What would Ansel Adams Shoot with Today? Small is Beautiful by Christian Delbert

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What would Ansel Adams Shoot with Today? Small is Beautiful

by Christian Delbert – See his website HERE

Poor Ansel wrecked his back carrying his very heavy 1930s photo equipment to out of the way locations. He finally got himself a mule when he made a few dollars doing industrial photography. And when he got back to his home/studio, he spent hours in the darkroom making a print that he was satisfied with.

Nowadays, we can achieve similar results with cameras that weigh 1/10 the weight, and, most of the time, don’t need a tripod and can achieve great results in our lightrooms. As time passed, Ansel began to use the Hasselblad more and more. He sacrificed some quality for portability and ease of use.

I remember trying to copy Ansel’s work with my 4 x 5 view camera and going through the same darkroom steps. But now well into the digital era, photographing has become much more simple and great pictures are everywhere. It still takes a good eye but the technique is no longer a handicap.

And I sometimes wonder. What if there was an exhibition of photography where modern, good landscape photographers exhibited their photos next to Ansel’s. Would his photos still stand out to people who have never seen his images? Food for thought.

Now, in my small way, I have taken a few photos that I managed to take on my recent trip to Patagonia. Thinking like Ansel, I previsualized them in B & W. Problem is that I was stuck shooting between the hours of 10am and 4pm. Bad lighting time!

Nevertheless, have a look….All shot with the excellent Olympus OMD EM1 & 2, plus 3 lenses. The 7-14mm f/4 Panasonic, the awesome 12-40mmf/2.8 and further awesome 40-150mmf/2.8.

Small is beautiful!

56 Comments

  1. In my opinion, Ansel would shoot the camera with the widest dynamic range of exposure and tones as well as the highest resolution possible in order to achieve super large prints. That would be a Phase One. Not knocking other systems as there are plenty of good systems and in my opinion each has it’s purpose and each has a niche for a specific buyer and buyer’s needs.

    • Further to my comment, he would probably mount the Phase One Digital back on an Alpa Camera Body, extremely well made precision body, and use Alpa Rodenstock glass which in my opinion is the sharpest glass in the world and would allow him to shoot as before with a fully manual lens for aperture and shutter speed.

  2. Great pictures and a great topic. The Olympus would have saved his back that is for sure or his donkeys back. He would probably use large format film but have a Leica Rangefinder somewhere within reach….but he was such an artist and composer with great patience. I am sure if he were alive today he would use whatever he could afford and still make amazing images. The true artists are like that. But I agree with some of the opinions that there is a great body of work now to choose from. He was a pioneer. Sometimes being first makes your work stand out. I am sure if the Beatles or Elvis came on the music scene now they would be popular but not have the status they have now because they were among the first – the pioneers. Anyway you slice it, this is a great discussion and a great way to think how the gear impacts the final product and what really is the right gear to obtain the results we are all looking for. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Ansel “visualized”, he did not “pre” visualize. At least get the basics right.
    Each of his prints are originals, hsnd done. Not push a button and get 5,000 copies.
    With digital photography is not “much more simple”. It is technical tools and way too many copycats with digital programs to mask a lack of creativity.

  4. I’d hope that Ansel would continue to do exactly what he did and make beautiful art that hangs on walls. Large format, meticulously made prints that give a sense of the soul of the mountain West.

  5. Ansel Adam’s mentions in his books, the camera and 40 photograps explained that he prefers full manual cameras, he was know to use many different ones from early one, but fully manual ones gave him full artistic freedom. He was familiar with aperature priority cameras what came in early 60’s but didnt connect with them.

  6. These photos are very nice – but, for a few, I think the printing (oops – I meant processing!) is a bit on the strong side. But some of these are really, really good. 1290975_1 is quite something. I also like the product shot of the camera.

    And as for cameras, perhaps Ansel would have stayed with the Hasselblad. But for the rest of us, I think that a lot of photographers are slowly recognizing that digital allows us to go smaller. It makes no sense to carry around bulky cameras and lenses, especially while travelling.

    Smaller sensors mean smaller lenses. The cameras won’t always be tiny, but that’s fine. If you want IBIS + OIS, which Olympus has mastered perfectly, you can’t have matchbox sized bodies.

    I’m now torn between staying with APS-C or going over the Micro 4/3. Both have so much to recommend them. We’re spoiled for choice, that’s for sure. 😉

    • I also find the motives to be good, but sharpening/processing on the strong side. Adams photos would be more grainy and with stronger difference between low and highlights. I use an Olympus myself, and I find it usable in almost any situation.

      While it already been mentioned, I guess Adams would choose a Hasselblad for his landscapes. If somebody sponsored him …

  7. Ansel was no luddite – as glass backed negatives became obsolete he seemed more than OK with using the newer, more practical plastic-based film. I recall him mentioning a future for electronic media in his writings. If he were still at it today I doubt he would shrug off digital completely. My best guess would be him using a bit of everything from the smartphone to the 8×10. (Maybe shooting large format film only when the young able bodied assistant was on hand.) :o)

  8. I like some of your images much, others are a bit overprocessed for my personal taste, but that’s a matter of taste.

    Well, we all don’t know what gear Ansel Adams would use today, but as others here I imagine that he would still use bigger formats. Photography isn’t only about digital sensors and processing, the physics of light didn’t change since Ansel Adam’s times. Because of that, bigger format cameras produce a completely different look, including a huge DoF, which is essential for most landscape motifs. Even medium format images have a special look, because of that (real MF, the 43,8 x 32,9 mm sensors of Hasselblad and Fuji are still a bit too small for a pronounced MF look).

    • Exactly, how you play the score ( print ) is a matter of taste. Ansel’s early prints were a lot less contrasty. As he aged his prints became more contrasty. Change of taste? Who knows. In life, as one ages, preferences change.
      When Ansel went to more contrasty prints, many critics regretted his old way of printing. To each his own.

  9. Here’ my guess

    # 20s-40something Ansel : Alpa 12SWA, Alpa 12MAX.
    Sigma Merrill DP1 possibly also.

    # 50-60something Ansel : Fuji GFX 100MP with Tilt Shift lenses.
    Sigma Merrill DP1 possibly also.

    # 70-80 Ansel : Best 4K Phone. Enjoying family time photographing family chatting to family on 4K phone. Wowed by Computational Photography in 4K phones.

    # Vacations with family Panasonic Zs100 inch sensor 25-250mm. Marvelling in modern camera tech.

  10. As others have said, he’d use the largest format he could carry. After all, he schlepped his massive gear up dangerous mountain slopes. A founding member of Group f/64, he’s not going miniature. The current Ansel Adams show at the Boston MFA confirms the extraordinary depth of field–real DoF, not HDR–and vast tonal range he managed. And, he’d still be using film.

  11. I’ve seen Adams’ work in person, and yes, I do think it still stands out. Very much so. Sure, amazing gear is available for all now, but the mind’s eye and creative process is where most would not be able to match him.

  12. To answer the question that “What would Ansel Adams Shoot with Today?”, I guess he would use at least 44×33 medium format or even larger format. Since he would already spend so much efforts and possibly money, why not use the best IQ camera he could afford.
    Should we enthusiastic hobbyist do the same?

  13. In addition to the camera mentioned here that he would carry around for convenience and an iPhone, I believe if he were alive today, he would almost certainly use the largest and most expensive digital cameras from Phase One and Hasselblad. For most landscapes I would think he’d generally use a technical camera (I agree with other posters that he liked movements) with one of these ultra detailed digital backs or perhaps a scanning back. Why? He was always a stickler for pushing the technical boundaries of the best cameras and technology of the day and he bought the best of the best; when microwaves were invented, he used them for drying darkroom test strips. So I also think at times he would probably also shoot large format when he previsualized even larger prints than are possible on digital and didn’t have to take the camera far from his car. Rising from the dead, he would convince Adox to cut him some CMS 20 in ULF.

  14. I like many of your images.
    The greatness of Ansel is his groundbreaking work in the beautiful western states. Go to New Mexico high country near O’Keeffe’s Ghost Ranch and you’ll understand the amazing light he had to work with. But Ansel didn’t stop with the negative capture. He was a perfectionist at his print making as well. At the time, large, exhibition prints were the only way to convey the art. I’ve seen his prints, and many are breathtaking.
    And finally, with Ansel and many of the other early greats, it’s finally about the body of work.
    They have extensive catalogs of great works.
    I believe Ansel would revel in this time of large digital sensors with great DR and the digital darkroom. Too bad he missed it. He was a unique artist in his time.

  15. Why the answer is quite simple really, since the EOS R doesn’t have a joystick or a second card slot or IBIS or even usable Eye AF, it cannot be considered for professional use. Therefore, Ansel would most assuredly choose the A7R III for his landscape photographs…without question. Lovely set of photos in this post WELL DONE!! 😉 Thank you.

  16. Definitely a lot to be said for using smaller formats. Here though, I feel the images appear over sharpened and with either added grain or is it noise which add nothing to the images? Of course that is just my subjective opinion.

      • Not that much overcooked Ian. Have you ever been to southern Patagonia? If you haven’t you have no basis for your comment. Look at Ansel’s photos and you can see that he often used orange or red filters to make the sky/clouds pop. He wanted Patagonia skies so improvised with red filters and #5 enlarging papers.

  17. I think if Ansel still alive , he would dump all his heavy camera and use the digital instead. I also think the photos you took had a lot more grey zone then Ansels. Great photos which only took you few days to do it, but it took Ansel life time.

  18. Ansel Adams would undoubtedly use a Hassy, an HTS 1.5 T/S adapter, and a high quality tripod for his best work. To think otherwise disregards the fact that he could have gone smaller than he did.

  19. I don’t think I’m going to ditch my Sony+Zeiss and X Vario (and their relations!) for MFT, though you present a very strong argument for doing so! Very enjoyable images, and the first one is really gripping. Thanks for taking time to share.

  20. If he never used Leica then, he wouldn’t use it now either. He would probably go for a medium format Hassi. But, damn, he went to get it now but it’s discontinued.
    He excelled printing like no other did. By now he probably wouldn’t be happy enough with Adobe and Epson. Perhaps still hesitant about if digital gives enough range of grey’s compared to large format film. At the end he had to develop his own ZS software

  21. Ansel Adams used 35mm Contax making great images og Stieglitz, O’Keefe and many others..
    In later life Ansel mainly used Hasselblad in place of large format. Ansel had a heart condition. Of interest, he did not carry that heavy equipment on his back! He had 2 donkeys for the trek and later vehicles with roof re-enforced.
    No small format or even high digital camera can compare to original large format.
    Don’t compare self to easy walk from tour bus..
    Your images are OK but not startling..

    • Agree with Jason
      I have spent many dollars on books from Ansel, Henri, Vivian ,Elliott and more. I would not spend one dollar on any modern photographer they don’t compare. Your images are fine but I can view thousands of images on say Flickr which are also fine that’s the problem nothing unique any more. Henri Cartier Bresson, Vivian Maier, Ansel Adams and Elliott Erwitt have simply never been replace by anyone.

      • That is a matter of opinion. As I mentioned in my original post, if you interspersed a bunch of Ansel’s photographs with images of contemporary landscape photographers, and had a jury of amateurs, who had never seen his prints, I’m not sure Ansel’s photographs would stand out.

        • It’s probably considered sacrilege to say this, but Ansel’s work as it currently stands is not really anything special given the quantity of quality work currently being produced. Thanks to the dawn of digital photography there has never been so many high quality photographers producing so many photos. Digital reduced the learning curve for so many that there are now a tonne of really great landscape photogs.

          I say this as a huge Ansel Adams fan. He truly was ahead of his time and I think if he were alive today he would produce some amazing work with the technology currently available.

          • I don’t know that I agree with that. If being viewed on a screen I could see how someone may say that, but if we’re talking prints side by side? Ansel certainly would stand out.

            I’ve seen his prints and of course lots of modern digital landscape prints in person and the modern stuff just doesn’t compare.

          • Nick…I’ve seen Ansel’s prints in person too. In the late 90’s there was an exhibition at MOMA that included different versions of his prints, some with his dodging/burning and some straight from the negatives. It was interesting to see how flat and almost boring some of the prints were before he did his darkroom magic.

            Anyway, you say modern ‘digital stuff’ doesn’t compare in prints. Really? This is a function of the printing process more so then the capture. I’ve seen lots of super high ends digital prints.

            I know what Christian was getting at in his original post…Ansel Adams is the hallowed name of landscape photography but I can name countless others who produce equal if not superior work with little to no notoriety.

  22. I think I spent more time looking at these photos than any of the other posts in the last several months. They’re really good. And I think you’re right, Adams would probably have embraced digital.

  23. Actually, putting myself in Ansel’s shoes, today, my main camera would be the just announced Fuji 100 MP GFX. That is the 8 x 10 camera of 2019. Probably good enough to produce very sharp 40″ x 60″ prints for gallery and museum exhibitions.

  24. There is currently an exhibition at the MFA in Boston that shows his photography alongside contemporary photographers. https://www.mfa.org/exhibitions/ansel-adams-in-our-time

    I think if Ansel would live today he would not shoot images similar to the ones he took decades ago. He was curious about technology, process and pushing boundaries. So he would probably try to find ways to push our process even more. Would he use a digital back on an Alpa camera? Maybe, because he was obsessed with clarity and detail. But he would not take images that would look like images taken in the past.

  25. The one aspect that modern compact cameras lack is tilt-shift control. Ansel used this frequently in his landscapes.

    As for what made Ansel’s photos great: Time spent waiting for the perfect light and moment as well as all the attempts in between. I remember reading Alan Ross’s epiphony about Adams when Alan was his assistant: In Ansel’s archive of negatives, the vast, vast majority of images were mediocre at best. It’s just that Ansel was out there every day, all the time trying and trying and waiting for the perfect moment. If you look at his “best hits”, how many are there per year? If he nailed a handful per year, that would be an absolute success. The quality was in the quantity. And we don’t ever see the crap.

    • You are correct there George. If I took only my best 36 images and trashed all the rest, people would think I was perhaps a great photographer. But if you mix these 36 images with all the rest I’ve kept, then people might say, ” he was nothing more than a competent photographer.”
      As for Ansel, the cream rose to the top and the rest are rarely seen or printed.

    • Quote from Ansel:”Twelve good photographs a year is quite a harvest!” Oh so true.

      I was serious about underwater photography. I talked to a few of the great ones in that discipline. I always asked: “How many really great shots do you have?” It was always about two hundred.

      Dirk.

  26. Ansel Adams would still use the what you call “Large Format” because there’s enough negative size to work with when hand printed and hand processed, I was fortunate enough to meet and study with him before his passing. Instant Digital pictures are just instant Digital pictures. Go back to the Darkroom.

  27. I have recently purchased hardcover books from Vivian Maier, Henri Carter Bresson, Ansel Adams, and Ellliott Erwitt and some others from that era (not cheap) but worth every penny. Saying that I would not spend anything on a modern photographer, not taking away from their work some are ok but just not the same. Your photos are good but the problem is I can go to say a site like Flickr and see thousands of photos which are also good but simply get forgotten very quickly. Our age is photo overload very very difficult to be unique, look at Vivian just how unique a story was hers.

  28. Nice landscapes
    Have to say that some of the clouds in later pictures don’t
    look very unnatural something I also noticed on my em10
    I found my Nikon d850 did better with high
    contrast bw. Have to be careful with changing
    contrast when there is limited dynamic range
    especially with small sensors or you get artificial
    look like the clouds have been pasted on.

    • Exactly. I have the same experience. (With Oly and a d800, the latter has more range to play around with, something noticable in both colour and bw).

      Thanks for formulating, Richard.

  29. Your work is good and interesting but – and there is always a but – your work looks contrived and Adams’ did not. In short Adams’ work looked natural and looked like what you thought you saw. Yours looks like it was post processed and it was and is.

    • If you look at Ansel’s straight photo, before his darkroom manipulation, you would be amazed! He spent hours burning, dodging, using hot developer and breathing on his prints! That was post processing in a time when few photographers bothered to work so hard on a print.

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