Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Six tips from Ansel Adams for making your travel photos

Tabular Iceberg Alley at Renland, off Sydkap, Scoresby Sund, Greenland with Silversea's Silver Explorer on the rightAnsel Adams, the great American photographer and environmentalist died more than 30 years ago, however, people viewing his work for the first time or even for the thousandth time still are wowed, often blown away by his images.

While known for his amazing landscape photographs, he was also a major innovator of systems and techniques. Along with Fred Archer, Adams developed the Zone System for determining optimal exposures. He worked as a long time consultant to Polaroid, and unknown to many, made thousands of photographs using the Polaroid system.

While Adams died in 1984, about a decade before the digital camera was generally commercially available, with the Apple QuickTake and the Kodak DC40, I believe he would have, at the least, seriously experimented with them and would have likely embraced their use.

We can learn a lot about digital photography from Adams, even though he never used it. After all, he taught photography, and made thousands of images, not just of one genre, nor using a single method or camera.

Here are my top 6 tips from Ansel Adams for 21st century travelers making digital photographs of their journeys:

A more intriguing image may be just around the bend or corner — For years, Ansel Adams didn't just roam Yosemite, for which he is undoubtedly best known, but journeyed through the Rockies, the Sierra Nevadas, the sands of New Mexico and many other locations. During that time, he wasn't afraid to climb down hillsides, tramp through deserts, climb atop boulders, turn the corner to a side street, or merely turn around to see a different view.

If you want to improve your travel photos, be prepared to go around the bend, walk a little further, and spin around to view the entire scene, not just peer forward with side blinders.

“There are no rules for good photographs, there are only good photographs.” — When Adams said that, he could have had in mind the many vacationers and travelers who learn about photography from an hour long workshop or two, or by reading a book, who adhere rigidly to the principles they learned. During my travels I've seen too many using the “Rule of Thirds,” “diagonal lines,” “framing,” and “converging lines” religiously.

The “rules” of composition are meant to be used as guides, not as absolutes.

“You don't take a photograph, you make it.” — Images come in the form of snapshots as well as what Adams would call, photographs. Snapshots are quickly captured without using thought or inspiration. Their quality is likely less than desired. Photographs are made by using the traveler's vision, sizing-up the scene's possibilities, and thinking how it is best shown, prior to pressing the shutter release.

By taking a bit of time and putting some thought into one's vacation and travel photos, the quality of the images will immediately improve.

“Expose for the shadows; develop for the highlights.” — Today, digital photographers have moved from developing in the chemical darkroom to processing in the digital darkroom, and as such Adams advice is as good as ever.

When getting ready to make a photo, we survey and size-up the scene. When doing so, we need to think about how the photo will look when deciding on the right exposure settings. To capture the scene's detail we need to choose an exposure which allows the camera to see into the shadows. If we over-expose just enough, we'll be able to bring out those details in the digital darkroom of our computer, yet still preserve the detail or our image's highlights, to make a great image.

“Twelve significant photographs in any one year is a good crop.” — If you're frustrated with the number of fantastic photos you've made during your trips, don't be. Adams worked at his photography full time. Each year he made thousands of images, yet he really meant it when he said he'd be satisfied with just twelve sensational images per year.

Working pros display a fraction of the images they make. While they likely create a greater percentage of “keepers” than typical travelers, don't think for a second they're all great, or even mostly great.

“Dodging and burning are steps to take care of mistakes God made in establishing tonal relationships.” — This is one of Adams most famous quotes. He was not a “purist” who believed once an image was made in his camera, it shouldn't be altered. Adams believed in improving his images in the darkroom.

When capturing moments in your travels follow Adams' example. Once you're back home, don't be afraid to edit on your images to make them appear as you viewed the original scene and imagined how your photo would look. It's certainly what I do as a travel photographer.

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