Lessons Learnt from the Ansel Adams exhibition at the National Maritime Museum

Updated: Mar 7

Since I heard last year that the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich were hosting an exhibition of Ansel Adams’ photography, I had been meaning to pay a visit.


WHO IS ANSEL ADAMS?

For those who don’t know, Ansel Adams was a pioneering mid-century landscape photographer who more or less set the standard for modern landscape photography. His work is probably more influential than any other photographer in the field, and his quotes are as relevant today, as in the days he spoke them. He’s most well know for his study of the American West, and particularly Yosemite National Park. He also lead the way in terms of post-processing – mastering the darkroom concepts that we continue today in digital form.


He was also an early environmentalist, well before it was common sense, and indeed trendy.


“It is horrifying that we have to fight our own government to save the environment”. Ansel Adams.

I would recommend that any aspiring photographer study his work and his workflow, and if the exhibition is still on as you read this, do make the time to see it for yourself. Who knows when these photos will next be on public display in the UK.

SO WHAT DID I LEARN?

I’d seen his work online before, so it wasn’t totally new to me. But the two things most apparent after seeing them in person…

1. DON’T DISMISS THE 5:4 ASPECT RATIO FOR LANDSCAPES:

a tree photo in the 5:4 aspect-ratio
Glenbrook Gum

I love wide and square photos for wildlife portraits, but when it comes to landscapes, I rarely deviate from the classic 3:2 ratio. The only exception being for the odd panorama. I would never crop to 4:3 or 5:4, believing they were simply too square to show a landscape. But seeing Ansel Adams’ early work last week was a timely reminder that that’s not the case at all. So many of his are 5:4 ratio, and they look perfectly natural as such. In the future I’ll be thinking of this as I shoot. For now, I’ve cropped & re-processed the photo above, taking my cue from Adams’ experience.

2. DON’T BE AFRAID OF THE SHADOWS:

Öxarárfoss Waterfall in black and white, Thingvellir National Park, Iceland
Öxarárfoss Waterfall

When I first processed this image, I was trying to keep the shadows light, in order to retain detail. Learning from Ansel Adams, it’s clear that losing shadow detail is less of a priority than achieving a balanced exposure and rich contrast. After visiting the exhibition, I went back to this one and burnt the shadows. I think the higher contrast and deeper blacks make for a more satisfying result, despite losing a little detail in those shadows.


I really want to improve my landscape portfolio this year, and I think that visiting the Photography from the Mountains to the Sea exhibition has been given me further motivation to do that.


George

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Red Deer Roaring, photographed in black and white

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