Posts Tagged ‘Ansel Adams’

How To See Like A Photographer

Tuesday, 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.

Alan

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

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!

 

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.