“Landscape photography is the supreme test of the photographer,” said the American photographer Ansel Adams, “and often the supreme disappointment.”
Adams, that composer of great American landscapes, knew the photographs he wanted wouldn’t come easy. He missed the birth of his two kids hiking in Yosemite for locations, a twenty-kilo bag filled with his large-format (4 x 5) camera, various filters, lenses and the glass plate negatives strapped to his back. If you’ve ever trained your lens on a sweeping vista and created photographs that didn’t come close to revealing the emotional affinity you felt at that moment, you can learn from Adams. How do you create the drama of a winter sky or capture that sliver of light on a winding river when what the human eye sees is often vastly different to the photograph on your camera’s sensor? And how is everything, the trees in the foreground, the lake in the middle and the soaring peak all perfectly in focus?
Let’s sit at the master’s knee.
- Learn The Zone System:
- Invest in a tilt-shift lens:
- Experiment with your horizons:
- Use a tripod:
- Think before you shoot:
Adams and his pal Fred Archer, a Hollywood portrait photographer, developed a method of taking the chance out of exposures back in 1937. It’s that good it’s still taught in photography schools. What is it? The pair designed a ten-part chart that fits every little situation you’ll encounter, zero being pure black, V a middle grey and X pure white. Yeah, you’ve got a pretty little screen at the back of your camera to tell you how your photograph is looking (unless you’re shooting film) but if you know the Zone System you’ll develop a second nature for what is happening within your viewfinder, even in the most difficult lighting scenario and before the shutter release is pushed. Click here to learn more about The Zone System
How did Adams get everything in focus? He didn’t just bang the aperture to f64 (although he would create a club called Group f/64 for photographers who shared his ultra-sharp aesthetic) and punch the button. Adams’ equipment of choice, the 4 x 5 field camera, gave him the ability to adjust the film and lens planes to control the depth of field and to alter perspective. Complex? Yeah, it is. And what’s the chance you’ve got a 4 x 5? A similar effect can be achieved using your contemporary DSLR combined with a tilt-shift lens. The tilt function enables you to pull everything within the frame into focus and the shift function allows the image circle to move so you can put a tall object, a mountain, a tree, into the frame without distortion.
A feature of Adams’ work was to place the horizon high in the frame. This simple technique created…scale. The immensity of a mountain range against a sky, for example. Conversely, a low horizon will create an emphasis, say, on an approaching storm front.
Adams wasn’t afraid to get up before dawn and hike and climb to find an unseen perspective. It’s very easy to stand at a look-out, shoulder-to-jowl with the happy snappers. If you want a photograph that touches your emotions, you have to move.
A slow ISO, a long shutter speed and a stopped-down aperture mean that if you’re even partly serious about making a great and sharp, photo you’ll need to use a tripod. (Note: In case you’ve got this far and you’re still not sure what aperture is, let me explain: the higher the number the smaller – or more stopped down – the lens opening is. The lower the number, the bigger the lens opening. Higher the number, more of the frame in focus. Lower the number, less in focus.)
Plan your photograph. Scout locations. Imagine the final shot in your head. Let your imagination roam. Random instances of greatness are rare although, as Adams said, magic occasionally does fall out of the sky.
“Sometimes I do get to places just when God’s ready to have somebody click the shutter,” he said.