Drawing Inspiration from Ansel Adams on Photographing With Intention

In an age where virtually everyone takes photos, it’s important for us to keep in mind how to photograph with intention. Ansel Adams remains an inspirational figure who drives this point across.

The reality remains that we’re inundated with photos everyday. Virtually everyone now owns a smartphone, making it easy for billions of images to be uploaded every day. Only a fraction of these images are made with artistry and creativity, let alone intent and technical mastery. Often buried within the Instagram and Facebook feeds are photographs shot by Ansel Adams, a legendary photographer who embodies what it truly means to photograph with intent.

Evan Puschak of The Nerdwriter puts this so well in his quick video on Ansel Adams and his work. The esteemed landscape photographer is one of the names we so often hear about, and a number of his masterpieces are among what we scroll through on blogs, websites, and social media. But, how many of us really understand what makes him worthy of the reverence, and make his work a cut above most photos we see today?

Puschak’s video gives us an excellent perspective. While Adams began shooting the way many of us did, and many of his photos look “uninspired” like the huge chunk of social media photos uploaded everyday, what made him different came on that fateful hike to the Half Dome in Yosemite National Park on April 10, 1927, where he first had a vision of what he wanted his photos to look like. It was the first time, he said, that he consciously used the technique called visualization, “Seeing through the mind’s eye,” as he described it perfectly.

As Puschak interestingly noted in the video, this technique was at work when Adams decided to shoot an image that he visualized in his mind’s eye. The first photo shot with a yellow filter is a good representation of what he saw through the viewfinder, but it’s not exactly the kind of image you’ll remember. But when he took a second shot with a red filter, an aperture of f22, and a shutter speed of five seconds, he nailed a truly stunning photo that matched what he visualized. This dramatic style would later embody his true calling as a landscape photographer.

Did Adams just get lucky with his settings and choice of filter? Not at all, as the video reminds us. Together with his friend, Fred Archer, he developed another tool to ensure that he gets his visualizations and aesthetic right each time: The Zone System. In a nutshell, it breaks down a scene into a full range of black to white through 11 separate zones, each separated by an f-stop. Through this technique, a photographer will be able to get a sense of what his photograph will look like by assessing where the different elements of the frame will fit in the zones.

This video reminds us of the importance of intent in photography — something that is often lost in the flood of images on our feed everyday. With this in mind, we will hopefully have a better discernment of which photos are worthy of our time and attention.

“Today, everyone has a camera. But how many visualize what they’re going to capture beforehand? How many measure the light or hike for a day to reach the perfect spot?”


Screenshot images from the video by The Nerdwriter