My long-time hero is a famous landscape photographer, Ansel Adams. He was born in 1902 to a wealthy family in San Francisco. He was an only child. He didn’t like school very well although he was brilliant. His interest in music inspired him to teach himself to read music and play the piano. As he got older, he was preparing for a career as a concert pianist, which indicates the level of his accomplishment. Music turned out to be his hobby, as his love of photography also was growing. He would often play the piano in later years to relax and re-energize his creative spirit.
Adams did not have the luxury of a 35mm camera with built-in light meters and autofocus like we have available today. He had a giant 8x10 Deardorff camera. This camera was about the size of a printer, scanner, fax machine combo that we commonly use today. The wood constructed Deardorff probably weighed 10 to 20 pounds.
Adams hauled around a tripod with this camera because there is almost no way you could capture a sharp image and hold the camera in your hand. He carried this camera equipment up and down the mountains in Yosemite and throughout the Sierra Nevada range.
I used a 4x5 Speed Graphic camera when I was in high school, which was built in the same style as the Deardorff. Both cameras utilized “plates” to hold the film in the proper place for exposure. There was a procedure for using a plate. You inserted it into the camera then removed the plate cover so the film could be exposed. You made the exposure. Then the plate cover was replaced to protect the exposed film. The 4x5 plates weren’t particularly heavy, but I’m sure the 8x10 plates were more massive.
Adams became friends with George Weston, a very famous portrait photographer of the era. Weston devised a light meter to help expose film properly, and Adams used his meter. Adams invented the “Zone System” which refined the use of the light meter to match the range of light of a scene to the ability of the film to record it.
The “Zone System” helped Adams center the exposure to capture the scene. The system standardized the exposure process so that he could consistently create the photograph to match what his mind’s eye saw.
I love many of the photographs Adams produced, but I think my favorite is “Moonrise, Hernandez.” It was taken in the ‘40s while he was driving on one of his many road trips. He noticed the moon created a very soft light over the little town of Hernandez, New Mexico, and he was inspired. His 8x10 camera was in the car trunk, and he quickly set it up. He failed to find his exposure meter. The light was rapidly changing. If he didn’t hurry, the image would be lost forever. He guessed at the exposure. He missed it slightly but was able to make up for the slight exposure error when printing the photograph in the darkroom. In later years, he would develop the image with more contrast, which he said was closer to the image he saw.
Later in life, Adams became a fan of the Polaroid SX-70 camera. This Polaroid camera and film produced self-developing color prints in about 3 minutes. He loved the range of colors the film was able to capture. Most professional photographers considered it a toy, but he proved it was much better than that. The SX-70 film and camera are still available for those who want to experiment with it.
I once attended a gallery show of his original prints. I was surprised how much more detail exists in the original photographs than in the reprints I had in my home. Adams spent hours printing his work in the darkroom because he was a perfectionist about how the images looked.
Ansel Adams passed away in 1984, but his amazing work has made the mountain ranges and national parks of the West famous throughout the world.
If you love taking photographs, you don’t need professional-grade equipment to produce outstanding results. Expensive equipment makes life easier for the photographer, but the creation of a work of art only requires simple equipment.
Note: I have started a 100-day photo marathon, by posting a new photograph on Facebook every day for the next 100 days beginning Jan. 1. You can check them out by following me.