Inspired by light, passion and mystery. All images are copy-writed to myself, unless stated otherwise. No images may be used without consent.

Finished Essay

Understanding the use of Light with Ansel Adams

The key to landscape photography is capturing light on a scene, and how the photographer visualises the image to look as a final product. They often wait for days at a time for the light to be at the best intensity for capturing an image. This requires pre-visualisation and skill. One of the photographers best known for doing this is Ansel Adams who often drove around looking for places to photograph. One of his photographs famous for being a spur of the moment image is his Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico photograph. This photograph looks nothing like the final product in its raw form, but Adams visualised a dark sky and shining moon and achieved this in the darkroom.

To talk of light in Landscape photography conjures up an image of Ansel Adams’ work. He was one of the experts on how to use available light to achieve the image he wants. As I have mentioned his image Moonlight over Hernandez before I will look into more depth at how he managed to create it and what his visions were about the image.  Adams had set off to photograph in the Chama Valley which is north of Santa Fe but hadn’t had a very successful trip so he decided to give up. On his way back to Santa Fe he came across a graveyard and church and he visualised the perfect lighting for the shot. He saw the moonlight shining on the crosses in the foreground and the moon in the background and jumped out of his car to take the picture. Not being able to find his Weston Exposure meter was not as problematic as he has thought. Using his zone system and knowing the luminosity of the moon, he was able to take the image. Using many skillful techniques in the darkroom he managed to achieve the image he had visualised.  He wanted the crosses to stand out from the picture and the moon to be bright in a dark sky over the strands of cloud. This shows that landscape photography is just as much about how you visualise the image and the places you find to photograph as it is what available light you use. Ansel said of his technique ‘Simply look with perceptive eyes at the world about you, and trust to your own reactions and convictions. Ask yourself: “Does this subject move me to feel, think and dream? Can I visualize a print – my own personal statement of what I feel and want to convey – from the subject before me? (Ansel Adams, 1980: Page: 280)

Ansel from a young age knew how the use of light and shadows in an image could bring it to life. Like in his image ‘Leaves, Alaska, 1948’ he must have carefully set up the shot to make the leaves stand out when you look at them.

The image of leaves almost suspended in the air captures the beauty and detail found in them that we often miss. This was one of Adams’ great talents to photograph seemingly simple things in a way that really shows them off. In this image Adams’ used the available light and his zone system to illuminate the main focus of the image, the large white leaf, and to drop the background into darkness. This has created depth and draws us in to the image as we look at it. The way Ansel would focus on getting the perfect image every time really shows in his work and especially this image. It looks almost mystical because of how light the leaf is contrasting against the dark background. There is a hint of frost about the image, whether this is actual frost or caused by Adams’ amazing use of light I do not know. Adams must have used dodging and burning techniques in the darkroom to achieve the final image. I think he must have either burned in the background to make it darker or dodged out the light leaf to make the contrast higher. As always an image by Ansel Adams shows his love of capturing detail and harnessing light to do this effectively.

Adams’ use of natural light to create his images can be compared to David Hockney’s photomontages, in the way that they both go out and search for the perfect shot using available light. I can easily imagine one of Adams’ prints as a photomontage because of the detail in them and perspective shown. Ansel Adams’ image Monolith; the Face of Half Dome has similar qualities to Hockney’s Yosemite Valley photomontage. They may be of different things but the use of light in them both has created beautifully descriptive photographs. How the light in the sky changes in Hockney’s image shows that he was photographing for a long time whereas Adams’ would have taken the one image once he had light metered everything and worked out the right exposure for the image he wanted. Hockney wanted to show a perspective with his image, how your eyes scan around the landscape when you look at it, this is why he started creating photomontages, as they show more of the area he was photographing. Adams may not have photographed the entire mountain, but how he positioned himself at the bottom looking up at the image creates perspective using depth, this makes the image look like it is showing a wide expanse of the landscape, just like Hockney’s work.

Hockney likes to show perspective and shadows in his work, using this he can show the passage of time in an image and give it detail. Pearblossom highway is a perfect example of this. As you first look at the image, you may think there are no shadows, but the sign at the front has a dark pronounced shadow so does the tree to the left. This creates a slight confusion, as the sun cannot cast two shadows going opposite directions at the same time. But then you realise that Hockney must have taken some time to photograph the area and so the sun has moved. Hockney always captures such bright colours In his images, he used colour to draw people into his images, ‘But, I would always be thinking of how pictures are constructed and colour, how to use it, I mean you’re using it for constructing, makes you think about it, the place did as well’. (David Hockney could say Hockney has captured the personality of the places he photographs; I say that is true because his images really pull me in and I feel when I am looking at his photographs that I know the place. This is very true with Adams’ work too, because his images are so detailed that they manage to capture the personality of the place and are almost giving you a part of the landscape to take away in a photograph. So even if the two photographers are very different in their approach to making images, I do feel they can be compared in how they use photography to document a place and a feeling for others to observe.

Light is the one and only thing needed to capture an image. The word photography means to write with light in Greek, with photos meaning light and graphein meaning write. Even with a lack of light, it is still present in the final image even with a white piece of developed photograph paper, this symbolises a lack of light. From the beginnings of photography light has been used to capture landscapes and portraits. Light creates the negative in film photography and it also enlarges the image in a darkroom. In 1839, Louis Daguerre invented the Daguerreotype, the first type of photography but the Daguerreotype was required exposure times as long as thirty minutes to create a portrait. Sergei Lvovich Levitsky created a lens with better focusing power bringing the aperture down to f/5.6, this was especially good for portrait work but could also be used for landscape work. ‘Brunelleschi, looking through a hole at a street in Florence, makes a depiction of it from a fixed viewpoint…. The photographic process is simply the invention in the 19th century of a chemical substance that could ‘freeze’ the image projected from the hole in the wall, as it were, onto a surface. It was the invention of the chemicals that was new, not the particular way of seeing…. So the photograph is, in a sense, the end of something old, not the beginning of something new’ (David Hockney and Nikos Stangos 1999).

This was the invention that sparked photography becoming popular in the mid 19th century with a large demand for portraits of the upper-middle classes. The shorter exposure times meant subjects no longer had to stand for a while to have their photograph taken. This is all down to the use of light in photography, making the exposure time shorter meant less movement from the sitter and made it more comfortable for them. These early portraits were brightly lit to create even shorter exposure times so more detail could be captured in the images. Early portraits were hugely set up to show a subject’s wealth or prosperity. You do not see much of their personality; they could almost be dead in the images. Photography developed over the years with larger apertures creating short exposure times, so movement could be captured. Photographers started experimenting with different techniques in the darkroom using light in new and innovative ways. Even with the development of digital photography light is still a major part in a photographs production. Adams’ view on the development of photography was ‘We must remember that a photograph can hold just as much as we put into it, and no one has ever approached the full possibilities of the medium’ (Helen Levitt, Aperture Volume 151).

Light has been a component of photography since the start, and it is how we harness it that creates images that can tell a story, give a message or show something we have never seen before. The use of light can be experimental; this is seen in images of light graffiti, cities at night and stars. But it can also be harnessed to show detail and give an image personality.  Light can document a place, as we see in Adams’ work it can show us places we may never see in detail, just what the photographer captured, ‘My last word is that it all depends on what you visualize’ (Pat Booth, 1985: Page: 9.) Without light photography wouldn’t exist, the chemicals used react to light which captures the image. This is similar to our eyes, we need light to see and the camera needs light to capture what we see, it is symmetry that is shown in every type of photography and the images that photographers produce around the world.  It is something that exists in every photograph throughout history, something we can use to change how an image looks. Ansel Adams was and still is one of the masters of photography, using light to create such beautiful and awe inspiring images. While we can find new ways of using light in photographs, I think we should look to the past and the practitioners than started our obsession with photography and Adams will always be at the forefront of the masters of light.


Harvey V. Fondiller (1980) the Best of Popular Photography, London; Watson-Guptill Pubns: Page: 280

Ansel Adams Cited in Helen Levitt, Photographers on Photographers (Aperture Volume 151) ISBN: 0893817732

Pat Booth (1985) Master Photographers – the World’s Great Photographers on their Art and Technique, London; Macmillan Page: 9.

Ansel Adams (2007) 400 Photographs London;Little, Brown and Company

Ansel Adams (1989) Example:  Making of Forty Photographs New Edition London:Little, Brown and Company

Ansel Adams (1995) the Negative (New Photo) London:Little, Brown and Company

David Hockney and Nikos Stangos (1999) Thats The Way I See It London:Thames and Hudson

2001-2010 (Accessed 20th Novemeber 2010)

John Tusa Interview with David Hockney (


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