Posts Tagged ‘Alan Ross’

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. 

Can the Zone System Go Digital?

Tuesday, February 21st, 2012

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

The 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.

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: 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!

Step Two: Your Spot Meter and the Zone System
By design, a spot meter 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.

Step Three: 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.

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!





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

Special Print Offering

Wednesday, January 25th, 2012

While I’m not much into New Year’s resolutions, I’m giving myself a goal to get into the darkroom more this year, and I’ve been doing some digging around in my files of as-yet unprinted images. And there are quite a few! The digital age has allowed me to experiment with images of interest and I’m really looking forward to bringing them to life in silver.

I’m happy to share with you these three “new” images, and offer them at a discounted price before they become available to galleries and the general public. For purchasing information, simply click on each photo.

Clouds and Reflections, Glacier Bay, Alaska 1988

Ansel Adams was once asked if there was any place in the world he could visit to photograph, where would it be (besides the givens of Yosemite and the Sierra)? His answer was pretty immediate: “I’d like to go back to Alaska – but Scotland was pretty good, too.” In 1988 I had the good fortune to be able to accompany my wife on (for her) a business cruise to Alaska and the Inside Passage. One of the highlights was an afternoon in Glacier Bay, hearing great chunks of ice break free from their hosts, sailing off into melting oblivion. Another amazing experience was visiting Sitka, where there seemed to be a bald eagle sitting on every tree top. Photographically, though, the massive glaciers and stillness of the bay were the visual highlights of the trip.


Dune Detail, Sunrise, Death Valley 2008

A morning trip to the dunes near Stovepipe Wells in Death Valley rarely leaves one unrewarded for the somewhat arduous trek out from the road.  Starting out at first light (so there is enough light to avoid rudely stepping on an innocent sidewinder…) it is usually no problem to get into the heart of the dunes before the sun peeks out over the crest of the Funeral Range to the east. This image was done during one of a number of workshops I have led in the Eastern Sierra and Death Valley.  Usually, I work with larger expanses of the landscape, but on this early May morning, there was nary a cloud anywhere – and I was feeling Ansel’s lament of “there’s nothing worse than a bald-headed sky.” Working with my 4×5 camera, I decided to ignore the distance and morning haze, and concentrate on smaller views of the sun just illuminating abstracts of dune forms.  I just checked my negative file, and found that this was the only image I made on the dunes on that trip – but I like it!


Rocks, Pools and Reflections, Badwater, Death Valley 2001

The quietness of Death Valley around sunrise always has an underlying tone of magic. During this late September workshop, we had just had a wonderful sunrise session at Zabriskie Point, overlooking Golden Canyon to the south and Manly Beacon to the west, with wonderful clouds adding to the occasion. When we had satisfied ourselves with that location, the morning was still too lovely to declare it time for breakfast, so we went south to Badwater.  At 282 feet below sea level, it is the lowest spot in North America, amazingly only about 85 air miles from 14,505-foot Mount Whitney to the west, the highest point in the United States outside of Alaska. The sun had not yet reached the valley floor in this spot so the view north was a wonder of quiet reflections. Sadly, this photograph can no longer be made.  A year or two later, the Park Service, in their efforts to protect the ecosystem in and around the area, built a raised dock around and over the pools, obscuring the natural lines in this image.


Each print is made personally by me according to current museum standards, signed, numbered, mounted and overmatted, and ready to frame. Image size is approximately 14 x 18, overmatted to 22 x 28.

My prints in this size normally start at $750, but I am offering these new prints for a limited time at 25% off base price, or $562.50, plus shipping.

The offer extends from now through Sunday, February 12th. You can contact me directly or use my brand-new shopping cart on the website.

I anticipate approximately two to four weeks for delivery to ensure the quality of each individual order. After this inaugural offering, print prices will return to full price.

Using a Cut-Out Card to Refine Photo Composition

Sunday, January 22nd, 2012

One of the most challenging things in creating a strong image in photography is the need to find order in chaos. In the urban jungle there are wires, poles, signs, traffic and the like. In the natural world there are rocks, bushes, branches and landforms all contributing to visual mayhem.

In an earlier writing I discussed the fact that it is point of view that creates structure in a photograph, and that one’s choice of lens is after the fact and serves only to effect the most agreeable cropping. But making that choice of lens is often a lot easier said than done. Looking through a viewfinder or at the upside-down image on a groundglass, it is easy to become somewhat fixated on the subject itself, rather than the elements of the composition.

Regular use of a cut-out viewing card can do wonders for tightening up your seeing and compositional strengths. Ansel Adams was a great proponent of using a viewing card and routinely included them in workshop student packets. Completely low-tech, the “tool” is simply a card with a hole cut out in the same shape as your film / image format.

When you are standing on the spot where you plan to make your photograph, instead of looking through your camera to explore the structure of the image, hold the card up to your scene, moving it subtly left, right, up down – AND nearer to and farther away from your eye. You have what amounts to a zoom lens with infinite focal lengths from at-your-nose to full-arm’s-length away! If the card is white, the scene before you can even look like it is already mounted ready for display!  Neat?


Photo Composition, Viewing Card

Wait! There’s more! If the hole in the card is the same size as the format you are using, you can even tell pretty nearly just what focal length to use. If you are using a 4×5 camera and the card’s hole is about 4×5 inches, the distance away from your eye is the same as the appropriate focal length! If the card is about eight inches from your eye for the right framing, that would indicate a 210mm lens (eight inches is 203mm). If you are using a 6×7 camera and have a 6x7cm hole in your card, when the card is about six inches from your eye, that would suggest a 150mm lens!

When I’m working with my 8×10 camera, because of its weight and bulk, I don’t usually haul it around with me while I am exploring a subject. I often leave it in the truck, or parked peacefully under a tree, and instead go for a walk with my cut-out card. Once I have found my “spot” I’ll mark it with a rock or something and hop back to get the camera, already knowing pretty well what lens I am going to start with. Now, you can imagine that a card with an 8×10 hole in it would be a bit awkward – and it would be – but instead I just use my 4×5 card and double the indicated focal length.  Thus, if the card is nine inches from my eye, that would indicate the 450mm lens.

In truth, I don’t always have a card with me, but my hands are large enough to form an approximately 4×5 frame, and that works just fine.

Ansel Adams, Ansel Adams Autobiography,

Choosing a Lens – How Does Focal Length Affect Your Image?

Thursday, January 12th, 2012

It comes as quite a surprise to a lot of the photographers I work with that the only thing that changes when you use a different focal-length lens is the cropping of your image!

Optical aberrations aside, short focal-length, or “wide-angle,” lenses do not distort close subjects, and long focal-length, or telephoto, lenses do not compress subject features.  What really causes these familiar effects discussed so often in popular texts is a change of perspective:  a change in the camera’s physical position relative to your subject.

When you move in close to a subject, it becomes very large in relation to its background.  So, that over-large nose you get with a wide-angle-lens portrait is because you’ve probably moved in very close to the subject in order to fill the frame, and the nose, being closest to the lens, is now very large in relation to the ears.  This is a matter of your proximity to the subject and has nothing to do with the lens itself.

When you look at a distant scene through a long focal-length, or telephoto, lens elements in the scene may appear compressed, almost right on top of each other.  Once again, this has nothing to do with the lens, but is simply a matter of the tight framing on the subject.  If you put the camera down and frame the scene just as tightly with your hands, the elements of the scene will appear as “compressed” as they did through the lens.

What about zoom lenses as opposed to fixed focal-length lenses?   Do they help make your choice easier?  Well, yes and no.  Assuming the optics are up to snuff, a zoom can provide a great deal of convenience – it’s a zillion focal-lengths in one piece of hardware.  But that convenience can lead to overly casual, rather than critical, vision.  Imagine a photographer out for a walk.  He (or she) comes across a detail or a scene that interests him. Camera goes up to eye, hand zooms lens to frame the subject, auto-focus and metering do their jobs, shutter goes click, and it’s on down the path.  Would the image have been more powerful if our photographer had moved in close to some boulder in the foreground, making it monolithic in relation to the background?  Maybe.  Or maybe backing up a bit might have let some tree branches frame the scene.

The point in all this is that to maximize the impact of a visual statement it is important to give thought to the image structure first.  Is the composition better closer in?  Farther back? Up, down left or right?

Once you pick your camera position, then choose the focal length that gives the cropping you want.  If your first guess is too tight, use a shorter lens, if it’s too loose, use a longer lens. If you don’t have a lens that is quite right, use one slightly shorter than you would like and crop. That’s the lens to use!

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.



Selective Masking for Printing Challenging Negatives

Tuesday, August 24th, 2010

Get Total Consistency from Print to Print

Over the years I’ve evolved a technique I have come to refer to as Selective Masking. I use the term “selective” because it is a physical, hands-on method of tonal control in analog printing, rather that the photometric “unsharp masking”. In its basic form, it’s not techno-anything; it simply is a means of solidifying your own dodging and burning preferences into a “package” which remains absolutely constant from print to print.  You can change your mind about how you want that package to perform; you can dodge and burn in greater detail than with traditional methods and with absolute consistency from print to print.  It works with either a diffusion enlarger or in contact printing.  It does NOT work with condenser enlargers.

Carried to the ’nth degree, Selective Masking can transform the job of printing a challenging negative from one of agonizing difficulty to the mere push of a button: a “straight” print from the untouched, unmodified original negative. Any size print. Local contrast changes can be made, and that oh-so-smooth gradual sky burn can be built into the mask package.

Available in my Online Store:  Want to turn a difficult negative into a straight print?  This technique has worked well for me in the over 20 years I have been refining it and has been updated to reflect more sophisticated digital techniques.  Selective Masking Articles on CD and download