How To See Like A Photographer

June 27th, 2017

One of the things I enjoy most about being a photographer is the opportunity to share the knowledge and experience I’ve gained during my 40+-year career looking through the lens. I consider teaching both a privilege and a responsibility, and I do a lot of it.

Something I get asked to address in nearly all of my workshops, both private and small-group, is how to see like a photographer — how to visualize, how to make that leap from snapshot to expressive photograph, how to create an image that’s “Ansel-worthy.”

What does it mean to see like a photographer?

For me, to see like a photographer means that I am constantly looking at things for their photographic potential and visualizing what a finished image might look like — whether as a literal expression of what’s in front of me, or as an expressive interpretation of how I feel, what I think, or what a particular moment or place means to me.

Here’s an example of how and what I see:

A couple of months ago, my wife, Julie, and I were on our way into Yosemite Valley for an upcoming workshop and stopped at Inspiration Point to soak up the grand vista and stretch our legs.

I made a few images with my Canon digital, while Julie snapped away with her iPhone. When we got back to the car, she asked me what I saw.

Without even thinking, I told her that I’d noticed the many dead trees, the incredible water tumbling over Bridalveil Fall and the relationship between the reddishness of the dead trees to the green of the live trees. While I didn’t feel there was enough potential drama to get the big camera out, if I did work the scene, I would likely use an orange-to-red filter to lighten the rusty trees, and darken the green forest to emphasize the whiteness of the fall.

A few days after we returned home, I was chatting with Julie and looking out our window. I caught myself unconsciously moving my head a few inches to one side and back, playing with how the clumps of trees outside seemed more (or less) spatially organized relative to the border formed by the window frame with my head in one position or the other. (And I did this without missing a beat in our conversation!)

I just can’t help it…I’m ALWAYS looking, always seeing, always evaluating, even when I’m not “working.”

Ansel Adams called this process visualization. His ability to consistently look, see, evaluate, visualize and express was one of the main reasons he became the photographer he was. It helped him create those jaw-dropping images that beg the question…”how’d he do that?”

While I was working with him, Ansel Adams helped me see like a photographer.

Conceptually, seeing photographically isn’t that hard to understand, or at least I don’t think it is. But teaching it on a practical and “doable” level has its challenges. How we react to a scene, an object, or an element of nature is something unique and so highly personal.

Looking at Ansel’s own words on visualization, however, I think it is possible to learn to see photographically. “We must examine and explore what lies before our eyes for its significance, substance, shape, texture, and the relationships of tonal values. We can teach our eyes to become more perceptive.”

In more practical terms, here are some of the things I suggest to workshop students as they practice how to see like a photographer:

LOOK…in front of you, behind you, above, below, near, far. Wander off the path in all directions. Take the time to really see what’s there. During an “Expressive Photography” workshop I did for Carmel Visual Arts last year, we took the old coast road off Highway 1 as a field session. Everyone went at their own pace, stopping to photograph what interested or moved them.

When we compared notes and images the next day, one of the students had made an absolutely stunning abstract image of some colorful mushrooms she found growing under a log. Almost to a person, everyone in our group wished they had seen those mushrooms and photographed them. The person who got the image was the one who took the time to wander and LOOK.

DON’T JUST LOOK WITH YOUR EYES. Try and engage your other senses and take a moment (or five!) to think about what attracts you to the scene or the object in the first place. What made you want to pick up your camera? Focus in on that as you start to evaluate what you’re going to photograph and how.

SLOW DOWN, THINK, EXPERIMENT. Once you’ve isolated what you’d like to photograph, don’t be in a rush. Slow down and experiment. Is some element in the subject made clearer by moving the lens up, down, left or right—even if just an inch or two? Is the image stronger in black-and-white or color? Will a filter enhance some of the tonal values and help you better capture the mood or the feeling of the place? Will the image suit your personal interpretation or expression of the scene, if, for example, you darken the sky either in the darkroom or in post-processing?

ESCHEW SURPLUSSAGE. Mark Twain used these words in his essay, “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses”. It’s good advice, especially when it comes to photography. If it’s not needed, don’t include it. I frame a scene with my hands or use a cropping card to experiment with what elements I might want to include or exclude from a particular scene.

Ansel Adams using his hands to frame an image

Ansel Adams using his hands to frame an image: Old Pilings, Bolinas Lagoon, California 1976

These suggestions may seem pretty basic, and certainly not the special “Ansel Adams button” that will magically transform your efforts into a masterpiece worthy of Ansel’s signature. But in my experience, it’s often the small things that really matter and that make the most difference in successfully “seeing” photographically and expressing your personal vision. Give these a try!

Are you struggling to see like a photographer yourself. I’m always available by email, no matter where in the world I happen to be. I’d love to hear from you. And if you’d like some one-on-one coaching without ever leaving the comfort of your own home, check out my Virtual Photography Coaching.

alan ross, ming tombs beijing China

Arches, Ming Tombs, Beijing, China 1982

I like to use this image as an example of just how important tiny adjustments to lens placement can be. My subject was a square tower with thick walls and arched opening in each of the 4 walls. Walking by the structure, I noticed that an interesting abstraction was formed when looking through one arch across to another. I set up my 4×5 camera and found a particular spot where a painted demarcation area on the foreground arch exactly met the curve of an opposite arch.  I chose a lens to give the cropping I wanted, micro-adjusted the lens position and released the shutter. A half-inch difference in lens position would have spoiled the effect.

Ansel Adams, Bridalveil in Storm, alan ross

                         My Bridalveil Fall in Storm, Yosemite, 1974

Returning to Yosemite Valley after a fruitless, rainy, field session in Yosemite’s High Country during a July, 1974 Ansel Adams workshop, a couple of other soggy workshop assistants and I popped out of the Crane Flat tunnel to come face-to-face with this marvelous vista of clouds, mountains, waterfall and river. Amazingly, there were almost no other cars stopped at the handful of parking spots, so I pulled over and we all scrambled for our cameras.

I first tried a 150mm lens on my 4×5 camera, but it revealed only a nice scene with no clear “look at this” focus.  I switched to my 203mm and everything came together. I expanded the cloud contrast with a yellow (#12) filter, but the scene was otherwise pretty monochromatic.  I had an early spotmeter – a 1° SEI – and based my exposure to give me good density in the darkest trees.

Later, when I made a quick contact print, I could see I had full detail in both shadows and highlights—a perfect Zone System negative–but the literal rendition of the scene was a complete bore. This is where visualization came into play. The way I visualized the scene had nothing to do with the tonalities that were the reality of what was in front of my lens.

The tonal information recorded in the negative gave me all the substance I needed to bring my interpretation of the scene to life.  I expanded the contrast in the lower clouds and forest and river, and darkened the cloudy sky to give the scene the drama I felt at the time of exposure.

By the way, this was just part of a REALLY good week for me. Ansel had just hired me as full-time assistant in Carmel a few days earlier and over the next several years, he gave me the chance  to fine tune my ability to see like a photographer. I learned from the best.


Wouldn’t you LOVE to learn from Alan? Check out private coaching, upcoming photo expeditions and workshops:

Ansel Adams’ Zone System – Darling Or Dinosaur?

May 19th, 2016


ansel adams zone system, ansel adams, zone system, alan ross


As someone who worked side-by-side with Ansel Adams for a number of years, I get asked about Ansel Adams’ Zone System…A LOT! “How do I?” “Why does it?” “Can I?”

I’ve written about the Zone System before, but a recent flurry of questions and requests for clarification have made me think it’s time for a refresher.

Before I go into detail about the nuts, bolts and how-tos of Ansel’s technique (which I’ll do in upcoming blog posts), I’d first like to answer the most basic of questions:

“Is the Zone System still relevant and does it have any valid practicality in today’s photography?”

My vote is for darling (see title above), but read on to find out why:

Ansel Adams’ Zone System: The Back Story

75 years ago Ansel Adams and Fred Archer were both teaching photography at what is now the Art Center School of Design in Pasadena, California. They made the announcement they had devised a simple method for analyzing the various brightness levels of a scene and using that information to anticipate and manage the way those brightness levels would be rendered in the final printing. They called it the Zone System.

Their intention was not to create any sort of dogmatic methodology. It was instead to give a photographer the ability to effectively evaluate the qualities of a scene and follow through with confidence that the information necessary for the photographer’s visualization would end up on the film.

Myths and Misunderstandings About The Zone System

Ironically, we have Ansel himself to thank for some of the confusion that surrounds the Zone System. His early writings were rife with confounding terminology and circular references.  Critical information was often contained only in captions.

Case in point: A quote from The Negative (1968) reads, in part, “…we see that the film-base and fog density is arbitrarily assumed to be 0.1 so that the actual density represented by the heavy line is 1.10—a density of 1.10 (or opacity of 12.5) above the film-base and fog.”

It’s easy to believe from the above quote that you need to be a math whiz to be able to fully understand and use the Zone System. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. You don’t need to be a math whiz and you don’t need expensive or fancy equipment. You just need a reliable spot meter, and you must understand the principles of exposure and development.

In addition, Ansel tended to downplay the extent to which he utilized dodging and burning as a creative tool in order to make a case for the virtues of the Zone System. Some of his comments perpetuated the implication that if you exposed and developed things properly using the Zone System, burning and dodging would be optional: “…and it printed quite easily on Velour Black No. 2 with very little manipulation.”

The truth is, in the five+ years I worked with him in the darkroom, I never saw Ansel make a straight print. An ideal Zone System negative, if there is one, might actually look boring as a straight print. But the information is there to achieve what was visualized the moment the shutter was released.

And finally, there’s the misperception of approach vs. absolute methodology. Over the years, many well-meaning, but misdirected, enthusiasts have attempted to interpret and update Ansel’s technique. Unfortunately, they missed the mark in most cases and only contributed to the myth that the Zone System is to be used exactly and to the letter.

Here’s a great example of exactitude gone wrong. I had a student several years ago that had adopted a very tightly defined Zone System interpretation. He’d read it somewhere and was sure it was the last word on using the Zone System.

We were up in the mountains above Santa Fe one bright afternoon and set up to photograph a stream that was in both sunlight and shade. Since I like to walk through exposure situations in tandem with a student, I asked him what his film speed was. He replied that he didn’t know yet. Hmmm. OK.

Then he took a couple of readings with his spot meter, pulled out a Palm Pilot, punched a few keys and said, “It says I can’t take the picture.” What??!!!! I had him set his meter for EI 80 for the Tmax 100 he was using, place a certain dark rock in the shade on Zone II, and then take the picture. He did. We developed it normal and it printed just fine, with just a little bit of lower-contrast burning in the high values.

What’s the moral of this story? The science of this student’s approach was absolutely correct, but the approach itself was so exacting he missed the point entirely. And almost missed the opportunity to make a wonderful image.

So What Can the Zone System Do?

Now let’s talk about what the Zone System can do so we can decide whether or not it has relevance today. In other words, whether it’s a darling or a dinosaur.

  • Shadow Detail: The Zone System lets me get my film and meter in sync. I know precisely how much light it takes to get the film to start responding. I know exactly how much exposure I need in order to record an important shadow.
  • High Values: Once I’ve determined an appropriate exposure for a shadow, I can meter a high-value and know exactly how bright it will be if I give the film “normal” development. I can then decide to increase development time if I want the area brighter or decrease the time if I want it darker. The Zone System doesn’t mandate that you adjust development to accommodate any particular value, but it gives you the choice and the knowledge to do so.
  • Digital Application: Does the Zone System work with digital cameras? Absolutely! Digital does not easily afford the contrast control of reduced film development, but it still has a distinct range of values from black-to-burned-out. Use of the Zone System in making an exposure allows you to plan and anticipate image tonal values rather than letting the camera make the decision and winding up with an image cursed with a nasty histogram!

Bottom line? Once you are used to it and have a reliable spot-meter, the Zone System allows you to achieve more accurate, consistent and planned results. And that’s regardless of your camera format or brand—and in most cases faster! I only need one reading to determine exposure, and that only takes a moment.

Back to the Question Ansel Adams’ Zone System – Darling or Dinosaur?

Ansel Adams zone system, ansel adams, zone system, alan ross

Okay. Back to the beginning and the question of whether or not the Zone System is still relevant more than 70 years after Ansel Adams and Fred Archer first created it. Does it have a place in today’s photography?

My answer is an emphatic YES!

Automatic this and automatic that are all well and good, especially for the casual snapper, but keep in mind that your automated light meter can’t think. And it can’t see what you visualize for the finished image.

Your light meter is just a tool. It was designed to take an average reading of light and dark in whatever subject matter it was pointed at. That means if you point it at a dark rock, it will assume that the rock is actually an equal mix of light and dark and give you an exposure to make the rock medium gray.

Maybe that’s what you want. But maybe it’s not.

You are the photographer and you should determine what tones are most important and how they will appear in your finished image. Instead of taking your light meter readings at face value, you have the choice to interpret what the meter is telling you and adjust your exposure calculations accordingly.

Ansel Adams’ Zone System is the surest way I know of to choose what information ends up on film or pixels. It puts you in the driver’s seat of your own photography, and that’s why it still has relevance. That’s why it has a place in today’s photography.

That’s why it’s a darling.


Have you ever photographed in Ireland? Neither had I, until last year when when I taught two master darkroom printing workshops in Dublin. It was such a success that I was invited to teach them again this year. I invite you to enhance and expand your photographic knowledge as I share my 40+ years of expertise in the creation of an expressive image through two different workshops–a field session and a black-and-white printing session. For more information or to enroll, please link here. You’ll find the Ireland workshops on the left hand side of the page. Erin go Bragh!

Can the Zone System Go Digital?

January 6th, 2015

 In a word, yes! The Zone System (ZS) can be an integral and important part of any digital photographer’s workflow because it allows you to plan and predict an image’s tonal values rather than letting the camera make the decision.

 The computerized metering systems in modern cameras are really amazing, and a lot of the time they will give you practical exposures, but in difficult or extreme lighting situations, the scale of the subject’s brightness is simply greater than the camera’s technology can handle.  The Zone System:

  • Lets you be aware of whether, or how much, the scene brightness exceeds your camera’s limits
  • Lets you make an intelligent decision about how to expose when the tones/contrast in a scene are “bigger” than what your camera can capture
  • Helps you avoid blown-out highlights
  • Lets you know how much exposure range you need for successful HDR captures

 Zone System 101

 To use the Zone System effectively in the digital world, you need to understand a few of its basic principles.

The ZS was originally conceived by Ansel Adams and fellow photo instructor Fred Archer as a tool to give photographers working with black-and-white negative film (no digital back then!) the ability to plan and control the effects of exposure and development. They created a “scale” of tones from black to white and assigned each one a number, with “I” being almost pure black and “IX” or “X” being nearly white or white.  Zone “V” is middle gray, and each “Zone” is one stop lighter or darker than its neighbor.

In the digital age, image contrast can be easily increased post-capture, but there is no practical means of reducing image contrast in a single capture.  Pre-exposure can enhance shadow tonality, but this requires the ability to double-expose, and High Dynamic Range techniques (HDR) require three or more exposures for best results.  And while HDR techniques can accommodate a wide range of brightnesses, the end effect often appears contrived and unreal.

Sophisticated “evaluative” metering modes in modern cameras can handle many complicated shooting situations, but if the contrast of the scene exceeds the recording scale of the camera, something’s gotta give.  This is where the ZS can help.

 Step One:

 Do you need a reliable hand-held spot meter? A 1° measuring spot lets you measure important areas precisely and with ease.  Using a camera’s “spot” metering mode is not always practical:  the size of the spot depends on the focal length of the lens and generally requires a lot of button-pushing and pointing the camera this way and that – an exercise in frustration and wasted time.

 Without a spot meter, you may know that you will lose tonality at one end of the scale or the other, but you have no way of knowing which, or by how much, at least until examining an after-the-fact histogram. By then, your scene might be gone!

That said, if a spot-meter is just not going to be in your bag of gear, you can do the test below by filling your metering area with the gray card only, and proceed as if that were a spot reading.  You will at least be able to determine your dynamic range.

Step Two:

 Spot Meters and the Zone System. By design, all light meters will give you an exposure to make the measured area middle gray.  This gray is called Zone V.  If you measure snow in sun, the meter will give you the exposure to make the snow Zone V gray.  If you measure a black speaker grille, it will give you the exposure to make that grille Zone V gray.  If you want the snow to look white (not paper white but a very light gray) you need to PLACE it on a higher Zone.  If you give one stop more than the meter says, you are placing the snow on Zone VI, two stops more than the basic meter reading places that value on Zone VII, and so on. As for the speaker grille, it is just the opposite.  You would need to expose the grille two or three stops LESS than indicated in order to make it look dark.  This would PLACE the grille on Zone III or II respectively.  You can only PLACE one value.  Everything else, then, FALLS in natural relation to the placed value. A Spot Meter just makes it possible to measure small areas such as a small highlight or important dark value.

The following illustration was made using a Canon 5D MkII digital camera.  The first and third images were made with the camera set on Program, letting the camera evaluate the white figurine on a white card and an egg on a black card.  The sophisticated computer-based metering system assumed everything it was looking at was gray, and rendered it as gray in the capture.  In the second and fourth images, I used a Pentax 1° digital (readout) spotmeter and placed the white card in the second image and the egg in the fourth image just brighter than Zone VII, rendering them as near-white.  No guesswork.

Average vs spot

 Know your limits. In order to plan a ZS approach to exposure, you need to know what tonal range your camera can and can’t handle. The composite image below shows nine images made with the Canon 5D set on MANUAL exposure.  The target was a Kodak Gray Card with white and black patches that I made many years ago for testing the tonal range of slide film.  I set my Pentax Digital Spot Meter to the same ISO as the camera, took a reading of the gray card and exposed according to the meter (a Zone V middle gray).  I made four darker exposures one stop (Zone) apart and four lighter one stop apart.

Digital dynamic range web

At three stops under the Zone V exposure, I had made the gray card almost as dark as the black patch, so that told me the camera could hold some tonality for a subject on Zone II.  On the bright end, the gray at two stops brighter than Zone V was still a noticeable light gray compared to the white patch, but at three stops (Zone VIII) the gray had turned as white as the white patch.  That told me that my upper limit for recording highlight tonality is about Zone VII-1/2, or five and a half stops total range.

Step Four:

Measure your subject highlights. In general, with digital (and color transparency film), images look their best when the highlights are not blown out.  If a photo opportunity is fleeting or moving, and I only have one chance for a shot, I will take a quick spot reading of an important high value, maybe a white dress or bright cloud, and give it an exposure of about 2-1/2 stops brighter than the basic meter reading (Zone V). This PLACES that dress on Zone VII-1/2.  Having already done the test above, I KNOW that it will be very bright, but not “blown out”!

With digital, there is nothing evil about some subtle bracketing, so if you have the opportunity, go ahead and give some + and – exposures.  With some practice and your spot meter, though, you’ll be surprised how often you get it right the first time!  You might not need step five!

Step Five:

Measure your subject range: If you suspect the range of brightness in the scene is significantly beyond the range of your camera, AND you have the opportunity to make multiple exposures of a stationary subject, you can use HDR techniques.  The ZS can be a big help here, too.  Rather than making random plus-and-minus exposures to cover subject brightness (dynamic range), you can quickly measure exactly how much range you need to cover.

Let’s say I have a tree in the foreground in deep shade with some textured charring on its trunk.  In the same composition I have bright sun glaring off some pale boulders.

With just two spot readings I can determine the range and how to deal with it.  First I’d read the charred trunk.  Based on my test above, I would know that if I gave it a Zone II exposure it would still have tonality.  That determines the shadow exposure.  Then I’d read the bright rocks.  Let’s say they measured 8-1/2 stops brighter than the trunk.  That is 3 full stops brighter than what my camera can record.  So I now know that AFTER my first shadow exposure, I need to make 5 or 6 more exposures each at ½ or 2/3 faster shutter speed than the exposure before, until the last exposure is at least 3 stops darker than the first.  Then it’s time to let Photoshop CS5 and/or other preferred software combine the exposures.

Bottom Line:

Keep in mind that the Zone System is not dogma! Its application should be considered as something deeply personal.  If you simply have a hunch that you like a certain shadow two stops darker than a basic meter reading (Zone V) rather than three, do it that way! It’s really a lot like cooking.  If YOU like YOUR veggies al dente, don’t “expose” them to so much heat that they are over done!  Bon appétit!


Darkroom Water Conservation

February 11th, 2014

Apt Question from FaceBook reader Harry Green.


“Any suggestions on how to be water conscious these days in Southern California. Our water prices are high, and I fret to think of those days I left water on for 8 hours, while printing for 8 hours. How to survive ? I used to wash DW prints and use hypo clearing agent. What is practical now a days.”

Thanks for the question!

I went through 2 rationed droughts in Carmel while I was working for Ansel and another in San Francisco when I had my studio there. Typical ration then was 50gal/day per person/per household. Because photography was a profession, Ansel got an extra allowance, and so did I in San Francisco. But all the dedicated artists were stuck with 50gpd.

 Some tips:

• DON’T leave the water running.

• DO change the water in your print-holding tray several times during a print session.

• DO use a hypo-clear or proven wash-aid for film and prints.

• DON’T run a toning or wash load except for a “full” load. If prints have been rinsed well, they can be screen-dried after initial fix/rinse and kept aside until a full load is ready.

• Current archival standards do NOT call for elimination of all traces of fixer. We can get by with MUCH less than we thought in the late ’70s. In the words of RIT’s James Reilly at the Image Permanence Institute: “DO tone your prints. DON’T over-wash” A modest trace of fixer actually acts as an anti-oxidant. A light tea color with an HT-2 test is a good guide.

• Washing. It can be tedious, but you can save a huge amount of water by using dump-and-fill methods for film, or cycling between trays of clean water for prints rather than using an archival washer with running water. You can safely wash 2 rolls of 120 film with 2 gallons of water!

 More on fixing and washing:

Answer to a comment advocating trashing the hardener bottle that comes with Kodak Rapid Fixer:

I generally buy Ilford fixers. I usually get the Hypam, because it can be used with or without a hardener. I process my sheet film in trays, so I add a hardener for that, but I use it without the hardener for prints. The Kodak Rapid fix DOES come with a bottle of hardener, but like the Hypam, you can use it or not. I use the fixers 1:3 for film and1:4 for prints – single bath only, 45 seconds with agitation. Among its other assets, selenium toner is ALSO a test for residual silver (adequate fixation). If your prints do not stain in selenium it is proof that they were fixed adequately. I do recommend using a wash-aid, but I personally have neither the time nor energy to wash each print by hand, and the more a print is handled, the more it is subject to physical damage.

Hope these tips help!

In the Darkroom with Ansel Adams

February 11th, 2014

When Ansel hired me in July of 1974 to be his assistant in Carmel, he actually hired me to be his #2 assistant.  Ted Orland had already been on board for about two years, working Monday through Friday.  Ansel, not personally having any concept of “time off,” wanted to work seven days a week and hired me to work Friday through Monday.

Screen Shot 2014-02-11 at 1.55.47 PMAnsel’s routine was to print in the morning during the regular week and do the selenium toning and washing in the afternoon after lunch.  Being Ansel’s regular assistant, Ted would be in the darkroom for the morning sessions, and I would be called in to help with the toning and washing.  In those days, “archival” print washers were anything but mainstream, and things were pretty basic in the Carmel darkroom.  Prints 11×14 and smaller were washed in a big rotating “squirrel-cage” washer, and 16×20 and 20×24 prints were all washed by hand – moving batches of prints from one tray of clean water to another, dumping the first tray and filling it with clean water, moving the prints back to that tray and dumping the second tray, and so on, until maybe 10 or 12 exchanges had been made.  Tedious and exhausting, but as it happens that process uses relatively little water and gets prints extremely clean.

After I had been on the job for several months, Ted left to carve out his own career, and I was then “first” (and actually only) assistant.  I wasn’t married or busy with a lot of activities during the weekends and often popped by the house, helping out with this-or-that on a Saturday or Sunday, so my old position of Friday-to-Monday assistant was left vacant.

So now, the darkroom truly came to be my domain.  What an experience!

Dkrm layout

Setting the Stage

Ansel’s darkroom was purely functional and consisted of nothing elaborate.  In fact, nothing about Ansel was elaborate!  He drove a Ford LTD which he bought used.  His “sound system” consisted of an old mono amplifier, an old turntable and one speaker built into a wall. He rarely turned it on. Except for the Hasselblad, even his camera equipment was a mish-mash of rather tattered gear.  One lens didn’t even have a brand name on it, but it sure was sharp!

The darkroom itself was long and narrow, with three sinks taking up most of the length of one wall and enlargers along the other.  One end of the darkroom, next to the pocket entrance door, was a chemical-mixing counter with various chemicals on shelves above, and drums of Hypo crystals below.  At the opposite end of the darkroom there was a “panic door.”  This was intended as an emergency exit in case of earthquake or other calamity.  (Ansel’s nose was broken in an aftershock of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and he was somewhat fixated on that particular risk!)

The layout of the darkroom was principally engineered to accommodate the making of “mural” sized prints.  His 8×10 enlarger was built by San Francisco’s Adolph Gasser out of an old 11×14 studio camera and set up to project its image horizontally.  The machine ran on tracks on the floor and projected an image on an 8-foot tall vertical easel which also rolled on the same tracks.  The lightsource consisted of a bank of 36 50-watt reflector bulbs, each on its own on-off switch.  If Ansel wanted to give a general “dodge” to part of an image, he could turn off the lamp illuminating that region. The easel was faced on front and back with metal sheet, so paper could be attached firmly with magnets.  A roll of mural paper could be inserted over a crossbar at the top of the easel and the paper pulled down like a window blind and held flat with magnets.  On the opposite side of the easel and 8×10 enlarger was a counter which held two 4×5 Beseler MCRX enlargers.  One of the Beselers had an innovative lightsource (Codelight) for printing on variable-contrast papers, and it could be turned towards the rolling easel and tipped up for horizontal projection in case he wanted to use it for big prints.  The other Beseler had a condenser lightsource and was rarely used except for demonstration.

One staple of nearly every darkroom was absent in Ansel’s–an enlarging timer.  There wasn’t one. Being a musician from his early teens, he was accustomed to counting beats, and had an electronic metronome set at 60 beats per minute.  Every print he ever made in a darkroom of his own was made by simply counting seconds!  This augmented his creative control immensely.  Time was not something some gizmo measured and ruled, time was a deeply rooted internal feeling for Ansel.  Twenty-two seconds felt like twenty-two seconds!

On the sink side, there was a long, fairly narrow sink for processing, with a ledge at the back for chemical containers and a wide ledge at the left and right for developer and fixer containers.  On the left there was a 15-gallon stainless tank that held the Dektol stock solution, and on the right there was a 25-gallon tank that held the F-6 formula fixer we mixed from scratch.  A shelf over the back of the sink held the metronome, various graduates and sundries.  To the right of the processing sink was an approximately 3×3-foot print holding sink.  To the right of that was another large sink, about 4×6-feet which held the squirrel-cage washer and maybe another rinse tray.  If Ansel were making mural prints, the equipment could be removed from the sink and a wet 42×60-ish mural print could be laid flat.

In use, with the door closed on the long, narrow room, with white lights off, amber safelights on, water running, exhaust fans on and the rhythmic beep of the metronome, it had all the feeling of being in a fantasy submarine!


AA Darkroom H


Coming up: A Days Work


Point of View: Choosing the Best Spot for Camera & Lens

April 9th, 2013

In Part I of this blog on how to create a more expressive image, I talked about visualization–the difference between what the camera sees (the literal) and what the photographer sees in his or her mind’s eye as the final print (the expressive.)

The two may be quite similar or quite different, but being able to interpret what you see and picture the final image on paper is critical to the making of an expressive image because it dictates what techniques and equipment will be required to execute your vision successfully.

The first consideration is point of view–choosing the proper vantage point for camera and lens. This may seem almost simplistic, but you would be amazed at how many strong, compelling visions are lost in the final image because the photographer didn’t take the time to find the most favorable position.

Why does it matter so much? If you don’t set your camera and lens in the rights spot, you may wind up with elements in your final image that compete with your vision and weaken it. And yes, you can fix some of these things with cropping and Photoshop, but not always, so it really pays to get it right from the beginning.

I’ll use a photograph I did not long after I moved to Santa Fe to demonstrate the things to consider when choosing your vantage point. This is a wonderful old adobe about 15 minutes from house. Interesting to note that shortly after I made this image, the fence and gate were replaced with a tall wall, completely obscuring the building behind. Great example of why, if you see something you’d like to photograph, do it now!

Gate and Windows, Galisteo, New Mexico 1996

Gate and Windows


The first thing I did after I decided to photograph this beautiful building was to use my cut-out card with a hole the same shape as my film (see part I of the blog). This helped me evaluate the various aspects of the scene as elements in a clearly defined structural arrangement.

I also looked through the card with just one eye so that I could see the subject in two dimensions rather than three. And by “cropping out” much of the detail surrounding the scene I wanted to photograph, it was much easier to concentrate on the relationships of the objects within the scene to each other.

Now that I had the basic scene isolated and determined, I had to decide where the best vantage point would be. And vantage point includes not only your position with your tripod, but also the exact position of the lens.

I thought about whether I should stand near or far and experimented, again using my cropping card. I moved closer to the scene and noticed that the gate would be larger than I wanted relative to the size of the windows. When I moved back from the scene, the gate was not as prominent as I wanted. I ultimately chose a position that gave me a relationship that felt right.*

The other consideration in choosing a vantage point and setting up the camera is where the lens should be–up, down, left or right? In my image, if I lowered the lens too much, the pickets at the left would run into the little window, and I would see the threshold of the door through the gate. If I raised the lens too high, the pickets merged with the bottoms of the two larger window frames. The left/right position was carefully chosen so that none of the picket points ran directly into any of the architectural features in the background.

Lens & Filter

Although I will be going into detail about lens choice and filter use in the next installments of this blog, I thought I would mention each briefly here for the sake of understanding how I approached realizing my vision in this photograph.

The choice of a focal length helped refine the exact lens position. I had framed the subject with my hands and knew where I wanted the framed edges to be (cropping). I already knew where I wanted to stand near-far, so choice of lens was simply to pick up the one that gave me the angle of coverage I wanted.

Another consideration was whether to use a filter. In this case, the adobe wall of the house was a deep reddish-brown. I decided to use a strong green filter to darken the wall relative to the white fence and gate.

Bottom line when considering point of view….take your time in setting things up, don’t just happen on the scene and click away. Don’t be afraid to experiment by moving around a bit and seeing what happens when you move in, back, left, right or even up! It doesn’t have to take hours, but paying attention to the details at the beginning will help ensure a better image in the end.

* Note: I mentioned that I chose a position that felt right to me. There are numerous “formulas” for determining compositional structure–the Rule of Thirds, the Golden Sector and others. I have personally never used any of these because I have always felt comfortable with my own sense of “balance.” But if employing one of these time-tested structural aids helps to refine your own seeing, I certainly encourage it.

I’ll leave you with a short quote from Mark Twain in his essay, Fennimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses, “Eschew Surplussage!” In other words, if it doesn’t contribute to your statement, leave it out!

Coming Next:

  • Choosing the right lens to properly frame the subject
  • Knowing enough about filters and exposure to record subject tones in the most useful way
  • Following through in the darkroom or computer lab, aka the “light” room

Visualization, a la Ansel Adams

February 19th, 2013

In 1927, during one of his regular trips to Yosemite, Ansel Adams trekked up to the “diving board” on the west shoulder of Half Dome. There, he made a dramatic image of the monolith using a mild yellow filter to darken the sky a bit—a generally recommended and accepted practice in those days.

But what Ansel felt about the scene before him was more dramatic than what he knew the yellow filter would give him. With one plate left unexposed, he daringly made another exposure, this time using a red filter that he hoped would result in an image that was more in tune with what he imagined, or visualized, the final image should be, instead of what was actually in front of him.

The image that resulted from this experiment proved to be a turning point for Ansel in his photographic explorations. For the first time, he was conscious of the difference between what his camera lens saw (the literal) and what he saw in his mind’s eye (the expressive) as the final print.

Ansel ultimately came to refer to this freedom from recording only that the camera and lens could capture in a technical sense to visualization, and he wrote about it extensively during his lifetime.

By itself, visualization doesn’t assure a successful final image, but it does set the stage for the ensuing choreography of photographic steps. To my way of thinking, it is the single most important element in creating an expressive image.

So…just what is visualization and how do you visualize?

Simply put, visualization is a confluence of imagination and technique. It is the ability to picture the final print in your mind before releasing the shutter and possessing the technical know-how to create the image that’s in your mind, even if it differs from the reality of the scene in front of you.

One of Ansel’s favorite sayings was, “There’s nothing worse than a sharp image of a fuzzy concept.” At the same time, a concept can be sorely limited in clarity by a fuzzy knowledge of technique. The two go hand-in-hand.

In Ansel’s case, his knowledge of technique—knowing what a strong red filter ought to do—enabled him to imagine, or visualize, a final print with a much darker sky than the yellow filter would have afforded. He visualized how he wanted the print to look and used the techniques to execute his vision.

Visualization does not, however, require that you see a finished print that is markedly different from the real qualities of the actual scene. It could be as simple as “seeing” a final color image in delicate pastels rather than in bold, vibrant colors and contrasts. It might mean choosing a particular vantage point to emphasize the qualities of a foreground object. But in all cases, visualization dictates the techniques required to achieve the vision.

The next time you’re out photographing, try taking a moment to disconnect from the reality of the scene in front of your lens, and try to see it as a print.  Is the sky in that print going to be darker than your meter says it ought to be?  If it’s in black-and-white, will skewing color relationships with a filter strengthen your statement? Will a longer or shorter exposure enhance motion in a scene?  These are all things I consider  – usually even before I set the camera up.  With practice you won’t even know you’re doing it – you will have already done it!  That’s visualization.

cutout card

A cut-out card is a great way tighten up your composition!

pola 34 Bolinas Lagoon

And here are some thoughts by Georgia O’Keeffe on the concept of rendering something seen:

“The Ranchos de Taos Church is one of the most beautiful buildings left in the United States by the early Spaniards. Most artists who spend any time in Taos have to paint it, I suppose, just as they have to paint a self-portrait. I had to paint it – the back of it several times, the front once. . . . And I long ago came to the conclusion that even if I could put down accurately the thing I saw and enjoyed, it would not give the observer the kind of feeling it gave me. I had to create an Equivalent for what I felt about what I was looking at——not copy it.”

Georgia O’Keeffe, 1976

Ranchos Church 2 views


Coming up….executing your vision.

  • Choosing an appropriate vantage point so elements in a scene don’t compete with your vision
  • Choosing the right lens to properly frame the subject
  • Knowing enough about filters and exposure to record subject tones in the most useful way
  • Following through in the darkroom or computer lab (“light” room).

Film vs Digital – More on the Topic

October 4th, 2012

I got a request a few days ago about my thoughts re small/large format and digital vs film.  It seems to be an active topic so I hope the following can shed some more “light” on the subject!


Dear Mr. Ross,

… was wondering if you would be kind enough to answer a couple of questions regarding your use of large format cameras.  In particular, I was wondering two things:

1.       Why do you continue to use large-format cameras for your art?  Do you find some benefit in them that you cannot obtain from a 35mm camera?

2.       It is my belief from what I have read that you prefer film over digital photography.  For example, I noticed your comment in response to the Popular Photography article, Photoshop and Photography – What is Photography?   “I have never seen an inkjet print that could match the depth of image in a traditional silver-print.”   Is my assumption that you primarily use film correct?  Is there ever a time (from a fine art standpoint) where digital would be more beneficial in your mind?

I am sure you are frequently inundated with questions from fans and fellow photographers, so I thank you in advance for taking the time to read these questions, and hopefully responding to them.

Best regards,



Camera size:  First, consider that you can only cram a certain amount of information in a given amount of space.  At 24x36mm (1×1.5 sq. in) a 35mm camera has a negative with 1.5 square inches of area.  A 4×5″ negative has 20 square inches and 8×10 has 80! So, given an equivalent film in both cameras, a 4×5 negative has over 13 times the information (detail) as a 35mm.  Also, most 4×5 cameras have all sorts of adjustments allowing controls of focus and image geometry not available with “solid-body” cameras.  Further, there is only one exposure on each piece of 4×5 film, so each image can be developed according to its own merits.  Lastly, I personally kind of like the slower, contemplative approach often associated with working with a bigger camera.

Film vs digital:  They both have their merits.  I got a Canon 5D MkII several months ago and think it is a wonderful tool.  Digital can certainly do things film cannot do – capture color and BW at the same time, have different ISO speeds with the twist of a dial, record a staggering number of images on a single memory card and offer instant replay immediately after exposure among other things.  Downside- there is nothing permanent about a digital image.  If an image has not been printed and its storage drive fails without backup, the image is gone forever.  Currently, digital recording has nowhere near the tonal scale of a BW negative, and to some degree, a color negative.  With Digital, many common scenes would require multiple exposures and subsequent HDR processing to record the brightness range easily captured in a single exposure on bw film.  That said, there is just something I intrinsically like about working with film.  I have an Epson 3880 printer and think it produces quite lovely prints – but they still don’t have the tonal depth of a silver-gelatin print.  And it’s more fun to see the image emerge in the developer than watch it get spit out of a printer.

I hope this helps – I’ve only scratched the surface of the topic!  Bottom line, any camera is only a tool.  Each style has its own merits and drawbacks – they are just different, not better or worse!  One can drive a screw with a hammer – but it may not produce the most satisfying results!

Would Ansel Adams Shoot Digital?




How Do Light Meters Work?

September 16th, 2012

How Do Light Meters Work?

Most of us can understand that a reliable light meter, either in-camera or hand-held is pretty essential to getting good film or digital exposures – but just how they work might be a matter of some mystery or confusion!

When light meters were first made, they were pointed from camera position toward a scene, measuring a rather broad area, evaluating the average brightness of objects either emitting light or reflecting some amount of light back toward the camera.  The assumption was that if you mixed all the lights and darks in an “average” scene into one brightness, that mixture would be some sort of middle gray.

It was decided that that middle gray represented a neutral color reflecting 18% of the light falling on it.  Photoshop-wise – that works out to a black set at about 55% opacity.

In photography, this works out fine so long as your meter (or camera) is reading an equal mix of lights and darks, or you are metering something that is itself middle-gray in brightness.

•  But what if you are photographing a white horse in the snow?  The meter thinks it is looking at something gray – and thus will give you the correct exposure to make that horse and snow GRAY!  The solution is to give MORE exposure to your film or image sensor so that the scene is given enough light to look like a textured white in the image.

With film, this is about 2.5 to 3 stops more light than your meter reading.

With digital, this may be only 1.5 to 2 stops more light than the meter reading.

•  Conversely, if you are photographing something dark in a dark surround, the opposite approach comes into play.  The meter will tell you how to expose to make that DARK scene a middle gray!  You then need to give LESS exposure to force that scene to look dark.

With film:  a 2 to 3 stop reduced exposure will run you from a textured dark to nearly black.

With digital: a 1.5 to 2.5 stop reduction will typically run you from a textured dark to nearly black.


(Pssst:  that’s pretty much the real basics of the Zone System!  Hint – that 18% “middle-gray” is Zone V…!)

A word of caution:  Some, if not many, of the modern in-camera meters with computer analytics can come up with completely unpredictable exposures.  First, they seem to all be calibrated towards acceptable exposures for color slides or digital – so if you are working with a bw negative film (and to some extent color neg) you are almost certain to get a good looking contact sheet with terrible shadow detail.  Second, computer analytics are not the same thing as thinking!  The most sophisticated metering system in existence has no idea of WHAT it is analyzing!  If you want to be in control of image tonality, you need to have an understanding partnership with your metering system and equipment.







Polarizing Filters

June 19th, 2012

Polarizing Filters – You can’t mimic these in Photoshop!

A polarizing filter is one of the few filters that is equally effective with color imaging and with black-and-white.  It can:

•  Minimize or eliminate reflections in glass, water or most any surface except metal.

•  Darken skies in color photos as well as in black-and-white

•  Cut through haze

•  Increase the saturation of colors

Types: There are two basic types of polarizer, the original “linear” polarizer and the comparatively new “circular” polarizer.  They essentially accomplish the same thing, but linear polarizers pose problems with most modern through-the-lens metering systems, so circular polarizers were developed to minimize or eliminate metering issues.

Filter Factor: Most filter manufacturers list polarizers as having a variable filter factor, usually 2 to 4 depending on the effect of the polarization.  I personally just use a factor of 2.5 (1.3 stop correction) because any further darkening, say, of a sky is an effect I want, and do not want to override.

Use:  The great thing about using a polarizer is that you can actually see the effect before taking the picture.  When held up to the eye or placed on a lens and rotated in a clockwise or counter-clockwise direction, you can see gradual lightening or darkening as you rotate.  You can pick just the degree of effect you want.  At its lightest orientation, it is essentially just a 1.3-stop neutral density filter.  If you are using aa non-through-the-lens camera (rangefinder, Holga, etc) you will need to hold the filter up to your eye and note what part of the filter is at “12 o’clock” for the effect you want, then put the filter on your lens in the same orientation.


Above, a polarizer effectively eliminating reflections in glass.  Note that the reflections in the polished table are only moderately affected – that light was polarized in a different direction.  Below, note how the polarizer has darkened the sky, increased saturation in the colors and reduced haze.


Using Polarizers with Wide Angle Lenses: Polarizers work by darkening light in the subject that is already polarized.  If there is no polarized light, the filter has no effect other than neutral density.  The light in a sky is not evenly polarized, so if you are using a wide-angle lens, you will capture part of the sky that may be highly polarized AND also include part of a sky that is less polarized.  If you are using a wide-angle lens on a subject that does not include sky, you may not notice any odd effect.

In the end, no well equipped camera case should be without the versatile polarizing filter!