic when compared to current efforts: “What’s the big deal?” they say. To those dubious photographers I respond, criticizing Ansel Adams’ by comparing his monochrome masterpieces to the striking, vivid, blended, and stitched images captured today is like criticizing Lewis and Clark for toiling more than two years on a route that can now be traveled in a few days.
About this image
Last week’s Yosemite Horsetail Fall workshop wrapped up at one of my favorite spots in Yosemite Valley, a spot I’ve photographed so many times that it’s an enjoyable challenge to find something unique. The light on Half Dome that evening was beautiful, but nothing I hadn’t seen before. Rather than settle for the beautiful but conventional shots of Half Dome and its reflection, I scanned the scene for quality light elsewhere.
It wasn’t long before my gaze landed on a small stand of deciduous trees, stripped bare by winter cold, basking in the warm rays of the day’s last sunlight. As I pondered the scene, a rogue beam slipped through to illuminate the crown of a single evergreen, punctuating the otherwise monochrome scene with a splash of color.
Though my eyes could see a confusion of textured granite and tangled branches in the dark background shadows, I knew that detail would be nothing but a distraction in an image. But as Ansel Adams so magnificently demonstrated, an image’s full potential isn’t realized unless the finished product, and the processing required to get there, is visualized and executed at capture.
Well aware of late afternoon light’s ephemeral nature, I quickly mounted my Sony 100-400 GM lens to my tripod, attached my camera, and framed my composition. Taking advantage of the camera’s limited dynamic range (when compared to human vision), I gave the scene just enough light to reveal the sunlit trees. Given my a7RIII’s extreme dynamic range, I knew I could pull detail from the shadows in Photoshop if I wanted to, but in this case I went the other way. Processing the image in Lightroom on my computer, I enhanced the contrast, banishing the distracting background to virtually black shadows, leaving only the shape and light that drew my eye in the first place.