How to Take Photographs Like Ansel Adams: The Master Explains The Art of “Visualization”

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Ansel Adams Reveals His Cre­ative Process in 1958 Doc­u­men­tary

Dis­cov­er Ansel Adams’ 226 Pho­tos of U.S. Nation­al Parks (and Anoth­er Side of the Leg­endary Pho­tog­ra­ph­er)

Alfred Stieglitz: The Elo­quent Eye, a Reveal­ing Look at “The Father of Mod­ern Pho­tog­ra­phy”

1972 Diane Arbus Doc­u­men­tary Inter­views Those Who Knew the Amer­i­can Pho­tog­ra­ph­er Best

Hen­ri Carti­er-Bres­son and the Deci­sive Moment

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.

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