What I Learned from Ansel Adams

As a 1st year at Art Center in Pasadena I was given a chance to go to Yosemite and spend two weeks at the Yosemite Institute, specifically in the Ansel Adams photography program. While Adams had passed away just three years before, most of the techniques he used for instruction were still in place. I can honestly say that I learned as much in those two weeks as I learned in the entire three year program at Art Center.


Everything we shot was large format. The old photography images you see with the photographer under a hood and a big boxy camera on a stand. In some exercises we just had to carry the cartridges containing our film and in others we had to set up the whole damned camera. I didn't care.


I didn't learn to shoot great landscape images. What I really learned was something I thought I already knew. I learned to see.


I remember one exercise explicitly. We were told to grab our cartridges (containing the sheets of film we used) and follow our instructor on a trail. Along the route there were several cameras set up, ready for use. We were told to take the time to see the setting and then use the camera to make the best image of what the camera could see. We weren't allowed to move the camera. We could tilt it. We could affix a different lens. We could shift the film plane.


When we developed and compared the images it was amazing how different they turned out. Each photographer had their own vision. To be sure, there were a few that were very basic. There were a few that were wildly creative. Mine were somewhere in between.


What I learned in that exercise and in several others was that I need to understand what story the light and the subject want to tell BEFORE I start shooting. The camera doesn't take the picture. I don't take the picture. The subject, the light, the textures the shadows all come together and we MAKE an image together.


To this day when I see great photographers' images I'm never amazed at their command of their equipment, etc. I'm sometimes inspired and sometimes just a bit withered by their vision. And I never cease to love the same process and the moment when I see something and know it's going to be special.

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