back to top

10 Important Photography Lessons From Ansel Adams

Last updated: November 12, 2023 - 7 min read
ExpertPhotography is supported by readers. Product links on ExpertPhotography are referral links. If you use one of these and buy something, we make a little money. Need more info? See how it all works here.
Subscribe Below to Download the Article Immediately

You can also select your interests for free access to our premium training:

Your privacy is safe! We will never share your information.

Over the weekend, I visited an Ansel Adams exhibition in London. Having found his work even more breathtaking in print, I purchased a documentary about the man himself. It was an effort to learn more about the artist I admired.

What I learned has helped me see his creative process more clearly. And I better understand his thought process while taking photos. So this is what I hope to share with you today. You can also read my 10 favorite Ansel Adams quotes.

eBooks and Courses for Everyone

10 Ways Ansel Adams Created Art

Here are 10 photography lessons I learned from Ansel Adams.

1. Half of His Creative Process Occurred in the Dark Room

Ansel Adams is well known for spending a whole day in the darkroom just to produce one print. He and Fred Archer formulated the Zone System.

The technique is a systematic method that helps photographers to determine the optimal film exposure and development. He would paint onto the enlarger the areas of the photo he thought should be darker or lighter than others.

His ability to find perfection in the darkroom was coupled with his work behind a camera. And it produced some of the greatest landscape photography ever made.

“Dodging and burning are steps to take care of mistakes God made in establishing tonal relationships.”

The lesson here is that processing is just as important as photo-taking. And it shouldn’t be looked down upon as a lesser art form.
Black and white landscape photo from Ansel Adams

2. His Best Work Used a Dropped Horizon

During his earlier work in the 1920s and 1930s, Adams would place the horizon very high in the frame. It gave favor to the landscape below.

It’s widely regarded that his best work game in the decades to come. And they would often favor a much higher horizon.

Placing the horizon so high in the frame helped the viewer realize the image’s scale. This was in comparison to the sky that surrounded it. You can read more about horizon placement.

3. He Was So In Tune With His Equipment, Taking Photos Became Instinctive

Arguably his most famous photograph was Moonrise Over Hernandez. It was taken within a few seconds of pulling his car over to the side of the road he was driving along.

The sunlight was rapidly moving away. And he didn’t have enough time to find his light reader. So Ansel Adams very quickly calculated the exposure for the photo without any tools but his mind.

As he went to capture a second “safety photo” after the first, the sun had gone from the gravestones in the foreground. And the moment had gone with it.

He was so in tune with his equipment. The process became instinctive to him when it mattered the most. If you understand your camera and your exposure, taking photos becomes instinctive.

Black and white landscape photo from Ansel Adams

4. Ansel Adams Went to Great Lengths to Capture his Photos

A good photograph is knowing where to stand. For Ansel Adams, this meant climbing mountains. So he trekked for hours at a time.

He would often leave before dawn and arrive home after dusk. This was because he knew the importance of finding the right place to stand.

It’s a common problem that many of us face. We simply don’t have the same kind of commitment to taking photos.

5. He Put Humankind Into Perspective in His Frames

The first thing most people notice about Adam’s photography is the sheer scale of the images. They’re often of the great outdoors, which puts humankind into perspective. They show that we are so insignificant in comparison.

He wanted people to understand the world through his images. He wanted us to know that we live in a world that exists in an even larger world.

His images seem to be almost completely detached from human involvement. And I think that’s part of why they’re so great. They encourage us to focus on these majestic parts of the world he wanted us to see.
Black and white landscape photo from Ansel Adams

6. He Always Knew Before He Took The Photo

Ansel Adams often only took two of the same photo. The extra one was in case of scratches or marks in the dark room. How many photos do you take of the same scene? Lots, right?

He always knew the shutter speed and aperture for the photo he would take. He could tell by looking at the frame what settings he would have to use to make certain areas stand out more than others. And he would know whether he needed a filter or not.

If you think more before you shoot, you can probably work this out too.
Black and white photo from Ansel Adams

7. Ansel Adams Communicated Feelings, Not Images

When Adams took a photo, he didn’t just capture a scene. He captured a feeling. I challenge anyone interested in photography to view the works of Ansel Adams and not feel something.

It is this thought process behind his images that makes them so powerful. Whether you felt the same as he did or even understood his message is not the important factor here.

He created these images, knowing exactly what he wanted to portray before he pressed the shutter. That’s something I think we can all learn from. How many of us just pick up the camera and shoot without thinking?

We live in a digital world of instant gratification. And I think that’s caused us to think less as photographers.

8. His Purpose for Taking Photos Was More Than Just Art

The great French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson made a well-known comment. He said, “The world is falling to pieces, and all Adams and Weston photograph is rocks and trees.”

This was a criticism that Adams focused so much on capturing images of the world. And arguably more important factors were at stake.

But Adams didn’t see it this way as a very strong conservationist. He fought hard and lobbied Congress to create more national parks. And he was successful with Kings Canyon National Park.

After his death in 1984, an area of the national park was named The Ansel Adams Wilderness. And a mount was even named after him, christened Mount Ansel Adams.

His purpose is clear in his photos and his legacy. You can see the drive behind his images. What’s your purpose?
Stunning black and white landscape photo from Ansel Adams

9. Ansel Adams Didn’t Find Financial Success Until His 60s

It wasn’t until Adams was in his 60s that he finally reached commercial success as a fine art photographer. Up until then, he would work as a commercial photographer when he had to. It was a means to earn money to support his family.

But he still focused on fine art photography. And he incorporated it into commercial photography where possible.

Shooting fine art photography was his passion. But as a creative, the multi-million dollar business didn’t come naturally. It was only when he met his business partner that things started to change.

He had always been a phenomenally successful fine art photographer with wide critical acclaim. But the lesson here is that we shouldn’t try to manage every aspect of photography. If you need help transforming your business, then you should seek it out.

Adam’s highest-value print sold at auction is Moonrise Over Hernandez, which sold at Sotheby’s for $609,600 in 2006.

10. Ansel Adams Never Followed “Rules of Photography”

I feel this is a nice quote from Ansel Adams to end on. “There are no rules for good photographs, there are only good photographs.”

For Adams, there was a clear purpose behind his photography. You can see the hours of work he put in to find the right location and time to capture the perfect photo. Then he spent hours meticulously developing his photos in the darkroom.
Black and white landscape photo from Ansel Adams

Conclusion: Important Photography Lessons From Ansel Adams

Ansel Adams was a man who instinctively knew good photography from decades of practice and life in the art world.

If you ever wish to produce a standard of work even remotely close to his, you need to step away from your computer. Get out there and start taking photos!

eBooks and Courses for Everyone