Archive for the ‘Ansel Adams’ Category

Ansel Adams’ Zone System – Darling Or Dinosaur?

Thursday, 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?

Tuesday, 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!


In the Darkroom with Ansel Adams

Tuesday, 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


Visualization, a la Ansel Adams

Tuesday, 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).

Ansel Adams’ Yosemite Special Edition Photographs

Monday, June 4th, 2012

Affordable Authentic Ansel Adams Prints

Thunderstorm, Yosemite Valley

One of Ansel Adams’ personal commitments was to share his energy and abilities in support of the things he believed in, most notably, photography and the environment.

In the cause of both, Ansel and his wife, Virginia, selected six photographs of Yosemite and offered them for sale through her family business, Best’s Studio, in Yosemite National Park. The year was 1958.

Ansel’s intent was to present photography as an affordable art and to showcase the environmental grandeur of Yosemite National Park. Never much of a fan of the “curios” that were the staple of most Park concessioners at the time, he also wanted to offer visitors a quality memento of their time in Yosemite.

The 8×10 prints would be made from the original negatives by an assistant under Ansel’s precise direction and be printed in sufficiently large batches to make them affordable.

This collection, entitled the Yosemite Special Edition Photographs, proved immensely popular and over the years, Ansel added more images to the set until the total was capped at 30 at the time of his passing in 1984.

Today, Best’s Studio is known as the Ansel Adams Gallery, and continues as a family-run business. Ansel’s Special Edition Photographs of Yosemite are a mainstay of the Gallery’s offerings and heritage. Each print is still made by hand directly from Ansel’s original negatives, using his approach and methodology to ensure strict adherence to his standards and aesthetic.

And while Ansel’s archives eventually became part of the permanent collection of the Center for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona at Tucson, he made special provisions for the Special Edition Photograph negatives to be held back from the archive so that the tradition of offering high-quality original art at affordable prices would continue as his personal legacy in support of the arts and the environment.

Making the Special Edition Prints: Chosen by Ansel

I became Ansel’s assistant in the middle of 1974, working with Ted Orland, who had been Ansel’s primary assistant for the previous two years.

When Ted left in early 1975, I inherited not only the responsibility of keeping all of Ansel’s photographic operations running, but also the making of the Special Edition prints. Don Worth, Gerry Sharpe, Liliane DeCock, and Ted had all served in this capacity before me, all of us working as Ansel’s eyes and hands in the darkroom. Not easy, but an immensely rewarding challenge.

Although Ansel’s hands were not in direct contact with the Special Edition printing, his vision always was. He was consulted through test and sample prints, and the challenge was to be able to anticipate and respond technically to his requests.

”Make it a little darker over here,” he would suggest, or, ”Can you make it a bit more contrasty?” he would ask. The final approval was a slap on the back along with a hearty, “Ya got it, man!”

In 1979, I left Ansel’s employ to open my own studio in San Francisco, but he liked the way I was printing his negatives and asked me to continue making the Special Edition prints. In his autobiography, Ansel said, “Alan was my photographic assistant from 1974 until 1979, and he continues to make the Special Edition Prints with sensitivity.  He knows those negatives thoroughly and interprets them as closely as possible to my original fine prints of those images.”

Making the Special Edition Photographs is an assignment I continue to this day, with Ansel’s vision and standards always in mind as I work. The prints are still made directly from Ansel’s negatives and in the “traditional” way: in a wet darkroom with amber safelights, chemicals and running water. The prints are still silver-gelatin prints, meaning that the image-forming element is literally metallic silver. Precious.

And after nearly 40 years, I can honestly say that I never tire of seeing these images come up in the developing tray. It’s an honor and privilege to play a small part in continuing Ansel’s legacy.

To see the full selection of the Yosemite Special Edition Prints, please visit the Ansel Adams Gallery website.

For the technical details on the making of the Special Edition prints, click here.

Alan Ross Photography would like to acknowledge the assistance and support of the Ansel Adams Gallery staff and Freestyle Photographic Supplies. 

Ansel Adams, Leica, and Yosemite in April 2012

Thursday, February 9th, 2012

News Flash: Experience the Leica S2 in Yosemite!

Students attending my April Ansel Adams Gallery workshop, “Ansel Adams’ Yosemite: The Art of Seeing,” will have a rare opportunity to photograph with the Leica S2, a premier medium-format digital camera that retails for approximately $28,000 and was developed exclusively for digital photography. It’s based on a totally new image sensor that gives you 37.5 million pixels to work with, all with the size and handling of 35 mm.

Interested students will have a chance to use this state-of-the-art instrument as we visit some of Ansel Adam’s favorite spots in Yosemite and learn to connect his approach and mastery with today’s tools and technologies.

If you want to take your photography to new levels, better realize your photographic vision, learn to translate the literal to the expressive and use optics and exposure to best effect, join us!

Check out the Leica S2 here

Would Ansel Adams Shoot Digital?

Friday, December 30th, 2011

There has been a lot of talk on the Internet lately about whether Ansel Adams would have embraced digital photography if he were alive today. From what I can tell, most everyone seems to think that he would be enjoying both “shooting digital” and HDR. Having been his full time photo assistant in Carmel from 1974 to 1979 with continued close association for the next five years until his death in 1984, I think I’d like to take this opportunity to weigh in with my own thoughts.

Let’s imagine that it is in the early 1980’s and that today’s digital technology was available then. To ponder to what degree he might have “gone digital” it should be useful to consider his nature, and his interests in technology and photography.

Ansel Adams, Ansel Adams Autobiography

Even from his very early years, Ansel was fascinated by science and technology in general. But rather than being a modernist, he was very much a classicist. He never had any interest in anything that was “the rage.” He had no interest in the craze or technology of motion pictures – except when Polaroid brought out their short-lived Polavision, and that was only because it was a Polaroid product. Upon its demise he had no interest in VCRs.

He was just about 80 years old when he bought his first television, but his personal involvement with the computer age began in the early 1980’s when he began writing his autobiography on an IBM word processor. Even in his own work in photography, he never had the newest-best of anything – except when Hasselblad set him up with a new 500C camera and a few lenses. Even most of his large-format gear was a mix of old and used, but it served his purpose.

By the 1980’s, digital technology was just starting to wend its way from research labs into practical use, and he was very enthusiastic about the quality the new scanning technology was giving to the reproductions in his new books. I have no doubt that he would have marveled at what Photoshop could offer – but I also think that this excitement would have been mostly directed at making repairs to damage or defects in his film archive. He had images from Alaska where mosquitoes had gotten into his 8×10 and were neatly silhouetted by having landed on the film before exposure! And then there were all the films damaged in his 1937 darkroom fire.

Color work didn’t really interest him – most of his color imagery was either on assignment for Kodak or testing films for Polaroid. So he would have likely passed up on the pixel passion in that regard.

I think he would also very likely regard current capture technology to still fall something short of what he could do with film. I’m sure he would have a digital camera of some sort but regard it as an intriguing work-in-progress. I can easily see him using it for some portrait work but think it would be left neglected in the car if he encountered a Moonrise, Hernandez, or Clearing Winter Storm.

A single exposure on a piece of BW negative film can record a hugely greater dynamic range than current digital devices, and while HDR techniques can certainly make up for this, it requires an extra bit of techno-tinkering and doesn’t offer the tangible gratification of holding a freshly developed sheet of 8×10 or 4×5 film. There is also nothing intrinsically permanent about a digital image.

In summary, I think Ansel would love scanning and Photoshop. He would have a fairly current digital camera and enjoy the immediacy and other advantages of pixel pictures. I think he would still prefer the look of a silver print over inkjet (as I still do), and that means film. He would keep a close eye on advances and have no qualms about working in the digital world if the technology fully met his own creative standards.


Too Close to Home – Even for Ansel Adams

Tuesday, December 6th, 2011


Removing Artists’ Block

Golden Gate Bridge Photos, San Francisco Photos, Alan Ross

Golden Gate Bridge, North Tower and Rocks, 1989 On Assignment for The Bank of America

When I first moved to Carmel to work with Ansel Adams in 1974, I made several significant images within the first month or two. Then for the next five years pretty close to nothing.

After I moved to San Francisco in 1979 to open my own studio, I got an assignment to photograph in the Big Sur-Carmel area, and I made two significant photos in one day. One was only a mile south of Ansel’s house!

In 1989 I accepted a contract with a large advertising agency in San Francisco for Bank of America. Project? Shoot the Golden Gate Bridge. Well, I grew up in Sausalito, California, and it is the first town on the north side of the bridge. I NEVER had ANY desire to make an image of something so familiar (and so over-photographed) but I took the job and the incentive kicked me into making a few of my very best images.

Now, having lived in Santa Fe for over 18 years, I find I hardly ever get a camera out at home. The reality? Over-familiarity and the distractions of daily life. I still am amazed by the boggling thunderclouds that build up in the summer and fall – but I haven’t DONE anything about them in years. Errands to run, darkroom work to do, etc.

In the early 1960’s, Ansel Adams, who was born, grew up in, and was still living in San Francisco, took on an assignment that essentially was going to be Ansel Adams’ San Francisco. Always a hard worker, he took to the task with enthusiasm – but after a few months, and a few fair images, he conceded that he was too close to the subject and regretfully bowed out. Conversely, even though he maintained a house in Yosemite, and his wife and children lived there pretty much full time, Yosemite wasn’t his daily environment, and it remained easy for him to maintain his visual enthusiasm about the place.

I think the most difficult thing for any of us, whose work is in the recording and expressive interpretation of our surroundings, is to work “close to home”. I am in Dallas as I write this, and I am promising myself that I will get a camera out when I get home to Santa Fe.

Some times you just have to prime the pump.



Assisting Ansel….the First Week

Friday, August 5th, 2011

Thirty-seven years ago today marks the end of my first week as Ansel’s full-time assistant.  What a week!  It started as I drove my car up a wooded road in Carmel, parked under the pines, and walked apprehensively up to the front door.  My knock was greeted by a beaming smile and a “How ya doin’ man?”  Pure Ansel!

My first assignment was to make some order out of the chaos of print boxes and equipment that were temporarily housed in the carport.  Ansel had just had some major renovations done in his work room, and everything had been moved out of the way.  What I noticed as I was sorting through prints was that Ansel had made quite a few very ordinary photographs.  I was somewhat stunned to learn that he had no illusions and no expectations that every piece of film he exposed would wind up being another one of what he fondly called his “Mona Lisas.”  As an awe-struck young photographer in the presence of “The Master,” this revelation came as an incredible relief and  released me  from the burden of expecting myself to produce only perfection.  Following Ansel’s model, it was better to experiment and try things that might work, and openly and simply respond to feelings, than to over-intellectualize when photographing.  In fact, I soon learned that one of Ansel’s favorite phrases was, “The perfect is the enemy of the good.” Not a day goes by, even now, that I don’t hear him reminding me of this, and it’s something I try to emphasize with my students.

Assisting Ansel….Getting the Job

Sunday, July 31st, 2011

People often ask how I managed to land a job with the man who would become the most noted photographer of the 20th-century.  Ansel always liked to say that “chance favors the prepared mind,”  and maybe that’s what happened.  Here’s the story…you can decide!

After graduating from UC Berkeley in 1971, I had the good fortune to land a job as studio assistant for M. Halberstadt, the most in-demand advertising photographer in San Francisco at the time.  Hal, as he liked to be called, had been Moholy Nagy’s photo assistant at the School of Design in Chicago, and was innovative in his vision and a stickler for technical excellence.  He was also a long-time friend of Ansel Adams–they even had an assistant in common, although somewhat before my time.

In 1973, Hal retired and closed his studio, leaving me an unemployed freelancer.  I had met Ansel the year before in Yosemite, so I worked up the nerve to write and ask if he needed an assistant.  He wrote back almost by return mail, saying he didn’t need anyone at the moment, but because of my successful track record with Hal (who was known for chewing through assistants), he would be delighted to have me assist some of the numerous workshops at the Ansel Adams Gallery in Yosemite, beginning that June.  By July 1974, I was running the darkroom for Ansel’s “Making of a Photographic Book” workshop.  A few days into the session, Ansel had his business manager pull me aside and ask if I would be interested in moving to Carmel to work full-time.  I thought about that for maybe a microsecond!