How to take photographs like Ansel Adams did? The question dogs many who’ve recently picked up the camera, especially those directly inspired to do so by he whose black-and-white landscapes practically defined the American West for the 20th century. Conveniently, though, Adams left behind much to study, and not just his considerable body of work; he also spoke without hesitation about the techniques he developed and employed, and even further explained them in books like Making a Photograph; Camera and Lens: The Creative Approach; and Examples: The Making of 40 Photographs, the closest thing we have to a master class with the man.
Adams got particular results out of a procedure he called “visualization,” in which the photographer “sees” the final image as fully as possible in their imagination before attempting to capture that image on film in the real world. In the two clips featured here, you can hear Adams himself discuss visualization. “When you visualize a photograph, it is not only a matter of seeing it in the mind’s eye,” he says in the video from the Getty Museum, “but it’s also, and primarily, a matter of feeling it.” In the interview just above, he adds that “the picture has to be there clearly and decisively, and if you have enough craft in your own work and in your practice, you can then make the photograph you desire.”
Here, Adams outlines “the steps in making a photograph” in a bit more detail as follows:
Need, or desire, to photograph. This attitude is obviously essential. Sometimes just going out with a camera can excite perceptive interest and the desire to work. An assignment—a purpose—can be the greatest stimulus for functional or creative work.
Discovery of the subject, or recognition of its essential aspects, will evoke the concept of the image. This leads to the exploration of the subject and the optimum point of view.
Visualization of the final picture is essential in whatever medium is used. The term “seeing” can be used for visualization, but the latter term is more precise in that it relates to the final picture—its scale, composition, tonal and textural values, etc. Just as a musician “hears” notes and chords in his mind’s eye, so can the trained photographer “see” certain values, textures, and arrangements in his mind’s eye.
For more information still on Adams’ artistic process, see also Ansel Adams, Photographer, the 1958 documentary we featured here in 2013. None of this material, of course, guarantees you the ability to take photographs exactly like Ansel Adams, but you wouldn’t necessarily want to: we do our best work, after all, not when we do exactly what our greatest predecessors did, but when we think how our greatest predecessors thought. Hence the importance of visualization, which you can do right now without buying the exact model of Zeiss Milliflex Adams used or going to the exact spots in Yosemite from which he shot — you only need to think.
Colin Marshall writes on cities, language, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.