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5 tips on how Ansel Adams can help your Street Photography

For the Masters of Photography series.

For me, Ansel Adams(b. 1902/d. 1984)) was always a landscape photographer. He is the most famous landscape photographer that lived. After his death in 1984, his work only became more popular.

He stopped school at the age of 12 and proved a remarkable autodidact. He became a serious and ambitious musician and highly gifted pianist. After he received his first camera in 1916, he proved to be a talented photographer. Throughout the 1920s, when he worked as a custodian of the sierra club’s lodge in Yosemite national park, he created impressive landscape photographs, and he formed a powerful almost a holy connection to the Yosemite valley and the high sierra that guards the valley from the east

When he met the American photographer Paul Strand in 1930, he was aroused his interest in ‘pure’, photography, and in 1931 he formed the highly influential ‘Group f/64’ that took his name from one of the smallest Apertures available on a large format camera. Ansel Adams used it, resulting in very sharp images with a depth of field. It was more than just a technique. By using the f/64 aperture, he created straight pictures, faithful reproductions of what he saw around him. That went against the more pictorial style of the 1920s.

Ansel Adams was also fascinated by the scientific side of photography. He was a consultant for Polaroid for over thirty years. And he invented the Zone system – a complicated method of rendering the “perfect” monochromatic print.

He was famous for saying that you don’t take photos you ‘make’ photo’s

Renowned for his Sierra series, he also worked for commercial clients like Kodak, Zeiss, IBM, AT&T and life, Fortune, etc. He made portraits to catalogues to coloramas.

As part of his commercial work, he photographed street scenes. Images that he is not known for but who sits quietly in the storage of the Los Angeles Public Library. In 1960 Ansel Adams donated the pictures to the library for $150,00. Until this day, there are a few historians that had an interest in the pictures. You can look and explore them for free at this address.

The photos of Ansel Adams are highly manipulated. With his group f/64, he was famous for ‘pure’ photography, but he did a lot with them in the darkroom. Remember it is film photography and not digital. So photoshop did not exist then.

Visualising the image

I come across something that excites me, and I make the photo. The camera lens sees the world differently than your eye. So it is essential to learn how the camera sees the world so that you, as a street photographer, can pre-visualise the image. And can use the correct camera settings like aperture, shutter speed and ISO. But also the right lens and understand what aperture to choose to get the proper depth of field. When you shoot enough, this becomes automatic.

By visualising the image before you make the image, you can make choices and impact the outcome of it. Ansel Adams used colour filters to change the tonality in his black and white photos. As a true master in the Dark Room, he dodged and burned the pictures until he had the result he was looking for.

Take away

By visualising the image that you want to make. And understand the basics of photography to set your camera accordingly, you can shoot the picture as you have seen it. Visualising the image is a long process, and only after about 10.000 hours, you can master this and apply without thinking. A picture you make is halfway done. If you shoot in jpeg, the camera is choosing the outcome. But like Ansel Adams use of filters and dodging and burning in the Dark Room. You need to finish your images in your digital darkroom, which is photoshop.

Layering for depth

Ansel Adams
Ansel Adams

By using layers in your image, you create a sense of depth for dramatic effect. In this well-known Ansel Adams image of Mount Williamson as seen from Manzanar, he set up his camera to give the boulder at the foreground the same relative size as the mountains in the background. The result is an image that conveys a vast expanse of land, and it invites the viewer to move through the scene. If he changed his camera position and eliminated the boulders from the frame, but the result would have been a less dramatic image.

Take away

By dividing your image into layers, foreground, centre and background and place parts of the scene in these, you get a dynamic picture. Flat photos look dull and can be uninterested. In street photography, layering is one of the most important things. Look at the work of Alex Webb. He used layering to create a dynamic image.

Use layers in your images to create a sense of depth so that your pictures become dynamic.

Small apertures to get optimal sharpness

Ansel Adams used a tiny aperture to get the most end to end sharpness. When you are a ‘pure’ photographer like Ansel Adams. Using a small aperture create ultra-sharp images. A ‘pure’ image with a small aperture, you need a tripod. This of the small amount of light that comes in and the long shutter speeds and low iso value that is necessary to create a very sharp image. Ansel Adams dragged his large-format camera up mountain ranges to be able to make the images he visualised.

Take away

When you are looking for end-to-end sharpness small apertures are the way to go. The larger the film/sensor, the larger the lenses are, the larger the apertures can be. Taking your time by placing your camera on a tripod result in deliberate images. They will be what you visualised them to be.

By doing this, you also become a ‘pure’ photographer.

Using obvious standpoints

Snake River overlooking mount teton by Ansel Adams
Ansel Adams

He made his image of the Grand Tetons from readily available locations. This image is made from the publicly accessible Snake River Overlook looking out on mount Teton.

Take away

Making beautiful, impactful images does not have to be hard. Find a beautiful location and create the image. Just look around you, if you find something that is interesting and beautiful, take your time and make the image like you visualised it and finish it in photoshop. Beauty is personal and all around you.

Specialise but do not rule out other photography.

Ansel Adams was famous for his landscape photography, but he did portraits and documentary as a commercial photographer. Shooting for large corporations like IBM and magazines like life and fortune. He was also a street photographer. Documenting factories and corporate life by making street images and portraits. He was not proud of the pictures because they were not up to his standards, so he donated to the photos to the Los Angeles Public Library

For years he was also a consultant for polaroid

Take away

Specialise but do not rule out other photography. Ansel Adams was famous for his landscape work. But he needed bread on the table. This is why he used commissions.

Using another job or photographing commission frees you to make street photographs. You do not have to mind money because your commercial work or your day job provides for that.
Giving you the freedom to do the work you want to make.

Print your images for the biggest impact.

Ansel Adams was a master in the darkroom. He photographed so that his images could be printed. He was visualising the end result. For him, the print was the ultimate end result.

Take away

With the arrival of the internet and the use of social media like Pinterest, Facebook and Instagram, we produce an large amount of images. To be shared online and placed in online archives. But when there is no power anymore, everything is gone. Printing your pictures and hanging them on a wall of putting them in a book, that is the ultimate end-result. Images are made to be seen. Only a small portion is good enough.

Buy an inkjet photo printer and create your own art.

Make up your mind and create beautiful work, let nobody tell you how to do that.

Photography is about feeling and taste. There will always be someone that has a different opinion or taste about your photography. Make pictures that you want to look at. Not for someone else except when you are commissioned to do so. Ansel Adams created Street pictures and documentary work and was paid for it. Beautiful images but not what he wanted to see. He was not satisfied with them. And gave them away.

Take away

Make your art. Print them and hang them on the wall. Make commissioned work for someone else and get paid for it.


Ansel teaches us that photography does not have to be hard. But learn the basics of photography. Use them often so that photography does not have any secrets anymore. Print your favourite images and love them. Do not make images for anyone but yourself. Use easy to reach locations and pre-visualise the image before you make them.

Photography is something that you do for yourself, not for anybody else. Love your work.

If you like Ansel’s work as I do, I suggest reading Ansel Adams: The national park photographs or Ansel Adams: 400 Photographs

Daily Observations Street Photography Workshops

By Guillaume Groen
On a beautiful Saturday afternoon in June a boy was disconnected from reality and totally absorbed by his smartphone. 16-6-2018, Only the smartphone, disconnected from reality... Amsterdam, The Netherlands - As we street photographers roam the streets, observing and recording the fleeting moments that we encounter. Those Daily Observations go into photo books or as fine-prints on the wall as Street Photography grows as a profession and a medium.

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